Woodrow Wilson: A Legacy of Hope

Woodrow Wilson's legacy may appear at first glance to be one of failure, frustration, or lost opportunities. Sufficient reasons exist to support such a view, for Wilson left the White House a sick, angry, and embittered man, and seen in the context of their time, his attempts to “make the world safe for democracy” came to naught. Even as he was trying to convince leaders of the Allied powers that that terrible war to end all wars could only lead to better future for humankind if a “peace without victory” could somehow be achieved, the Bolshevik regime was tightening its controls that Russia. And within less than a decade in after the end of the Great War, fascism had been established in Italy, and Hitler and his Nazi party were moving to take control of Germany and eventually the world.

Woodrow WilsonTo add to President Wilson's frustration, the United States never signed the Versailles Treaty, never joined the League of Nations, and made a separate peace with Germany in 1921. The fact that the Versailles Treaty turned out to be a document that help to plant the seeds of future conflict, Wilson still fought for it, believing in that because it included provisions for a League of Nations, it might offer hope of avoiding future war. The time for such farsighted thinking had not yet arrived, however, and although many courageous and statesmanlike leaders—Germany's Gustaf Stresemann, American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and French Minister Aristide Briand, among others—had attempted to create conditions in which future peace would be more likely, their efforts came to little.

Yet, as Wilson's biographers and other historians have concluded, Wilson's dreams did not die with him. Historian David Fromkin has argued that the generation of future leaders who came of age in the time of Wilson were inspired by their visionary president and internalized his hopes and dreams until the time when they were able to continue laying a groundwork for peace that Wilson could only imagine in his time.

From Publishers Weekly:“Inspired by President Woodrow Wilson's idealistic internationalism, three subsequent U.S. presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower—steered Americans away from isolationism to support an active, major role for the U.S. on the world stage. Under their leadership, America helped defeat Hitler, waged a Cold War against Soviet tyranny and checked Chinese communist aggression in Korea. Fromkin's dramatic, engaging political, military and diplomatic history yokes FDR, Truman and Ike in a group portrait with George Marshall, architect of America's postwar financial program to reconstruct Western Europe, and General Douglas MacArthur, WWII hero and commander of U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea. In a panoramic canvas peopled by George Kennan, Joseph Kennedy, John Foster Dulles, Felix Frankfurter, William Randolph Hearst and many others, Fromkin (A Peace to End All Peace) argues that America, acting with mixed motives but without imperial designs, opposed Europe's imperialisms, whether British, German, French or Soviet, and played a key role in destroying them. Fromkin is a Boston University professor of international relations, history and law.”

Copyright © 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

It is perhaps too much of a stretch to say that Wilson was responsible for the founding of the United Nations, but clearly that organization was the realization of Wilson's ideas at a later time. How much the United Nations has contributed to world peace and stability can be debated; one thing is clear, however, and that is that for most of the 60 years since the founding of the United Nations, the threat of a World War III has grown dimmer and dimmer in the minds of most people. The future of world peace remains cloudy, but Wilson's legacy can be judged in his having moved the world, however incrementally, farther from the horror of another world war.

World Power Home | Imperial America | World War I | Updated August 8, 2013