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Woodrow Wilson Research Papers

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Woodrow Wilson’s main objective at the Paris Peace Conference was the drafting of the League of Nations Covenant.  Wilson was determined to create an international body that would ensure that World War I was not repeated and that each nation would be represented with equality in mind. In the initial Council of Four negotiations regarding war guilt and reparations, Wilson supported a reparations agreement with a fixed minimum amount and a fixed pay period. After that period, all German reparation debts would be forgiven. However, this plan was unacceptable to both Clemenceau and David Lloyd George. Wilson maintained this stalemate until he collapsed from exhaustion and was replaced by Colonel House in the negotiations.  He agreed to the resolutions drafted in his absence, but it is clear that the war guilt clause was not his creation. Woodrow Wilson

Robert Lansing noted in his observances that Wilson’s greatest problem at the conference was his absolute dedication to the League of Nations. Eventually, the Allied negotiators realized that Wilson was prepared to sacrifice much in order to get approval for the League of Nations and began to use this point in their favor. Clemenceau, in particular, used the League as a bargaining point in his insistence on reparations. The statesmen applauded the President’s principles, then used their alleged support of his aims to gain their material concessions. These observances clearly show that Wilson was frequently outmaneuvered by the European statesmen.

Wilson, himself, admits that his secondary position played a role in his acceptance of the war guilt clause. This letter is in response to Lloyd George’s expectation that the United States loan Germany working capital to restart industry after the Allies claim Germany’s existing capital for reparations. Wilson notes that it is unreasonable for the Allies to attempt to aid Germany increase its capital while their existing treaty plan drains that capital at the same time. Clemenceau’s manipulation of the League during the war guilt and reparations discussions was probably responsible for Wilson’s determination not to stand the Allies’ way any longer.

Wilson’s version of Progressivism  was a middle of the road type of Progressivism and it was very much in accord with the spirit of the times.  Faulkner notes that by 1912 a “social consciousness” had developed in the country, a consciousness that demanded cleaner politics and better living conditions (108). This was a wave that Wilson was able to catch. His First Inaugural address address strikes three standard Progressive chords:

  1. We have come far, but we must go farther.
  2. “…the scales of heedlessness have fallen from our eyes…”, i.e., in the race for personal and national success we have allowed the powerful to exploit the weak and we are no longer willing to do so.
  3. The government has a role to play in assuring social justice.

Wilson’s First Inaugural is a short speech by modern standards but it contains a great deal of matter.  The latter half of the speech contains a set of generalizations that point to defects in current political and economic arrangements.  But there is a certain vagueness here.  At no point in this speech does Wilson say, “I will shortly send to Congress legislative proposals that will do this and this and this.”  The specifics are lacking.  How different might have been Robert La Follett’s inaugural address had he ever given one, for La Follette was a different brand of Progressive than was Wilson: blunter, more plain spoken, above all, more of a “doer”, more of a nuts and bolts enactor of specific legislation.  But La Follett was probably not capable of winning a nation-wide election because he was, both in terms of tone and policy, more of a Progressive than the now “Progressive” nation really wanted.

Wilson was in tune with the Progressive spirit in terms of foreign policy.  He hoped to keep the country out of the war and perhaps went too far in that direction than he should have.  Progressivism was, essentially, an inward looking political phenomena.  Its focus was not foreign policy but the betterment of the domestic political situation. Involvement in the European War, in the corrupt balance of power relationships of the Old War, was viewed with distaste by the population as a whole, by Wilson himself, and by his fellow Progressive politicians.

What the country hoped for from Wilson was in line with what he could deliver, a kind of tinkering at the economic and political margins.  The country then, as now, was basically centrist.  Reform was in the air, but not radical change.  What was wanted was a judicious hand on the tiller, not a fiery radical.  Wilson’s fit the bill to perfection.  By 1912 the country had somewhat out-grown Teddy Roosevelt’s posturing and was deeply suspicious of what Taft represented.  Wilson, judicious in tone, with superb academic credentials, experienced in governing, a brilliant orator, and just Progressive enough, was a man to match the nation’s political tone.

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