Image: Woodrow Wilson, c. mid-1870s. Public domain. Paris Peace Conference
League of Nations
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine
Treaty of Trianon
Treaty of Sèvres. Wilson,
by A. Scott Berg. Scott Berg traces the rise of Woodrow Wilson, his decline and 'the greatest conspiracy that had ever engulfed the White House.'
Until he was 55, he had never run for public office. Indeed, he was merely the silver-tongued head of a small university campus in a quiet New Jersey town. Two years later, in November 1912, after less than two years' (658 days') public service, he was elected to the White House.
Woodrow Wilson's extraordinary story now becomes historic. Within five years, he would be the first American president to send US troops to war in the Old World, a decision that inaugurated the American century. As hostilities ended, Wilson became the international champion of those who hoped that "the war to end all wars" would be matched by an equally comprehensive peace. It was Wilson's hope that this dream should be moderated by a global peacemaker, the League of Nations. How this vision was frustrated is a tragedy for which the 28th president holds a profound responsibility.
At the opening of the Paris peace conference in 1919, even Wilson's most severe critics conceded his mastery of the world stage. JM Keynes, who eviscerated Wilson with his Economic Consequences of the Peace
, remarked that "he enjoyed a prestige and moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history". The unprecedented adulation of Wilson makes uncomfortable reading. "No such an evangel [sic] of peace," enthused Herbert Hoover, "had appeared since Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount." But Wilson's presidency became first a disaster, and ultimately a bizarre personal tragedy whose horror has never, until now, been fully reported. Scott Berg
, the distinguished biographer of Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn and Maxwell Perkins, deals briskly with Wilson's pre-political career and the preamble to the Paris peace conference, well-travelled ground. He does not add much that we did not already know, but it's a classic American story.
"Tommy" Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856correct to a Scots-Irish Presbyterian family. The young man, says Berg, was "indelibly scarred" by the civil war and, inspired by his father, devoted himself to getting a place at Princeton. He stormed through his education, winning a reputation as an undergraduate debater. Thereafter, he became a lawyer with an eye on a political career, fell in love and married a childhood sweetheart, Ellen Axson, returning to Princeton
, to lecture, aged 34.
Like Barack Obama
, whose career Wilson mirrors, his rapid rise was attributable to some brilliant speeches. In 1902, he became president of Princeton and embarked on a drastic programme of reform – the college was little more than a gentleman's club – that put him at the forefront of American national consciousness. His admirers were dazzled by his oratory and charm. He attracted the attention of Democratic party kingmakers, and in 1910 was invited to run for the governorship of New Jersey. Tommy Wilson was about to step into history. Two years later, in a messy national election campaign, he became the Democratic party
standard-bearer and arrived in the White House in November 1912. Within two years, the world was at war. Wilson, tragically widowed in the summer of 1914, had remarried, to the formidable Edith Bolling Galt. Just four years later, the president and his wife were making that momentous crossing to Paris to negotiate the peace of the world.
Back home – shades of Obama – Wilson's Republican
opponents plotted to destroy whatever peace treaty he brought back. For his part, Wilson played into the hands of his enemies, becoming obsessed with "nothing less than a world settlement". While the negotiations dragged on, Wilson aged visibly. On the basis of the medical record, Berg identifies the symptoms of at least one minor stroke. By the time Wilson returned to the White House in July 1919, he was losing his memory and his powers of oratory. "I know I am at the end of my tether," he confessed.
Determined to campaign for the ratification of the treaty across the US, he embarked on a barnstorming train journey that became a kind of death march. In Los Angeles, he addressed record crowds of 200,000, but, in private, he was having a breakdown. "I seem to have gone to pieces," he said. Eventually, Wilson abandoned his campaign, and was rushed back to Washington, a broken man. On the night of 2 October 1919, Edith Wilson found the leader of the free world on the bathroom floor, unconscious.
What followed is the extraordinary climax to an astonishing tale, narrated with moving efficiency and precision by Scott Berg. With Wilson paralysed on his left side, and looking "as if he were dead", according to one insider, the White House went into lockdown. The order of the day – unthinkable now – was "no details, no explanations". Edith Wilson took over, orchestrating what Berg calls "the greatest conspiracy that had ever engulfed the White House".
Incredibly, not even the Veep (Thomas Marshall) was fully informed. For the first month no one saw the president, who, unshaved, grew a long white beard. The all-important Versailles treaty languished as badly as its architect. By early 1920, with Wilson still bedridden and inarticulate, the treaty was defunct, and the inter-war tragedy had begun. Wilson reportedly whispered: "If I were not a Christian, I should go mad." In the fall of 1920, still barely able to function, he watched his Democratic party trounced by the Republican forces of Warren Harding. Three years later, Wilson was dead, having uttered his farewell to history: "I am a broken piece of machinery." Rarely did politics mete out a crueller fate.