Presidency of Woodrow Wilson

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For a chronological guide to this subject, see Timeline of the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
"Wilson administration" redirects here. For the British administrations under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, see First Wilson ministry and Labour government 1974–79.
Wilson by Sir William Orpen

The presidency of Woodrow Wilson began on March 4, 1913 at noon when Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1921. Wilson, a Democrat, took office as the 28th United States president after winning the 1912 presidential election, gaining a large majority in the Electoral College and a 42 percent plurality of the popular vote in a four–candidate field. Four years later, in 1916, Wilson defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes by nearly 600,000 votes in the popular vote and secured a narrow majority in the Electoral College by winning several swing states with razor-thin margins. He was the first Southerner elected as president since Zachary Taylor in 1848,[1] and the first Democratic president to win re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

Wilson was a leading force in the Progressive Movement, and during his first term he oversaw the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal. Included among these were the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Farm Loan Act. Having taken office one month after ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, Wilson called a special session of Congress, whose work culminated in the Revenue Act of 1913, reintroducing an income tax and lowering tariffs. Through passage of the Adamson Act, imposing an 8-hour workday for railroads, he averted a railroad strike and an ensuing economic crisis. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Wilson maintained a policy of neutrality, while pursuing a more aggressive policy in dealing with Mexico's civil war.

Wilson's second term was dominated by the American entry into World War I and the aftermath of that war. In April 1917, when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson asked Congress to declare war in order to make "the world safe for democracy." Through the Selective Service Act, conscription sent 10,000 freshly trained soldiers to France per day by the summer of 1918. On the home front, Wilson raised income taxes, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union cooperation, regulated agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, and nationalized the nation's railroad system. In his 1915 State of the Union, Wilson asked Congress for what became the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, suppressing anti-draft activists. The crackdown was later intensified by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to include expulsion of non-citizen radicals during the First Red Scare of 1919–1920. Wilson infused morality into his internationalism, an ideology now referred to as "Wilsonian"—an activist foreign policy calling on the nation to promote global democracy.[2][3][4] Early in 1918, he issued his principles for peace, the Fourteen Points, and in 1919, following the signing of an armistice with Germany, he traveled to Paris, promoting the formation of a League of Nations, concluding the Treaty of Versailles. Following his return from Europe, Wilson embarked on a nationwide tour in 1919 to campaign for the treaty, but suffered a severe stroke and saw the treaty defeated by the Senate.

Disability having diminished his power and influence in the waning days of his presidency, Wilson held out hope for a third term, but his party nominated Governor James M. Cox instead. In the 1920 presidential election, Cox lost in a landslide to Republican Warren G. Harding, who succeeded Wilson in office. Historians and political scientists rank Wilson as an above-average president, and his presidency was an important forerunner of modern American liberalism. However, Wilson has also been criticized for his racist views and actions.


Administration and Cabinet[edit]

Wilson's chief of staff ("Secretary") was Joseph Patrick Tumulty from 1913 to 1921. Tumulty's position provided a political buffer and intermediary with the press, and his irrepressible Irish spirits offset the president's often dour Scotch disposition.[5] Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson died on August 6, 1914.[6] Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt in 1915,[7] and she assumed full control of Wilson's schedule, diminishing Tumulty's power. The most important foreign policy advisor and confidant was "Colonel" Edward M. House until Wilson broke with him in early 1919, for his missteps at the peace conference in Wilson's absence.[8] Wilson's vice president, former Governor Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana, played little role in the administration.[9] Wilson's Cabinet also included three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who stepped down from his post as Secretary of State in 1915 due to disagreements relating to Wilson's policy towards Germany,[10] and Wilson's son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo.

Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet in the Cabinet Room
The Wilson Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Woodrow Wilson 1913–1921
Vice President Thomas R. Marshall 1913–1921
Secretary of State William J. Bryan 1913–1915
Robert Lansing 1915–1920
Bainbridge Colby 1920–1921
Secretary of Treasury William G. McAdoo 1913–1918
Carter Glass 1918–1920
David F. Houston 1920–1921
Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison 1913–1916
Newton D. Baker 1916–1921
Attorney General James C. McReynolds 1913–1914
Thomas W. Gregory 1914–1919
A. Mitchell Palmer 1919–1921
Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson 1913–1921
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels 1913–1921
Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane 1913–1920
John B. Payne 1920–1921
Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston 1913–1920
Edwin T. Meredith 1920–1921
Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield 1913–1919
Joshua W. Alexander 1919–1921
Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson 1913–1921

Judicial appointments[edit]

Supreme Court[edit]

Wilson appointed three Associate Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

Other courts[edit]

Along with his Supreme Court appointments, Wilson appointed 20 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals and 52 judges to the United States district courts.

Domestic policy[edit]

Woodrow Wilson is sworn in for first term as President on March 4, 1913.

Wilson's first term saw the passage of unprecedented progressive legislative policies that would not be matched until New Deal of the 1930s.[11] In implementing economic policy, Wilson had to transcend the sharply opposing policy views of the Southern and agrarian wing of the Democratic Party that Bryan had led and the pro-business and Northern wing led by three urban political bosses—Tammany in New York, Sullivan in Chicago, and Smith and Nugent in Newark.[12] In his Columbia University lectures of 1907, Wilson had said, "the whole art of statesmanship is the art of bringing the several parts of government into effective cooperation for the accomplishment of particular common objects."[12] As he took up the first item of his "New Freedom" agenda—lowering the tariffs, he quite adroitly applied this artistry. With large Democratic majorities in Congress and a healthy economy, he seized the opportunity to achieve his agenda.[13] He also made quick work of realizing his pledges to beef up antitrust regulation and to bring reform to banking and currency matters.[14]

Wilson pioneered twice-weekly press conferences in the White House. Even though they were modestly effective, the president prohibited his being quoted and was particularly indeterminate in his statements.[15] The first such press conference was held on March 15, 1913, when reporters were allowed to ask him questions.[16] In 1913, he became the first president to deliver the State of the Union address in person since 1801, as Thomas Jefferson had discontinued this practice.

In a 1913 cartoon, Wilson primes the economic pump with tariff, currency and anti-trust laws

Tariff legislation[edit]

To facilitate reduction of the tariffs, Wilson garnered some unexpected support from a previous rival Oscar Underwood, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Furnifold M. Simmons, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In May 1913, the House passed the Underwood Tariff by a vote of 274 to 5; it would take a bit longer passing in the Senate—in September—and Wilson signed it into law three weeks later.[17] Its effects were soon overwhelmed by the changes in trade caused by World War I.[18] Wilson mobilized the public opinion behind the tariff changes by denouncing corporate lobbyists in an address to Congress and by staging an elaborate signing ceremony.[19] The revenue lost by the lower tariff was replaced by a new federal income tax, authorized by the 16th Amendment.

Federal Reserve System[edit]

Map of Federal Reserve Districts–black circles, Federal Reserve Banks–black squares, District branches–red circles and Washington HQ–star/black circle

Wilson did not wait for completion of the tariff legislation to proceed with his next item of reform—banking, which he initiated in June 1913. After consulting with Brandeis, Wilson declared that the banking system must be "public not private, must be vested in the government itself so that the banks must be the instruments, not the masters, of business."[20] He tried to look for a middle ground between conservative Republicans, led by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and the powerful left wing of the Democratic party, led by William Jennings Bryan, who strenuously denounced private banks and Wall Street. The latter group wanted a government-owned central bank that could print paper money as Congress required. The compromise, based on the Aldrich Plan but sponsored by Democratic Congressmen Carter Glass and Robert Owen, allowed the private banks to control the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks, but appeased the agrarians by placing controlling interest in the System in a central board appointed by the president with Senate approval. Moreover, Wilson convinced Bryan's supporters that because Federal Reserve notes were obligations of the government, the plan met their demands for an elastic currency. Having 12 regional banks, with designated geographic districts, was meant to weaken the influence of the powerful New York banks, a key demand of Bryan's allies in the South and West, and was also a key factor in winning Glass' support.[21] The Federal Reserve Act passed in December 1913.[22]

