History

Woodrow Wilson's Legacy

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Writing in the Boston Globe, Harvard historian Erez Manela has a very flattering review of John Milton Cooper Jr.'s new biography Woodrow Wilson. In addition to the predictable praise for the failed League of Nations and Wilson's "vision of a liberal international order with the United States at its core," Manela highlights the book's attention to Wilson's progressive legacy, which includes passage of the Federal Reserve Act and a "fight against Wall Street" which Manela says "offers poignant parallels with our own time." But what about Wilson's notorious shortcomings? Manela gives us one paragraph of mild rebuke:

Like many biographers who have spent decades with their subject, Cooper writes with great sympathy for his. He is not, however, an uncritical admirer. He judges Wilson's willful disregard for the rights of African-Americans and his consistent refusal to act against racial violence as the greatest stain on his record as president, rivaled only by his administration's repression of dissent and curtailment of civil liberties during the war years.

Since the Globe gave Manela some 900-words worth of space to review this "deeply, indeed exhaustively researched" biography, it would have been nice to hear a little more about those stains. After all, Wilson's war on dissent was hardly limited to "the war years." Even after the shooting had stopped, Wilson steadfastly refused to pardon the anti-war socialist Eugene Debs, who rotted in prison for three years for the "crime" of criticizing World War I. (President Warren Harding finally set Debs free.) And when it came to the rights of African Americans, Wilson didn't just show a "willful disregard," he waged a sustained attack. As Reason's Charles Paul Freund explained:

Wilson's historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective "Wilsonian," still in use, implies a positive if idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world. Domestically, however, Wilson was a racist retrograde, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks—who were enjoying little of either to begin with….

Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet were disturbed at the way the federal government went about its own business. One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington's large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson's cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.

Wilson allowed various officials to segregate the toilets, cafeterias, and work areas of their departments. One justification involved health: White government workers had to be protected from contagious diseases, especially venereal diseases, that racists imagined were being spread by blacks. In extreme cases, federal officials built separate structures to house black workers. Most black diplomats were replaced by whites; numerous black federal officials in the South were removed from their posts; the local Washington police force and fire department stopped hiring blacks. Wilson's own view, as he expressed it to intimates, was that federal segregation was an act of kindness.