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Woodrow Wilson by H. W. Brands


Rating: (Recommended)


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For a quick dive into the life of Woodrow Wilson, you can’t do much better than the brief new book by historian H.W. Brands titled, Woodrow Wilson. While I didn’t learn much new about Wilson’s foreign policy or his reputation as a scholar, I learned a lot about Wilson as an individual. I became more aware of the importance of his skills at eloquent expression throughout his life. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2, “The Irony of Fate,” (pp. 41-5):

At the time Wilson entered the White House, expertise in international affairs had never been a prerequisite for elective office in America. Only sporadically during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did the world at large impinge importantly on the United States, and voters saw little reason to quiz candidates regarding their knowledge of and intentions toward that larger world. The Spanish-American War of 1898 gave Americans a greater stake in global affairs by planting Old Glory in the Philippines, and the start of construction on the Panama Canal a few years later heightened American sensitivity to what transpired en route to the isthmus. But otherwise most Americans continued to ignore the world, and in the 1912 election international affairs played almost no part.

This was lucky for Wilson, who was about as innocent on the subject as a man could be and still consider himself educated. He had traveled only a little, and only as a tourist. His foreign language skills were better than most of his compatriots' but didn't extend much beyond the reading knowledge required of history graduate students and, in Wilson's case, were soon lost by atrophy. In the rare instances when his research had required facility in languages other than English, he hired it. The simple fact of the matter was that Wilson had almost no interest in foreign countries and the people who lived there. To the degree he thought about foreigners, he assumed they were rather like Americans, if harder to comprehend. They lived under the same Heaven and served the same God, or ought to. Wilson understood his limitations. "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs," he told a friend just before inauguration.

The irony set in at once. For years Mexico had been restive under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, whose iron hand was growing arthritic with age. In 1911 a faction following Francisco Madero tossed Diaz out—to Europe, where he shortly died. But dismantling the old regime was more difficult than erecting a new one, and Madero was pushed aside, fatally, by the forces of Victoriano Huerta, whom Madero had enlisted to suppress the holdovers from the Diaz regime. Huerta thereupon arranged his own election as provisional president of Mexico and invited recognition from the United States and other powers.

It was at this point that Wilson entered the White House. The U.S. government and Americans with business interests and property in Mexico had long since made their peace with the Diaz regime; unsurprisingly, the groups that had supported Madero registered a certain lack of sympathy toward the yanquis. What the attitude of Huerta would be was left for Wilson to discover.

And perhaps to help determine. American financiers and property holders lobbied for recognition of Huerta, on grounds that Huerta could protect them against the revolutionary forces that had begun to emerge as Diaz was displaced. The professionals in the State Department suggested that precedent likewise

pointed to recognition, in that America's historic practice was to inquire not how governments came into power but simply whether they controlled their country's territory and agreed to honor international obligations.

As a progressive, Wilson was unpersuaded by the pleas of the bankers. As a foreign-policy novice, he was unmoved by the lessons of the diplomats. As a moralist, he was offended by Huerta's double cross and complicity in the murder of Madero. As a student of governmental theory, he was suspicious of the irregularity of Huerta's election.

Wilson's misgivings summed to a decision against recognition. "We hold, as I am sure all thoughtful leaders of republican government everywhere hold, that just government rests always upon the consent of the governed, and that there can be no freedom without order based upon law and upon the public conscience and approval," he explained. "We shall look to make these principles the basis of mutual intercourse, respect, and helpfulness between our sister republics and ourselves." Speaking more directly of—and to—Huerta, the president continued, "We can have no sympathy with those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own personal ends or ambition. We are the friends of peace, but we know that there can be no lasting or stable peace in such circumstances. As friends, therefore, we shall prefer those who act in the interest of peace and honor, who protect private rights and respect the restraints of constitutional provision."

Wilson's preference for constitutional provisions turned into a litmus test for recognition of a Mexican government. The historical fact that constitutionalism had never been a significant feature of life in Mexico didn't bother him, nor the political likelihood that the present period of turbulence might not be the most propitious time for planting it there. Wilson's critics noted this, besides remarking that if his rule about disqualifying candidates who entered politics for personal ends or ambition were applied north of the border, the field of American aspirants to office would be substantially narrowed. Wilson couldn't dispute this conclusion, but he took it as evidence that American progressives had work to do.

The policy of nonrecognition turned out to be easier to proclaim than to practice. Suspicious of the State Department bureaucracy, and especially of the vehemently pro-Huerta American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, Wilson sent his own man to Mexico to assess the situation there. The reports William Bayard Hale wrote home cast Huerta in a harsh but not dismissive light. "General Huerta is an ape-like old man, of almost pure Indian blood. He may almost be said to subsist on alcohol. Drunk or only half-drunk (he is never sober), he never loses a certain shrewdness. He has been life-long a soldier, and one of the best in Mexico, and he knows no methods but those of force." Although his troops were hardly models of martial devotion—consisting of "captured rebels, released jail-birds and impressed peons"—Huerta was tough and wouldn't be dislodged easily. "He is a hard fighter, glories in the exercise of power, and I see no signs that he will abandon his office, except, as is possible, to take the field for a few months, so as to render himself legally eligible to take the presidencv again under the pretence of election."


Yet Huerta had enemies, and not Just in Washington. A group of Madero's erstwhile supporters, calling themselves Constitutionalists and following the lead of Venustiano Carranza, raised the banner of anti-Huerta rebellion in northern Mexico. In the south and southeast, Emiliano Zapata was organizing the chronic rural unrest into a separate revolutionary force.


The hope of Wilson's nonrecognition policy was that the Mexicans would put their own house in order, with the United States promising recognition for successful straightening up. But the house grew only more disorderly with each passing month, and Wilson was compelled to consider stronger action. American property- and bond-holders clamored for protection; more worryingly, foreign governments were threatening to intervene. Wilson knew enough about American foreign policy to understand that since 1823, when James Monroe had enunciated his eponymous doctrine, a cardinal principle of American policy had been to limit the influence of foreign powers (other than the United States, that is) in Latin America. Theodore Roosevelt had added a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that in the event Latin American countries reneged on international commitments or otherwise behaved badly, the United States would chastise them, lest the Europeans be tempted to do so. Wilson had often thought Roosevelt a bully in international affairs, but as he now observed the anarchy in Mexico and contemplated British or German marines occupying Mexico's ports, he couldn't deny this branch of Big Stick logic.

Thanks to Brands’ Woodrow Wilson, I’ve taken to referring to the former President as Tommy, now that I know that was his first name. I came away with a sadness about Wilson’s life and the results of his Presidency, and felt I better understood what happened during those pivotal years, thanks to the skill of Brands.

Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Wilson.htm


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