Wilson appointed Paul Warburg and other prominent bankers to direct the new system. While power was supposed to be decentralized, the New York branch dominated the Fed. as the "first among equals."[23] The new system began operations in 1915 and played a major role in financing the Allied and American war effort in World War I.[24]

At the late-1913, summing up the president's efficacy, the Saturday Evening Post magazine stated, "This administration is Woodrow Wilson's and non-other's. He is the top, middle and bottom of it. There is not an atom of divided responsibility... the Democratic Party revolves about him. He is the center of it—the biggest Democrat in the country—the leader and the chief."[25]

Antitrust and other measures[edit]

Wilson began pushing for legislation that culminated with the Federal Trade Commission Act signed in September 1914. In doing so, he broke with his predecessors' practice of litigating the antitrust issue in the courts, known as trust-busting; the new Federal Trade Commission provided a new regulatory approach, to encourage competition and reduce perceived unfair trade practices. In addition, he pushed the Clayton Antitrust Act through Congress making certain business practices illegal, such as price discrimination, agreements prohibiting retailers from handling other companies' products, and directorates and agreements to control other companies. The power of this legislation was greater than that of previous anti-trust laws since it dictated the accountability of individual corporate officers and clarified guidelines. This law was considered the "Magna Carta" of labor by Samuel Gompers because it ended union liability antitrust laws. In 1916, under threat of a national railroad strike, Wilson approved legislation that increased wages and cut working hours of railroad employees; there was no strike.[26]

With the President reaching out to new constituencies, a series of programs were targeted at farmers. The Smith–Lever Act of 1914 created the modern system of agricultural extension agents sponsored by the state agricultural colleges. The agents taught new techniques to farmers. The 1916 Federal Farm Loan Act provided for issuance of low-cost long-term mortgages to farmers.[27]

Labor issues[edit]

Wilson's second wife Edith Bolling

In a 1914 dispute between Colorado miners and their company, a confrontation caused the Ludlow Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of eight strikers, eleven children, and two mothers. Part owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. refused Wilson's offer of mediation, conditioned upon collective bargaining, so Wilson sent in U.S. troops. While Wilson succeeded in bringing order to the situation and demonstrated support for the labor union, the miners' unconditional surrender to the implacable owners was a defeat for Wilson.[28]

Child labor was curtailed by the Keating–Owen Act of 1916, regulating interstate commerce involving goods produced by employees under the ages of 14 or 16, depending on the type of work. However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law two years later in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), declaring that the law violated the Commerce Clause by regulating intrastate commerce. Later, a 1924 Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution, authorizing Congress to regulate "labor of persons under eighteen years of age", languished when sent to the states for ratification.[29] The passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 accomplished many of the reforms Congress sought, and the Supreme Court upheld the law.[30]

In the summer of 1916, the nation's economy was endangered by a railroad strike. The president called the parties to a White House summit in August—after two days and no results, Wilson proceeded to settle the issue, using the maximum eight-hour work day as the linchpin. Congress passed the Adamson Act, incorporating the president's proposal, and the strike was cancelled. Wilson was praised for averting a national economic disaster, though the law was received with howls from conservatives denouncing a sellout to the unions and a surrender by Congress to an imperious president.[31]

Home front during World War I[edit]

Liberty Loan drive in front of City Hall, New Orleans. On City Hall is a banner reading "Food will win the war—don't waste it".
Women workers in ordnance shops, Pennsylvania, 1918

With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917, Wilson became a war-time president. The War Industries Board, headed by Bernard Baruch, was established to set U.S. war manufacturing policies and goals; future President Herbert Hoover lead the Food Administration, to conserve food; the Federal Fuel Administration, run by Henry Garfield, introduced daylight saving time and rationed fuel supplies; William McAdoo was in charge of war bond efforts and Vance McCormick headed the War Trade Board. All of the above, known collectively as the "war cabinet", met weekly with Wilson at the White House.[32] These and other bodies were headed by businessmen recruited by Wilson for a-dollar-a-day salary to make the government more efficient in the war effort.[33]

More favorable treatment was extended to those unions that supported the U.S. war effort, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Wilson worked closely with Samuel Gompers and the AFL, the railroad brotherhoods, and other 'moderate' unions, which saw enormous growth in membership and wages during Wilson's administration.[34] In the absence of rationing consumer prices soared; income taxes also increased and workers suffered. Despite this, appeals to buy war bonds were highly successful. The purchase of wartime bonds had the result of shifting the cost of the war to the taxpayers of the affluent 1920s.[33]

Antiwar groups, anarchists, communists, Industrial Workers of the World members, and other antiwar groups attempting to sabotage the war effort were targeted by the Department of Justice; many of their leaders were arrested for incitement to violence, espionage, or sedition.[35][36] Wilson also established the first western propaganda office, the United States Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel, the "Creel Commission", which circulated patriotic anti-German appeals and conducted censorship of materials considered seditious.[37] To further counter disloyalty to the war effort at home, Wilson pushed through Congress the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war statements.[38] While he welcomed socialists who supported the war, he pushed at the same time to arrest and deport foreign-born enemies.[35] Many recent immigrants, resident aliens without U.S. citizenship, who opposed America's participation in the war were deported to Soviet Russia or other nations under the powers granted in the Immigration Act of 1918.[35][36][39]

In an effort at reform and to shake up his Mobilization program, Wilson removed the chief of the Army Signal Corps and the chairman of the Aircraft Production Board on April 18, 1918.[40] On May 16, the President launched an investigation, headed by Republican Charles Evans Hughes, into the War Department and the Council of Defense. The Hughes report released on October 31 found no major corruption violations or theft in Wilson's Mobilization program, although the report found incompetence in the aircraft program.[41]

Wilson's administration did effectively demobilize the country at the war's end. A plan to form a commission for the purpose was abandoned in the face of Republican control the Senate, which complicated the appointment of commission members. Instead, Wilson favored the prompt dismantling of wartime boards and regulatory agencies.[42] Demobilization was chaotic and violent; four million soldiers were sent home with little planning, little money, few benefits, and other vague promises. A wartime bubble in prices of farmland burst, leaving many farmers deeply in debt after they purchased new land. Major strikes in the steel, coal, and meatpacking industries disrupted the economy in 1919.[43] Racial animosity erupted in serious race riots of ethnic whites against blacks in Chicago, Omaha, and two dozen other major cities in the North.[44]


Prohibition developed as an unstoppable reform during the war, but Wilson played a minor role in its passage.[45] A combination of the temperance movement, hatred of everything German (including beer and saloons), and activism by churches and women led to ratification of an amendment to achieve Prohibition in the United States. A Constitutional amendment passed both houses in December 1917 by 2/3 votes. By January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states it needed. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed enabling legislation, the National Prohibition Act (informally known as the Volstead Act), to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. Wilson felt Prohibition was unenforceable, but his veto of the Volstead Act was overridden by Congress.[46] Prohibition began on January 16, 1920 (one year after ratification of the amendment); the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol were prohibited, except for limited cases such as religious purposes (as with sacramental wine). But, the consumption of alcohol was never prohibited, and individuals could maintain a private stock that existed before Prohibition went into effect. Wilson moved his private supply of alcoholic beverages to the wine cellar of his Washington residence after his term of office ended.[47][48][49][50]

Wilson's position that nationwide Prohibition was unenforceable came to pass as a black market quickly developed to evade restrictions, and considerable liquor was both manufactured and smuggled into the country. Speakeasies thrived in cities, towns and rural areas.

Women's suffrage[edit]

Wilson favored women's suffrage at the state level. He knew the Southern legislatures were overwhelmingly opposed, and women could get the vote there only through a national constitutional amendment.[51] He held off support for a amendment because his party was sharply divided, with the South opposing an amendment on the grounds of state's rights. Arkansas was the only Southern state to have given women voting rights thus far. From 1917 to 1919, a highly visible campaign by the National Woman's Party (NWP) disparaged Wilson and his party for not enacting any amendment on the matter. Wilson did, however, keep in close touch with the much larger and more moderate suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. He continued to hold off until he was sure the Democratic Party in the North was supportive; the 1917 referendum in New York State in favor of suffrage proved decisive for him.

