I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”
My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.
I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.
Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.
But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.
The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”
For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.
During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.
One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.
We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.
And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?
“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”
We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.
If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.
“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”
– Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.
But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”
“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”
We still wonder how it happened and why.
Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.
Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”
Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”
When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.
“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.
Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.
Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.
“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”
Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.
There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.
When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.
Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.
By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.
Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.
“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”
As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”
Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”
When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.
Denigrating a Free Press…
When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”
The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.
“One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”
Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.
A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”
“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”
One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.
One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.
Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.
“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”
Karp, a historian at Princeton, has produced a truly fine book that not only manages to make interesting what might seem to be a dry subject in American history – pre-Civil War foreign policy – but he also illuminates why slaveholding southerners fought so hard to shape the country’s international posture. Spoiler alert: It was all about preserving slavery and its perceived economic benefits not only in the United States but also in much of the western hemisphere. Cuba and Brazil, for example, were slave nations and southerners reckoned that the U.S. could best preserve its “peculiar institution” by encouraging its survival, indeed expansion, in the hemisphere.
Southerners and others favorable to slavery dominated the American government and particularly our foreign and military policy, until 1860. Karp makes the observation that, “the antebellum president least sympathetic to slavery,” Zachery Taylor, “owned 300 slaves.” Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was therefore seen as a profound threat to the “peculiar institution” and by the time Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861 the path to disunion was well worn by the secession of seven southern states.
“The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the non-slaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States,” Karp writes. “Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.”
Donald J. Trump doesn’t operate at this level of historic detail or nuance and never will. His amazing comments a while back seeming to express surprise that Lincoln was a Republican should have had every GOP precinct worker in American scratching their heads in disbelief. And his remarkably incoherent recent ramblings about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War present in striking relief just the level of the man’s lack of awareness, or even more seriously, his lack of interest.
Why Was There a Civil War?
Trump’s ignorance of history, and I’m talking just basic eighth grade level stuff here, was fully on display recently when he told journalist Selena Zito, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?”
The guy who likely couldn’t pass the civic and history test immigrants take to qualify for citizenship then opined that his new hero Andrew Jackson, dead 16 years before the Civil War began, was “really angry” about the whole business.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” the president said. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said “There’s no reason for this.’”
Actually there was a reason – a very good one – for the Civil War: slavery.
It should probably be no great surprise that a president who wants to end federal support for libraries – the arts, humanities and public broadcasting, too – has a more tenuous grasp on American history than anyone who has ever occupied the office.
Trump’s historical – and historic – ignorance is no small, laughing matter, but rather deeply dangerous, potentially catastrophically so. For as the esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner has said, “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a ‘usable past’: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”
Trump’s Drunk History…
Writing in the New Republic Jeet Heer compared Trump’s historical ignorance to the “inebriated ramblings found on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.” We have come to expect a basic level of intelligence from the chief magistrate about the nation’s history, but Trump could no more pass a basic history quiz – an AP history course would leave him muttering – than he can speak in complete sentences. It is profoundly obvious that this vacuum of basic knowledge impacts policy and priorities, sometimes dangerously so.
The president’s claim that it will be easy to bridge the Israeli-Palestine divide is the boast of someone who has never heard of the Balfour Declaration or has only a fragmentary understanding of the history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Trump’s essential arrogance is on display in all these areas and a dozen more and his grasp of how history relates to current issues is driven by the worst possible combination of ignorance and hubris.
One more example: Journalist Dave Owen is out with a new book on the Colorado River, the over appropriated liquid lifeline of the American Southwest. As part of his reporting on the challenges which confront the Colorado, Owen talked at some length to candidate Trump. Owen’s assessment of Trump’s knowledge of the issues is both brutal and a quite typical of nearly everyone who has studied the guy.
“He knows as little about water as he does about anything else,” Owen said of the president. “He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing when you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.
“He definitely thinks there’s an easy solution, and he’ll discover that it’s really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it’s all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.”
Any westerner with even a passing understanding of water, its uses and the complicated and contentious history of the resource knows that the president’s policy prescription – a big pipeline – is not just ridiculously naïve, but completely unrealistic.
A growing group of American historians have joined the “resistance” to such fundamental ignorance. Penn State historian Amy Greenberg recently told The New Republic, “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before. I’m a historian.” But Trump’s broad misunderstandings and extraordinary lack of knowledge have her “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.”
“If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay,” Greenburg said of the president’s Civil War and Jackson comments, “that student would not pass that exam. That student would fail.”
A particularly pernicious aspect of Trump’s fumbling around with Civil War history is that it helps embolden the still very active “revisionist” view of what America’s great tragedy – the Civil War – and its enduring historical stain – human bondage – meant in the 19th Century and how those battles continue to play out.
As historian Manisha Sinha noted recently in the New York Daily News, “If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war.”
The revisionist arguments go all the way back to the post-Civil War memoirs of various players in the great national conflict and was cemented on the silver screen with the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind, a classic film that is also a classic case of spinning the war and its aftermath into a glorious narrative of chivalry, state’s rights and an elegant way of life.
Look no further than the current turmoil in New Orleans where Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the charge to remove various Confederate monuments that the mayor says don’t illuminate southern history, but rather distort it. Demonstrators waving Confederate flags have disrupted the removal and contractors doing the work have received death threats. The entire episode, as the New York Times notes, “demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.”
