Born 28 December 1856 in Virginia to a slave owning Presbyterian minister, Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner to obtain the office of US president since Andrew Johnson, who’s tenure ended in 1869.
A world safer for democracy
Elected the twenty-eighth US president in 1911, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was determined to maintain American neutrality during the First World War. He was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, ‘He kept us out of the war’. But Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which cost American lives, together with the exposure of the Zimmermann Telegram, forced the president’s hand. Wilson sought and received Congress’ mandate and on 6 April 1917, the US declared war on Germany, a course of action necessary, according to Wilson, to make the ‘world safer for democracy’.
On 8 January 1918, in a speech to Congress, Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points, a programme for peace based on the principles of democracy and justice and not on punishment and reparations. Wilson hoped it would encourage the Germany to seek peace. Georges Clemenceau, the new French prime minister, was scathing of Wilson’s Points – ‘Fourteen? The good Lord only had ten’. The establishment of a body to act as an international arbitrator, the League of Nations, was also core to Wilson’s philosophy.
As the autumn of 1918 progressed, and Germany’s war was effectively lost, the German government was keen to accept Wilson’s promise of non-punitive measures. But there was a price to pay – Wilson demanded that Germany appoint a parliament in its first steps towards democracy, and, most shockingly, he demanded the abdication of the Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The Kaiser duly abdicated on 10 November 1918 and went into exile in the Netherlands, never to step on German soil again. The following day, the armistice was signed, bringing to an end the First World War.
The war to end war
Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference and, in doing so, became the first US president to travel to Europe while in office. By the time the conference finished in January 1920, little of Wilson’s Fourteen Points remained and the terms imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles were indeed punitive. The League of Nations however did become a reality. Wilson had used the phrase, ‘the war to end war’, originally coined by the writer HG Wells, and the existence and work of the League of Nations was to help prevent another war of such a scale. But Great Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, was more accurate when, mockingly, he said, ‘This war, like the next war, is a war to end war’.
The League’s inaugural assembly took place within a few days of the conference ending. 42 nations signed up for the League but the US was not one of them. During the 26 years of the League’s existence, the US never joined.
New role and new responsibility
Wilson returned to America to find much opposition to the treaty both from isolationists and Republicans. On 10 July 1919, addressing the US Senate, Wilson urged US participation in the League, citing, ‘a new role and a new responsibility have come to this great nation that we honor and which we would all wish to lift to yet higher levels of service and achievement’.
Despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1919, Wilson had limited backing. While touring the nation, trying to garner support, Wilson suffered the first of several strokes.
Paralyzed on his left side and blind in one eye, Wilson effectively retired from his duties but remained in office until the election of November 1920.
Wilson’s successor in the White House, Republican Warren Harding, neither allowed the US to join the League of Nations or ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
Woodrow Wilson died on 3 February 1924, aged 67. He is the only US president to be buried in Washington DC.
Read more in World War One In An Hour, published by HarperPress.