Woodrow Wilson : a biography

by John Milton Cooper

Hardcover, 2009




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.


Evaluates the parallel worlds of the twenty-eighth president's personal and political arenas, examining his World War I leadership, his failed efforts to bring the United States into the League of Nations, and his contributions toward the creation of the United Nations.

Media reviews

Cooper presents a powerful, deeply researched and highly readable case for keeping Wilson in the top ranks of American presidents, even if history might be better served by doing away with the contest altogether.

User reviews

LibraryThing member porch_reader
This is a very complete biography of Woodrow Wilson, and although it took me a while to finish, I really enjoyed this book.

First of all, Wilson's story is a fascinating one. Before entering politics, Wilson was a political scholar and the president of Princeton University. He was elected President of the United States in 1912, defeating the incumbent William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. His early years in office were marked by a focus on domestic legislation that advanced the Progressive cause. His first term was marred by the death of his wife Ellen. Just over a year later, he married Edith Gault. Although Wilson tried to maintain the U.S.'s neutrality, in 1917 the U.S. entered World War I. After World War I, Wilson traveled to Paris to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty that would prevent future wars. He advocated for a League of Nations. However, as he was traveling through the U.S. to gain support for the treaty, he suffered a stroke. Although he remained in office until the end of his term, Wilson's power was diminished, and the peace treaty was not ratified by Congress. Three years after leaving office, Wilson died and was buried in the basement of the future Washington National Cathedral.

With such an eventful presidency, it's hard to imagine a biography of Wilson that wouldn't be fascinating. Cooper did a good job of provide detail and context for the major events of Wilson's life. He pays special attention to Wilson's relationships with a number of close aides and with his wife, Edith, who was very involved in political affairs, especially after Wilson's stroke. At times, Cooper contrasts his generally favorable point-of-view of Wilson with less favorable portrayals by others scholars. It might have been nice to see more support for these conclusions. But this is a minor issue. Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a complete look at the life of this fascinating President.
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LibraryThing member mjgrogan
Embarrassingly here are the new things I learned from this 600 page book that I’ll likely retain five years hence:

• The ex-president used to go by his birth name of Tommy Wilson.
• He was a big baseball fan. Obviously before the Houston Astros ruined the sport for many of us.
• He almost took his first academic post at the University of Arkansas before they rescinded the offer! (way to go Hogs…or Cardinals or whatever you were called in those days)

If anyone’s still with me, the most important aspect of Cooper’s biography is that it serves to balance the divergent viewpoints about Wilson that followed his presidency. The author readily acknowledges the camp that vilifies Tommy as a racist war-mongerer who’s actions – or in the case of civil rights, inactions – inexorably led to the Cold War, World War Zwei, and ill guided Birmingham fire hoses. This happens to be a camp – seemingly following no particular partisan line – that has authored all the books mentioning Wilson I’ve read of late. At least from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t know any better, I found Cooper’s narrative to be successful in this regard.

The structure is predictably chronological but I never got the sense of being bogged down in some particular time frame/event. I’ll stop short of saying that I didn’t occasionally desire a nap while reading this sizeable tome. In fact the only reason I got through the last 200 pages in two evenings is that my library due date was upon me and I can no longer entertain the thought of standing in a lengthy, angst-filled line to pay a 15 cent library late fee to an anti-social miscreant. (No offense to libraries in general but at Boston’s Central Public Library they apparently only hire surprisingly unhelpful misanthropes to handle all public interactions). The whole, if you will, story flows well from his pre-Confederate birth to his final, incapacitated days attempting that lawyer thing again.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a nice and interesting biography, I learned a lot about this man, it is well written. puts wilson in the context of the cultural ot the age
LibraryThing member zen_923
An excellent biography of Woodrow Wilson, this book is well-researched and easily understood. It provides an outstanding narration of the people, the places and the events that shaped Woodrow Wilson's personality and decisions. I would have wanted the author, however, to have put more depth in his narration and analysis of Woodrow Wilson as the war president and as the Versailles Treaty negotiator. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in 28th President of the U.S.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Wilson is a man of contradictions. A racist who advocated for women's suffrage and arguable opposed Prohibition, a reformer and a devout Presbyterian, an idealist and opportunist in equal measure. This biography clears up a lot about his life.

