Five Presidents Who Went to War & Killed Themselves For It: Wilson (Part 3)

Woodrow Wilson and World War I

(this separate article appeared yesterday as part of one which considered William McKinley)

Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and after two terms, a war and a stroke in 1921.

Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and after two terms, a war and a stroke in 1921.

A childhood dominated by the strict inculcation of pre-destiny by his father, a Presbyterian minister, and the deprivation of war which hit his Virginia family during the Civil War are believed to have been the primary factors which drove Woodrow Wilson to lead his nation into its first international war with multiple players, even though it meant breaking a campaign pledge he’d made only months before.

President Wilson reviews troops, 1917. (LC)

President Wilson reviews troops, 1917. (LC)

Unlike McKinley and Lincoln, WIlson had never served in the U.S. armed forces in any capacity but he had seen enough of the ravages of war to know he hated the very idea of it. And paradoxically, it was his vision for peace which led him to war.

While he had a witty sense of humor in the privacy of his family, dominated by three daughters who doted on him, and he had an amorous side preserved in letters to other women, Wilson was a brainy fellow, the sort to check his emotions entirely when dealing with other men on matters of business and politics.

His emotional views about war and his alleged belief that it was his destiny to lead the world to a place where there would be no more was filtered through the rigors of academic thinking and the sheen of scholarship. Wilson studied ancient civilizations and knew about mankind’s tendency to fight.

A cartoon questioning WIlson's intent.

A cartoon questioning WIlson’s intent.

He was philosophical, didactic and scholarly in the presentation of his idea of an ideal world. He summarized it in his famous “Fourteen Points” as president, laying out the basic human rights that citizens all over the world should be granted – even though this conflicted with his intense belief in racial segregation.

Beginning with the assassination of Austria‘s Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian, war broke out in Europe just as President WIlson was grieving over the death of his first wife, First Lady Ellen WIlson. For many months he remained in a deep depression, even showing suicidal tendencies, often marked by blinding headaches and confusion. It masked his condition of cerebral arteriosclerosis, better known as hardening of the arteries. His physician thought the best remedy was helping to encourage his pursuit of a new woman companion to uplift, protect and defend him.

Wilson delivers his war declaration to Congress in April of 1917.

Wilson delivers his war declaration to Congress in April of 1917.

In December of 1915, just fifteen months after his first wife died, he married a second time to the widowed Edith Bolling Galt. She immediately assumed the role of protecting him, even to the point of isolation from many of his long-term trusted aides. As the happier Wilson emerged, he kept fully informed on the European war, but launched his re-election campaign on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”

In his April 4, 1917 call to Congress for a declaration of war, Wilson justified it on the need “to make the world safe for democracy.” Wilson was determined to impose his view of a morale world of democratic ideals of self-government for all nations. He saw the war in Europe as the ideal ground to sow the seeds for this “new world order.”

Soldiers on the muddy battlefields of World War I.

Soldiers on the muddy battlefields of World War I.

As he became more messianic in his vision of this “new world order” Wilson seemed willing to overlook the harsh realities of what it would take to get there.

World War I introduced new weaponry of warfare, with tanks able to crush anything in the way and mustard gas to destroy the breathing capacity of soldiers.

With soldiers, sailors and marines doing the fighting across the ocean this President had little opportunity to visit hospitals of those being rushed into hospitals fresh from the battlefield.

World War I soldiers at the front, in the trenches.

World War I soldiers at the front, in the trenches.

As it was, he made no effort to connect more personally with those who returned to the states hopelessly disabled, especially those whom the French called “the men with the broken faces,” victims of war who had facial features and sometimes an entire portion of their face blown away.

Instead, Wilson stayed in his head, seeing war not in terms of the blood and death he witnessed as a child but the chance to put in place his glowing vision of the way the world should be. “The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the world depends is this,” he said, “Is the present war a struggle for a just secure peace, or only for a new balance of power? There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power: not organized rivalries, but an organized peace.”

