A Look Back at Woodrow Wilson

As with all presidents the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson continue to be debated long after his death. He is particularly known for entering America into World War I and his intricate involvement with the development of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. It is for historians to discuss the success or perhaps lack of success of Wilson’s presidency.

However, there is no doubt that events that unfolded during his time continue to impact on America and the world even today   Some would suggest that the outcome of World War I led either directly or indirectly to World War II. In addition there were the social reforms Wilson believed in and which he strived for during his time in the White House.  

America’s Entry into World War I

At the time of the outbreak of World War I President Wilson was engaged in both personal and political difficulties. The death of his first wife Ellen in 1914 led to a period of mourning for the president. In addition he needed to navigate the political waters carefully as he was up for re-election in 1916. Wilson needed to carefully consider whether or not to enter the war. In that same year he addressed the 63rd session of Congress in which he declared the country’s neutrality. “The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as 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.”

However, despite Wilson’s declaration of neutrality the U.S. would eventually enter the war. Events that sent America into the war began on February 4, 1915 when Germany declared the waters around the British aisles open for submarine warfare. Although only a small percentage of ships in those waters were American, Wilson nevertheless took it as a threat to the country’s interests. He subsequently warned Germany that any attacks on American ships would be considered a violation of American neutrality (Brewer   2007,   52).  

Wilson continued to pursue a course of what he termed ‘balanced neutrality’. Eventually he decided that Germany posed a far greater threat to America than the Allies or anyone else. The American public which had been largely against the war began to change its opinion. “The American League for the Limitation of Armaments gave way to the League to Enforce Peace. Anti-war sentiment and anti-militarism now became a theme entirely dominated by leftist groups associated with the suffragists and radicals.” By the time the 1916 election was in full swing, Wilson’s re-election was based on the fact that he had kept America out of the war.   That promise was not to be kept as Wilson attended a meeting with his key advisors on February 24, 1916 with the specific intent to gain their support to enter the war (Brewer   54).  

Although he did not gain support that day, events would soon lead America to war. Two key events would highly influence Wilson’s decision. First, Germany publicly announced that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram. The latter contained “…the laughable proposal by the German foreign minister to a Mexico torn apart by civil war, of a return of territory lost to the United States in 1848 in the event of a German victory.” (Brewer   56). March 21, 1916 proved to be the turning point as it was on that day that Wilson announced his intention to enter America into the war. There is no doubt that Wilson agonized over America’s entry into World War I. Although he saw it as a necessity, he found himself in deep conflict with his own personal beliefs as exemplified by the words he spoke before Congress.  

Once the declaration for war was made the Americans for the most part stood behind their president. In the first month and a half after the war declaration was made, over 73,000 Americans volunteered (Brewer   57) and the country was fortunate to be involved in a quick victory.  

Woodrow Wilson, the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations

In January 1919 the Peace Conference in Paris served as the foundation for the establishment of the League of Nations. Peace was an issue that was very close to the president’s heart. Even though he allowed America to become involved in World War I, he did so very late into the war and only when he deemed it absolutely necessary. Wilson’s interest in the development of a League of Nations was laid out in a speech he made in 1918 which has come to be called ‘The Fourteen Points.’   The basics of these fourteen points were set out as follows: open covenants of peace, freedom to navigate open waters, removal of trade barriers (equality of trade), reduction of national armament levels, impartial adjustment of colonial claims, evacuation of all Russian territory, evacuation and restoration of Belgian territory, freedom and restoration for French territory, readjustment of Italian boundaries, freedom for the people of Austria-Hungary, evacuation of Serbia, Montenegro and Rumania, secure sovereignty for the Turkish portions of the Ottoman Empire, an independent Poland and a general association of nations to guarantee political independence.

It is obvious from these points and his deep and abiding commitment to the League of Nations that Woodrow Wilson believed deeply in the concept that nations working together could secure world peace. He also believed very strongly in the process of mediation and negotiation as a means of resolving differences between nations. The fourteen points represent Wilson’s contribution to the development of a world organization that could and would be devoted to international peace and negotiations. Wilson could well be described as an idealist. The prelude to his fourteen points reads as follows:  

It will be our wish and purpose that the processes of peace, when they are begun, shall be absolutely open and that they shall involve and permit henceforth no secret understandings of any kind.   The day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by; so is also the day of secret covenants entered into in the interest of particular governments and likely at some unlooked-for moment to upset the peace of the world.

