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Summary Article: Wilson, Woodrow
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

Twenty-eighth president of the United States (1913–1921), Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856, and died in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1924. The son of a Presbyterian minister whose Christian teachings deeply influenced him, Wilson was the first president to be elected from the South since the Civil War. Previously, he had been a founder of the academic discipline of political science, president of Princeton University (1902–1910), and governor of New Jersey (1911–1913).

Elected president in 1912 with forty-two percent of the vote in a three-way contest with William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson campaigned on a bold set of political and economic reforms that he called “the New Freedom.” Wilson's thirteen positions were hallmarks of the Progressive Era that centered on economic reform through stronger presidential leadership relative to the Congress and an expanded authority for the federal government. A tariff reform bill, the first income tax, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and antitrust legislation were the considerable achievements of his first two years in office. In later years additional economic reforms set the basis within the Democratic Party for the kind of progressive social and economic legislation that would eventually become the New Deal.

While Wilson had not anticipated that foreign affairs would be an important part of his presidency, the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 brought the United States onto the world stage. Wilson had already intervened in the Mexican Revolution (an involvement that was not to end until January 1917) and undertaken the occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But it was the part Washington played in efforts to end the European conflict, leading to an American role in the war itself in April 1917, that made Wilson the most important figure in world politics in the settlement that followed.

Wilson's concept of a stable and just world order constituted the first time an American president had stepped forth with a grand design for world affairs. His proposals can be summarized in four arguments. First, “balance of power” politics had to be replaced by a concept of “collective security” to preserve the peace through combined action against belligerent states. The League of Nations was to be the institutional embodiment of this concept. Second, liberal democratic states created by national self-determination were the best building blocks of international order. Wilson saw such governments as inherently more peace-loving and cooperative than any other regime type, and so he promoted the growth of democracy in defeated Germany and in the various countries of Eastern Europe liberated by the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. He held out particular hope that a “peace without victory” over a democratic Germany would lead to Franco-German reconciliation and peace in Europe. Third, Wilson believed that free trade would lessen animosity among states. The president harked back to nineteenth-century British notions of a world economic order based on openness and reciprocity. Finally, Wilson insisted that the United States must take the lead in the new world order he was proposing by vigorously participating in foreign relations.

While these four propositions for world order did little to stem the anarchy of the interwar years, and in any case are open to manifold interpretations when it comes to policy-making, Wilson's grand design was powerful enough to make him the only American president whose name became an “ism” in foreign policy. In academic usage, “Wilsonianism” is often also called “liberalism” or “liberal democratic internationalism.”

In the aftermath of World War II, presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman adopted a host of essentially Wilsonian ideas. During the cold war, and in the years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, elements of Wilsonianism resurfaced in U.S. foreign policy. Examples include President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, President Jimmy Carter's campaign for human rights, and President Ronald Reagan's insistence that democratic government and open markets were essential frameworks for world order. Under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, Wilsonianism was evident in the promotion of human rights and democratic governments abroad as well as in efforts to create a global economic system based on liberal concepts of free trade and investment.

President Woodrow Wilson. 1917. John Singer Sargent, artist. National Gallery of Ireland.

Woodrow Wilson with the American Peace Commission in Paris to negotiate the Versailles Treaty. 1919. National Archives and Records Administration.

  • The most prolific author on Woodrow Wilson has been Arthur S. Link, with some twenty volumes. Link also edited the sixty-nine-volume annotated Papers of Woodrow Wilson.
  • Cooper, John Milton Jr., ed., Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2008).
  • Cooper, John Milton Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (Knopf 2009).
  • Ikenberry, G. John, et al., The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Univ. Press 2009).
  • Kennedy, Ross A., The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America's Strategy for Peace and Security (Kent State Univ. Press 2009).
  • Knock, Thomas J., To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Oxford 1992).
  • Maynard, W. Barksdale, Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (Yale Univ. Press 2008).
  • Pearlmutter, Amos, Making the World Safe for Democracy: A Century of Wilsonianism and Its Totalitarian Challengers (Univ. of N.C. Press 1997).
  • Pestritto, Ronald J., Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield 2005).
  • Smith, Tony, America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton Univ. Press 1994).
  • Tony Smith
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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