A necessary and very helpful book, about an all-too-human president.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevesmits
A popular contemporary conception of Woodrow Wilson is that he was a largely successful president whose term ended in failure by his quixotic quest for Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles and American entry into the League of Nations. He is viewed by some today as an academician and theoretical visionary whose skills as a politician were not particularly strong. There is also the image that he was completely invalided by a stroke suffered in 1919 and that the remainder of his term was carried out through the shadow presidency of his wife and advisors.

Cooper's book provides a comprehensive analysis of this remarkable man. Some impressions we hold are supported but given much more depth by Cooper's thoughtful portrayal of this complex figure; others are shown to be misjudgments, or at least shallow.

Wilson was the most highly educated president in our history. His understanding of political systems was scholarly and informed his views and actions as a political leader. He was a student of Edmund Burke and accepted Burke's view that political dynamics were matters of behavior and actions more than institutions. Wilson was a strong proponent of political parties and the salutary effects of parties on shaping political discourse in national events. His early writing on congressional government was (and is) considered to be a brilliant exposition on the nature of, and weaknesses of, our system of separation of powers. He was particularly critical of the congressional committee system which gave inordinate control of matters to a few people whose motives often did not match the national interest. While Wilson was genuinely a scholar, he was also a university administrator. Cooper points out that managing university politics provided meaningful experience to Wilson in his considerable political adroitness shown later in elective offices. Wilson attempted to transform Princeton, where he was president, into a more academically rigorous institution and his maneuvering presaged his skills as a traditional politician.

Wilson was governor of New Jersey for only two years before ascending to the presidency. Here he showed his abilities in governing in a state thad been dominated by political bosses and hack politicians.

As president, Wilson took a path of progressivism and reform that was extant in the public domain of that era. In working to achieve his agenda, he was far from being an ivory tower theorist in his dealings with political allies and opponents. It was remarkable to see, especially in our time of gridlock, how skillfully he worked with both parties in congress to achieve policy outcomes. One of his two great blind spots, however, was on race relations. One must conclude that Wilson was at best indifferent to racial equality and fairness. There is a strong case to be made that his inactions and actions stemmed from his overtly racist views of African-Americans.

At the outbreak of WWI, foreign affairs became the predominant problem to command Wilson's attention. He tried stalwartly to keep America neutral and out of the war. There was in the country up until 1917 strong aversion to getting involved and Wilson worked hard to keep events from pulling America into the conflict, many times in the face of extremely provocative acts by the Germans, particularly the submarine warfare which was costing American lives. When the Germans announced unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 the scales of peace and war were tipped toward America's entry. The war effort was all out and encompassed many dimensions of American life. The rabid anti-German sentiment that emerged after our entry led to the second great failing of Wilson's leadership. He was willing to let flourish the most egregious abuses of civil liberties and suppression of dissent that our nation has ever seen. Constitutional freedoms of expression were trampled and dissenters tried and jailed over their anti-war views. Wilson must have had little sympathy for alternative views as even after the war he resisted a pardon for socialist Eugene Debs, a national figure who was imprisoned for several years because of his opposition to the war.

Wilson participated directly and closely in the peace conference of 1918-1919. He spent a number of months in Europe negotiating with the victors for a peace treaty that would do much more than satisfy the victors through harsh punishment of the Germans. His famous fourteen points demonstrated his long view that the war's resolution must created a different world than existed before 1914. His conception of the League of Nations was that countries could collectively guarantee peace as they had before come together to wage war. He strongly urged reasonable terms for the vanquished so that the seeds of revenge would not sprout.

It is with the treaty and his advocacy for it that we see the strength of his vision and the weakness of his obstinacy. He chose not to involve his political opponents throughout the lengthy negotiations in ways that might have mitigated their concerns or at least weakened their platforms of opposition. When he presented the treaty to the Senate, he was unwillingly to accept compromises (the so-called reservations) that might have ensured approval and garnered at least a starting point for internationalism that could have grown later. He decided to take his message to the public and it was on a whirlwind national speaking tour that he suffered a stroke.