Through his involvement in the League of Nations, Wilson secured not only a role of international leadership for himself but for America as well. In some ways, the League could be described as a personal journey and goal for Wilson. He absolutely believed that war could be avoided if nations banded together and worked diligently on behalf of peace. Wilson’s devotion to this endeavor provides us with a view into his personal interpretations of democracy and the commitments necessary to keep the world safe. As part of the development of the League of Nations, Wilson was also involved in the creation and signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Some have suggested that the treaty was so damaging to Germany that it ultimately led to World War II. In addition, some criticized President Wilson’s involvement in the treaty as being a violation of the principles he laid out in his fourteen points.  

Although Wilson was devoted to the Versailles Treaty, Americans were not. Wilson gave his best efforts to try and persuade the Senate of its importance but the Senate did not agree with him and rejected it in a vote that took place in 1918. The president’s devotion to the treaty would prove to be his undoing as he suffered a massive stroke during a national tour to convince the American people of its importance.  

Woodrow Wilson: A Tragic Figure?  

Ultimately, it is the decision of history as to whether a not a president is successful during his term(s). We often do not see the full ramifications of a president’s actions until longer the presidency has ended. As noted above, the Treaty of Versailles which Wilson played a strong role in developing and promoting hit Germany very hard in the aftermath of World War I. Hitler was able to promote national sentiment in Germany over the treaty and raged in his public speeches about the treat as an insult. The German people obviously agreed with Hitler as it was a rallying call in the months preceding World War II.   Of course Wilson and his colleagues could not have possibly known the events that would take place in Germany. However it is interesting to note that the U.S. Senate did not support the treaty and thus there may have been those who saw it as a dangerous document.  

Wilson’s involvement in the League of Nations will probably be the endeavor he is most remembered for rather than eventually leading America into World War I.   The late Herbert Hoover was a colleague and friend of Wilson. He remembers him in his own memoirs and his involvement in the reconstruction of Europe after World War I.   Hoover recalls that irrespective of the criticisms laid on Wilson he was deeply devoted to the notion of world peace and a person who was committed to strong ideals.   “He frequently has been described as obstinate. In my view this was not true. His mind ran to moral principles, justice and right. In them he held deep convictions” (Hoover   1958).

Hoover goes on to describe Wilson as a leader who was reluctant to enter the war and saw it as a violation of his own personal principles. He goes on to describe Wilson in the following way: “The trouble into which he fell with these principles and ideals lay in their conflict with the age-old concepts and aims of nations in Europe. In these conflicts he was at times compelled to choose the lesser of evils. But he was slow to budge. He was not a snob but he had little patience with small minds” (Hoover 1958). To Hoover, Wilson believed in the fourteen points as a prelude for world peace. He did not do so in an arrogant way but rather as an idealist, as one who believed that with the right intentions, nations could live in peace together. In Hoover’s opinion, the fourteen points could have been an international triumph, although they were not.  

Hoover explains that although the fourteen points were, in principle, a brilliant concept, they were not accepted as such by Europe. For all his eloquent speeches, the Europeans saw Wilson as someone who was meddling in their affairs. “Mr. Wilson was a menacing intruder in the concepts of British, French and Italian statesmen and a threat to their secret treaties dividing all Europe” (Hoover   1958).   Hoover concludes that although Wilson was a brilliant man, he did not completely understand the dynamics of European relations and was too highly entrenched in his idealistic beliefs. In addition to European suspicion, Wilson now had to face the growing face of Communism. The revolution in Russia had transformed the country into a Communist force and would grow into the Soviet Union. “Communist Russia was a specter which wandered into the Peace Conference almost daily. There was no unity among the Big Four on how to deal with it” (Hoover   1958).   However, Hoover goes on to state that there was in fact pressure on the U.S. to join in a possible attack on Communist Russia, a plan Wilson disagreed with.

Hoover states that Wilson’s difficult relations with European allies was a dominant force in his later life and one that left him a rather tragic individual. “There can be no doubt that, despite his efforts to ignore them, these emotions contributed greatly to his many ordeals and to his final tragedy” (Hoover   1958). In his conclusion on Wilson’s legacy he suggests that Wilson sought to do more than he was capable of. He hoped to bring nations together in the pursuit of peace.  

