Yonason Goldson
Ethics Ninja and Hitchhiking Rabbi

The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson

Once Iowa Democrats decided to rename the venerated event known as the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, it was only a matter of time before PC zealots would start demanding the purge of historical icons all across America.  After all, how in good conscience can a country continue to commemorate its most influential leaders if they failed to anticipate that the legal and universally-accepted institutions of their times would eventually be regarded as immoral by their great-grandchildren?

Now it’s Woodrow Wilson’s turn, as students at Princeton demand that the memory of their university’s former president be expunged from under the heavens because he supported segregation, a policy viewed by many as progressive a century ago, no matter what we may think of it now.

There is a deeper irony in their campaign, however.  In terms of political acumen, Woodrow Wilson has quite a bit in common with a much more contemporary figure, one who is revered by the very people who are protesting President Wilson’s racism and misogyny:  Barack Obama.

Over the course of Mr. Obama’s presidency, he has compared himself to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

But many political observers and students of history have proposed an entirely different comparison.  Mr. Obama’s critics liken him not to any former president but to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose appeasement of Adolph Hitler led directly to World War II and the deaths of 60 million people.  Barack Obama’s appeasement of Vladimir Putin and the Iranian Ayatollah, they say, has put the world in danger of an even greater holocaust.

According to some, even that comparison may be too kind.  Back in March of last year, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters observed that, “the comparison between President Obama and Neville Chamberlain is grossly unfair…to Neville Chamberlain. Neville Chamberlain was trying to buy time while Britain desperately and frantically rearmed. Obama is shilly-shallying while America disarms.”

That was back after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, long before anyone was talking about a deal with Iran.  More recently, columnists Mark Steyn and Thomas Sowell, as well as former Vice-President Dick Cheney, have taken up the same refrain.  “The horrors of what Germany were not known to Neville Chamberlain,” explains Mr. Steyn. “And in a sense the appeasers of the 1930’s did so because of the horrors of the First World War and the lost generation, and they didn’t want that to happen again. And it’s because we know they got it wrong, that history won’t give us the same opt out card.”

Which brings us back to Woodrow Wilson.

Like President Obama, President Wilson had his own utopian vision of world peace, centered around a League of Nations that would resolve all the problems of the world without resorting to violence, ensuring that the senseless bloodshed of the Great War would never happen again.

It was a nice idea.  But like Marxism, socialism, and perpetual motion, Wilson’s brotherhood of nations lacked any grounding in reality.

Even worse is what Wilson was willing to give up to get it.

Unable to imagine that his fellow chieftains might not share his desire to create a brave new world, Wilson sauntered blindly into the Paris Peace Conference.  Had he done his homework, he might have divined that his French counterpart, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, had entirely different objectives.

For good reason was Clemenceau leader of the Radical Party. He was determined to take revenge upon Germany for ravaging his country, and was quoted as saying, “There are 20 million Germans too many!”

In order to gain French cooperation in forming his League of Nations, Wilson allowed Clemenceau to dictate the terms of German reparations, imposing draconian economic reprisals against the broken country so that its own recovery proved impossible.  Crushed for years beneath the weight of a crippled economy, hyperinflation, and an ineffective government, the German people came increasingly to see themselves — with some legitimacy — as scapegoats for a continental catastrophe sold out by a corrupt provisional government.

All that was missing was a charismatic Austrian corporal to ignite the embers of nationalist resentment and set Europe in flames once again. Woodrow Wilson’s grand vision of peace led directly to an even greater conflagration than the one from whose ashes he hoped to build a peaceful world.

The final irony was that Wilson’s failure to cultivate a working relationship with Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge guaranteed that the Senate would not ratify his treaty, and that the United States would never become a member of the League of Nations.

This is the one and only lesson Barack Obama seems to have learned from history.  By defining the Iran deal not as a treaty but as an executive action, he did not require two-thirds of congress to approve the plan but merely one-third to prevent it from being overturned.  That much he could count on from party loyalists, albeit by a paltry margin.

And so Mr. Obama has his deal, one even more lopsided that Woodrow Wilson’s. All the world can do now is hope against hope that history, for once, will not repeat itself.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonason Goldson is a TEDx speaker and award-winning podcast host. He works with leaders to create a culture of ethics that earns trust, sparks initiative, and drives productivity. His column, The Ethical Lexicon, appears weekly in Fast Company Magazine, and he has authored seven books, most recently, "The Spiral of Time: Discovering new insights and inspiration in the Jewish calendar." Visit him at
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