In a January 1918 speech before the Congress, Wilson—for the first time endorsed women’s rights to vote. Realizing the vitality of women during the First World War, he asked Congress, "We have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?"[52] The House passed a constitutional amendment, but it stalled in the Senate.[53] Wilson continued to speak in its defense, consulting with members of Congress through personal and written appeals, often on his own initiative.[52] Then on June 4, 1919, the proposed amendment prohibiting the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex,was approved, and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification.[53] Subsequently ratified by the requisite number of states (then 36) on August 18, 1920, the measure became the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[54] Wilson’s voice proved unequivocal in the ultimate passing of the 19th amendment.[52]

First Red Scare[edit]

Main article: First Red Scare

Following the October Revolution in the Russian Empire, many in America feared the possibility of a Communist-inspired revolution in the United States. These fears were inflamed by the 1919 United States anarchist bombings, which were conducted by the anarchist Luigi Galleani and his followers.[55] In response to such fears, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched the Palmer Raids with the intention of capturing and deporting radical activists. Palmer warned of a massive 1920 May Day uprising, but after the day passed by without incident, the Red Scare largely dissipated.[56]

Civil rights[edit]

"The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation...until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."
Quotation from Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People as reproduced in the film The Birth of a Nation.

Several historians have criticized a number of Wilson's policies on racial grounds.[57][58][59][60][61][62] According to critics, Wilson believed that slavery was wrong on economic labor grounds, rather than for moral reasons.[62] They also argue that he idealized the slavery system in the South, viewing masters as patient with "indolent" slaves.[62] In terms of Reconstruction, Wilson held the common southern view that the South was demoralized by Northern carpetbaggers and that overreach on the part of the Radical Republicans justified extreme measures to reassert Democratic national and state governments.[63][64][65]

In Wilson's first month in office, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson brought up the issue of segregating workplaces in a cabinet meeting and urged the president to establish it across the government, in restrooms, cafeterias and work spaces.[66] Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo also permitted lower-level officials to racially segregate employees in the workplaces of those departments. By the end of 1913 many departments, including the Navy, had workspaces segregated by screens, and restrooms, cafeterias were segregated, although no executive order had been issued.[66] Segregation was urged by such conservative groups as the Fair Play Association.[66]

Wilson defended his administration's segregation policy in a July 1913 letter responding to Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the New York Evening Post and founding member of the NAACP; Wilson suggested the segregation removed "friction" between the races.[66] Ross Kennedy says that Wilson complied with predominant public opinion,[67] but his change in federal practices was protested in letters from both blacks and whites to the White House, mass meetings, newspaper campaigns and official statements by both black and white church groups.[66] The president's African-American supporters, who had crossed party lines to vote for him, were bitterly disappointed, and they and Northern leaders protested the changes.[66] Wilson continued to defend his policy, as in a letter to "prominent black minister Rev. H.A. Bridgman, editor of the Congregation and Christian World."[66] Heckscher argues that Wilson had promised African Americans to deal generously with racial injustices, but did not deliver on these assurances.[68] Segregation and government offices, and discriminatory hiring practices had been started by President Theodore Roosevelt and continued by President Taft; The Wilson administration continued and escalated the practice.[69] However, during Wilson's term, the government began requiring photographs of all applicants for federal jobs.[70]

Wilson's War Department drafted hundreds of thousands of blacks into the army, giving them equal pay with whites, but in accord with military policy from the Civil War through the Second World War, kept them in all-black units with white officers, and kept the great majority out of combat.[71] When a delegation of blacks protested the discriminatory actions, Wilson told them "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." In 1918, W. E. B. Du Bois—a leader of the NAACP who had campaigned for Wilson believing he was a "liberal southerner"—was offered an Army commission in charge of dealing with race relations; DuBois accepted, but he failed his Army physical and did not serve.[72][73] By 1916, Du Bois opposed Wilson, charging that his first term had seen "the worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that [blacks] had experienced since the Civil War."[73]

Foreign policy[edit]

Wilson's foreign policy was based on an idealistic approach to liberal internationalism standing in sharp contrast to the realistic conservative nationalism of Taft, Roosevelt, and McKinley. Since 1900, the consensus of Democrats had, according to Arthur Link:

consistently condemned militarism, imperialism, and interventionism in foreign policy. They instead advocated world involvement along liberal-internationalist lines. Wilson's appointment of William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State indicated a new departure, for Bryan had long been the leading opponent of imperialism and militarism and a pioneer in the world peace movement.[74]

Bryan took the initiative in asking 40 countries with ambassadors in Washington to sign bilateral arbitration treaties. Any dispute of any kind with the United States would lead to a one-year cooling-off period, and submission to an international commission for arbitration. Thirty countries signed, but not Mexico and Colombia (which had grievances with Washington), nor Japan, Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire. European diplomats signed the treaties, but considered them irrelevant.[75]

Diplomatic historian George C. Herring says that Wilson's idealism was genuine, but that it was structured by blind spots:

Wilson’s genuine and deeply felt aspirations to build a better world suffered from a certain culture-blindness. He lacked experience in diplomacy and hence an appreciation of its limits. He had not traveled widely outside the United States and knew little of other peoples and cultures beyond Britain, which he greatly admired. Especially in his first years in office, he had difficulty seeing that well-intended efforts to spread U.S. values might be viewed as interference at best, coercion at worst. His vision was further narrowed by the terrible burden of racism, common among the elite of his generation, which limited his capacity to understand and respect people of different colors. Above all, he was blinded by his certainty of America’s goodness and destiny.[76]

Mexican Revolution[edit]

Wilson took office during the Mexican Revolution and shortly after the assassination of Francisco I. Madero, the President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913. Wilson rejected the legitimacy of Victoriano Huerta's "government of butchers" and demanded Mexico hold democratic elections. Wilson's unprecedented approach meant no recognition and doomed Huerta's prospects. Wilsonian idealism became a reason for American intervention in Latin America until 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt ended moralistic approaches to the region.[77] After Huerta arrested U.S. Navy personnel in the port of Tampico Wilson sent his navy to occupy Veracruz.[78] War between the United States and Mexico was averted through negotiations, and in 1916 his reelection campaign for president boasted he had "kept us out of war". Huerta fled Mexico and Venustiano Carranza came to power.[79] Though the administration had achieved the desired result, it was Carranza's lieutenant, Pancho Villa, who presented a more serious threat in 1916.[80]

In early 1916 Pancho Villa raided an American town in New Mexico, killing or wounding dozens of Americans and causing an enormous nationwide American demand for his punishment. Wilson ordered Gen. John Pershing and 4000 troops across the border to capture Villa. By April, Pershing's forces had broken up and dispersed Villas bands. Villa remained on the loose and Pershing continued his pursuit deep into Mexico. Carranza then pivoted against the Americans and accused them of a punitive invasion; a confrontation with a mob in Parral on April 12 resulted in two dead Americans and six wounded, plus hundreds of Mexican casualties. Further incidents led to the brink of war by late June when Wilson demanded an immediate release of American soldiers held prisoner. They were released; tensions subsided and bilateral negotiations began under the auspices of the Mexican-American Joint High Commission. In early 1917, as tensions with Germany escalated toward war. Unknown to Washington, Germany's Zimmermann Telegram had already invited Mexico to join in war against the United States. Wilson had to get out of Mexico to deal with Germany and he ordered Pershing to withdraw from Mexico. The last American soldiers left on February 5, 1917. The Americans learned of the Zimmermann proposal on February 23, and Wilson accorded Carranza diplomatic recognition in April, after war was declared on Germany. Biographer Arthur Link calls it Carranza's victory—his successful handling of the chaos inside Mexico, as well as over Wilson's policies. Mexico was now free to develop its revolution without American pressure.[81]

