Monday, November 30, 2015

Woodrow Wilson reconsidered

Princeton University is reconsidering the legacy of its former president as well as America's, Woodrow Wilson. I think we all should do likewise.  As readers here know, I have a much more negative view of Wilson than I did in earlier years. While I have specific complaints about some of his foreign policy, especially his mishandling of the Versailles treaty consideration by the Senate, I was also deeply troubled by his racism, something overlooked by most of the writers I had read over the years.

The Princeton demonstrations have made us all more aware of Wilson's bigotry and denial of rights and opportunities to black Americans. One writer describes a heated encounter between Wilson and some black leaders.

The most thorough account of his re-segregation of the executive branch appears to be in this excellent book by Eric Yellin, Racism in the Nation's Service. Here is his balanced judgment:

In public memory, Woodrow Wilson stands alone at the center of this story. While Wilson strongly supported segregation, there is no evidence that he oversaw its implementation or ensured consistency through a clear directive. Wilson was an aloof and shadowy chief executive when it came to personnel management, even in the area of racial discrimination. Instead, it was the men Wilson appointed to run his government who threaded white supremacy into the federal bureaucracy....The result was a more complex regime with a larger cast of characters. Wilson’s most remarkable role came after the dirty work was well underway, when he blessed the marriage of progressive politics and state-sponsored racism as necessary for good government.
That analysis persuades me that Princeton and we here in Washington can continue to honor Wilson for his praiseworthy accomplishments even while bearing in mind his objectionable views and actions. Hardly any  one is all saint or all sinner; we can weigh virtues and vices before rendering judgment.

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