Having a historically ignorant president stoking the already hot embers of “why was there was a Civil War” is simply piling on the racial and other divisions Trump has ridden all the way to the White House. He may be ignorant of his country’s history, but the ignorance serves his own, but not the nation’s, political interest. A president who cannot differentiate between Chinese and Korean interests in the matter of nuclear weapons or who views Middle East peace as a simple deal to be hashed out on the golf course only serves the interest of confusion and chaos, a dangerous mixture in a hair trigger world.
Harold Evans, a distinguished British historian and journalist, has the perfect way of describing what Trump (and others) do when they distort or refuse to understand history. “Dishonest leaders,” Evans wrote recently, “have learned nothing and forgotten everything.”
The United States in 2017 – this is where we are. Hug a historian, or at least read one. You will be doing what our president can’t and won’t do.
I begin from the premise that activism on college campuses is a good thing. Any society should want engaged, involved, opinionated, activist young people.
It is also a premise of mine supported by much research, that many Americans have at best, a cursory knowledge of our history – our complex, often contradictory history. A lack of historical perspective (and knowledge) leads in many unfortunate direction and, I submit, contributes to the often “fact free” debates about politics and public policy that increasingly dominate news coverage and political debates.
American Historical Amnesia…
We have, for example, a continuing and often uninformed debate about “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States above all other nations is favored and that the U.S. always acts out of the best, most unselfish motives. It’s a myth, but no Republican candidate for high office would dare point out, just to cite one example, that some of our continuing trouble with Iran dates to the CIA-sponsored over throw in the 1950’s of the democratically elected government of that country.
We continue to debate whether the great defining event in the nation’s history was brought about by the founder’s inability to deal with the inhumanity of human bondage. The Civil War never ends and neither do the arguments about the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy.
Surf the Internet and you’ll find crazy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center and whether Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon. Follow the political campaigns and listen to people who aspire to the nation’s highest office talking absolute nonsense about things that are absolutely knowable. Historical illiteracy is a dangerous condition in a democracy.
So, to connect the dots: it seems fine to me that Princeton students debate the legacy of the man who made their school a world-class university, served as governor of New Jersey and two terms as president of the United States. That Woodrow Wilson was also a racist, and even by the low standards of his day a virulent one, is also part of his legacy.
Wilson: Not Either/Or…But Both…
But the Princeton debate about Wilson really requires that we struggle with the nuances of his legacy, as well as the contradictions of the national story. The effort to really understand American history requires that we frequently hold two – or more – conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time. Wilson’s legacy is that he was both an unreconstructed racist and an enormously important president.
As the accomplished University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey Stone argues, “It would, of course, have been great if Woodrow Wilson, like some others of his generation, had directly challenged the morality of racial segregation. It would have been great if he had not believed in the principle of white supremacy. But, like all of us, he was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.”
The substantial Wilson legacy, also part of the effort to judge the man and his times, includes creating the Federal Reserve System, the income tax, wage and hour laws, the Federal Trade Commission and appointing the first Jew – the great Justice Louis Brandeis – to the Supreme Court. Wilson’s arguably naïve and idealistic notions about international relations in the wake of World War I nonetheless created a theory of America’s role in the world that persists to this day. For good or bad, and I’d argue for good, there would be no United Nations today had there not been Wilson’s vision for a League of Nations.
Thus, as Geoff Stone says, “when all is said and done, Wilson should be judged by Princeton, as he has been judged by historians, not only by the moral standards of today, but by his achievements and his values in the setting of his own time.”
You need not embrace Wilson’s racism to appreciate the importance of his presidency whether at Princeton or in Washington, D.C. You can repudiate Jefferson’s slave ownership, while marveling at the language of his Declaration of Independence. Lincoln saved the Union and trampled on civil liberties, just as Wilson presided over some of the worst abuses of civil liberties in modern history.
Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the most important in the 20th Century, helped create modern America, including the establishment of lasting institutions like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security. Roosevelt led the Allies to victory in World War II, but he also interned thousands of American citizens merely because they were of Japanese-American descent and refused to buck public opinion to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe’s horrors. Roosevelt never appeared to have a second thought about such decisions, which must be included in a significant part of his legacy.
Teddy Roosevelt was an occasionally reckless warmonger who was also the greatest conservationist to ever sit in the White House.
American history, like all history, is fascinating because the people and events are complicated and contradictory. It forces us to look at the conflicting realities of our ideal by placing the great and the terrible side-by-side. Woodrow Wilson fascinates and bedevils us not because he was perfect, but because he was far from perfect and still matters. Rather than erase his legacy we should learn from it. Understanding the lessons of a racist president of a hundred years ago really should help us grapple with the reality of the racism that still pervades America in 2015.
You don’t need to be steeped in American history to know that the country with all of its flaws and marvelous accomplishments remains a work in progress. Scrubbing out the flaws of a Wilson, a Jefferson or a Lincoln, all of whom were part of the progress and examples of some of the greatest flaws, doesn’t illuminate, but rather obscures.
Better to debate Wilson than forget him or worse yet air brush him from the far larger American story.