A year ago, The Times introduced a series of essays about the transformative year 1919, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation, in his essay “The Crack-Up,” that a first-rate intelligence could hold two opposed ideas at the same time. That seemed a fitting way to assess the United States at a pivotal moment, with half the country rushing headlong into the Jazz Age and the other half trying to turn back the clock toward simpler times.
As it turned out, Fitzgerald did not crack up, at least for some time. As the 1920s got underway, the world was his oyster. He became the voice of “a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought.” But for one of those gods — Fitzgerald’s fellow Princetonian Woodrow Wilson — the world was indeed falling apart as the new decade began.
A year earlier, Wilson had been the people’s champion, striving to complete peace talks with Germany and make the world safe for democracy via “self-determination.” But the negotiations had been difficult, and the resulting Treaty of Versailles was an imperfect vehicle, favoring some peoples over others. To make matters worse, Wilson’s own people rejected it, through a series of Senate votes. Even as the League of Nations was coming into existence, in the second week of January, Wilson was clinging to hopes that the Senate might reverse itself.
It was not to be, in part because Wilson was no longer the bold leader he once was. The man who had done more than any other to evangelize for the new order was a shell of his former self. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes during his fall campaign to raise support for the treaty. Afterward, inside the White House, he saw almost no one, barely able to speak, with the left side of his body paralyzed, his mouth slack. He had lost much of his vision and could barely read a sentence. A wheelchair was needed for even the simplest trip from one part of the house to another. A friend, the journalist Ray Stannard Baker, described a visit in late November. “It was dreadful,” he wrote, “a broken, ruined old man, shuffling along, his left arm inert, the fingers drawn up like a claw, the left side of his face sagging frightfully. His voice is not human: it gurgles in his throat, sounds like that of an automaton.”