Woodrow Wilson’s presidency began a hundred years ago, but he has been talked about a lot lately, due to a new biography about him by A. Scott Berg. While he is a shade below presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and FDR in terms of the regard Americans hold him in, Wilson is still frequently ranked as one of the best chief executives that this country has ever seen. In a 1982 survey, both liberal and conservative historians were asked to rank the best and worst U.S. presidents. Liberal historians ranked Wilson as the sixth best, and conservative historians ranked him the eighth best. Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, and University of Virginia all attempt to lay claim to a piece of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy.
In an astounding piece, Michael Kazin recently called Woodrow Wilson the “Forgotten President.” I have much respect for Kazin, but the title is absurd. Whatever one thinks of Woodrow Wilson, it would be almost impossible to refer to him as underrated or forgotten. As referenced above, Wilson is showered with honors. With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, he is the only president between Lincoln and FDR who is generally held in high regard today. For comparison, Martin Luther King, Jr. is a personal hero of mine. But I would never describe him as underrated, because he is a national and international icon, beloved by multitudes of people of every race. And deservedly so. But does Woodrow Wilson deserve to be an icon? I believe not. This is my one hundredth blog post on WordPress, and I am using it to begin a series of blog posts attempting to reveal the truth about our twenty-eighth president.
Woodrow Wilson probably receives the most credit for his foreign policy. And for good or for ill, he played a major role in shaping the foreign policy that America has today–although his first three successors tried to go in a different direction. The truth, however, is that while Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize, the full number of deaths that he helped cause will probably never be known. It is quite likely that he played a role in causing a war that occurred decades after his presidency. Conservative estimates place the number of deaths in this war at over one million. That war is the Vietnam War. How could this be? The answer lies in the Paris Peace Conference. While the central focus of the conference was the peace terms for the opposing sides in World War I, another intertwined issue was what would become of the colonies held by European powers. At this time, France controlled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, collectively called, “French Indochina.” A young Vietnamese nationalist wrote to Woodrow Wilson asking for aid. Perhaps he knew that Wilson was ostensibly anti-imperialist. At any rate, he wrote of his wish for a free, democratic government and urged Wilson to advocate for his cause at the peace conference. Wilson apparently felt that this did not even warrant a response. The young nationalist, however, would not give up. He had decided that, by hook or by crook, the Vietnamese people would out from under the heel of France. His name was Ho Chi Minh.
With it now clear that he could expect no support from the United States government, Minh needed another ally. He found it in a nation that had recently experienced a revolution overthrowing an old aristocratic order and establishing a new government. This nation was the Soviet Union. The rest was history. When Minh’s revolution was successful, he did not establish a free, democratic government. He established a Communist dictatorship, and the Vietnam War eventually began. It is possible that Wilson advocating for Minh’s cause would have accomplished nothing. But it is also possible that Wilson could have successfully pushed France to agree to Minh’s demands, made Vietnam a free country, and averted a horrific war.