The chase after Pancho Villa was a small military episode, but it had important long-term implications. It enabled Carranza to mobilize popular anger, strengthen his political position, and permanently escalate anti-American sentiment in Mexico.[82] On the American side, it made Pershing a national figure and led to Wilson choosing him to command the American forces in France in 1917–1918. The expedition involved 15,000 American regulars; some 110,000 part-time soldiers of the National Guard were activated to serve border duty inside the United States. It gave the American army some needed experience in dealing with training, planning and logistics. Most importantly, it highlighted serious weaknesses in the National Guard in terms of training, recruiting, planning, and ability to mobilize quickly.[83] It gave the American public a way to work out its frustrations over the European stalemate and it showed that the United States was willing to defend its borders while keeping that demonstration on a small scale.[84]

Neutrality in the World War[edit]

Americans had no inkling that a war was approaching in 1914. Over 100,000 were caught unawares when the war started, having traveled to Europe for tourism, business or to visit relatives. Their repatriation was handled by Herbert Hoover, an American private citizen based in London. The U.S. government, under the firm control of President Wilson, was neutral. The president insisted that all government actions be neutral, and that the belligerents must respect that neutrality according to the norms of international law. Wilson told the Senate in August 1914 when the war began that the United States, "must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another." He was ambiguous whether he meant the United States as a nation or meant all Americans as individuals. [85] Wilson has been accused of violating his own rule of neutrality. Later that month he explained himself privately to his top foreign policy advisor Colonel House, who recalled the episode later:

I was interested to hear him express as his opinion what I had written him some time ago in one of my letters, to the effect that if Germany won it would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a military nation. He also spoke of his deep regret, as indeed I did to him in that same letter, that it would check his policy for a better international ethical code. He felt deeply the destruction of Louvain [in Belgium], and I found him as unsympathetic with the German attitude as is the balance of America. He goes even further than I in his condemnation of Germany's part in this war, and almost allows his feeling to include the German people as a whole rather than the leaders alone. He said German philosophy was essentially selfish and lacking in spirituality. When I spoke of the Kaiser building up the German machine as a means of maintaining peace, he said, "What a foolish thing it was to create a powder magazine and risk someone's dropping a spark into it!" He thought the war would throw the world back three or four centuries. I did not agree with him. He was particularly scornful of Germany’s disregard of treaty obligations, and was indignant at the German Chancellor’s designation of the Belgian Treaty as being "only a scrap of paper"....But although the personal feeling of the President was with the Allies, he insisted then and for many months after, that this ought not to affect his political attitude, which he intended should be one of strict neutrality. He felt that he owed it to the world to prevent the spreading of the conflagration, that he owed it to the country to save it from the horrors of war.[86]

Apart from an Anglophile element supporting Britain, public opinion in 1914-1916 strongly favored neutrality. Wilson kept the economy on a peacetime basis, and made no preparations or plans for the war. He insisted on keeping the army and navy on its small peacetime bases. Indeed, Washington refused even to study the lessons of military or economic mobilization that had been learned so painfully across the sea.[87]

Wilson and "Jingo", the American War Dog. The editorial cartoon ridicules jingoes baying for war.

From 1914 until early 1917, Wilson's primary objective was to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, and his policy was, "the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned."[88] The Great War in Europe pitted the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) against the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia and several other countries). In a 1914 address to Congress, Wilson emphasized the American role as honest broker for peace: "Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend."[89] He made numerous offers to mediate and sent Colonel House on diplomatic missions; the Allies and the Central Powers, however, dismissed these overtures. Wilson even thought it counterproductive to comment on atrocities by either side; this led to assertions of heartlessness on his part.[90] Interventionists, led by Theodore Roosevelt, wanted war with Germany and attacked Wilson's refusal to build up the U.S. Army in anticipation of war.[91]

When Britain declared a blockade of neutral ships carrying contraband goods to Germany, Wilson mildly protested non-lethal British violations of neutral rights; the British knew that it would not be a casus belli for the United States.[92] In early 1915 Germany declared the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone; Wilson dispatched a note of protest, imposing "strict accountability" on Germany for the safety of neutral ships. The meaning of the policy, dubiously applied to specific incidents, evolved with the policy of neutrality, but ultimately formed the substance of U.S. responses over the next two years.[93] The commercial British steamship Falaba was sunk in March 1915 by a German submarine with the loss of 111 lives, including one American in the Thrasher Incident. Wilson chose to avoid risking escalation of the war as a result of the loss of one American.[93] In the spring of 1915 a German bomb struck an American ship, the Cushing and a German submarine torpedoed an American tanker, the Gulflight. Wilson took the view, based on some reasonable evidence, that both incidents were accidental, and that a settlement of claims could be postponed to the end of the war.[94]

A German submarine torpedoed and sank the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915; over a thousand perished, including many Americans. In a Philadelphia speech that weekend Wilson said, "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right". Many reacted to these remarks with contempt.[95] Wilson sent a subdued note to the Germans protesting its submarine warfare against commerce; the initial reply was evasive and received in the United States with indignation. Secretary of State Bryan, a dedicated pacifist, sensing the country's path to war, resigned, and was replaced by Robert Lansing. The White Star liner the SS Arabic was then torpedoed, with two American casualties. The U.S. threatened a diplomatic break unless Germany repudiated the action; the German ambassador then conveyed a note, "liners will not be sunk by our submarines". Wilson had not stopped the submarine campaign, but won agreement that unarmed merchant ships would not be sunk without warning; and most importantly he had kept the U.S. out of the war.[96] Meanwhile, Wilson requested and received funds in the final 1916 appropriations bill to provide for 500,000 troops. It also included a five-year Navy plan for major construction of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines—showing Wilson's dedication to a big Navy.[97]

In March 1916 the SS Sussex, an unarmed ferry under the French flag, was torpedoed in the English Channel and four Americans were counted among the dead; the Germans had flouted the post-Lusitania exchanges. The president demanded the Germans reject their submarine tactics.[98] Wilson drew praise when he succeeded in wringing from Germany a pledge to constrain their U-boat warfare to the rules of cruiser warfare. This was a clear departure from existing practices—a diplomatic concession from which Germany could only more brazenly withdraw, and regrettably did.[99]

Wilson made a plea for postwar world peace in May 1916; his speech recited the right of every nation to its sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom from aggression. "So sincerely do we believe these things", Wilson said, "that I am sure that I speak the mind and wish of the people of America when I say that the United States is willing to become a partner in any feasible association of nations formed in order to realize these objectives". At home the speech was seen as a turning point in policy. In Europe the words were received by the British and the French without comment. His harshest European critics rightly thought the speech reflected indifference on Wilson's part; indeed, Wilson never wavered from a belief that the war was the result of corrupt European power politics.[100]

Wilson made his final offer to mediate peace on December 18, 1916. As a preliminary, he asked both sides to state their minimum terms necessary for future security. The Central Powers replied that victory was certain, and the Allies required the dismemberment of their enemies' empires; no desire for peace existed, and the offer lapsed.[101]

Wilson found it increasingly difficult to maintain neutrality, after Germany rescinded earlier promises—the Arabic pledge and the Sussex pledge. Early in 1917 the German ambassador Johann von Bernstorf informed Secretary of State Lansing of Germany's commitment to unrestricted submarine warfare; Bernstorff had tears in his eyes as he knew the U.S. reaction would adversely affect his country's lot.[102] Then came the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany attempted to enlist Mexico as an ally, promising Mexico that if Germany was victorious, she would support Mexico in winning back the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from the U.S.[103] Wilson's reaction after consulting the cabinet and the Congress was a minimal one—that diplomatic relations with the Germans be brought to a halt. The president said, "We are the sincere friends of the German people and earnestly desire to remain at peace with them. We shall not believe they are hostile to us unless or until we are obliged to believe it".[104] In March 1917 several American ships were sunk by Germany and Teddy Roosevelt privately reacted, "if he does not go to war I shall skin him alive".[105] Wilson called a cabinet meeting on March 20, in which the vote was unanimously in support of entering the war.[106]

World War I[edit]

Wilson delivered his War Message to a special session of Congress on April 2, 1917, declaring that Germany's latest pronouncement had rendered his "armed neutrality" policy untenable and asking Congress to declare Germany's war stance was an act of war.[107] He proposed the United States enter the war to "vindicate principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power". The German government, Wilson said, "means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors". He then also warned that "if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression."[38] Wilson closed with:

