Woodrow Wilson’s Tragedy: Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Death


Somerville, MA:  Somerville High School  11/20/13
Somerville, MA: Somerville High School 11/20/13

           I started this post on Wednesday, a brilliant late fall day just as Nov. 22, 1963, was in southern New England.  Like everyone else alive that day, I recall precisely when at school I heard the news, what I did for the next hours.

           The tragedy we understood immediately.  Or, we thought we did.

           We didn’t foresee how it could be magnified by conspiracy theories, fervently advanced and logical to the tiniest detail.  Nor did we understand how the murder in Dallas would begin our evolution into a national security state with leaders cocooned and cosseted, their constituents penned and filmed.  Even in Brookline, the most liberal city in Massachusetts, cameras track every move in Coolidge Corner.


          Another progressive democrat suffered a tragedy that had long-lasting, perhaps ever-lasting effects on the country.  It was of a very different kind from that took away the embattled adonis, John F. Kennedy, or the successful architect of America’s first imperial wars, William McKinley.

          It came to mind as I mined Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen Twenties (1931)[1], among the very best popular histories ever written, for a quotation from Warren Harding for my last post.  I found myself, instead, engrossed in Woodrow Wilson’s desperate effort to gain approval for the League of Nations.

          Then, distracted by an email, I saw Politico’s summary of Bobby Baker’s oral history project in which he evens some scores in games long over, if not forgotten.

          Baker was Lyndon Johnson’s political Mr. Fixit in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Few were the grandees who lacked vices to which Baker didn’t cater or pander.  President Kennedy, for instance, received White House visits from a gorgeous German who was, shortly thereafter, deported on suspicions of spying for the East Germans.

          The more I look at presidents Wilson and Kennedy, the less I find to admire in them.  It does not diminish or cheapen their tragedies nor does it mitigate their consequences.

           Awful things happen to nasty people with terrible consequences for their countries, as they did to King Lear….


           Wilson’s debacle was less Shakespearian than Jamesian.  Like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Woodrow Wilson went to Europe – the first president to leave the country whilst in office – naively confident that his intelligence and the virtue of his views.

          In January 1918, nine months after the US entered World War I and fourteen months after narrowly winning re-election because ‘He Kept Us Out of War’, Wilson had announced his goals for a just peace into The Fourteen Points (devised with advice from 150 American boffins).

          Now in December 1918, a month after the Armistice ended fighting, he’d embarked for the Paris peace conference to make certain it not only ended World War I but produced a lasting peace.


          Wilson’s near total failure in Paris John Maynard Keynes described unforgettably in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920).

The first glance at the President suggested … that he had not much even of that culture of the world which marks M. Clemenceau and Mr. Balfour…. But more serious than this, he was not only insensitive to his surroundings in the external sense, he was not sensitive to his environment at all.[2]

The Old World was tough in wickedness anyhow; the Old World’s heart of stone might blunt the sharpest blade of the bravest knight-errant. But this blind and deaf Don Quixote was entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary.[3]

It was commonly believed at the commencement of the Paris Conference that the President had thought out, with the aid of a large body of advisers, a comprehensive scheme not only for the League of Nations, but for the embodiment of the Fourteen Points in an actual Treaty of Peace. But in fact the President had thought out nothing….  He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive idea whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House.[4]

Thus day after day and week after week he allowed himself to be closeted, unsupported, unadvised, and alone, with men much sharper than himself, in situations of supreme difficulty, where he needed for success every description of resource, fertility, and knowledge. He allowed himself to be drugged by their atmosphere, to discuss on the basis of their plans and of their data, and to be led along their paths.[5]

           After seven grinding, soul-destroying months, Wilson returned to Washington in June 1919, the Versailles Peace Treaty in hand, to find he lacked the votes in the Senate to ratify it.

          With this long prologue, I turn the story of Wilson’s tragedy over to Frederick Lewis Allen and Only Yesterday.  Many have repeated it, but none as tellingly and hauntingly as Allen. 


          Wilson had not discerned that the Armistice had changed everything:

The tide of events, had Wilson but known it, was turning against him. Human nature, the world over, was beginning to show a new side, as it has shown it at the end of every war in history. The compulsion for unity was gone, and division was taking its place. The compulsion for idealism was gone, and realism was in the ascendant.[6]

          Bested in Paris, Wilson faced an awful choice:

          Could he come home to the Senate and the American people and say, in effect: “This Treaty is a pretty bad one in some respects.  …[But] under the circumstances this is about the best we could do and I think the League will make up for the rest”? He could not; he had committed himself to each and every clause….  The drift of events had caught him in a predicament from which there seemed to be but one outlet of escape.  He must go home and vow … that every vital decision had been based on the Fourteen Points, that Clemenceau and Orlando and Lloyd George and the rest had been animated by an overpowering love for humanity, and that the salvation of the world depended on the complete acceptance of the Treaty as the charter of a new and idyllic world order.

