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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 Americans.

Wilson 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.”  (Barnett)

Wilson, 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.  (Barry)

Even 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, either.  Wow.

What 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?


Work Cited

Barnett, Randy.  “Expunging Woodrow Wilson from Official Places of Honor.”  The Volokh Conspiracy.  The Washington Post (25 June 2015): n. pag.  Web.  06 Jan. 2016.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/06/25/expunging-woodrow-wilson-from-official-places-of-honor/

Barry, John M.  The Great Influenza:  The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2004.  Print.

Billings, Molly.  “The Influenza Panic of 1918.”  Stanford.  Standford.edu:  (Feb. 2005) n. pag.  Web.  06 Jan. 2016.  https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/

“Woodrow Wilson Biography.”  Biography.com.  A & E Television Network (2016): n. pag.  Web.  06 Jan. 2016.  http://www.biography.com/people/woodrow-wilson-9534272

“Woodrow Wilson.”  History and Grounds:  Presidents.  The White House: n. pag.  Web.  06 Jan. 2016.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/woodrowwilson

“Woodrow Wilson.”  Topics:  US Presidents.  History.com  (2016): n. pag. Web.  06 Jan. 2016.  http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/woodrow-wilson


Things You May Not Have Known About WWI

World War One “officially” began in July of 1914 with the death of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, who was the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He was assassinated in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia).

Both Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were killed by Serbian separatists who wanted an independent Serbia.  They were assassinated on June 28, 1914.  June 28 marks the anniversary (more or less) of when Serbia lost its independence in 1389 to the Turks.  Solely a coincidence, June 28 was also Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s wedding anniversary.

Serbia was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the former Ottoman Empire in 1908.

The first assassination attempt, a bomb thrown at Ferdinand’s car, failed when the bomb rolled off the back of the car.

Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Serbian separatist, happened to be “loitering” on the street where the archduke’s procession happened to take a wrong turn.  He shot both Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range, but was stopped before he could shoot himself.  And so it goes.

The US entered the War in April of 1917.

The War “officially” ended on November 11, 1918 – On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. 

November 11 was originally referred to as Armistice Day, a day set aside to commemorate peace.  In the United States, it is now referred to as Veterans’ Day, a day set aside to commemorate those who have served in the Armed Forces.

Though it was not the first time chemical and biological agents had been used in a war, WWI saw the most wide-spread use of it ever (and prompted the “banning” of its use in warfare).

World War One was the first time airplanes were used directly in a war, even though their use was more tactical (such as observation) than strategic (actually fighting).

An estimated 17 million people died directly from the War; another 20 million people were wounded.  Around seven million of those who died were civilians. 

Over 53,000 Americans were listed as dead or missing.

The country with the greatest number of dead or missing directly attributed to combat was Germany, with over two million, followed by Russia, which had over 1.8 million, then France, with over 1.1 million, and then Britain, with around 730,000.   

WWI was called “The War to End all Wars.”

Many historians see both World War One and World War Two as the same war, with a lull in direct combat from the “official” end of WWI to the “official” beginning of WWII in September 1939.  The Cold War, and all of its “proxy” battles was a direct result of WWII.

It is estimated that there are more memorials for those who served (and died) in WWI than any war ever fought.