Thomas (Don’t Call Me
“Tommy”) Woodrow (Just Call Me “Woody”) Wilson was the 28th President of the United States,
serving from 1913 to 1921. Before becoming president, Wilson was a college professor at the prestigious Princeton University
(he remains our only president to have earned a doctorate). From there, he became governor of New Jersey. Wilson,
who won WWI and received the Nobel Peace Prize, is often seen as an “...advocate for democracy and world peace,”
and “...is often ranked by historians as one of the nation’s greatest presidents.” (Woodrow
Wilson, Topics) Or not.
To be sure, Wilson did accomplish several “positive” things as president (depending on
your perspective, of course). There’s the Underwood Act that lowered tariffs. He came up with a “graduated
Federal income tax.” He strengthened the country’s monetary supply with the passage of the Federal Reserve
Act. He enacted antitrust legislation by establishing the Federal Trade Commission. And he passed legislation
prohibiting child labour as well as limiting “railroad workers to an eight-hour day.” (Woodrow Wilson, History
and Grounds) And let’s not forget Women’s Suffrage. Even though Wilson was originally opposed to the
idea of giving women the vote, with the help of Wilson’s daughter, women gained the right to vote in 1920, during his
presidency (Woodrow Wilson Biography). As well, even though prohibition (which can only be viewed as a complete
failure) came into effect during his presidency, Wilson was opposed to it. He vetoed the Volstead Act, but was overridden
by Congress. Prohibition would last until 1933. (Woodrow Wilson, Topics) That’s a long time to go
without a drink, and there were many people who could’ve used a stiff drink during his presidency, including African
was the first Southerner elected president following the Civil War (he was originally from Virginia). Unfortunately,
he was a Southerner who favoured the South... the Old South. One of the few places that had been de-segregated by 1913
when Wilson took office was federal civil service, and Wilson promptly overturned those policies, bringing back such things
as segregated restrooms and even screens to separate black workers from their white counterparts. In Wilson’s
own words, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by [African Americans].”
(Barnett) What a guy! According to W.E.B. Du Bois (who initially supported Wilson based on his promises of helping
African Americans achieve greater equality), “Altogether the segregationist and discriminatory policies of Wilson
in his first six months alone were .... the ‘gravest attack on the liberties’ of African Americans since Emancipation.”
in a career that is filled with irony, got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, which would become the leading institution to change
America’s entire healthcare industry from one that even into the 20th Century still routinely “bled”
patients and relied almost solely on doctor “intuition,” to one that became science-centered. Imagine that.
Had it not been for the medical infrastructure, such as it were, the United States may not have survived as a nation.
(Woodrow Wilson, History and Grounds)
Regardless of everything positive (and negative) Wilson may have accomplished in office, his presidency
is defined by two inseparable events: World War One and the Great Influenza pandemic.
Wilson was first opposed to involving America in a foreign war, and
he narrowly won re-election in 1917 based on the slogan "he kept us out of war." But then, because of several events,
it became obvious that the United States could not allow Germany and its allies to win the war in Europe, if for no other
reason than to “Make the world safe for democracy.” (Woodrow Wilson, Topics) And the only way to do
that was for the United States to fight, and there’s no point in fighting if you don’t intend to win. And
Wilson intended to win.
When the United States finally entered the Great War, Wilson was determined to win at any cost. A loss, after
all, could’ve meant the end of our country as we knew it. If we were going to war, according to Wilson, our commitment
would have to be total. No part of our country would be exempt. For instance, Wilson’s Administration instituted
a “work or serve” policy. If one were not directly involved in producing war-related goods in the US (such
as working in a munitions factory or as a nurse), then one would be sent to the front. Even professional baseball players
were not exempt. (Barry)
Perhaps the most controversial move Wilson made concerned public morale. It was not only seen as unpatriotic
to speak critically (at all) of our involvement in the war, but it actually became illegal. First Amendment Rights were
all but lost. People could be jailed for even questioning the loss of their Civil Rights, and many were.
Unless the media could report the positive, then they weren’t to report anything at all... or, even better, they were
to make up something good. (Barry)
Enter the Great Influenza pandemic in 1918, which is a must study for anybody who is opposed to vaccinations. The pandemic was most lethal between 1918 and 1919, but it lingered on for many years
after that. It is estimated that the Great Influenza was the most deadly outbreak of disease in the history of
the world, even deadlier than the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. All told, it killed more people off the battlefields
of WWI than those who died from fighting – on all sides combined. (Billings)
The Great Influenza is often called the Spanish Flu, because early
reports were that it started in Spain (among other places). The pandemic – a disease that infected the entire
world – was quite obvious when it arrived somewhere, and it was quite obvious when it traveled from that area to somewhere
else – usually by troop transports. And if you trace it all back to a starting point, Haskell County, Kansas (in
the extreme southern center of the state), gets that honor. (Barry) I doubt if there’s a tourist attraction there.
