Liberals Rally to Defense of Woodrow Wilson

By Jonah Goldberg

It’s taken liberals a while, but they have finally begun rallying to the defense of Woodrow Wilson. Most of the defensive operations are really more of a counter-attack (I addressed the last wave). It’s not that liberals want to defend Wilson so much as they seem incapable of conceding that conservatives might have a point in their case against the 28th president.

David Greenberg, the in-house historian at Slate magazine, is the latest to enlist in the cause of defending Wilson by calling his critics cranks and ignoramuses.

It’s a shockingly weak effort, for an often sensible guy. It begins with lots of hand waving about the silliness of Wilson’s detractors and a few obligatory yet utterly pointless cracks at George W. Bush. It then segues into even more obligatory mockery of Glenn Beck. Exhibit A of Beck’s ignorance is that he admitted he didn’t know much about Woodrow Wilson until he started reading about Woodrow Wilson! The charlatan!

Exhibit B is that Beck got the pedigree of Birth of a Nation (one of Wilson’s favorite movies) a little wrong. Greenberg then writes that Wilson’s view of “Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan was much more moderate than the film’s.” This is close to a whitewash. It’s true that Wilson admired Lincoln’s methods in the Civil War, but he was hardly upbeat about the freeing the slaves. Given Wilson’s deep sympathies for the South (his father was a Confederate chaplain), his virulent racism (uncontested by Greenberg), his unqualified endorsement of Birth of a Nation, his re-segregation of the federal government, his tacit approval of lynching, and so on, Greenberg’s allusion to Wilson’s “moderation” is nothing better than rhetorical sleight of hand.

Greenberg glibly asserts that hatred of Wilson is “crackpot history” worthy of ridicule, but he gives every indication that he’s basing his view on caricatures and strawmen. Nowhere does he demonstrate the slightest evidence that he’s actually read R.J. Pestritto’s work on Wilson, in which Pestritto lets Wilson’s own words and actions speak for themselves. Instead, he demonstrates the snooty guild mentality of establishment historians who feel offended that anyone would re-open questions they consider closed.

Hence there’s no mention of the American Protective League, the Committee for Public Information, war socialism, censorship, political prisoners, xenophobia, propaganda, etc. This superstructure was unwound after the war, but the progressive alumni of the Wilson administration were desperate to rebuild it. “We planned in war” became the progressive rallying cry during the Republican “return to normalcy” and became the foundation of the New Deal, a fact that FDR was quite open about. These are not new complaints, either. Robert Nisbet—no crank, he—wrote in 1988:

In each of these presidents there is a conspicuous readiness to turn to political centralization, bureaucracy, and the heaping up of powers, so far as possible, in the central government even at the expense of a strictly read Constitution. Woodrow Wilson is the master of them all, in respect to his union of strong instincts toward centralization and use of war powers. His political, economic, social, and even intellectual reorganization of America in the short period 1917-1919 is one of the most extraordinary feats in the long history of war and polity. Through artfully created boards, commissions, and agencies he and his worshipful lieutenants, drawn from all areas—business, academia, law, even entertainment—revolutionized America to a degree never reached in such a short period of time by either the French or the Russian revolution.


Novel boards and agencies were fashioned to assimilate the whole American economic and social fabric in their workings. The most powerful of the economic bodies was probably the War Industries Board.

From it, and it alone, came the authorizations, licenses, and permissions—and with these, absolute orders and mandates—by which the American economy operated during the war. Railroads, mines, and other interstate industries were nationalized, made wards of Washington, D.C. There was a War Labor Policies Board, a Shipping Board, a Food Administration, and before the ending of the war many another centralized, national authorities created by the Congress or the executive in which absolute power was vested in its own sphere. Nothing even in Europe equaled the degree and intensity of American political absolutism during its brief period in the Great War. General Ludendorff acknowledged American initiative in this respect when, in a last great effort at German victory, he instituted “War Socialism.” Lenin’s War Communism, with its thicket of centralized agencies of regulation or ownership, was indebted to what America did first and so successfully. Mussolini’s early structure of Fascism in Italy, with its powerful national agencies controlling factory production, labor relations, the railroads, took a leaf from the American wartime book of three years earlier. The blunt fact is that when under Wilson America was introduced to the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known as the total, or totalitarian, state. There is this important point to add: The acts which transformed laissez-faire, entrepreneurial America into a total state for the duration were acts of Congress, not of a revolutionary minority as in Russia and Italy. And, to repeat, there was not the slightest difficulty after the armistice in putting a terminal date to the various elements of the total state, though not all of the elements—railroads, unions, other industries and associations—appeared to be happy in their return to freedom from the state. Certain figures, intellectuals and business executives included, began to think of techniques for escape from that freedom. Considerable thought was given to ideas, for example, that would under FDR go into the National Recovery Administration, the life of which was rudely ended by the Supreme Court in the early thirties.

Greenberg sweeps all of this into a grudging concession that amid all the “crackpot history” there’s a “nub of truth amid the distortion in the right’s Wilson-bashing.”

Similarly, he waves away Wilson’s actual philosophy. Wilson believed that under progressive government the individual must “marry his interests to the state.”

“If any trait bubbles up in all one reads about Wilson,” writes the historian Walter McDougall, “it is this: he loved, craved, and in a sense glorified power.” Wilson wrote that there should be no limits on presidential power so long as the people were on his side. “The President,” he wrote in 1908 in Constitutional Government in the United States, “is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution . . . but only because the President has the nation behind him and Congress has not.”

This raises another standard argument among Wilson’s new defenders: the claim that his critics are fools for not recognizing Wilson’s actions were popular. Greenberg writes:

If you consider the political currents of the Progressive Era, the portrait of Wilson as either a radical or a precursor of fascism looks especially absurd. At the turn of the century, problems like the exploitation of labor, the blight of urban tenements, and the dangers of economic concentration cried out for reform. Social science was illuminating new solutions to intractable social problems, such as creating parks and libraries or improving factory conditions to limit disease. Public opinion demanded a stronger role for government, which was the only institution possessing the resources to make a difference. Properly situated in this context, Wilson and other progressives emerge as not as proto-fascists or wild renegades but as tempered, moderate reformers. They implemented major changes, but those changes were in tune with the mainstream of public sentiment.

Now who is being ahistorical? Perhaps Glenn Beck has claimed that Progressivism and Wilson were unpopular, but that is not a claim Pestritto makes as far as I am aware. Nor does it appear anywhere in my book, Liberal Fascism. Indeed, I claim the exact opposite. Of course progressivism was popular. So was fascism. Indeed, all of the historical forces Greenberg attributes to rise of progressivism—industrialization, urbanization, centralization, etc.—are the same forces that fueled the rise of fascism.

Indeed, what a strange defense for liberals to make. McCarthyism (which has its roots in the Wilson era, by the way) was popular, too. And yet, I don’t recall many liberals defending Tailgunner Joe on the grounds that the American people were behind him.

Lastly, liberals really need to make up their mind about whether they are going to own the progressive era or not. Hillary Clinton says she’s a “modern progressive” not a liberal. President Obama ostentatiously invoked the (racist eugenicist imperialist) progressives of the University of Wisconsin as an inspiration for his campaign. The Center for American Progress has launched a project to defend the Progressive Era from all detractors. But Greenberg wants to claim that serious people cannot take modern-day liberals at their word when they invoke their progressive forebears as an inspiration. I’ll take Obama’s word over Greenberg’s.