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“” It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint. Some stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble, but most yielded, as was to have been expected, to the novel impulses and excitement of freedom and made their way to the camps and cities, where the blue-coated soldiers were, and the agents of the Freedman’s Bureau.
|—Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People, Vol. 9 (1902).|
“”Wilson, the first college president to occupy the White House, banned blacks from government restrooms, was the first president to openly attack the U.S. Constitution and eagerly support laws to prosecute and imprison those who disagreed with his policies. His hostility to black Americans was matched only by his antipathy toward Italian, German and Irish Americans and his desire to rid the nation of those he referred to dismissively as “hyphenated Americans” and against who he railed incessantly.
|—David Keene, Washington Times opinion editor.|
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the 28th President of the United States. Though generally viewed as a Northerner, he was born in Virginia to a slave-holding family that supported the Confederacy. This had an unfortunate impact on his views on race. Although he is most known for Wilsonianism, an ideology which supports spreading democracy abroad and fighting for all people's self-determination, these ideals didn't stand a chance against Wilson's more powerful instincts for anticommunism, authoritarianism, and racism. The Wilson administration ferociously suppressed dissent both during and after World War One, invaded Latin America more often than at any other time in US history, and pushed through fanatical segregationist reforms in the federal government.
However, Wilson was also a progressive in some very important ways. A devout Presbyterian, Wilson governed his personal life according to principles of austerity and temperance, in line with the era's progressive fashions. He was responsible for some modest progressive reforms in economic regulation and taxation, including the creation of the Federal Reserve System, America's first progressive income tax, and the League of Nations — though America never joined and the League was ultimately a failure.
Wilson ended up being arguably the worst case of a presidential disability, as he was nearly completely incapacitated by a stroke two years before the end of his second term. This, in part, led to the creation of the 25th Amendment which deals with presidential succession. It should also be noted that during his incapacitation, his wife Edith effectively ran the country by deciding who could and could not meet with the president, and it was during this time that the 19th Amendment was passed, which gave women the right to vote. President Wilson was actually at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the concept of women's suffrage.
- 1 "Bad Neighbor policy"
- 2 Racism and segregation
- 3 American police state
- 4 Legacy
- 5 External links
- 6 References
"Bad Neighbor policy"
One of the defining, yet surprisingly little known aspects of Wilson's foreign policy were his frequent military interventions in Latin America. He presented this as an ongoing mission to build democracies in the region, saying in 1913: "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men." Despite what he said, however, it should be clear to anyone that Wilson's Latin America policies were motivated by the same cold, hard, capitalistic greed that spurred his predecessors. These invasions and occupations were deeply unpopular even at the time, and Wilson's successors, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt all publicly renounced the need for US military presence in Latin America, By the time of the Hoover administration, their renunciation of American interventionism towards Latin America became known as the "Good Neighbor policy," an ironic echo of what Wilson had earlier claimed as his goal.
Invasion and occupation of Haiti
Fearing that chaos in Haiti would create an opportunity for Europeans to expand their economic interests there at America's expense, Woodrow Wilson used the 1915 assassination of Haiti's president as an excuse to order the United States Marines to invade the country. One of the first things Wilson did at the start of the occupation was to move Haiti's financial reserves to the US and rewrite their constitution to give foreigners, as in US businessmen, land-owning rights. After manipulating the nation's elections to install a pro-US president, the Americans then forced him to permanently dissolve the legislature after meeting resistance to the new constitution. The occupying Americans enforced segregation policies and used forced labor to build infrastructure. During the occupation, US Marines killed 15,000 Haitians in their attempts to brutally suppress resistance. The occupation frequently featured indiscriminate murders, robberies, and massacres perpetrated by American marines. After killing a prominent Haitian rebel, the US Marines circulated the image of his corpse as a warning, but they created a martyr instead.. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally ended the occupation in 1934, although the US still had control of Haiti's finances until 1947.
Invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic
For much the same reason as with Haiti, Woodrow Wilson ordered Marines into the Dominican Republic in 1916 to hijack the nation's finances. The influx of arrogant foreign invaders predictably birthed a resistance movement, and the US military government responded by censoring communications and fighting an eight-year guerrilla war against the Dominicans. American troops also collected on the Dominican Republic's debt by collecting tariffs on the nation's imports. In the course of ruling the nation, the United States created institutions that would go on to be used during the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. This intervention was also notorious for the brutal tactics used by American troops.