Our to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power....We are fight...for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the right of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy....We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.[108]

The declaration of war by the United States against Germany passed Congress by strong bipartisan majorities on April 4, 1917, with opposition from ethnic German strongholds and remote rural areas in the South. It was signed by Wilson on April 6, 1917. The United States would also later declare war against Austria-Hungary in December 1917. The U.S. did not sign a formal alliance with Britain or France but operated as an "associated" power—an informal ally with military cooperation through the Supreme War Council in London.[109] The U.S. raised a massive army through conscription and Wilson gave command to General John J. Pershing, with complete authority as to tactics, strategy and some diplomacy.[110] Edward M. House, Wilson's key unofficial foreign affairs advisor, became the president's main channel of communication with the British government, and William Wiseman, a British naval attaché, was House's principal contact in England. Their personal relationship succeeded in serving the powers well, by overcoming strained relations in order to achieve essential understandings between the two governments. House also became the U.S. representative on the Allies' Supreme War Council.[111]

March 1917 also brought the first of two revolutions in Russia, which impacted the strategic role of the U.S. in the war. The overthrow of the imperial government removed a serious barrier to America's entry into the European conflict, while the second revolution in November relieved the Germans of a major threat on their eastern front, and allowed them to dedicate more troops to the Western front, thus making U.S. forces central to Allied success in battles of 1918. Wilson initially rebuffed pleas from the Allies to dedicate military resources to an intervention in Russia against the Bolsheviks, based partially on his experience from attempted intervention in Mexico; nevertheless he ultimately was convinced of the potential benefit and agreed to dispatch a limited force to assist the Allies on the eastern front.[112]

The Germans launched an offensive at Arras which prompted an accelerated deployment of troops by Wilson to the Western front—by August 1918 a million American troops had reached France. The Allies initiated a counter offensive at Somme and by August the Germans had lost the military initiative and an Allied victory was in sight. In October came a message from the new German Chancellor Prince Max of Baden to Wilson requesting a general armistice. In the exchange of notes with Germany they agreed the Fourteen Points in principle be incorporated in the armistice; House then procured agreement from France and Britain, but only after threatening to conclude a unilateral armistice without them. Wilson ignored Gen. Pershing's plea to drop the armistice and instead demand an unconditional surrender by Germany.[113]

The Germans signed the Armistice of 11 November 1918, bringing an end to the fighting. Austria-Hungary had signed the Armistice of Villa Giusti eight days earlier, while the Ottoman Empire had signed the Armistice of Mudros in October. The combatants would meet at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to set the peace terms.

The Fourteen Points[edit]

Main article: Fourteen Points

Wilson initiated a secret series of studies named The Inquiry, primarily focused on Europe, and carried out by a group in New York which included geographers, historians and political scientists; the group was directed by Col. House.[114] The studies culminated in a speech by Wilson to Congress on January 8, 1918, wherein he articulated America's long term war objectives. It was the clearest expression of intention made by any of the belligerent nations. The speech, known as the Fourteen Points, was authored mainly by Walter Lippmann and projected Wilson's progressive domestic policies into the international arena. The first six dealt with diplomacy, freedom of the seas and settlement of colonial claims. Then territorial issues were addressed and the final point, the establishment of an association of nations to guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of all nations—a League of Nations. The address was translated into many languages for global dissemination.[115]

Paris Peace Conference[edit]

The "Big Four" at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, following the end of World War I. Wilson is standing next to Georges Clemenceau at right.

When the time came, Wilson spent six months in Paris for the Peace Conference, thereby becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.[116] He disembarked from the George Washington in Brest on December 13. While in Italy (January 1–6, 1919) for meetings with King Victor Emmanuel III and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, he became the first incumbent U.S. president to have an audience with a reigning pope, when he visited Pope Benedict XV at the Apostolic Palace.[117]

Wilson took a break from the negotiations and departed February 14, 1919 for home, then returned to Paris three weeks later and remained until the conclusion of a treaty in June.[118] Heckscher describes Wilson, during the first four weeks of the Conference as, "playing, with force and discretion, a commanding role…he established his priorities, secured accommodation on major issues and won preliminary acceptance of the League."[119] He promoted his plan in France, and then at home in February. Wilson gave a speech at the Metropolitan Opera House in defense of the League—he was more insistent about it than ever. Heckscher contends that the enduring image of Wilson as a grim, unsmiling and unforgiving figure dates from this visit home during the conference.[120] While the general public along with editorial writers, churches and peace groups generally favored the League, the Republicans vowed to defeat the League and discredit Wilson.[121] Wilson notably did not address the Congress as to ongoing deliberations at the peace conference, as indeed his counterpart Lloyd George did with Parliament. Heckscher opines that this was a missed opportunity to forge the debate even though the Congressional majority had changed. In France he was without the usual control over his message through the media; in fact, the French initiated an aggressive propaganda campaign in the midst of the Conference to affect its outcome.[122]

After his visit home, and while en route back to France, Wilson suffered an illness; the ensuing months brought a decline in health and in power and prestige. On arrival, it was immediately clear the conference had struggled in his absence—Col. House had compromised Wilson's prior gains, and Wilson set out to attempt to regain the lost ground.[123] During these "dark days" of the conference Taft cabled to Wilson three proposed amendments to the League covenant which he thought would considerably increase its acceptability to the Europeans—the right of withdrawal from the League, the exemption of domestic issues from the League and the inviolability of the Monroe Doctrine. Wilson very reluctantly accepted these amendments, explaining why he later was more inflexible in the Senate treaty negotiations.[124] On April 3 Wilson fell violently ill during a conference meeting, in a narrow escape from influenza. Though his symptoms receded within a couple of days, those around him noticed a distinct, lasting deterioration.[125]

The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference's Treaty of Versailles.[126] Japan proposed that the Covenant include a racial equality clause. Wilson was indifferent to the issue, but acceded to strong opposition from Australia and Britain.[127] After the conference, Wilson said that "at last the world knows America as the savior of the world!"[128]

For his peace-making efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.[129] John Maynard Keynes, an anti-Wilson and anti-League intellectual, asserted Wilson was not well regarded at the Conference, "he was in many respects...ill-informed as to European conditions...his mind was slow and unadaptable...There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the council chamber."[130] Keynes' highly regarded rhetoric became the prevailing judgment of the conference for decades.[131]

Treaty fight[edit]

Wilson returning from the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919.

The chances were less than favorable for ratification of the treaty by a two-thirds vote of the Republican Senate. Public opinion was mixed, with intense opposition from most Republicans, Germans, and Irish Catholic Democrats. In numerous meetings with Senators, Wilson discovered opposition had hardened. Despite his weakened physical condition Wilson decided to barnstorm the Western states, scheduling 29 major speeches and many short ones to rally support.[132]

Wilson had earlier downplayed Germany's guilt in starting the war by calling for "peace without victory", but he had taken an increasingly hard stand at Paris and rejected advice to soften the treaty's treatment of Germany.[133] In a reversal of his earlier position, in summer 1919 Wilson repeatedly stressed Germany's guilt, saying the treaty, "seeks to punish one of the greatest wrongs ever done in history, the wrong which Germany sought to do to the world and to civilization; and there ought to be no weak purpose with regard to the application of the punishment. She attempted an intolerable thing, and she must be made to pay for the attempt."[134]

Wilson had a series of debilitating strokes and had to cut short his trip on September 26, 1919. He became an invalid in the White House, closely monitored by his wife, who insulated him from negative news and downplayed for him the gravity of his condition.[135] Senator Lodge led the opposition to the treaty in the Republican controlled Senate; the key point of disagreement was whether the League would diminish the power of Congress to declare war.

