I was all ready predisposed to reviewing A. Scott Berg’s latest biography, this one on President Woodrow Wilson, entitled appropriately, Wilson, and was not deterred by the hefty 743 pages.
When I was teaching the history of American Film at a number of universities, I made his book, Goldwyn: A Biography, required reading. I thought it was a well-written, deeply researched look at how early Hollywood developed.
Reading Wilson, with A. Scott Berg’s considerable narrative skills in full display once again, I was drawn back to a subject that has always held the greatest interest for me for most of my adult life: the two narratives of American history (there is also a third one), one white, the other black.
One: “The Shining City on the Hill”; the other: “Behold, the Iceman cometh. Beware, destroyer of worlds.”
And no one in American history best embodies both of these worlds better than Woodrow Wilson.
This is also the third book on American Presidents I have reviewed in the last two years (Andrew Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and now Wilson).
What I can say about all three men, despite my personal aversion to much of their domestic policy’s concerning blacks, with both Johnson and Wilson also having a deep seeded hated of black people-- I have come away from reading these books with the realization that being President of the United States is one tough job, indeed.
It quickly became clear to former Political Science professor Woodrow Wilson when his ideas were no longer theories to be discussed and debated in class, but could result in real lives lost.
Wilson was a progressive, and wanted to focus his administration on domestic issues and curb the power of the wealthy and well connected and had much success in his first year in passing progressive laws.
He also started what would be, after he was finished, the total segregation of Washington, thereby wiping out years of progress made by blacks in the civil service.
However, soon, the rest of the world came knocking at the White House door. In his second year as President, in 1914, the Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta would give Wilson his first real life lesson in what it means to be the Commander-in-Chief.
Writes Berg in a chapter entitled “Baptism, ““…the Administration had learned that a ship had left Havana for Veracruz laden with 1,333 boxes of German guns intended for Huerta.”
The strong man, General Huerta was under siege by the likes of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and the majority of the Mexican public.
The Senate had just given Wilson authority to employ the armed forces if needed against countries like Mexico “for unequivocal amends for affronts and indignities.”
Wilson decided to use this new power to see that the guns did not fall into the hands of the hated despot, General Huerta.
On April 21, 1914, eight hundred Marines and Sailors landed at the Veracruz waterfront, and by the end of the next day they had overrun the town. Nineteen Americans died in the fighting, and seventy were wounded; more than a hundred Mexicans died.
Notes Berg, “He (Wilson) would later admit that he could not dismiss the thought of the young men killed in Mexico. “
“It was right to send then,” President Wilson confided later to a friend, “but that does not mitigate the sorrow for their deaths—and I am responsible for their being there.”
In a few short months, those 19 Americans and 100 Mexican dead would pale in significance, as on June 28, 1914 a teenaged Bosnian Serb shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, killing the heir apparent of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, and sending the world into an orgy of violence it had never witnessed before.
As much as Wilson said that he wanted America to stay out of the wars in Europe, with the American public wanting no part of yet another European conflict, only this one more bloody than the American Civil War, which had set the gold standard for bloodshed-- we ended up, in his second term, where he won on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” nevertheless, in the trenches of Europe.
(Does this sound like most of our Presidents, anyone, including Obama?)
. The story of Woodrow Wilson’s rise to worldwide prominence is well presented in Wilson, warts and all. This is a wonderful book that I could barely put down, even as hefty as it was. A. Scott Berg is to be congratulated for yet another job, well done.