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The US and the World: Woodrow Wilson



     In the excellent C-Span series on the U.S. Presidents, the program on Woodrow Wilson had a special interest for WAISers because it marked the emergence of the U.S. on to the world scene. The two historians who spoke were John Milton Cooper of the University of Wisconsin and Nell Irwin Painter of Princeton University, of which Wilson was president.
     A word about first names. Professor Cooper's parents must have been great admirers of Milton. It is hard to realize that in the good old days, the two most read books were The Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost. Try getting an American student to read Paradise Lost today. The response would be "Get lost!"
     There was a mention of children being given the name Woodrow Wilson in his honor. WAISers will remember that the posting about Brazilian names mentioned that in Brazil many children were likewise named Wilson, just as in World War II they were named Franklin, while some Germanophiles named their children Hitler. In the last few years, I have not noted that Hilary has become a popular name for Brazilian girls, nor has Bill for boys.
     There was a discussion of Wilson´s racism. A Southerner born in Staunton, VA, he practised law for two years in Atlanta. He has a private showing of "The Birth of a Nation" in the White House and reportedly praised it. However, Professor Painter, who is black, defended him against the charge that he approved of the Ku Klux Klan.
     A major WAIS concern is the image one country has of another. A common charge abroad is that America is racist. I can understand why foreigners are confused. As a small boy in England, I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and hated the Southern whites. Then I saw "The Birth of a Nation". No wonder that I was mixed up.
     As president of Princeton University, Wilson pushed through the building of the Graduate School. The ensuing fight still echoes today. This should be seen in its historical context. When I was a student at Oxford, the great scholars had no doctorate and despised the doctoral system as producing narrow specialists. The ideal was a well-read man who did not rush into print or seek a reputation by "pot hunting." This was the attitude too in places like Harvard and Princeton, where it was considered cheap to call oneself "doctor." Wilson got a doctorate at John Hopkins, which introduced the German doctoral system into the United States.
     The fight at Princeton over the Graduate School had some colorful results. I came to the country as a Commonwealth (Harkness) Fellow. Two other Fellows went to Princeton where they were housed in the Graduate School. In the bell-tower they found a recording of "Rule Britannia." They played it in the middle of the night and rushed around the Quad shouting "The Redcoats are coming!!" This was apparently interpreted as conservative propaganda. They were expelled and went back to England. Humor was a victim of the fight.
     The old suspicion of the doctoral system seems justified; there are pros and cons. There is intense pressure to specialize and publish in a narrow field. It is distressing how few colleagues can engage in a broad discussion of international affairs.
     Of course, our main interest is in Wilson´s role in the founding of the League of Nations. For this he was idolized by some, who damned Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Professor Cooper said Wilson did a poor selling job, since he failed to win over the members of Congress, especially Lodge, whom he should have taken to Versailles. Fearful that the U.S. might be forced into the role of world policeman, Lodge proposed modifications to the treaty, but Wilson refused to consider them. Stanford historian Tom Bailey was highly critical of Wilson; I never quite knew why. In any case, he got angry letters of protest. Most came from women, possibly because, under the influence of his daughters, Wilson became a strong supporter of women's suffrage. The arguments about the League of Nations are echoed in the debate about the United Nations. Professor Cooper was rightly critical of some of the arguments of its critics.
     There are two good WAISers at the University of Wisconsin: Stanley Payne, also of the History Department, and Norman Sacks, who is just recovering from a severe illness and who has our very best wishes. We ask them to forward this posting to Professor Cooper.

Ronald Hilton - 09/15/99


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