Even though the League of Nations was formed there was a great deal of enmity towards him in Europe and this ultimately affected him in America. The ultimate price that Wilson paid was with his own health. His devotion to the notion and principle of the League of Nations and the Versailles Treaty took more out of him than he had to give. Upon his arrival back home he predicted (to Hoover) the coming of another world war. He crusaded passionately for international peace but the treaty which he fought so diligently for ultimately became the rallying call for another world war, which as noted above, he himself predicted. His legacy will continue to be debated. The irony of being a president is they are often less understood within their own lifetime.


Brewer, Paul.   “The Journey to War: Woodrow Wilson and American Pacifism.” History Today 57 no. 9 (2007): 49-57.  

Clements, Kendrick A.   “Woodrow Wilson and World War I.”   Presidential Studies Quarterly   34   no. 1 (2004):   62-73.  

First World War. “Who’s Who: Woodrow Wilson”.  http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/wilson.htm (accessed April 13, 2008).


Hoover, Herbert. “Herbert Hoover Describes the Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson.” American Heritage Magazine 9 no. 4   (1958):  http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1958/4/1958_4_65_print.shtml (accessed April 13, 2008).

Lynn, Kenneth S.   “The Hidden Agony of Woodrow Wilson.”   The Wilson Quarterly 28 no. 1 (2004):   59-84.  

The White House Archives. “Woodrow Wilson.”  http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ww28.html (accessed April 13, 2008).  


Wilson, Woodrow. “President Wilson’s Declaration of Neutrality.” Message to Congress, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess., Senate Doc. No. 566 (Washington, 1914), pp. 3-4.The World War I Document Archive,  http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson%27s_Declaration_of_Neutrality (accessed April 13, 2008).  

Wilson, Woodrow. “Wilson’s War Message to Congress.” War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917; pp. 3-8, passim. The World War I Document Archive,  http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson%27s_War_Message_to_Congress (accessed April 13, 2008).  

Wilson, Woodrow. “Wilson’s Fourteen Points.” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, January 8, 1918,  http://www.woodrowwilson.org/learn_sub/learn_sub_show.htm?doc_id=377217 (accessed April 13, 2008).  


 World War I Archives, “President Woodrow Wilson’s speech before the 63rd Congress 2nd Session “ (Washington, 1914),    http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson%27s_Declaration_of_Neutrality.

 Paul Brewer,   “The Journey to War: Woodrow Wilson and American Pacifism.” History Today 57   (2007):   49-57.  

 Woodrow Wilson, “Wilson’s Fourteen PointsThe Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library ” (January 8,1918).    http://www.woodrowwilson.org/learn_sub/learn_sub_show.htm?doc_id=377217   (accessed April 13, 2008).


 The White House Archives, “Biography of Woodrow Wilson”    http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ww28.html (accessed April 13, 2008).  

 Kendrick A. Clements, “Woodrow Wilson and World War I” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34   (2004):   64.   “On February 4, 1915, the Imperial German government announced the establishment of a war zone in the waters surrounding the British Isles. (1) In that zone, German submarines would sink Allied ships on sight, and because the Allies frequently used neutral flags to disguise their ships, the Germans warned that neutral ships might also be in danger and would be wise to avoid the zone. The announcement was a direct challenge to the Allies’ economic lifeline, but it was scarcely less a threat to neutrals like the United States, for whom trade with the Allies had become an economic necessity.”

 Paul Brewer, “The Journey to War: Woodrow Wilson and American Pacifism.” History Today 57   (2007):   54. “It is clear, however, is that Woodrow Wilson won the extremely close 1916 election largely on the basis of the slogan, arising out of a chant by the crowd at the nominating convention in June, that ‘he kept us out of war’. It may not have been his deepest wish.”

 Paul Brewer, “The Journey to War: Woodrow Wilson and American Pacifism.” History Today 57   (2007):   49-57. Considerable effort was devoted to selling the war to Americans, via the Committee on Public Information that reinforced the long-standing British propaganda campaign in the country.  

 The full text of his speech before Congress can be read here: “Wilson’s War Message to Congress” (April 2, 1917)    http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson%27s_War_Message_to_Congress. (accessed April 13, 2008).  

 Controversial even today, it is often argued that the punitive terms of the treaty supported the rise of the Nazis and the Third Reich in 1930s Germany, which in turn led to the outbreak of World War II. The Versailles treaty deprived Germany of around 13.5% of its 1914 territory (some seven million people) and all of its overseas possessions.   Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France, and Belgium was enlarged in the east with the addition of the formerly German border areas of Eupen and Malmedy. Primary Documents: Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919, First World War Archives (October 28, 2001)    http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/versailles.htm (accessed April 13, 2008).


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