It proved possible to build a majority for the treaty in the Senate, but the two-thirds coalition needed to ratify was insurmountable.[136] One block of Democrats strongly supported the Versailles Treaty; a second group supported the Treaty but followed Wilson in opposing any amendments or reservations. The largest bloc—Lodge and the Republicans—wanted a treaty with reservations, especially on Article X, which empowered the League of Nations to make war without a vote by the United States Congress. Finally, a bipartisan group of 13 "irreconcilables" opposed a treaty in any form.[137] In mid-November 1919 Lodge and his Republicans formed a coalition with the pro-Treaty Democrats, and were close to a two-thirds majority for a Treaty with reservations; but the seriously indisposed Wilson rejected this compromise and enough Democrats followed his lead to defeat ratification. Cooper and Bailey suggest that Wilson's stroke in September had debilitated him from negotiating effectively with Lodge.[138]

Other foreign affairs[edit]

In an early foreign policy matter, Wilson responded to an angry protest by the Japanese[vague] when the state of California proposed legislation that excluded Japanese people from land ownership in the state. Wilson was reticent to assert federal supremacy over the state's legislation. There was talk of war and some argument within the cabinet for a show of naval force, which Wilson rejected; after diplomatic exchanges the scare subsided. Japan wanted a treaty (beyond the Root–Takahira Agreement then in place) but none was negotiated; Japanese anger and feelings of humiliation remained high for this and other reasons for decades to come.[139]

Wilson frequently intervened in Latin American affairs, saying in 1913: "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men."[140] These interventions included Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918. The U.S. maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout the Wilson administration and used them to select the president of Nicaragua and then to force Nicaragua to pass the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. Additionally, American troops in Haiti—under the command of the federal government—forced the Haitian legislature to elect as president a pro-Western candidate who was favored by Wilson though less popular among the Haitian citizenry.[141][142] Wilson ordered the military occupation of the Dominican Republic shortly after the resignation of its President Juan Isidro Jimenes Pereyra in 1916. The U.S. military worked in concert with wealthy Dominican landowners to suppress the gavilleros, a campesino guerrilla force fighting the occupation. The occupation lasted until 1924, and was notorious for its brutality against those in the resistance.[143] Wilson also negotiated a treaty with Colombia in which the U.S. apologized for its role in the Panama Revolution of 1903–1904.[144] In the summer of 1914 Wilson gained repeal of toll exemptions at the Panama Canal for American ships; this was received positively by the international community, as a cessation of past discrimination against foreign commerce. The measure was considered unpatriotic by U.S. business interests and opponents such as Tammany Hall.[145]

After Russia left World War I following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Allies sent troops there to prevent a German or Bolshevik takeover of allied-provided weapons, munitions and other supplies previously shipped as aid to the pre-revolutionary government.[146] Wilson sent armed forces to assist the withdrawal of Czechoslovak Legions along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to hold key port cities at Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok. Though specifically instructed not to engage the Bolsheviks, the U.S. forces engaged in several armed conflicts against forces of the new Russian government. Revolutionaries in Russia resented the United States intrusion. Robert Maddox wrote, "The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society."[147] Wilson withdrew most of the soldiers on April 1, 1920, though some remained until as late as 1922.

In 1919, Wilson guided American foreign policy to "acquiesce" in the Balfour Declaration without supporting Zionism in an official way. Wilson expressed sympathy for the plight of Jews, especially in Poland and France.[148]

In May 1920, Wilson sent a long-deferred proposal to Congress to have the U.S. accept a mandate from the League of Nations to take over Armenia.[149] Bailey notes this was opposed by American public opinion,[150] while Richard G. Hovannisian states that Wilson "made all the wrong arguments" for the mandate and focused less on the immediate policy than on how history would judge his actions: "[he] wished to place it clearly on the record that the abandonment of Armenia was not his doing."[151] The resolution won the votes of only 23 senators.

List of international trips[edit]

Wilson made one international trip while president–elect and two during his presidency.[152] Wilson was the first sitting president to travel to Europe. He spent nearly seven months in Europe after World War I (interrupted by a brief 9-day return stateside).

Dates Country Locations Details
1 November 18 – December 13, 1912  Bermuda Vacation. (Visit made as President-elect.)
2 December 14–25, 1918  France Paris,
Attended preliminary discussions prior to the Paris Peace Conference; promoted his Fourteen Points principles for world peace. Departed the U.S. December 4.
December 26–31, 1918  United Kingdom London,
Met with Prime Minister David Lloyd George and King George V.
December 31, 1918 – January 1, 1919  France Paris Stopover en route to Italy.
January 1–6, 1919  Italy Rome,
Met with King Victor Emmanuel III and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.
January 4, 1919 Flag of the Papal States (1808-1870).svg Vatican Rome Audience with Pope Benedict XV.
January 7–14, 1919  France Paris Attended Paris Peace Conference. Arrived In the U.S. February 24.
3 March 14 – June 18, 1919  France Paris Attended Paris Peace Conference. Departed the U.S. March 5.
June 18–19, 1919  Belgium Brussels,
Met with King Albert I. Addressed Parliament.
June 20–28, 1919  France Paris Attended Paris Peace Conference. Returned to U.S. July 8.

Incapacity, 1919–1920[edit]

In September 1919, while on a public speaking tour in support of the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson collapsed and never fully recovered. In 1906 Wilson had first exhibited arterial hypertension, mainly untreatable at the time.[153] During his presidency, he had repeated episodes of unexplained arm and hand weakness, and his retinal arteries were said to be abnormal on fundoscopic examination.[154] He developed severe headaches, diplopia (double vision), and evanescent weakness of the left arm and leg. In retrospect, physicians have said that those problems likely represented the effects of cerebral transient ischemic attacks.[155] On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke, leaving him paralyzed on his left side, and with only partial vision in the right eye.[156] He was confined to bed for weeks and sequestered from everyone except his wife and physician, Dr. Cary Grayson.[157] For some months Wilson used a wheelchair and later he required use of a cane. His wife and aide Joe Tumulty were said to have helped a journalist, Louis Seibold, present a false account of an interview with the President.[158]

He was insulated by his wife, who selected matters for his attention and delegated others to his cabinet. Wilson temporarily resumed a perfunctory attendance at cabinet meetings.[159] By February 1920, the president's true condition was publicly known. Many expressed qualms about Wilson's fitness for the presidency at a time when the League fight was reaching a climax, and domestic issues such as strikes, unemployment, inflation and the threat of Communism were ablaze. No one close to him, including his wife, his physician, or personal assistant, was willing to take responsibility to certify, as required by the Constitution, his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office".[160] Though some members of Congress encouraged Vice President Marshall to assert his claim to the presidency, Marshall never attempted to replace Wilson.[9] Because of this complex case, Congress developed the 25th Amendment to control succession to the presidency in case of illness, which was ratified.[161]


Presidential election of 1912[edit]

1912 Electoral Vote Map

Held during the fourth year of Republican William Howard Taft's presidential term, the 1912 presidential election saw the Democrats win the presidency for the first time in 20 years. Taft ran for re-election and won the 1912 Republican presidential nomination, but former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt chose to run as a third party candidate, splitting the Republican vote. Wilson, who had served as Governor of New Jersey since 1911, won the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination on the 46th ballot, prevailing over Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri and several other candidates.[162] In the general election, Wilson won a plurality of the popular vote (41.8%) but took a strong majority of the electoral vote by winning 40 of the 48 states. Roosevelt's Progressive ticket ran one of the strongest third party campaigns in U.S. history, finishing second in the popular and electoral vote. Taft finished in third place with 23.2% of the popular vote and just eight electoral votes, while Socialist Eugene V. Debs won 6% of the popular vote. The victory made Wilson, a Staunton, Virginia native, the first Southerner elected as president since 1848. In addition to winning the presidency, Democrats also won control of the Senate and retained a majority in the House, giving the party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1894 mid-term elections.

Midterm elections of 1914[edit]

In Wilson's first mid-term elections, Republicans picked up sixty seats in the House, but failed to re-take the chamber. However, Democrats made gains in the Senate, solidifying their control of the Senate.