Invasions of Mexico
During the Mexican Revolution, the US military was on edge due to the chaos down south. In 1914, the then-government of Mexico had several unarmed US marines arrested and detained for about an hour in response to their landing in a restricted area. An angry Wilson demanded that the Mexican president issue an official apology and deliver a 21-gun salute to the American flag. The Mexicans offered the apology but refused the salute. Meanwhile, Wilson also learned that a German ship was planning to deliver arms to the Mexican government through Veracruz, in violation of a US arms embargo. Wilson ordered the attack and seizure of Veracruz, occupying the city for six months.
In 1915, the US finally recognized the government of Venustiano Carranza after Mexico's previous president stepped down due to his quarrels with Wilson. Infuriated by this, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa launched a number of attacks across the US-Mexico border, culminating in a violent raid on Columbus, New Mexico. This provocation led Wilson in 1916 to prepare the US Army for an expedition into Mexico to hunt and kill Villa in retaliation for the raids. The invasion was a logistical nightmare, and the few skirmishes actually fought between the US and Villa's forces were inconclusive at best. Despite the American alliance with President Carranza, the invasion caused tensions between the two governments to skyrocket. Carranza's forces began teaming up with Villa's to push out the Americans, and this show of universal hostility finally convinced America's generals to order a withdrawal from Mexico.
Invasion and occupation of Cuba
In 1917, a disputed election in Cuba led to an insurgency. Fearing that the civil strife would endanger American landowners' sugar harvest, the Wilson administration dispatched troops to protect the crops. The US government later agreed to purchase a quota of Cuban sugar at above-market prices in exchange for a free trade agreement. The presence of US marines again stirred anger amongst the Cuban populace, resulting in anti-American protests and instances of violence. Marines established bases around Cuba to patrol the countryside and the cities. The occupation ended in 1922.
Occupation of Nicaragua
Wilson inherited a lengthy occupation of Nicaragua from the Taft administration, which had begun when a previous Nicaraguan president threatened to expel US financial interests. A secondary objective was to prevent any nation other than the United States from building a Nicaraguan Canal; to this end the Americans installed a conservative puppet president and ordered him to sign the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty which made Nicaragua a de-facto protectorate of the United States. US forces also clashed violently with Nicaraguan insurgents who had risen against both the American occupation and against the Nicaraguan government. In 1926, a civil war would erupt against the puppet president, prompting the US to reinforce its occupation force to deal with the revolutionaries. The US occupation would finally end in the 1930s, when the US suddenly had bigger fish to fry.
Racism and segregation
How racist presidential leadership...
Domestically, Wilson's racial policies were a disgrace to the office he held. While his Republican predecessors (it was a different party then) routinely appointed blacks to low-level national offices and allowed them access to party conventions, Wilson began an extensive series of policies designed to curtail African-American civil rights.
Wilson's election victory made him the first Southern president since 1848, and this event saw ecstatic celebration from supporters of the Old South and the Confederacy, many of whom would be subsequently elevated to positions of power in the government that they would keep for generations. Wilson was also a child of the Old South who regretted the outcome of the American Civil War and hoped to use his office to reverse some of its consequences.
This executive program to destroy what little hard-won social progress blacks had achieved began with the segregation of the federal government. He allowed his Postmaster General and Treasury Secretary to introduce segregation into their departments; W.E.B. DuBois even noted in a letter to the president that a black clerk had been made to work in a literal cage, as the nature of his work prevented him from being moved to a different building. Other segregation policies used by the Postal Service included forcing blacks to use separate lunchrooms and toilets and forcing them to work hidden away behind screens. Wilson also began dismissing black people from leadership positions in the federal government and refused to appoint any more. He even began requiring applicants to federal jobs to provide photographs of themselves to ensure that only whites could get interviews. To justify all of this, Wilson's officials publicized complaints by white women of alleged sexual harassment by black men.
A delegation of black civil rights leaders led by Monroe Trotter appeared at the White House to appeal these policies, but Wilson argued back that "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." Trotter retorted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," and Wilson retaliated by having him thrown out of the White House on the basis that his tone and demeanor were offensive.
