After Wilson died on this day in 1924, The Nation’s editor, Oswald Garrison Villard—who had championed Wilson for the presidency shortly after his gubernatorial victory in 1910—published this obituary, “Woodrow Wilson—A Supreme Tragedy.” Whereas in 1912 Villard preferred Wilson to the more radical Theodore Roosevelt, running for a third term on the Progressive ticket, by the end he was disillusioned that Wilson’s presidency had not brought about the revolution of the downtrodden he thought had been promised.
Woodrow Wilson came into the political life of America as if in response to prayer. It was given to him as to no other to step suddenly out of a cloistered life into high office. Then, as today, there was profound distrust of those conducting the government; startling revelations had laid bare both the corruption in big business and the control of the government by those in the seats of the commercial mighty. Neither the spurious liberalism nor the halfway, compromising reforms of Theodore Roosevelt, with his incessant knocking-down of men of straw, had satisfied the thoughtful or cut deeply into our political sores. To Mr. Wilson, as he once remarked in the office of The Nation during his governorship, what the country needed was “a modified Rooseveltism”; what he preached was not only that, but a far greater vision of reform, with a far keener and truer analysis of what was wrong. This he set forth with an extraordinary skill and eloquence which placed him in the front rank of American orators of his or of any time—by the beauty of his language, the wealth of his imagery, the aptness of his illustrations, and the cogency of his arguments….
What it was that won Mr. Wilson over to the war is not yet clear. It is the great unsolved mystery of his career. Whether it was due to the desire he cherished from 1914 on to be the arbiter and dominator of the peace, whether it was a yielding to the pressure of those who deemed the millions they had invested in Allied securities doomed unless the Allies won, whether an emotional desire to save the Allies from defeat, or sincere belief that no other way remained, is yet to be revealed. In any case Woodrow Wilson sinned against the very ark of the American covenant. Not a civic right of the American but was trampled upon with Mr. Wilson’s knowledge and consent…He was unable to see that whenever and wherever liberalism links itself with war and war-madness it is liberalism which perishes….
Upon these things will the historians of the future pass, each according to his bias and to his interpretation of state papers now sealed, documents now hidden, events yet to take place. Philosophers will always wrangle as to whether that man’s offense is worse who deliberately destroys the rights and liberties of a people or the crime of him who exalts the spirits of men by a glorious vision of a new and inspired day, only to let the uplifted sink back, utterly disheartened and disillusioned, into the darkest slough of despond. As to the merits and demerits of Woodrow Wilson books will be written to the end of time. Those who worship him will continue to keep eyes and ears closed to facts they do not wish to hear; those whose very souls he outraged and betrayed will judge as through a glass darkly. But one fact no one can deny: Aspiring to the stars he crashed to earth, leaving behind him no emancipation of humanity, no assuaging of its wounds, only a world wracked, embittered, more full of hatreds, more ready to tear itself to pieces today than when he essayed the heavens. The moral of his fall is as immutable as the hills, as shining as the planets. If humanity will perceive and acknowledge it that will be Woodrow Wilson’s priceless legacy to the world he tried to serve so greatly.
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