Presidential election of 1916[edit]

Wilson accepts the Democratic Party nomination, 1916

Wilson, renominated without opposition, employed his campaign slogan "He kept us out of war", though he never promised unequivocally to stay out of the war. In his acceptance speech on September 2, 1916, Wilson pointedly warned Germany that submarine warfare resulting in American deaths would not be tolerated, saying "The nation that violates these essential rights must expect to be checked and called to account by direct challenge and resistance. It at once makes the quarrel in part our own."[163]

Vance C. McCormick, a leading progressive, became chairman of the party, and Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was recalled from Turkey to manage campaign finances.[164] "Colonel" House played an important role in the campaign. "He planned its structure; set its tone; helped guide its finance; chose speakers, tactics, and strategy; and, not least, handled the campaign's greatest asset and greatest potential liability: its brilliant but temperamental candidate."[165]

1916 Electoral Vote Map

As the Party platform was drafted, Senator Owen of Oklahoma urged Wilson to take ideas from the Progressive Party platform of 1912 "as a means of attaching to our party progressive Republicans who are in sympathy with us in so large a degree." At Wilson's request, Owen highlighted federal legislation to promote workers' health and safety, prohibit child labour, provide unemployment compensation and establish minimum wages and maximum hours. Wilson, in turn, included in his draft platform a plank that called for all work performed by and for the federal government to provide a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, health and safety measures, the prohibition of child labour, and (his own additions) safeguards for female workers and a retirement program.[166]

Wilson's opponent was Republican Charles Evans Hughes, former governor of New York with a progressive record similar to Wilson's as governor of New Jersey. Theodore Roosevelt commented that the only thing different between Hughes and Wilson was a shave. However, Hughes had to try to hold together a coalition of conservative Taft supporters and progressive Roosevelt partisans, and his campaign never assumed a definite form. Wilson ran on his record and ignored Hughes, reserving his attacks for Roosevelt. When asked why he did not attack Hughes directly, Wilson told a friend, "Never murder a man who is committing suicide."[167]

The election outcome was in doubt for several days and was determined by several close states. Wilson won California by 3,773 of almost a million votes cast, and New Hampshire by 54 votes. Hughes won Minnesota by 393 votes out of over 358,000. In the final count, Wilson had 277 electoral votes vs. Hughes's 254. Wilson was able to win by picking up many votes that had gone to Teddy Roosevelt or Eugene V. Debs in 1912.[168] By the time Hughes' concession telegram arrived, Wilson commented "it was a little moth-eaten when it got here".[169] Wilson's re-election made him the first Democrat since the Civil War to win two consecutive terms. Wilson's party also maintained control of Congress.

Midterm elections of 1918[edit]

Occurring in the closing days of World War I, the 1918 midterm elections saw Republicans take control of both the House and the Senate. Republicans ran against Wilson's foreign policy agenda, especially his proposal for the League of Nations.[170] The elections were the first held after the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators.

Presidential election of 1920[edit]

As the election of 1920 approached, Wilson momentarily imagined that a deadlocked Democratic convention might nominate him for a third term with a campaign focused on the League of Nations. No one around the President adequately clarified for him that he was too incapacitated, had insufficient support, and that the League defeat was irreversible.[171] The 1920 Democratic National Convention nominated Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, while the Republicans nominated Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. In a landslide victory, Harding won 60.3% of the popular vote and took every state outside of the Solid South. Harding campaigned on a "return to normalcy" from the policies of the Wilson presidency. During Harding's presidency, the United States formally ended its role in World War I with the Knox–Porter Resolution and the signing of peace treaties with the Central Powers. Thus, the United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and never joined Wilson's League of Nations.


Wilson is generally ranked by historians and political scientists as one of better presidents.[172] More than any of his predecessors, Wilson took steps towards the creation of a strong federal government that would protect ordinary citizens against the overwhelming power of large corporations.[173] Many of Wilson's accomplishments, including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the graduated income tax, and labor laws, continued to influence the United States long after Wilson's death.[172] He is generally regarded as a key figure in the establishment of Modern American liberalism who influenced future presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.[172] Wilson's idealistic foreign policy, which came to be known as Wilsonianism, also cast a long shadow over American foreign policy, and Wilson's League of Nations influenced the development of the United Nations. However, Wilson's record on civil rights has often been attacked.[172] Wilson's administration saw a new level of segregation among the federal government, and Wilson's Cabinet consisted of several racists.[172]


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  40. ^ Leuchtenburg (1974), pp. 256–257; U.S. Department of Justice (1918), Report on the Aircraft Inquiry, Washington D.C.; Pusey, Hughes, I, pp. 378–382
  41. ^ David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (2004) pp. 249–50
  42. ^ Leonard Williams Levy and Louis Fisher, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Presidency (1994) p. 494.
  43. ^ Walter C. Rucker; James N. Upton (2007). Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Greenwood. p. 310. 
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  57. ^ Turner-Sadler, Joanne (2009). African American History: An Introduction. Peter Lang. p. 100. ISBN 1-4331-0743-0. President Wilson's racist policies are a matter of record. 
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  59. ^ Feagin, Joe R. (2006). Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. CRC Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-415-95278-6. Wilson, who loved to tell racist 'darky' jokes about black Americans, placed outspoken segregationists in his cabinet and viewed racial 'segregation as a rational, scientific policy'. 
  60. ^ Critics argue that in his book, History of the American People, Wilson depicted white European immigrants with empathy while African American immigrants and their children were regarded as unsuitable for citizenship and unable to assimilate positively into American society.
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  71. ^ Mark Ellis, "'Closing Ranks' and 'Seeking Honors': W. E. B. Du Bois in World War I" Journal of American History, 1992 79(1): 96–124. JSTOR 2078469
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  74. ^ Robert W. Cherny (2014). A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. U of Oklahoma Press. pp. 137–38. 
  75. ^ George C. Herring (2008). From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. Oxford UP. p. 381. 
  76. ^ Peter V. N. Henderson, "Woodrow Wilson, Victoriano Huerta, and the Recognition Issue in Mexico", The Americas (1984) 41#2 pp. 151-176 in JSTOR
  77. ^ Robert E. Quirk, An affair of honor: Woodrow Wilson and the occupation of Veracruz (1962).
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  104. ^ J. W. Schulte Nordholt (1991). Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. U of California Press. p. 222. 
  105. ^ Heckscher, pp. 436–437
  106. ^ For detailed coverage of the speech see NY Times main headline, April 2, 1917, President Calls for War Declaration, Stronger Navy, New Army of 500,000 Men, Full Cooperation With Germany's Foes
  107. ^ See "World War I" Digital History
  108. ^ David F. Trask, The United States in the Supreme War Council: American War Aims and Inter-Allied Strategy, 1917–1918 (1961).
  109. ^ Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars (1968) ch. 3
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Further reading[edit]


  • Berg, A. Scott. Wilson (2013), a scholarly biography
  • Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009), full-scale scholarly biography
  • Craig, Douglas B. Progressives at War: William G. McAdoo and Newton D. Baker, 1863–1941 (2013).
  • Heckscher, August (1991). Woodrow Wilson. Easton Press. 
  • Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006). excerpt
  • Link, Arthur S. "Woodrow Wilson" in Henry F. Graff ed., The Presidents: A Reference History (2002) pp. 365–388; short scholarly biography
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Wilson: The Road to the White House (1947), first volume of standard biography (to 1917); Wilson: The New Freedom (1956); Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality: 1914–1915 (1960); Wilson: Confusions and Crises: 1915–1916 (1964); Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace: 1916–1917 (1965), the last volume of standard scholarly biography; highly detailed coverage of politics and foreign policy.
  • Shook, Dale N. William G. McAdoo and the Development of National Economic Policy, 1913–1918. (1987).
  • Vandiver, Frank E. Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing – Volume II (1977)
  • Walworth, Arthur (1958). Woodrow Wilson, Volume I, Volume II. Longmans, Green. ; full scale scholarly biography

Scholarly topical studies[edit]

  • Allerfeldt, Kristofer. "Wilson's Views on Immigration and Ethnicity." in A Companion to Woodrow Wilson edited by Robert D. Schulzinger. (2013): 152-172.
  • Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1992), a standard scholarly survey.
  • Grant, Philip A. "World War I: Wilson and Southern Leadership." Presidential Studies Quarterly 6.1/2 (1976): 44-49.
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1982)online, Wide-ranging survey.
  • Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910–1917 (1954) standard political history of the era online
    • many more details appear in Link, Wilson: The New Freedom (1956); Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality: 1914–1915 (1960); Wilson: Confusions and Crises: 1915–1916 (1964); Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace: 1916–1917 (1965).
  • Meyer G.J. The World Remade: America In World War I (2017), popular survey, 672pp
  • Patler, Nicholas. Jim Crow and the Wilson administration: protesting federal segregation in the early twentieth century (2007).
  • Scheiber, Harry N. The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, 1917-1921 (2013). excerpt
  • Venzon, Anne ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (1995), Very thorough coverage.
  • Woodward, David R. The American Army and the First World War (2014)
  • Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America (2013)
  • Young, Ernest William. The Wilson Administration and the Great War (1922) online edition
  • Zieger, Robert H. America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience 2000. 272 pp.

