In ‘The Moralist,’ Woodrow Wilson and the Hazards of Idealism

Instead of “The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Patricia O’Toole could have titled her new book “The Hypocrite.”

Posted Updated

, New York Times

Instead of “The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Patricia O’Toole could have titled her new book “The Hypocrite.”

After all, as she herself points out, to lay claim to the moral high ground as often and as fervently as Wilson did during his eight years in the White House was to court charges that he failed to live up to his own principles. He called for an end to secret treaties while negotiating secretly with the Allies in World War I. He declared himself unwilling to compromise with belligerents abroad while showing himself very willing to compromise with segregationists at home. He pursued a progressive economic agenda while approving a regressive racial one. He spoke of national self-determination in the loftiest terms while initiating the American occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

O’Toole’s is the third major biography of Wilson in the last decade, coming on the heels of substantial works by John Milton Cooper Jr. (2009) and A. Scott Berg (2013), an output of Wilsoniana that attests to the 28th president’s complicated — and contested — legacy. O’Toole’s book doesn’t purport to be as exhaustive as Cooper’s or Berg’s; her project was born from her interest in World War I, and as she persuasively shows, American foreign policy throughout the 20th century adopted Wilson’s war-forged liberal internationalism, in word if not always in deed.

President Richard M. Nixon cynically used the rhetoric of Wilsonian idealism to escalate the war in Vietnam, saying that his plan would bring the United States closer to Wilson’s “goal of a just and lasting peace.” Wilson’s principle of national self-determination — a phrase that his own secretary of state deemed “loaded with dynamite” — has since been enshrined in the charter of the United Nations.

And by declaring that “the world must be made safe for democracy” in 1917, Wilson articulated how the American people, from World War I to Iraq, would prefer to imagine their military incursions abroad: as high-minded acts of pure altruism, imbued with benevolence and devoid of mercenary self-interest.

A biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams, O’Toole is a lucid and elegant writer (her book about Adams was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), and “The Moralist” is a fluid account that feels shorter than its 600-plus pages. Despite its length, there isn’t a passage that drags or feels superfluous. She gives each of her many characters their due, rendering them vivid and also memorable — an effect not to be taken for granted in a serious history book covering an intricate subject.

The first 60 pages are a brisk tour of Wilson’s pre-presidential life — a Civil War childhood in the South, steeped in Presbyterianism; early struggles with reading and writing that failed to portend a flourishing academic career at Princeton; marriage and fatherhood to three girls; and, in 1910, the governorship of New Jersey. His short time as governor would be his only stint in public office before winning the presidential election as the Democratic nominee, two years later, at 55.

His meager political experience made Wilson the “change” candidate in 1912; there hadn’t been a Democrat in the White House since 1897, and Wilson’s immediate predecessor, William Howard Taft, was seen as an apologist for big business at a time of rampant inequality.

Wilson also took advantage of the growing disillusionment among black Americans with a Republican Party that seemed to take their votes for granted. “Let me assure my fellow colored citizens the earnest wish to see justice done the colored people in every manner,” he declared in an open letter courting African-American leaders. “Not merely grudging justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling.”

Once he was in office, that “earnest wish” ran up against his fellow Southerners in Congress and his own Cabinet, including the postmaster general and the Treasury secretary (and future son-in-law), who proceeded to segregate their departments under Wilson’s watch.

Or maybe a campaigning Wilson overstated his earnestness, even if O’Toole doesn’t seem to see it that way. “The Moralist” suggests that Wilson’s betrayal of black Americans was born from simple expedience — that he allowed the segregation of the Civil Service because he desperately needed the votes of Southern congressmen to pass his progressive economic agenda, including the introduction of a federal income tax.

“He knew the segregation was morally indefensible, but ending it would have cost him the votes of every Southerner in Congress,” O’Toole writes.

The second part of her sentence is largely correct, but how can she be so sure about the first? As evidence she cites Wilson’s own pleas to his critics. “I am in a cruel position,” he told the chairman of the NAACP, insisting he was “at heart working for these people.” The testy exchange apparently left Wilson so rattled he took to his bed for a week.

But as O’Toole herself shows, his cries of political constraints were later followed by his claims that politics were irrelevant to racism anyway. In 1914, Wilson told African-American editor William Monroe Trotter that eliminating segregation wouldn’t do anything for racial animus, which he called “a human problem, not a political problem.” (Wilson took to his bed after that “bruising quarrel” with Trotter, too.) The year after, Wilson gathered his daughters and his Cabinet into the East Room of the White House for a screening of D.W. Griffith’s visually sumptuous and vehemently racist “The Birth of a Nation.” The film was based on a novel by an old acquaintance of Wilson’s, and incorporated title cards that loosely quoted Wilson’s own work — including some strikingly sentimental descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan.

O’Toole only mentions the screening in passing. Which isn’t to say that she tries to exonerate Wilson; she enumerates his failings, and points out that his hypocrisy around race wasn’t relegated to domestic issues. Black Americans “noticed a wide streak of racism in Wilson’s foreign policy,” as he contented himself with “strong language” when confronting white Europeans but resorted to military force “when crossed by nations inhabited primarily by people of color.”

Still, about the persistent racism — including Wilson’s flouting of his own democratic ideals in the Caribbean — O’Toole says some, but not enough.

In her opening pages, O’Toole says she is especially fascinated by how Wilson’s moralism became both an asset and a liability, ensuring that “his triumphs as well as his defeats were so large and lasting.” On Wilson’s tortured entrance into World War I, she is truly superb, assiduously tracing his journey from stubborn neutrality to zealous wartime president. As a study of Wilson’s relationship with Europe, and the intrigues of his foreign policy administration, the book is exemplary.

But like her subject, O’Toole occasionally gets trapped by her own noble intentions: A biography called “The Moralist,” which takes Wilson’s “great sense of moral responsibility” as its starting point, surely sets up expectations for a deeper exploration of just where he drew that line.

Publication Notes:

“The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made”

By Patricia O’Toole

Illustrated. 636 pages. Simon & Schuster. $35.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.