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Forty-four unique men have served as President of the United States.
History shows that U.S. Presidents have achieved many good things for Americans, some great, and some not so great. All were men. All were human. Each and every one made mistakes as we look back historically, yet, all were products of their times. Some helped change the times.
One President, Woodrow Wilson, is now being called racist for his views on equality. Eighteen of those gone before may just as easily have been called racist also, based on their ownership of slaves. Shall we tear down all the monuments and change the names of thousands of buildings, streets and highways, towns and cities named after them? Should we erase their notable achievements in the name of hindsight? Can we “read back” into history, and try to correct it ex post facto? Does pointing out their flaws—which were many, as in most people—have any beneficial effect or alter what we now consider as great? Or should we consider their positive attributes and accomplishments?
As a world leader, we should definitely recognize President Wilson’s groundbreaking attempt to establish a definitive league of nations that would address and adjudicate world problems. In this short series of essays, we’ll focus on that aspect of President Wilson’s life’s work.
Let’s start with a few excerpts from the soon-to-be-published biography of Woodrow Wilson by Michael P. Riccards. Mike has authored 15 books, including The Ten Greatest U.S. Presidents. A past college president three times over, Mike is also a close friend, a writing partner, and an independent observer and chronicler of history. With his permission, some of his observations on Woodrow Wilson:
Great men or women are often described as complicated, and especially we seek to understand the threads of their early being. In his brief life span no public personality so captivated the people of America and the world in general as Woodrow Wilson. Over a century later we still feel the pull of his influence. Historians do not agree whether he was a great president or a disaster; few stake out an intelligent middle ground. All admit that he was one of the most successful domestic policy presidents only rivaled by FDR, his protégé, and Lyndon Johnson, FDR’s protégé.
After being elected in 1912, Wilson hated almost clinically that… he had to spend most of his time on foreign affairs. He saw himself as a domestic reformer. But ironic it was as his term in office is most remembered by history for the Great War and the difficulties of the Treaty of Versailles, and finally America’s repudiation of the League of Nations.
The trigger for war was the 28 June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. This set off a diplomatic crisis…. Within weeks, the major powers were at war and the conflict soon spread around the world.
Diplomatically Wilson argued in May 1916 for a postwar League of Peace to uphold the rights of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom from aggression. Even TR [Theodore Roosevelt] and Taft had once supported a league and some of the more enlightened Europeans, including Pope Benedict XV, agreed. But the war leaders did not comment, preferring to fight in what each side saw as victory. Once again, and for the last time, on December 18, 1916, the president offered again to mediate the war, and he would ask each side what it would take to terminate the war and promote future security. The Central Powers insisted that victory was certain; the Allies demanded that the enemy’s empires be dismembered. Oddly enough the Second World War would be the beginning of the unraveling of empires of both European and Asian states. And the leader of that anti-colonial crusade would be a Wilson protégé—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1916, however, Wilson’s peace offer went nowhere:
[Toward the end of the war] “The advisors to Wilson were called the “Inquiry” and headed up by a president of City College in New York City. The group provided the president with a series of objectives from Berlin to Baghdad with particular emphasis on the Slavic area. It urged that America use its financial assets to prevail, a position that the president held. …the Inquiry laid out a statement of peace terms, and focused on “territory, territory.” The report was released on December 23, 1917. The forces of Lenin in Russia on their own pushed for an end to forcible annexation of territory seized during the war, restoring independence, protecting minorities, safeguarding weaker nations against boycotts and blockade, and allowing national groups to determine their public future by referendum. Wilson would be impacted by those principals as well as by the Inquiry report. While the president was working on his own statement of objectives, the Fourteen Points, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was giving a speech in London supporting “self-determination,” this from the guardian of the British Commonwealth.”
Several days later Wilson appeared before Congress with his program of world peace. It is frequently cited in his time and in ours that Wilson was a total failure in getting his ideas accepted at the peace conference, the usual charges that Wilson sold out his principles for the establishment of a League of Nations.
But as we now know, Wilson’s Fourteen Point peace plan did not fail in the long term. Instead, it served as the basis for the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, advancing international relations and serving as the formative document for the League of Nations, the first attempt at a world governing body that could enforce global peace. Under the onslaught of the aggression of the Axis powers the League fell apart at the dawn of World War II, but then its founding international principles reasserted themselves in a new incarnation—the United Nations—at the close of that war in 1945. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which replicate Baha’u’llah’s teachings in so many ways, still have an enormous influence on diplomacy and international relations today.
Baha’is believe that those lofty, essentially spiritual principles—global peace, disarmament, the rights of all and an end to colonial oppression—continued and expanded throughout the world because they represent the emerging spirit of the age. First given to the world by Baha’u’llah in the middle of the previous century, those Baha’i principles call on humanity and its leaders to observe peace and justice, to disarm and to end all war. The Baha’i writings praise President Wilson for his initial advocacy of those high aims:
The President of the Republic, Dr. Wilson, is indeed serving the Kingdom of God for he is restless and strives day and night that the rights of all men may be preserved safe and secure, that even small nations, like greater ones, may dwell in peace and comfort, under the protection of Righteousness and Justice. This purpose is indeed a lofty one. I trust that the incomparable Providence will assist and confirm such souls under all conditions. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 109.
Next: Wilson’s Points: The Dawn of Universal Peace