Woodrow Wilson Was More Racist Than Wilsonianism

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tags: racism, Woodrow Wilson



David Milne, a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of East Anglia, is the author of "Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy."

Students from Princeton University’s Black Justice League recently sparked an overdue discussion when they called for the name of the 28th president of the United States to be removed from the school’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, a housing complex on campus. The group contends that Woodrow Wilson’s racism — most brazenly manifested when he authorized cabinet members to re-segregate federal government departments in Washington, D.C. — makes him an oppressive presence on campus and hence unworthy of adulation.

Yet this national conversation about Wilson’s legacy has a global dimension, too. Wilson’s impact on international affairs was profound; few nations were unaffected by his words and actions, while adherents to his diplomatic vision, Wilsonianism, remain an influential force today. And, here, Wilson’s racial views are more complex. This context does not mitigate the cruelty of his segregation order, but it does cast a kinder light on his worldview. Where Wilson’s foreign policies were informed by a crude ethnocentrism — and they clearly were — it was often of a milder sort than those of his contemporaries in the United States and particularly in Europe. Indeed, Wilson’s veneration of “self-determination” and his opposition to annexation caused considerable dismay in London and Paris, and made him something of a hero — for a while, at least — in the colonized world.

Wilson was forced to confront the future of colonialism by World War I — specifically, the question of what ought to be done with the territories of the losing side. Wilson’s ideals propelled the creation of the mandates system, through which “civilized” nations would offer benevolent “tutelage” to those areas cast adrift by the defeat of the Central Powers. The system was informed by Wilson’s belief in the merits of “self-determination,” a phrase that he first uttered in a speech on Feb. 11, 1918, a month after his more famous Fourteen Points address that set out his nation’s war aims. Wilson, in the February speech, stated that “national aspirations must be respected,” that people may be “dominated and governed only by their own consent,” and that “every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned.”

“Self-determination” was not a “mere phrase,” Wilson declared, but “an imperative principle of actions, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” Yet Wilson was clear that its universal application would proceed in stages, not in one fell swoop — that only “well-defined national aspirations” warranted unequivocal support and that progress would be slow where a threat of “discord” existed. Wilson amplified the moral imperative later that year when he observed that any peace settlement should reflect “full and unequivocal acceptance of the principle that the interest of the weakest is as sacred as the interest of the strongest.”

But Wilson’s pursuit of this moral principle was not quite so unequivocal in practice. What to do with Germany’s colonies in sub-Saharan Africa was not a high priority issue for Wilson when he set sail for the Paris Peace Conference in November 1918. But Wilson offered a novel view on how to proceed nonetheless. The president believed that these territories should become the “common property” of the League of Nations, that abstract and untested entity in which he vested too much hope. But within that system, he wanted these colonies to be administered by a small non-imperial state, not Great Britain or France, until their residents — “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” as Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations would later describe it — proved themselves capable of self-government. Perhaps a Scandinavian nation could perform that tutelage function, Wilson mused.

As Susan Pedersen recounts in The Guardians, her revelatory history of the League of Nations’ mandate system, many observers were alarmed by Wilson’s proposal. “The negro race,” said George Louis Beer, a Columbia University history professor who counseled Wilson as part “The Inquiry,” an academic advisory group convened by the president, “has hitherto shown no capacity for progressive development except under the tutelage of other peoples.” Beer was adamant that it made little sense to invite a nation like Norway to take charge, when the British — vastly experienced in such matters and at a higher rung in the hierarchy of European civilization — could govern Africans much more effectively. ...




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