...inspires like-minded public response
All around the country, state governments followed Wilson's example and began dismissing or segregating their black employees. A particularly egregious example of this comes from the Georgia state IRS, which fired all blacks and released a statement saying that: "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place [is] in the corn field."
Filmmaker D.W. Griffith based his infamous film Birth of a Nation on a book which quoted Wilson's negative views on Reconstruction. The film was a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan and helped lead to its resurgence. Wilson symbolically aligned himself with the film by ordering a private screening, and he allegedly sang its praises, which contributed to its popularity. The revived Klan exploded in popularity, becoming a public institution with membership in the millions by the 1920s.
American police state
Despite Wilson's claims that he was bringing America into World War One to "make the world safe for democracy," the Wilson administration quickly began attacking one of the core pillars of it: free speech. Almost immediately after the declaration of war in 1917, Wilson ordered the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which was responsible for producing propaganda to demonize America's enemies and encourage young men to enlist in the military.
The CPI did not stop at making posters and films however; it also began to expand its control over what Americans and others around the world saw and watched. For instance, the CPI banned the export of any film which showed Americans in a negative light, such as Westerns or crime dramas, and strove to fill the market with ideological slush that portrayed America as the beacon of freedom it loves to claim to be. It also pressured Hollywood's foreign contacts to stop showing German films.
Repression of "hyphenated Americans"
Wartime propaganda has become infamous for stoking prejudice towards white ethnic groups, essentially anyone who wasn't a WASP. This led to the popularization of the concept of the Hyphenated American, an epithet used against Americans who had ancestral ties to other nations as a way to insinuate that they were disloyal. Wilson himself got in on the hysteria, saying:
“”[A]ny man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready. If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic. My fellow citizens, it is only certain bodies of foreign sympathies, certain bodies of sympathy with foreign nations that are organized against this great document which the American representatives have brought back from Paris.
The American populace responded to this rhetoric with a wave of repression directed towards white minorities, especially German-Americans. In public schools, teachers were forced to sign pledges declaring loyalty to the United States, while German language classes were discontinued or banned in a whopping 38 states. Meanwhile, public libraries stopped distributing German-language materials, a prudent measure since there were instances of German books being publicly burned in patriotic ceremonies. This period also saw campaigns to change the names of towns that sounded to German and campaigns to ban German music such as the compositions of Wagner and Beethoven.
American entry into the war also led to the largest and most sustained assault on free speech ever carried out by the United States government. Wilson warned that there were "millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us. If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression." This "firm hand of repression" materialized first as the Espionage Act of 1917, which empowered federal officials to arrest anyone with dangerous opinions and empowered the Post Office to suppress dissident mail. Wilson even hoped to strengthen the Espionage Act with a provision giving censorship powers to the presidency, but even in the heights of war-fever, Congress wouldn't allow that. However, Wilson worked with what he had, and his postmaster general gleefully used his new powers to put numerous publications out of business.
Eager to demonstrate their patriotism, zealous prosecutors became responsible for a number of egregious suppressions of free speech. A movie producer was sentenced to ten years in prison for fostering anti-British sentiment; he had made a movie about the freaking American Revolution! A Socialist Congressman received twenty years for publishing his antiwar views during his reelection campaign. A random old dude from South Dakota got five years for allegedly calling the war "foolish." After the Espionage Act was amended by the Sedition Act of 1918, even more people were arrested under the new provisions banning any abusive speech against the United States. This included notable socialist Eugene V. Debs, who eventually had his sentence commuted by President Harding.
These pieces of legislation came before the Supreme Court in 1918 during the Schenck v. United States case; which resulted in the Court upholding censorship on the basis that speech can be restricted if it presents a "clear and present danger." This was eventually overturned and replaced with the Brandenburg Test.
Wilson's Red Scare
There was no relief from Wilson's authoritarian streak even after the end of the European war. American war fever was quickly replaced with the hysteria of the First Red Scare. This was triggered by the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War. This shift in national attitude became evident in 1919, when dock-workers in Seattle went on strike to gain higher wages after years of WWI wage-controls. The media seized upon this event, calling it the work of anti-American leftist saboteurs, creating the first great explosion of anti-left hysteria. Meanwhile, the Senate Overman Committee, formerly tasked with rooting out German sympathizers, found its mandate extended past the war to investigate "any efforts being made to propagate in this country the principles of any party exercising or claiming to exercise any authority in Russia" and "any effort to incite the overthrow of the Government of this country."
