The first liberal Democratic president took office exactly 100 years ago this spring. So why aren’t contemporary liberals bestowing the same praise on Woodrow Wilson as they lavish on Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson? Granted, if he were running today, Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t win a single Democratic primary and would no doubt be heckled out of the race. Raised in the South, he smiled on Jim Crow and did not object when two of his cabinet appointees re-segregated their departments. A crusading Presbyterian, he vowed to “teach the Latin American republics to elect good men” and dispatched troops to Mexico and Haiti when they didn’t follow his advice. During World War I, he enforced new laws that effectively outlawed most dissent from government policy.
Yet Wilson, together with his allies on Capitol Hill, also laid the foundation for the 20th century liberal state. He signed bills that created the Federal Reserve and progressive income tax rates, secured humane working conditions for merchant seamen and railroad workers, restricted child labor and curbed the power of large corporations. After the U.S. entered the war in Europe, his administration began operating the railroads, lifting the hopes of leftists who had long advocated public ownership of what was then a rich and vital industry.
In 1916, Wilson accepted renomination with a speech that defined political conflict in terms that remain surprisingly fresh. Our programs, he told his fellow Democrats were “resisted at every step by the interests which the Republican Party … catered to and fostered at the expense of the country, and these same interests are now earnestly praying for a reaction which will save their privileges, for the restoration of their sworn friends to power before it is too late to recover what they have lost.” No wonder Glenn Beck and some Tea Party stalwarts have labeled Wilson the “President You Need to Hate.” In their imaginations, Barack Obama is only expanding the monstrous “socialist” programs hatched a century ago.
Despite his academic background and cerebral image, Wilson, like Obama now, was a masterful orator. Unlike nearly all his predecessors, he thought the public deserved to hear their elected leader explain, in a variety of venues, what he was doing and why. So he was the first president to speak to joint sessions of Congress, the first to hold regular press conferences, the first to address a labor convention and the first to speak to an audience of newly naturalized citizens. Just after the Great War ended, Wilson, who had proclaimed the dawn of a new age of democracy and self-determination, also became the first president to travel across the Atlantic, where huge throngs praised him as the “Champion of the Rights of Man.”
FDR got his own start in national politics as an ardent Wilsonian. He faithfully advanced his boss’s objectives as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in what was then a key cabinet department. As his party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1920, he defended Wilson’s domestic achievements against Republican vows to “return to normalcy.” Then, of course, the Great Depression gave Roosevelt the opportunity to expand the welfare state far beyond what his predecessor, with his anti-corporate agenda, had imagined.
But, as president, the sainted Roosevelt was hardly without flaws. He let Southern Democrats exclude domestic and agricultural workers from Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, leaving most blacks and Mexican-Americans dependent on white employers and local charity. He supported big cuts in federal spending in 1937, which did much to cause a “Roosevelt Recession” that enabled Republicans to make big gains in the next midterm election. Liberals would not control Congress again for another quarter-century. During World War II, FDR confined 110,000 Japanese-American citizens in spartan rural camps, while leaving their German-American counterparts free from harm. He also might have been more suspicious of Stalin’s postwar designs on Eastern Europe. When Lyndon Johnson came into office, he made no secret of his ambition to be as great a liberal president as FDR—if not greater. What he accomplished, backed by huge Democratic majorities in Congress, to advance civil rights, Medicare, immigration reform, anti-poverty, and education spending exceeded what Roosevelt had attempted—although taking over from the martyred Kennedy certainly helped. For Bill Clinton and many other Democrats, this, not the Vietnam debacle, is the LBJ they want us to remember.
But Johnson’s fateful decision to turn the Indochina conflict into an American war did not just result in a moral debacle; more than any other factor, it brought an end to the half-century of liberal power Wilson had initiated. Before he became president, LBJ regarded foreign policy as a frustrating endeavor, immune to his prodigious political talents. Like Wilson, he was reluctant to throw hundreds of thousands of men into a conflict the U.S. had not started and which would be difficult to conclude on terms that might further the national interest and “make the world safe for democracy.” Once Johnson made that commitment, he worried less about the human toll—on millions of Vietnamese and thousands of Americans—than about how it was jeopardizing the programs of his real concern, the Great Society he wanted to build at home.
Wilson, in contrast, believed passionately in the dream of a new international order; it had inspired him to lead the country into what was, after all, a war of choice. He bet that a massive army and compelling ideals would cleanse the world of autocracy, empire, and, with the new League of Nations, perhaps even war itself. Yet Wilson famously lost that bet—as the other victorious Allies retained their colonies, the Senate voted against the U.S. joining the League, and the lethal movements of fascism and Communism emerged from the ashes.
That great failure was the last public act of Wilson’s life. It tarnished his reputation for years to come and is still the primary reason why he gets no love from liberals today. More than his dour demeanor, his excessive moralism, or his paternalistic racism, it demonstrates the peril of thinking that a war made by Americans can magically turn the world from the darkness of oppression toward the light of tolerance and democracy. Having gained the presidency as a critic of the disaster in Iraq, Barack Obama, another former academic, seems to grasp that truth. For that, at least, liberals should applaud him.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University. His latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.