2. Facing up to Woodrow Wilson’s true legacy

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 6 August 2020
Publication: TLS
Image courtesy of: Bettmann/Getty Images

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On June 27, 2020, Princeton University decided to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and its first undergraduate hall of residence. This came after a campaign by the university’s Black Justice League lasting five years. Princeton’s trustees noted that “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time … [his] racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms”.

Wilson was not a brutal imperialist like Cecil Rhodes, or a slave-holding Confederate general like Robert Lee. He was president of the United States; he achieved reformist legislative triumphs, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, and was a modernizing president of Princeton University (1902 – 10). Wilson also served as the Democratic governor of New Jersey (1910112), and the term “Wilsonian” has been widely used to describe liberal idealism in US foreign policy. Princeton’s decision has direct implications for institutions such as Oxford University, with the continuing clamour to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.

Wilson was born in Virginia on December 28, 1856, just over four years before the Civil War. His father, Joseph, was a Presbyterian pastor and theologian who led pastorates in Georgia and North Carolina, used slave labour in his home, and defended slavery on biblical grounds. Joseph also worked as a chaplain for the Confederate army during the Civil War, and several of his relatives were Confederate generals. This was the bone-deep racism that a young Woodrow inherited, a prejudice that he found impossible to shake.

Wilson was the most academically accomplished of all US presidents, having completed his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, attended the University of Virginia Law School, and obtained a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in history and government. He then taught at several American liberal arts colleges, eventually rising to become a full Professor at Princeton. Wilson also published nine books on American politics and history, focusing especially on the American Civil War and the decade of Reconstruction (1866- 76) during which black Americans achieved some social progress. He consistently adopted a Southern perspective in interpreting this history, regarding slavery in fairly benign terms, and viewing the Ku Klux Klan similarly: as largely misunderstood defenders of Southern white interests. Wilson described the group as “men half outlawed, denied the suffrage, without hope of justice in the courts, who meant to take this means [violence] to make their will felt”.

Wilson identified strongly with the “Lost Cause” movement which sought to provide a different view of the American Civil War. According to the view, the Southern Confederacy was not principally defined by its commitment to white supremacy and slavery, but by its desire to defend agrarianism against Northern industrialists. Slaves were also depicted by this movement as “happy”. Many of the Confederate monuments currently being toppled in the American South were erected by this movement in the early 1900s, during Wilson’s own political ascendancy.

Wilson was thus a child of the Jim Crow South who never betrayed his prejudiced upbringing. His racism was already evident during his time as president of Princeton, as he refused to bring Princeton into line with Harvard and Yale by admitting Black students. He further sought to erase the record of Black students who had attended Princeton. Wilson mendaciously argued: “The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied”. As Governor of New Jersey, he refused to hire Black people to work in the state service. While Wilson’s academic writing argued that the office of the US president should be “the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people”, in practice, he spoke for a lily-white constituency and did not see Black Americans as equal citizens.

Wilson’s most egregious racism as president was to introduce discriminatory practices against Black workers in government service. On assuming the presidency in 1913, he sacked fifteen of seventeen Black supervisors in the federal civil service, and replaced them with white supervisors. Wilson’s resegregation of the civil service – especially the Treasury, Interior, Navy, and War departments, as well as the postal services – which had been desegregated for decades, led to apartheid practices that resulted in separate offices – in some cases, Black workers worked in cages like animals in a zoo – toilets, canteens, dressing rooms and other facilities. Moreover, by introducing the use of photographic identification for those applying to the civil service, he made it easier to discriminate against Black applicants. Wilson’s actions would have a durable and negative impact: it took another three decades before the country’s civil service started to be desegregated. The traditionally Black appointees of Register of the Treasury, and the African American Ambassadors to Liberia, Haiti and Dominican Republic were also vindictively replaced by white appointees.

Wilson’s bigotry was again underlined in a famous exchange in the White House with a previous African American supporter: the Harvard-educated William Monroe Trotter. The fearless Black journalist visited the White House with a civil rights delegation in November 1914 to try to convince the President to reverse his resegregation practices. This was during an era when most Black citizens who could vote still supported the Republicans out of loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln. Trotter had submitted a petition to the Democrat Wilson in the White House the previous year with 20,000 signatures from thirty-eight states opposing discrimination in the civil service. Having seen no progress and only reversals, the Black civil rights leader requested another meeting at which he noted to the President that Black and white clerks had worked harmoniously in government service for fifty years. Trotter then asked Wilson in frustration: “Have you a ‘New Freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro-American fellow citizens?”

In response, Wilson argued that the separation of races was not intended to discriminate against Black employees, but rather to protect them by avoiding friction with their white counterparts. The President cautioned the civil rights leaders not to create the erroneous impression that Black employees were being humiliated, and concluded: “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit”. When Trotter persisted that such acts degraded Black employees before their white colleagues and that he was disappointed that the President did not view separation as wrong and offensive, Wilson became angry, noting that: “Your tone, sir, offends me … You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came”, asking Trotter not to return to the White House. Trotter sought in vain to explain: “I am pleading for simple justice”. But the President accused him of trying to blackmail him by talking about having previously mobilized Black citizens to support Wilson electorally. Trotter and his delegation were effectively thrown out of the White House. It should be noted that several Black and white politicians were also criticizing Wilson’s resegregation of the civil service during his own epoch.