The fears of a communist plot in America intensified after the race riots of 1919. The media and government became convinced that the radical leftist elements in America as well as the Russian Bolsheviks were trying to incite blacks to rise up against the United States. There was also a campaign involving mail bombs sent to public officials and business leaders by Italian anarchists in spring 1919. Although only a handful of people were harmed, it was more than enough "proof" for the government and media to sow fear of foreign leftist radicals trying to turn the US into a Communist hellscape. This all led to the Palmer Raids, when Wilson's Attorney General authorized a widespread FBI operation targeting European immigrant communities suspected of harboring leftists; in all of the Palmer raids the number of arrests greatly exceeded the number of warrants issued, and hundreds of those arrested and deported were not guilty. Anti-left hysteria eventually faded after Palmer warned of a socialist-backed coup attempt against the US government on May Day 1920 which never actually materialized.
Conspiracy theories about him
A short excerpt from The New Freedom, a 1913 book compiled from Wilson's presidential campaign speeches, is sometimes quoted out of context by various conspiracy theorists to suggest that Wilson believed in a large conspiracy. The quote itself is taken from the first chapter of the book, where Wilson rants against corporations and "Big Business" (this is his own term!). Which sounds oddly familiar...
Here is the quote, with the following paragraph to give some context:
“”Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men's views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of somebody, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it. They know that America is not a place of which it can be said, as it used to be, that a man may choose his own calling and pursue it just as far as his abilities enable him to pursue it; because to-day, if he enters certain fields, there are organizations which will use means against him that will prevent his building up a business which they do not want to have built up; organizations that will see to it that the ground is cut from under him and the markets shut against him. For if he begins to sell to certain retail dealers, to any retail dealers, the monopoly will refuse to sell to those dealers, and those dealers, afraid, will not buy the new man's wares.
|—The New Freedom, Chapter I: The Old Order Changeth|
Conspiracy theorists usually quote only the bold part, ignoring (or being ignorant of) the context, including the whole platform Wilson campaigned on and the political and economical climate of the era. The quote can be found in lists of similar quotes, such as on whale.to and elsewhere, or in isolation.
- The New Freedom, full text legally available at Project Gutenberg, as the copyright has expired
- Woodrow Wilson: A History of the American People, Vol. 9 (1902) Wikiquote.
- The foul fruits of Woodrow Wilson Keene, David. Washington Times. 10 April 2017
- Cooper, John Milton, Jr. (2009). Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. pp. 13–19. ISBN 978-0-307-27301-7.
- Lowen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. "Handicapped by History." Touchstone, 2007. p. 16
- Tax History Museum: 1901-1932: The Income Tax Arrives
- When a secret president ran the country Dr. Howard Markel. PBS. Oct 2, 2015.
- Woodrow Wilson Versus the Suffragettes Stiehm, Jamie. US News. Dec. 10, 2013.
- Paul Horgan, Great River: the Rio Grande in North American History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), 913
- Calvin Coolidge: Foreign Affairs Greenberg, David. Miller Center.
- Herbert Hoover:Foreign Affairs Hamilton, David E. Miller Center
- Good Neighbor Policy, 1933 US Department of State Office of the Historian
- See the Wikipedia article on Good Neighbor policy.
- The Long Legacy of Occupation in Haiti. Edwidge Danticat. The New Yorker. July 28, 2015.
- U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915–34 US State Department Office of the Historian.
- 100 years ago, the U.S. invaded and occupied this country. Can you name it? Ishaan Tharoor. Washington Post. July 30, 2015.
- The Conquest of Haiti Selections from The Nation magazine 1865-1990 edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel. Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper.
- An Iconic Image of Haitian Liberty. The New YorkerJuly 28, 2015.
- Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. (232)
- Dominican Republic Occupation (1916-24) GlobalSecurity.
- Occupation by the United States, 1916-24 Country Studies.
- The American Invasion Alejandra Baez. Georgetown University. December 4, 2014.
- One Hundred Years After the Occupation. NACLA. Lorgia García Peña. May 25, 2016
- Brown, Isabel Zakrzewski (1999). "Culture and Customs of the Dominican Republic". Greenwood Press.