There’s a couple of ways
to look at the Great Influenza. After all, it only killed 5% of the entire world population, which means 95% of the
people were not killed, and probably less than 50% were infected. With odds like that you could break the house
in Vegas. But 5% of the world population, even in the early part of the 20th Century, was a lot
of people. It is estimated that anywhere from 20 million people (on the really low side) to 100 million people (on the
more realistic side) died. We can’t be exact for any number of reasons. For instance, nobody really knew
how many people lived in the Eskimo villages in North America, and by the time aid workers got there, nobody was left.
Entire towns were wiped out. They couldn’t even count the dead bodies because they had been dragged off by wild
dogs. And even in places where we knew how many people were there to begin with, like Philadelphia, there came a point
where people stopped counting the dead. There were simply too many. If you were still alive, you had more important
things to do than worry about the dead. (Barry)
Indeed, many people died from starvation – in major cities – because aid
workers were either too sick themselves, or (more likely) were too afraid to enter into their homes to help them. (Barry)
One woman, who lived through the influenza, reports being so ill she couldn’t get out of bed and take care of her children.
She knew somebody had died when they stopped coughing. She was too sick to mourn the deaths of her own children.
And that’s where this horrible
story turns back on President Wilson. The media were not allowed to report anything “bad” for fear it would
affect our morale, by order of the President. Indeed, a survey of newspaper accounts, especially early on in the pandemic,
finds almost no mention at all of the disease, and Wilson never addressed the problem publically. Never.
today the official White House site for Presidential Biographies does not mention the Great Influenza pandemic that so defined
Wilson’s presidency. Not a single word. We could expect that site to put a positive spin on the Presidents,
but History.com? Or Biography.com? They don’t mention the pandemic relative to Wilson,
information came from the government, both local and national, was that everything was alright. There was nothing to
worry about. After all, it was just the flu. Reality, though, didn’t support that point of view. It’s
hard to believe that everything is OK when there are bodies piled “like cordwood” on porches, or simply left in
the beds where they died (where people slept next to them because they were too sick to do anything else). There was
simply nobody left well enough to deal with the bodies, and even if they wanted to, there were no coffins. (Barry) Still
don’t want to get your yearly flu shot?
In short, people were left on their own. And when people are left on their own, then there
is no society. As well, if you can’t believe the government, truly, if everything the government seems to be saying
goes against reality, then that only leaves fear. Lesson Number One: Be honest with the public.
Sure, almost all health professionals
turned their attention toward the pandemic (indeed, it’s all they did), but they were sorely hampered by not having
honest information from the start. That, and the government’s refusal to stop infected troops from being transported
across the US and then on to Europe. After all, not sending troops to Europe, even troops who were sick and dying upon
arriving in European ports (not to mention those who didn’t survive the voyage), could’ve been seen as a sign
of weakness by the enemy. And wherever those troops went, they spread the disease. (Barry)
By the time the media started ignoring the government’s rules
on “keeping up the morale” (pretty much after the War had already ended), the influenza had already done most
of its damage. On the ironic side, though, the influenza pandemic probably shortened World War One. It’s
hard to fight a war when both sides are too sick to care. (Barry)
But then, on the even more ironic side, it is quite possible that the
pandemic may have inadvertently led to World War Two (the sequel). Wilson, himself, became ill with influenza while
he was in Europe at the peace talks following the Great War.
Originally France, where the majority of the War was fought, wanted
Germany punished. Among other things, France wanted Germany to give up disputed territory and to pay reparations.
They wanted so much money that Germany would be crippled for a very long time. Wilson, who knew that no good would come
from punishing Germany (or any of Germany’s allies), refused to give into France’s demands, to the point that
he was planning on leaving the conference. Then Wilson caught the flu. Whereas Wilson refused to compromise going
into the peace talks, after his sickness, he pretty much compromised on everything. Sure, he still got the League of
Nations (which eventually became the United Nations), but we all know how effective they were in keeping world peace.
Instead of participating in the peace process (which Wilson had originally wanted), Germany was told what they had to accept,
and that left them angry with nothing to lose. A bad combination. (Barry)
So was Wilson a really good president, or a really bad president?
Or maybe somewhere in-between? Perhaps the only way to answer such a question is to ask if he made the United States
and the world better, or worse?