Despite the Ku Klux Klan’s profound crimes, Wilson effusively endorsed The Birth of a Nation (1915) – based on the book, The Clansman, by the president’s former class-mate, Thomas Dixon, in which Wilson’s prior scholarship was liberally quoted: “The white men were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes”. The film further quoted Wilson saying: “In the villages the Negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences”. The movie – which elicited protests in Boston, New York and other major American cities – provided a positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan and a negative, stereotypical portrayal of Blacks as an inferior race and lecherous assaulters of white women. The President screened the film at the White House, inviting members of Congress and the Supreme Court. The Birth of a Nation, with its presidential endorsement, was, moreover, instrumental in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan as an active group.

Wilson’s supporters have pointed to his apparently liberal foreign policy to counterbalance his racist attitudes. Wilson’s approach to international policy – based on a wellspring of “American exceptionalism” – derived in part from Immanuel Kant’s seminal essay, “Perpetual Peace: A philosophical sketch” (1795) in which he argued that global peace could only be achieved by democratically governed states. Wilson’s ideas about “collective security” thus sought to extend domestic rule of law and public opinion to the international arena. His championing of national self-determination was similarly based on foundations of nineteenth-century liberalism, arguing that both peoples and nations had a right to govern themselves.

And yet, this defence does not quite hold water: Wilson was, at times, clearly imperialistic, underlining the US’s often inconsistent approach towards, and rhetoric regarding, its use of power internationally. The US had, after all, annexed half of Mexico’s territory – the states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California – by 1848 in a blood-soaked imperial conquest justified by notions of “manifest destiny” that had earlier been used to try to sanctify the genocide against the country’s indigenous population. The “liberal” Wilson employed gunboat diplomacy by sending soldiers to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while strongly supporting continuing American imperial rule in the Philippines. He also launched a “regime change” intervention in Mexico in 1914 that toppled the military dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta. In defence of a mission civilisatrice, Wilson evidently felt that the peoples in these countries had no right to liberty until American tutelage had led them to political maturity.

While I was studying International Relations at Oxford University in the 1990s, Woodrow Wilson was held up as a hero of the liberal international order, an anti-imperialist and a champion of national self-determination. But there was much that our Eurocentric curriculum left unsaid about this supposed icon. We were not, for example, taught that Wilson did not recognize the most basic rights of his Black citizens, that he was actively discriminating against African Americans in government jobs, and that his calls for self- determination were limited mainly to white Central European nations including Poland and Czechoslovakia, and were not to be extended to Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. The President made clear that the US should follow the model of its British cousins by assisting “less civilized” peoples to attain the “habit of law and obedience”.

This all said, there is no denying the fact that Wilson did have some domestic achievements as president. Among his accomplishments were the creation of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. Other policy successes included: his (reluctant) expansion of the vote to women; successfully pushing anti- trust (monopoly) and anti-competitive laws; coaxing Congress to enact labour laws that protected railroad workers; extending loans to farmers; prohibiting child labour; and introducing tariffs that lowered duties on imports. Wilson further transformed Princeton into a serious research institution, introducing far-sighted public policy and international affairs programmes.

Though Wilson became famous for championing “peace without victory” and “making the world safe for democracy” in 1917 during the First World War, as well as opposing the secret agreements of the “old diplomacy” of European imperial powers, he was naive in placing too much faith in idealism over the Realpolitik of European leaders during the Paris Peace negotiations in 1919. The anti-imperial “new diplomacy” proposed by both Wilson and Vladimir Lenin thus suffered a spectacular defeat. In the end, the peace adopted in Paris was a still punitive one, allowing grievances to be exploited by the Nazis and culminate in the Second World War. The Treaty of Versailles was not ratified by the US Senate, leading to a catastrophic failure of personal diplomacy for the American President.

Wilson died on February 3, 1924 at the age of sixty-eight. Two foundations, several European streets and squares, numerous schools, a government-funded think tank, a navy submarine and the headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), all bear his name. Despite Wilson’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, he failed to convince his own country to join the League of Nations, the international organization set up to preserve the post-war peace. Due to the ultimate failure of the League and the outbreak of another global conflict, Wilson’s international reputation had become tarnished by 1939.

After the Second World War, however, Wilson’s legacy was burnished and employed by American policy-makers hoping to promote global democracy. Yet, all too often, they pursued this mission inconsistently, working in fact to undermine these very “Wilsonian” ideals in much of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia by supporting and even assisting brutal autocrats, as the toppling of leaders such as Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iraq’s Mohammad Mossadeq clearly demonstrated. There was little that was progressive or liberal about Wilson’s career. He remained until his death a racist, even in the context of his own age’s moral standards. Princeton’s action should serve to spark a valuable debate, and encourage the development of a more nuanced and precise evaluation of American history and Wilson’s legacy than the one I was taught.

Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) in South Africa.