Woodrow WIlson arrives in Europe to negotiate a peace treaty which he hoped would lead to his vision of a league of nations.

Woodrow WIlson arrives in Europe to negotiate a peace treaty which he hoped would lead to his vision of a league of nations.

When the armistice was declared in November of 1918, Wilson eagerly sailed the Atlantic to attend the meetings of the Versailles Treaty, the first incumbent President to leave the U.S. He was a powerful force as his made his passionate case for their unity behind his vision of what he called a “League of Nations.”

“This is the Covenant of the League of Nations that you hear objected to, the only possible guarantee against war. I would consider myself recreant to every mother and father, every wife and sweetheart in this country, if I consented to the ending of this war without a guarantee that there would be no other. You say, ‘Is it an absolute guarantee?’ No; there is no absolute guarantee against human passion; but even if it were only ten percent of a guarantee, would not you rather have ten percent guarantee against war than none? If it only creates a presumption that there will not be war, would you not rather have that presumption than live under the certainty that there will be war? For, I tell you, my fellow citizens, I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”

For Wilson this was the crusade he believed he had been destined to lead.

President Wilson and his wife a month before he declared war, in April 1917. (colorized by kylker.com)

President Wilson and his wife a month before he declared war, in April 1917. (colorized by kylker.com)

After observing Wilson’s passionate leadership at the peace talks, economist John Maynard Keynes observed that “Wilson’s thinking about the world and international affairs did not rest upon a secular ideology or definition of national interest. It lay instead in his personal religious faith, a faith so absolute that it determined not only what he thought, but more importantly how he thought.”

As he told the Europeans this had to be “the war to end all wars.”

It was easier convincing the Europeans to agree to his League, however, than his own people.

Wilson out talking to Americans. (LC)

Wilson out talking to Americans. (LC)

Wilson made a national tour by train, convinced that if he explained his vision Americans would follow his lead and lobby their representatives in Washington to ratify the treaty with every single one of his points left intact. He refused to compromise, making numerous speeches every day in the hot sun from the back of his train. He was showing signs of exhaustion and confusion but he refused to take a rest. He was on a crusade.

And he had a stroke.

There is no suggestion that Wilson ever regretted pushing himself to the point of permanently damaging his ability to ever again speak or write clearly.

Woodrow Wilson, nine months after leaving the presidency, riding in a carriage with Edith. (LC)

Woodrow Wilson, nine months after leaving the presidency, riding in a carriage with Edith. (LC)

Many believe he was never able to again think clearly.

Despite strong opposition from Republicans, Wilson came tantalizingly close to having his League approved,  nearly all of his measures kept intact – except for one,  Isolated in a sickroom where the truth about his condition was never released to the public.

His wife Edith served as what she called the “steward” of his presidency. She tried to protect, even coddle him into accepting the near-victory, urging him for the sake of his health and potential recovery to relax and accept the compromise.

He angrily snapped at her that he could never do so. His League of Nations went down in smoke.

Wilson left the White House a broken man. He lived less than three years after his presidency ended.

On several occasions some of the veterans of World War I came to honor him by gathering outside his home in Washington. It had not been until the war was over and Wilson was making his triumphant tour of Europe that he had first come to visit them in hospitals there.


Categories: Edith Wilson, History, Presidential wars, Presidents, The Wilsons, Wartime Presidents, Woodrow Wilson

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7 replies »

  1. The irony is, I think, if Wilson had simply brought U. S. troops home immediately and not tried to involve the U. S. in the League, he wouldn’t have had the problems (health and otherwise) he had.

    • I think you’re right – but it was a catch 22 for him – his vision for a league is what led him to commit US troops and break the “no entanglements” tradition of George Washington. Its almost as if that was more his purpose (a bit egotistical) than the one of helping the Englsh, French and Italians. And it seemed like he was willing to risk his death to do so.

  2. I read several years ago that President Wilson developed significant hypertension and had a first stroke some years before he became president. Do you know if this is true?

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