          That is what he did; and because the things he said about the Treaty were not true, and he must have known–sometimes, at least–that they were not, the story of Woodrow Wilson from this point on is sheer tragedy. He fell into the pit which is dug for every idealist. Having failed to embody his ideal in fact, he distorted the fact….  He said that if the United States did not come to the aid of mankind by endorsing all that had been done at Paris, the heart of the world would be broken. But the only heart which was broken was his own.[7]


          By late summer 1919, Wilson had recognised the futility of pressing the Senate for ratification.  Though he was exhausted and ill, ‘Woodrow Wilson decided to play his last desperate card. He would go to the people.  He would win them to his cause….’[8]

And so, despite all that those about him could say, he left Washington on September 3rd to undergo the even greater strain of a speaking trip–the preparation and delivery of one or even two speeches a day in huge sweltering auditoriums (and without amplifiers to ease the strain on his voice); the automobile processions through city after city (during which he had to stand up in his car and continuously wave his hat to the crowds); the swarms of reporters, the hand-shaking, the glare of publicity, and the restless sleep of one who travels night in and night out on a swaying train.

Again and again on that long trip of his, Woodrow Wilson painted the picture of the Treaty and the League that lived in his own mind, a picture which bore fainter and fainter resemblance to the reality….  He represented America, and indeed every other country, as thrilling to a new ideal….  Every one of those forty speeches was different from every other, and each was perfectly ordered, beautifully phrased, and thrilling with passion….  Yet each pictured a dream world and a dream Treaty, and instinctively the country knew it. (Perhaps, indeed, there were moments of terrible sanity when, as the President lay sleepless in his private car, he himself knew how far from the truth he had departed.) The expected surge of public opinion toward Wilson’s cause failed to materialize….  On September 24th, the first test vote [in the Senate] went against the President 43 to 40.

On the night of the next day Wilson came to the end of his strength….  After his long speech at Pueblo on the evening of September 25th he could not sleep at all. The train was stopped and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson took a walk together on a country road. When he returned to the train he was feverish….  The next morning when he tried to get up he could hardly stand. The train hurried on toward Washington and all future speaking engagements were canceled. Back to the White House the sick man went. A few days later a cerebral thrombosis partially paralyzed his left side. Another act of the tragedy had come to an end. He had given all he had to the cause, and it had not been enough.[9]


          Worse was yet to come, both for the country and its president.

For weeks Woodrow Wilson lay seriously ill, sometimes unable even to sign documents….  He could not sit up in a chair for over a month, or venture out for a ride in the White House automobile for five months.  During all the rest of his term–which lasted until March 4, 1921, seventeen months after his breakdown–he remained … a sick man lying in bed or sitting in an invalid’s chair, his left side and left leg and left arm partially paralyzed….  He saw almost nobody, transacted only the most imperative business of his office.  The only way of communicating with him was by letter, and as during most of this time all letters must pass through the hands of … the circle of attendants upon the invalid, and few were answered, there was often no way of knowing who was responsible for a failure to answer them or to act in accordance with the suggestions embodied in them.  Sometimes, in fact, it was suspected that it was Mrs. Wilson who was responsible for many a White House decision–that the country was in effect being governed by a regency.[10]


          How different might the country have been had he really ‘kept us out of war’, had he put the peace conference in the hands of experienced diplomats, had he stayed home and managed expectations and politics, not even a genius of the counter-factual could imagine.

          As I wrote the other day, no administration marked more tumultuous times than Woodrow Wilson’s second (1917-21).  Besides World War I and the Versailles Treaty ratification battle, there were:  Prohibition’s start; the influenza pandemic; the Red Scare and dragnet; women voting in federal elections for the first time; a severe post-war recession….  Yet of its 48 months, Wilson was absent or incapacitated for 24.

          Stifled in the vacuum of the president’s deceit, delusion and despair, Wilson’s second term ended the Progressive Era.  This tragic twining of Isabel Archer and King Lear faded away as the country roared in its normalcy.  Few missed him.



          1.  Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday [1931] as reproduced in Only Yesterday & Since Yesterday (New York:  Bonanza Books, 1986).  This is a photo reproduction of the original volume.  The unpaginated text is available at Project Gutenberg Australia.  I am reproducing Allen because he is such a good writer and he makes the story so affecting.  For a superb, very readable, scholarly treatment of Wilson, get my friend, John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

          2. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace [1919] in The End of Laissez-Faire & The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 86.

          3.  Id. p. 83.

          4.  Id., pp. 87-88

          5.  Id., p. 90.

          6.  Allen, op. cit., p. 25.

          7.  Id., pp. 27-28.  Links added.

          8.  Id., p. 32.

          9.  Id., pp. 32-34.

          10.  Id., pp. 34-35.