The stroke was a life-threatening event for Wilson and certainly deprived him of the vigor to continue his pro-treaty strategy. His wife and advisors shielded him from excessive stress and turmoil, but they did not act as substitute president during his illness and recovery. He did, in fact, recover to a substantial degree, but the affects of the stroke appeared to affect him more emotionally than intellectually. His judgment lost its coolness and he reacted to circumstances in non-helpful ways rather than through calculation. One does not know that even if healthy he would have been able to salvage the treaty due to his rigidity, but surely the stroke made this outcome nearly impossible.

Wilson continued to stay on the public scene after his term in office. He contemplated a run for a third term in 1920 and in 1924. While still a figure with a strong national following, his stamina and intellectual prowess were clearly diminishing in his post-stroke years. He appeared to be getting ever stronger by early 1925 when an illness brought him to death, probably due to a generally weakened condition from his stroke.

Ironically, Wilson was correct in his vision for ensuring peace through the collective actions of governments as was his fear about the inevitable return to war if his vision were not adopted. Within two decades of the conclusion of the "war to end all wars" the nations of the world became embroiled in an even more devastating global conflict.

One of the interesting aspects of the story of Wilson and his times is the parallels with our political milieu one hundred years after. The struggles between progressivism and conservatism, between the powers of the executive and the congress, on whether collective efforts of sovereign governments can bring peace, and on America's role as an internal leader have a strikingly familiar resonance to us in the 21st century.
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LibraryThing member jerry-book
Wilson was our most controversial president since Jefferson in my opinion. Cooper captures this dynamic president who passed such measures as the Federal Reserve Act, the Income Tax, the FTC, a lower tariff, etc. but floundered like LBJ in the foreign policy arena. According to Cooper, he would not be stampeded into war like James Madison was in 1812. In essence like our current President Obama he essentially drew a line in the sand for Kaiser's Germany, I.e., no unrestricted submarine warfare and no sinking of American merchant ships. Unfortunately for Wilson, Germany crossed the line in an attempt to knock the UK out of the War in 1917 with indiscriminate submarine warfare. Wilson then led America into WW I (the war to end all wars). Unfortunately, Wilson would not tolerate dissent in WW I and condoned the persecution of the Wobblies and Eugene Deb and the country reached a new low in civil liberties. At the same time like Jefferson Wilson according to the author was perhaps the worst president for the black man since Andrew Johnson. He allowed segregation of federal offices, southern lynchings of blacks, and the crushing of black riots. At the same time he advocated a "peace without victory" in WW I and his famous Fourteen Points which included the League of Nations. Unfortunately, the early Wilson who was able to pass tremendous domestic legislation lost his political barometer when it came to the League of Nations. First, he failed to take any prominent Republican Senators to Paris for the negotiations. Second, he even failed to take along such prominent Republican League sympathizers as Root and Taft, head of the League for Peace. Third, he failed in his attempts to prevent France from imposing a punitive peace on Germany and he failed to protect China from the Japanese. Fourth, when he brought the Treaty before the U.S. Senate he failed to compromise when some reasonable compromises especially in Article X might have achieved ratification. Fifth, he went on a whistle stop tour of America thinking he could turn public opinion not realizing the American public was sinking back into isolationism. Sixth, his health failed and he suffered s stroke. Even if he had enjoyed good health, he would have had to return to the Wilson of 1912 to achieve passage of the Treaty. Seventh, in 1918 the Republicans captured both houses of Congress. This was a new reality that Wilson (unlike perhaps Bill Clinton)'did not seem to recognize. Finally, Wilson in addition to his racism was guilty of personal vindictiveness. Even though Colonel House served Wilson faithfully for years, he cut Wilson off completely after Paris in 1919. After the War, he failed to pardon Eugene Debs. Part of this was due to his health. Even though he cut off Colonel House he failed to rid himself of the disloyal Secretary of State Lansing until 1919.

Cooper is sympathetic to his subject but this does not prevent him from presenting a comprehensive portrait of one of our most controversial presidents.
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