Economics and labor[edit]

  • Brownlee, W. Elliot. "Wilson and Financing the Modern State: The Revenue Act of 1916." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 129.2 (1985): 173-210. in JSTOR
  • Cuff, Robert D. The war industries board: Business-government relations during World War I (1973).
  • Cuff, Robert D. "The politics of labor administration during world war I." Labor History 21.4 (1980): 546-569.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn. "Abortive reform: the Wilson administration and organized labor, 1913-1920." in Work, Community, and Power: The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1900-1925 edited by James E. Cronin and Sirianni, (1983): 197-220.
  • Haig, Robert Murray. “The Revenue Act of 1918,” Political Science Quarterly 34#3 (1919): 369-391. in JSTOR
  • Kester, Randall B. “The War Industries Board, 1917–1918; A Study in Industrial Mobilization,” American Political Science Review 34#4 (1940), pp. 655–84; in JSTOR
  • Paxson, Frederic L. "The American War Government, 1917-1918" American Historical Review 26#1 (1920), pp. 54-76 in JSTOR, free focus on economic mobilization
  • Rockoff, Hugh. "Until it's Over, Over There: The U.S. Economy in World War I," in Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I (2005) pp 310-43. online; online review
  • Sebok, Miklos. "President Wilson and the International Origins of the Federal Reserve System-A Reappraisal." White House Studies 10.4 (2011) pp 425-447.
  • Silber, William L. When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America's Monetary Supremacy (2007).
  • Soule, George. The Prosperity Decade: From War to Depression, 1917–1929 (1947), broad economic history of decade
  • Sutch, Richard C. "Financing the Great War: A Class Tax for the Wealthy, Liberty Bonds for All." (2015). online
  • Sutch, Richard. "The Fed, the Treasury, and the Liberty Bond Campaign–How William Gibbs McAdoo Won World War I." Central Banking in Historical Perspective: One Hundred Years of the Federal Reserve (2014) online; Illustrated with wartime government posters.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. Big steel and the Wilson administration: a study in business-government relations (1969).
  • Williams, William John. The Wilson administration and the shipbuilding crisis of 1917: steel ships and wooden steamers (1992).

Foreign policy[edit]

  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonian Statecraft: Theory and Practice of Liberal Internationalism During World War I (1991).
  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (2002).
  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E. "Woodrow Wilson and World War I" in A Companion to American Foreign Relations, edited by Robert D. Schulzinger. (2003).
  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E., "Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush: Historical Comparisons of Ends and Means in Their Foreign Policies", Diplomatic History, 30 (June 2006), 509–43.
  • Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace (1963) on Paris, 1919
  • Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the great betrayal (1945) on Senate defeat. conclusion-ch 22
  • Bailey, Thomas A. A Diplomatic History of the American People (1980) ch 39-40.
  • Boghardt, Thomas. The Zimmermann telegram: intelligence, diplomacy, and America's entry into World War I (Naval Institute Press, 2012).
  • Clements, Kendrick A. "Woodrow Wilson and World War I." Presidential Studies Quarterly 34.1 (2004): 62-82.
  • Cooper, John Milton, Jr. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001).
  • Dayer, Roberta A. "Strange Bedfellows: JP Morgan & Co., Whitehall and the Wilson Administration during World War I." Business History 18.2 (1976): 127-151.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America's Entry into World War I (2014), historiography.
  • Doerries, Reinhard R. Imperial Challenge: Ambassador Count Bernstorff and German-American Relations, 1908-1917 (1989).
  • Esposito, David M. The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson: American War Aims in World War I. (1996). online
  • Ferns, Nicholas. "Loyal Advisor? Colonel Edward House's Confidential Trips to Europe, 1913–1917." Diplomacy & Statecraft 24.3 (2013): 365-382.
  • Floto, Inga. Colonel House in Paris: A Study of American Policy at the Paris Peace Conference 1919 (Princeton U. Press, 1980)
  • Floyd, Ryan. Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914–December 1915 (Springer, 2013).
  • Gilderhus, Mark T. Diplomacy and Revolution: US-Mexican Relations under Wilson and Carranza (1977).
  • Haglund, David G., and Deanna Soloninka. "Woodrow Wilson Still Fuels Debate on ‘Who Lost Russia?’." Orbis 60.3 (2016): 433-452.
  • Haley, P. Edward. Revolution and intervention: the diplomacy of Taft and Wilson with Mexico, 1910-1917 (1970).
  • Hannigan, Robert E. HanniganThe Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24 ((U of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), online
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House. (2006); scholarly biography
  • Katz, Friedrich. The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (1981).
  • Kendall, Eric M. "Diverging Wilsonianisms: Liberal Internationalism, the Peace Movement, and the Ambiguous Legacy of Woodrow Wilson" (PhD. Dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2012). online 354pp; with bibliography of primary and secondary sources pp 346-54.
  • Kennedy, Ross A. "Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security." Diplomatic History 25.1 (2001): 1-31.
  • Kernek, Sterling J. “Distractions of Peace During War: The Lloyd George Government’s Reactions to Woodrow Wilson, December 1916—November 1918,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 65 (April 1975): 7–27;
  • Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton UP, 1992).
  • Levin Jr., N. Gordon. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America’s Response to War and Revolution (Oxford UP, 1968), New Left approach.
  • Link, Arthur S. Wilson the Diplomatist: A Look at His Major Foreign Policies (1957) online
  • Link, Arthur S.; Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World, 1913–1921 (1982)
  • Neu, Charles E. Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson's Silent Partner (2014); Scholarly biography online review
  • Powaski, Ronald E. "Woodrow Wilson Versus Henry Cabot Lodge: The Battle over the League of Nations, 1918–1920." in Powaski, ed., American Presidential Statecraft : From Isolationism to Internationalism (vol 1. Springer, 2017). 67-111.
  • Quirk, Robert E. An affair of honor: Woodrow Wilson and the occupation of Veracruz (1962). on Mexico
  • Stevenson, David. The First World War and International Politics (1991), Covers the diplomacy of all the major powers.
  • Thompson, John A. "Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Reappraisal." Journal of American Studies 19.03 (1985): 325-348.
  • Trask, David F. The United States in the Supreme War Council: American War Aims and Inter-Allied Strategy, 1917-1918 (1961) online
  • Walworth, Arthur; Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (1986).
  • Woodward, David R. Trial by Friendship: Anglo-American Relations, 1917–1918 (1993).


  • Clements, Kendrick A. "The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the Interpretation of the Wilson Era." History Teacher 27.4 (1994): 475-489. in JSTOR
  • Cooper, John Milton, ed. Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace (2008)
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America's Entry into World War I (2014), historiography.
  • Herring, Pendleton. “Woodrow Wilson: Then and Now.” PS (1974): 256-259 in JSTOR, political science viewpoints
  • Kennedy, Ross A., ed. A Companion to Woodrow Wilson (2013), historiographical essays by scholars
  • Saunders, Robert M. "History, Health and Herons: The Historiography of Woodrow Wilson's Personality and Decision-Making." Presidential Studies Quarterly (1994): 57-77. in JSTOR

Primary sources and year books[edit]

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Wilson Presidency
Succeeded by