I find it astonishing that Woodrow Wilson’s reputation as a great president has been revisited only in recent years. For most of the century since his presidency, he’s been regarded as some of a visionary reformer and a liberal internationalist, his name adorning institutions and publications.
In fact, he was a vicious racist, a warmonger and an authoritarian who crushed civil liberties. We are still living with the consequences of World War I, and though he didn’t start it, he supercharged it by getting the United States involved (after pledging he wouldn’t) and grossly mishandling the peace talks.
Now there’s a new book about the Wilson years by Adam Hochschild called “American Midnight.” According to Thomas Meaney’s review in The New York Times, Hochschild deals mainly with Wilson’s campaign of repression. Meaney writes:
By some measures — and certainly in many quarters of the American left — the years 1917-21 have a special place in infamy. The United States during that time saw a swell of patriotic frenzy and political repression rarely rivaled in its history. President Woodrow Wilson’s terror campaign against American radicals, dissidents, immigrants and workers makes the McCarthyism of the 1950s look almost subtle by comparison.
I recommend “The Great War,” part of the PBS “American Experience” series. The three-part program debuted in 2018. You should be able to watch it if you’re a PBS Passport member, which gives you access to all kinds of great programming. We watched it a couple of years ago through the PBS app on Apple TV.
Even without trying to, the documentary makes the case that Wilson was, in fact, among our very worst presidents.