According to Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen, there is strong evidence that Woodrow Wilson was, as opposed to the image of the progressive idealist we are so often given, in fact a vehement white supremacist who pursued highly anti-democratic and even inhumane policies both in America and around the world.
First, let's discuss evidence of his white supremacism, since that seems to be the most popular topic in this node.
Before he became the U.S. president, he was the president of Princeton, the last major northern university that refused to admit black students. He turned away many prospective black students during his tenure, saying that their desire for education was "unwarranted."
During his time as president of the U.S., he was known for telling "darky" stories during cabinet meetings1. After congress thwarted an attempt to establish a legislative program that would curtail the civil rights of blacks, his administration simply pursued its racial agenda through other avenues, using his presidential powers to remove blacks from roles they had traditionally held and preventing black federal employees from using the same bathrooms, cafeterias, and workspaces as white employees. One "justification" offered was that blacks supposedly contracted venereal and other contagious diseases with high frequency, making integration dangerous to the health of whites. According to historian Lawrence J. Friedman, Wilson also rationalized it as a kindness. To one black delegation, he said "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen."2 The benefit, he said, was that blacks working with only a white supervisor would not lose their jobs to their more energetic white counterparts. This was the first time the federal government was segregated since Reconstruction, and it would not become completely re-integrated for over five decades. In Novermber of 1914, a black delegation visited the White House to ask him to reverse his racial policies. In this meeting, he was rude and hostile and ended up practically throwing them out of his office. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Comitte of the RNC said that
"No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the federal government."
There are far more sinister examples than those, however. His racially charged History of the American People was quoted repeatedly in the racist propaganda film "The Birth of a Nation" (which inspired William Simmons to reestablish the Ku Klux Klan)-- which was in turn based on the book "The Clansman" by Wilson's former college classmate and close personal friend, Thomas Dixon. Although Wilson publicly said he did not like the film3, and even called the Ku Klux Klan "obnoxious" and "harmful", he can hardly claim total innocence; at best, he was merely a paternalistic racist who really thought his ways were best for all involved (like those types who genuinely believe that if only the government would remove itself utterly from the affairs of business, no one would go without.) The upsurge in racial violence during his second term, however (lynchings occured as far north as Duluth), may well have been sanctioned by him in the minds of many americans. It's not as though there weren't enough cues: in addition to being quoted repeatedly in the first major american motion picture, his Creel Committee on Public Information saturated the nation with dehumanizing propaganda against both Germans and those resistant to the war effort. The contribution of the Creel Committee to the already growing atmosphere of hatred and intolerance cannot be overstated. There is also the case of his vetoe of a provision on racial equality in the charter of the League of Nations. While it has been suggested that this was an attempt to appease Australia, and indeed if Australia was not resistant to it other political pressures may have overridden Wilson, Australia's racial philosophy was hardly out of line with his own, not to mention his own discriminatory policies could have been threatened if it passed.
Woodrow Wilson also appears to have been a fierce nativist, although his record in this regard appears mixed. Although he attempted to remove opposition to the war within the largely Irish Democratic party by promising Irish-Americans that he would seek independence for Ireland after the war, he would fail to follow through on his promise. In the wake of the Irish-American backlash against this, Wilson accused Irish- and German-American groups of threatening the League of Nations and America with propaganda, saying
"...and I cannot say this too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."
Equally disturbing as his racial policies were his blatant abuses of civil rights. His administration pushed forward what should be the two most infamous pieces of legislation in american history: the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. If your high school history textbook mentioned these at all, then you probably know the name of Eugene V. Debs, a socialist figurehead who was arrested for making an anti-war speech warning potential draftees of the dangers of serving in Europe. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison according to the provisions of the Sedition Act. He remained in prison, languishing, his conviction having been upheld by the Supreme Court, until Warren G. Harding became president. It is from this episode that we get the phrase coined by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (and I paraphrase), "Freedom of speech lets you say whatever you want to, but you can't shout fire in a crowded theater." At least 1,500 people were convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which were prevented from being repealed by Wilson in 1920 and, although significantly scaled back in 1921, still remain part of the U.S. legal code. Wilson also receives undue credit for the development of Women's Suffrage during his administration. In fact, he personally opposed giving women the right to vote, and his wife was vehemently against it. He only stopped opposing it (and having suffragists arrested) after he became convinced that it was politically inexpedient to oppose it.
