The New York Times August 13, 2014
Woodrow Wilson is almost never quoted by name when modern presidents speak, but he remains audible all the same, particularly in the echoes that still reverberate a hundred years after the Great War.
In late May, President Obama spoke at West Point, where he defined America’s place in the world much as Wilson might have — propping up the international order, defending human rights, and walking eternally down the path of virtue. George W. Bush, so different in so many ways, also radiated Wilsonian idealism, even as he claimed to be an un-Wilsonian realist. His second Inaugural Address, drawn straight from the Wilson playbook, declared “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That remains a work in progress.
Wilson did not speak this way when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. At first, he barely mentioned the diplomatic catastrophe unleashed by the assassinations at Sarajevo. On July 27, the day before Austria declared war on Serbia, he gave a press conference, and said meekly, “The United States has never attempted to interfere in European affairs.” Wilson’s silence coincided with a personal crisis of his own. His wife Ellen lay dying that summer, and when one of his daughters asked him about the growing chance of war, he said simply, “I can think of nothing — nothing, when my dear one is suffering.” She expired on Aug. 6, as the war began.
But his silence also reflected astonishment that war was breaking out, against all expectations, in an era that had at least as many clichés about globalization as our own. And it stemmed from an old presidential tradition, soon to be shattered, of avoiding grandiose statements about human betterment. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, specifically urged Americans to steer clear of foreign conflicts. The Monroe Doctrine proposed noninterference by Americans in Europe, as well as the opposite. Theodore Roosevelt advocated for silence as well — his famous adage to speak softly and carry a big stick — even if he did not always achieve it.
Wilson showed no signs of breaking from this tradition, at first. After Sarajevo, he gave a Fourth of July address that never even mentioned the killings a week earlier. Americans seemed to approve. In 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War” was a popular slogan that helped Wilson to eke out victory over his Republican rival, Charles Evans Hughes.
But Wilson’s silence would eventually give way to a different voice, the one that we remember him for. In the spring of 1917, after three horrific years, the world had changed greatly, and so had he. As he brought the United States to the precipice of war, he began to speak in a way that has defined the American presidency ever since. It was not merely that the United States would enter a European theater for the first time, in huge numbers. Wilson also asked that Americans fight to make the world “safe for democracy.” In a sense, he asked the United States to become the world’s judge as well as its sheriff, with an evangelical optimism that has brought both inspiration and exasperation to the 96 percent of the world that is not American.
Earlier presidents had expressed some of these aspirations: Thomas Jefferson proclaimed America the “world’s best hope” in his first inaugural, and Lincoln had often expressed himself likewise, in a language of aspiration. But these remarks expressed only a forlorn wish. They never formed a policy aim, and they fell far short of calling for intervention in Europe, where violations of human rights were as easy to find as the next hillside.
By 1917, Wilson was ready to take that step. He was hardly a natural interventionist. But the war was increasingly affecting American noncombatants, and insulting human rights on an epic scale, with mounting civilian casualties, chemical weapons, and the targeting of neutral vessels.
Accordingly, in the spring of 1917, Wilson began to deliver a stream of public statements that broke his earlier silence, and defined war not so much as a military exercise as an attempt to set the world right. Suddenly, a new language of human rights was being delivered by a president, from something like a pulpit, backed for the first time with the full might of American power.
On Feb. 26, he asked Congress to declare “armed neutrality,” a precursor to war, to defend the world’s “fundamental human rights.” His second inaugural, on March 5, promised to fight for “the principles of a liberated mankind.” In his war message of April 2, Wilson announced that a new age had begun, in which Americans would make the world safe, not only for democracy, but a broad catalog of rights that included freedom of the seas, the independence of small nations, and the right of all nations to unite, to “make the world itself at last free.”
That was a tall order. But since then, we have never stopped marching toward a goal that remains a bit otherworldly. Wilson was an effective messenger in 1917, drawing on his Presbyterianism, his grasp of American history, and his childhood memory of growing up in a region that had recently been occupied by an invading army (inconveniently, that of the United States). In this sense, Wilson’s language of self-determination might be understood as a final legacy of the Civil War.
The language of 1917 proved durable. Without doubt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s messages during World War II were improved by his articulation of the core freedoms Americans were fighting for. The better speeches of the Cold War — John F. Kennedy’s in particular — conveyed a vivid sense of what American values meant to the world. Yet a tone of high moral dudgeon could also weaken a presidential speech, when it proved ineffective, or untethered to economic reality, or borderline delusional — Lyndon Johnson’s insistence that democracy was coming soon to Vietnam, or George W. Bush’s similar predictions for Iraq.
It has become fashionable to criticize Wilson for naïveté as well as self-righteousness. Evangelical statements require some suspension of disbelief, but ultimately, as he learned the hard way, soaring aspirations have a way of crashing back to earth. American forces did join the battle in 1917, and they tipped the balance, giving thrust to Wilson’s promises. But democracy, that catch-all term, proved difficult when he returned home from his European peacemaking efforts in 1919 and tried to enlist a skeptical Congress behind his vision of an improved world order.
At the same time, the words linger, expressive of something elusive that presidents still seek to articulate. As it turned out, a prophecy he made in his Fourth of July speech in 1914 was self-fulfilling: “The most patriotic man, ladies and gentlemen, is sometimes the man who goes in the direction that he thinks right even when he sees half the world against him.” A century later, that is often what American foreign policy feels like, as we reel from one undemocratic place to another, hoping to limit the carnage. To aspire to the best in Wilson’s oratory, while guarding against the worst, feels like a reliable course for a nation still finding its way in a world that has yet to be made safe for anything.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University. He recently edited “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”