In the wake of Princeton students’ protest over the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, there have been a few attempts by historians to defend Wilson, most of which has been pretty weak tea. They focus overwhelmingly on his domestic policies and ignore the link between Wilson’s white supremacy and his militarism abroad. But when it comes to racism and war, the domestic can’t be separated from the overseas. As I wrote a few months back, war—starting with the post–Civil War eliminationist campaign against Native Americans and continuing on through 1898 and World War I—was key to the rehabilitation of the Confederate Flag and the North’s reconciliation with the South. And Woodrow Wilson played a key role:
In June 1916, as Woodrow Wilson began to push through Congress a remarkable set of laws militarizing the country, including the expansion of the Army and National Guard (and an authorization to place the former under federal authority), the construction of nitrate plants for munitions production, and the funding of military research and development, Confederate veterans descended on Washington, DC, to show their support for the coming war in Europe.
“About 10,000 men wearing the gray, escorted by several thousand who wore the blue, marched along Pennsylvania Avenue and were reviewed by the President,” one observer reported. “In the line were many young soldiers now serving in the regular army, grandsons of those who fought for the Confederacy and of those who fought for the Union. The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were proudly borne at the head of the procession.… As the long line passed the reviewing stand the old men in gray offered their services in the present war. ‘We will go to France or anywhere you want to send us!’ they shouted to the president.”
Wilson won reelection in 1916, his campaign running on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But he could then betray his anti-war supporters knowing that a rising political coalition—made up, in part, of men looking to redeem a lost war by finding new wars to fight—had his back.
Decades before President Richard Nixon bet his reelection on winning the Dixiecrat vote, Wilson worked out his own Southern Strategy. Even as he was moving the nation to war, Wilson re-segregated Washington and purged African-Americans from federal jobs. And it was Wilson who started the presidential tradition of laying a Memorial Day wreath at Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate War Memorial.
In 1916, he turned that event into a war rally. “America is roused,” Wilson said to a large gathering of Confederate veterans, “roused to a self-consciousness she has not had in a generation. And this spirit is going out conquering and to conquer until, it may be, in the Providence of God, a new light is lifted up in America which shall throw the rays of liberty and justice far abroad upon every sea, and even upon the lands which now wallow in darkness and refuse to see the light.”
What alchemy it was—with Wilson conscripting the Confederate cause into his brand of arrogant, martial universalism. The conflict in Europe, Wilson said at the same wreath-laying event a year later (less then two months after the United States had declared war on Germany), offered a chance “to vindicate the things which we have professed” and to “show the world” that America “was born to serve mankind.”