Now let's go to his military interventions around the world, excepting of course World War I itself.
- Nine different operations in Mexico, beginning in 1914 and continuing throughout Wilson's presidency. These invasions were deeply unpopular, and are likely the cause of Warren G. Harding's landslide victory over Wilson's heir apparent at the end of Wilson's term. Rejecting his claims that they were vital to protect american business interests, american citizens, Congress, and even the warring factions in Mexico's ongoing civil war demanded that the troops be withdrawn
- Marines landed in Haiti in 1915. There, american troops forced the Haitian legislature to elect the preferred american candidate. Haitian peasants were put into shackles and forced to work on road construction crews. After the Haitian legislature refused to declare war on Germany when America did so, it was dissolved, and Haitians were forced to vote for a new, less democratic constitution, which passed by an absurdly large majority. Land was taken away from farmers and gather into large plantations. When the Haitian people tried to resist in the only manner left to them, over 3,000 Haitians were killed in what Marine General George Barnett descirbed as
Practically indiscriminate killing.
- Forces sent to Cuba in 1917. The repeated interventions in Cuban politics from the Spanish-American war onwards would eventually cause Cuba to turn to Communism as the only way to resist american influence. Latin Americans don't named a corrupt form of government after a piece of U.S. legislation for nothing.
- Landed a total of 12,000 troops on the eastern and western coasts of the nascent Soviet Union in 1917. The troops that landed on the east coast penetrated to the Lake Baikal region. This invasion served the dual purpose of trying to prevent the Germans and Bolsheviks from accessing Czarist weapons caches and aiding the
White Russian anti–Bolshevik movement based in Omsk. With american aid, the White Russians managed to extend already bloody Russian Revolution by another two years. By 1920, the White Russians disbanded, and the american troops withdrew. Given that Fascist governments of the sort Stalin introduced require external enemies to justify their existence, it is arguable that this action set the stage for the Cold War by giving Russia proof that America would destroy it if at all possible.
- Maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout his administration. In addition to propping up an unpopular president who was chosen by Banana Baron Samuel Zemurray (see: Banana Republic), and ensuring that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty, benficial to the U.S., was passed, american soldiers put down a rebellion by Benjamin Zeladon, whose dead body was seen by young Augusto Cesar Sandino, who would later start his own rebellion and inspire the still later Sandinista government.
Wilson also intervened in Panama and the Dominican Republic, but I have not found any information pertaining to those events. The majority are contained here.
Clearly, Woodrow Wilson's record is far from flattering. Although he could hardly be considered the most racist president, especially in comparison to his successor, who was inducted into the KKK in the White House, and while he did a great deal of good which cannot be ignored, he set a highly toxic precedent which long outlasted him. In the conflicts he maintained, began, encouraged, or failed to stem, the darker side of his legacy has taken almost a century to pan out, and, if the present generation fails to sufficiently learn the lessons of the past, it will be extended far beyond the human species should be required to bear.
1 I have not been able to verify this, as I have not found it anywhere but in Lies My Teacher Told Me. I included it because there's reason to believe it, and there are reasons not to believe it, so please contact me if you find any information contradicting or supporting this.
3Wikipedia reports that the quotation "It is like writing history with lightning...and yet it is all so true," purportedly uttered by Wilson, was invented by a Hollywood press agent. Although the makers of "The Birth of a Nation," successfully defended the film against charges that it was racially inflammatory in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP using this quotation, giving this some credibility, I'm going with Wikipedia on this one because this is the only mention of any information disputing its origin that I've found.