Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

November 1, 2013 Topics: The PresidencyPolitics Regions: United States

Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

Mini Teaser: From Princeton to the presidency, he never doubted that he was right. He should have—and so should his biographers.

by Author(s): Amity Shlaes

Funding a “Christ’s Army” required enormous sacrifice, as all realized. But what the country could not expect was the autocratic way in which the administration would exact that sacrifice. Wilson and McAdoo settled on a policy of confiscatory taxation and heavy borrowing to fund the conflict. Just years before, when lawmakers had conceived of the income tax, they set the levy at a top rate of 7 percent. Wilson and McAdoo did not hesitate to raise that rate all the way up into the 70 percent range. Their justification for the tax rise was not merely based on expedience but also on morality. “We need not be afraid to tax them, if we lay taxes justly,” he said. Socking it to the wealthy was for their own good as well as the country’s. Once again, he took pleasure from scourging errant sinners.

The presidential son-in-law, for his part, set the total amount to be borrowed in splendidly offhand fashion, which he later described:

I had formed a tentative conclusion as to the amount of the first loan. It ought to be, I thought, three billion dollars. I can hardly tell you how I arrived at the sum of three billions. . . . I am sure that the deciding influence in my mind was not a mass of statistics, but what is commonly caused a “hunch”—a feeling or impression rather than a logical demonstration.

Any protest at such high-handedness risked earning public condemnation from the administration as representing the motives of a low and coarse partisan operator. “Politics is adjourned,” as Wilson loftily told the Sixty-Fifth Congress.

During the war and after the armistice, Wilson turned ever inward, playing solitaire aboard the ship that took him to Paris. After greeting him with a hero’s welcome, France frustrated Wilson. He was disturbed by French leader George Clemenceau’s implacable anti-German stance. Wilson joked that France’s position resembled that of an India rubber ball: “You tried to make an impression but as soon as you moved your finger the ball was as round as ever.” Rather than persevere, Wilson faltered. His principle of self-determination was inconsistently and self-servingly applied at the conference. He returned to America with a new mission, but was unable to execute it, either. Increasingly, and especially through the difficult and vain domestic campaign to win support for his League of Nations, Wilson was afflicted by poor health. As he rasped his way across America on a whistle-stop tour, he sacrificed himself for his faith.

BERG IS admirably alert to Wilson’s debilities, mental and physical. But his smooth professionalism means that he has offered a rather superficial account. For in focusing so diligently on Wilson’s tender psyche and health, he neglects to give attention to the consequences of Wilson’s style or his policies. What is missing, in other words, is an analysis of Wilson as president rather than celebrity or psychiatric case. This is a grave defect in a book seeking to offer a definitive account. For Wilson was not merely weak. He was also, often, just plain wrong.

The error starts on the crucial foreign-policy front. Was U.S. entry into the European war warranted? Most of us believe so, but the case is not really considered by Berg. After the war, Europe desperately needed comity, some sense of international union to preclude a repeat of World War I’s carnage. But that comity could not be enforced if the parties involved, domestic or foreign, were not all in agreement. Wilson antagonized the House and Senate by failing to win their support for his League effort, leaning on Colonel House rather than the House. The president antagonized the Senate in turn by presenting the treaty for ratification as a fait accompli. He thereby doomed what he deemed his own most precious objective.

More importantly, Wilson missed what others easily saw. Without bearable terms for Germany, the League of Nations could not function, and Germany, wounded by the war-guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles, would go to war again. Those who cared not a whit for the feelings of antagonized U.S. senators, the Europeans, discerned this failure most clearly. Wilson, John Maynard Keynes said, “allowed himself to be drugged by their atmosphere” at Versailles. To Wilson, his league mattered more than Germany. The president treated Germany as he had the wayward Princeton student: as an abomination, a pestilence to be expelled from the pristine Wilsonian consciousness. Keynes was shocked and ended up writing a book that prophesied the next war, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Another perceptive observer wrote that Wilson was “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant of the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong.” Perhaps H. L. Mencken, who branded Wilson the “late Messiah” and a “fallen Moses,” captured Wilson’s sententious delusions best: “When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a frenzied pedagogue.”

In the case of domestic policy, the damage created by Wilson’s fecklessness was also not inconsiderable. McAdoo’s relentless fund drive did pay for the war, but also created “economic consequences of the peace” at home. America, then an academic and intellectual backwater, lacked a Keynes to limn those consequences. And Republicans were not eager to appear disloyal. But the consequences were real, starting with a fierce inflation that the Wilson administration never acknowledged. After wartime price controls were lifted, prices shot up by 30–40 percent. Individual businesses made immense fortunes supplying the weapons and goods for Wilson’s crusade, but the general financial markets went on a “capital strike” after the war ended. Taxes were so prohibitive that many companies hesitated to rehire. Unemployment was heading upward, too, past the 10 percent line. In his 1919 State of the Union address, Wilson went so far as to say, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan later would, that tax rates like his own depressed enterprise. But he did not declare the autocratic experiment over. Quite the contrary. In the end the mess Wilson created could only be addressed by a drastic cutting back of government and a severe tightening of interest rates. William P. G. Harding, the head of the Federal Reserve, found himself playing the ugly role Paul Volcker would later hold, doubling interest rates to kill inflationary expectations. This treatment worked: after a year or two, the inflation and joblessness were gone. But the Fed effort, especially, imposed a recession on the nation. One of the casualties of that recession happened to be the haberdasher shop of the man who so admired Wilson, Harry Truman.

Truman never made the connection between Wilson’s arbitrariness and the depression, as they called it then, of the early 1920s. Nor, for that matter, did many others at the time. In a gold-standard era, inflation was so rare that citizens did not recognize the new animal when they saw it. Therefore Wilson was given a pass, even supported, when he rated the high prices as the consequences of war profiteering. Nor was Wilson alone. This monetary misunderstanding begat subsequent errors and losses.

A striking example of such incomprehension came across my desk as I researched my own presidential biography, Coolidge. In 1919, the Boston police force, demanding higher compensation, joined Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor and walked off the job. Chaos ensued in Boston, and the sitting governor of the state, Coolidge, backed up the Boston police commissioner in a decision to fire the strikers. Conservatives strongly admire the Coolidge decision, and many believe that it inspired Ronald Reagan in an equally tough decision he took more than half a century later, the decision to fire the striking air-traffic controllers of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Conservatives also cite the courage of Coolidge in discussions over the pension demands of public workers in Wisconsin or Michigan. The general argument is that Coolidge, and then Reagan, taught public-sector unions a necessary lesson.

Yet a perusal of the details in the Boston case reveals a hidden factor in the Boston police action: inflation. As prices rose following the war, wages did not rise with them, and policemen struggled to pay for their families. In those days, there were no automatic adjustments to wages for changes in the price level. The Housewives’ League wrote the president a letter that grappled with the mysterious price problem, asking him to “reduce the cost of living, which through present prices of bread, meat and corn has become unbearable.” The policemen needed, and wanted, more money. By treating such concerns as mere labor obstreperousness, Coolidge and others ignored a true grievance. Those others included President Wilson, who, after hesitating, came down on the police like a ton of cobblestones, calling their strike “a crime against civilization.” Thus did Wilson hurt the labor movement at the center of his progressive platform.

Pullquote: Does the record of the twenty-eighth president actually warrant superstar status? Or was his record more mixed than his fans acknowledge?Image: Essay Types: Book Review