- United States Occupation of Veracruz Britannica.
- John S.D. Eisenhower, Intervention: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913 - 1917 (1993), pp. 217 - 219
- Annual Report of the Fiscal Year 1916, by Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston, United States Army, Commanding the Southern Department, pp. 3 - 5, entry 27, file #243231, box 141, RG 407, NARA. The Southern Department was the geographic area for the military that encompassed Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
- Eisenhower, Intervention: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1917, pp. 267–268.
- The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition: Part 2 Mitchell Yockelson. Prologue Magazine. Winter 1997, Vol. 29, No. 4
- Perez Jr., Louis A. (1979). Intervention, Revolution, and Politics in Cuba, 1913-1921. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 65–129. ISBN 9780822984719.
- Sugar intervention 1917
- Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy - Intervention in nicaragua American Foreign Relations.
- Walker, Thomas W. (2003). Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle (4th ed.). Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-4033-0.
- "The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898-1934, by Lester D. Langley, p. 69". Books.google.com. 1912-03-05. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
- Musicant, Ivan (1990). The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish–American War to the Invasion of Panama. ew York: MacMillan Publishing. ISBN 978-0-02-588210-2.
- Lowen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. "Handicapped by History." Touchstone, 2007. p. 19
- In Their Own Words: The long-forgotten racial attitudes & policies of Woodrow Wilson Keylor, William. Boston University.
- Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson W.E.B. DuBois. September 1913
- The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service National Postal Museum.
- Segregation in the US Government (1913) PBS.
- Kathleen L. Wolgemuth, “Woodrow Wilson and Federal Segregation’ Journal of Negro History 44 (1959): p161.
- Woodrow Wilson was extremely racist — even by the standards of his time Matthews, Dylan. Vox. Nov 20, 2015.
- The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson Lehr, Dick. The Atlantic. Nov 27, 2015
- Lowen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. "Handicapped by History." Touchstone, 2007. p. 21
- The presidency of Woodrow Wilson Khan Academy.
- When The KKK Was Mainstream NPR. March 19, 2015.
- White Violence and Black Response. Shapiro, Herbert. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. 123-54.
- 1917: Woodrow Wilson’s call to war pulled America onto a global stage The Conversation. April 3, 2017.
- Records of the Committee on Public Information National Archives.
- How Woodrow Wilson’s Propaganda Machine Changed American Journalism Christopher B. Daly. Smithsonian Magazine. Apr 28, 2017
- Master of American Propaganda Nicholas J. Cull. PBS.
- Final Address in Support of the League of Nations Wilson, Woodrow, delivered 25 Sept 1919 in Pueblo, CO
- I.N. Edwards, “The Legal Status of Foreign Languages in the Schools,” in Elementary School Journal 24 (December 6, 1923): 270-78
- German-Americans during World War I Katja Wüstenbecker, University of Jena. Immigrant Entrepreneurship. September 19, 2014.
- The Nation, no. 107 (July 6, 1918): 3. See also J.E. Vacha, “When Wagner was Verboten: The Campaign against German Music in World War I,” New York History 64 (1983): 171-88.
- The Espionage and Sedition Acts Digital History.
- Espionage And Sedition Acts Of World War I Encyclopedia.com
- Cooper, John Milton, Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 978-0-8018-9074-1 (2008), p. 190
- That Time in WWI America When Censorship Was Legal G.J. Meyer. Signature Reads. March 6, 2017.
- See the Wikipedia article on The Spirit of '76 (1917 film).
- See the Wikipedia article on Victor L. Berger.
- Harding Frees Debs and 23 Others Held for War Violations New York Times. December 24, 1921
- Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1964.
- Murray, Robert K. (1955-01-01). Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. U of Minnesota Press. p. 58. ISBN 9780816658336.
- "Senate Orders Reds Here Investigated," New York Times. February 5, 1919
- [https://www.nytimes.com/1919/07/28/archives/reds-try-to-stir-negroes-to-revolt-widespread-propaganda-on-foot.html Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt." New York Times. Jul 28, 1919
- "Reds are Working among Negroes," New York Times. October 19, 1919
- Palmer Raids] Britannica
- "Nation-Wide Plot to Kill High Officials on Red May Day Revealed by Palmer," New York Times April 30, 1920.
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