Ted Widmer: What We Can Learn From Woodrow Wilson

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ted Widmer is author, most recently, of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, forthcoming from Hill & Wang. He is director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. This Audit is adapted from Widmer's January 2008 presentation at "The Liberal Foreign Policy Tradition," a conference cosponsored by CIS, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the History and Democracy.]

Wilson's idealistic vision of democracy and self-determination around the world should serve as a model for the Democrats' foreign policy.

We can't do much better than reclaiming the Declaration of Independence as a fundamental foreign policy document in American history. We have a tendency to read it in a simplistic way, and to think of it only as a sort of airy declaration of what were then human rights, and a declaration of separation from England. But, in fact, the founders had a fairly well-articulated sense of what they were doing with foreign policy, and a fairly revolutionary sense of their foreign policy. So I'm quite interested in how Woodrow Wilson rediscovers the founders and makes them relevant for his time.

This thinking about Wilson began for me about ten years ago when I came to be a speechwriter in the second term of Bill Clinton's presidency. I was quite interested in which presidents were considered historically interesting to Clinton and quickly figured out it was John F. Kennedy, obviously, and Franklin D. Roosevelt a little less obviously, and Teddy Roosevelt, who was a huge influence on Bill Clinton, and always has been. It was a time in the 1990s when a lot of very favorable books were coming out about Teddy Roosevelt, and it was an attractive time to be thinking about him. At the same time, I felt Wilson was completely ignored. I don't remember Clinton ever talking about Wilson. In the collected speeches of Bill Clinton -- it's something like eighteen very fat volumes, the man enjoys speaking -- if we looked up Wilson, I'm sure we could find a few references, but very few.

As a historian, I thought that was fascinating. I looked a little into Wilson and the way people talk about him, a sort of casual dismissal of Wilsonian idealism, which is a put-down -- I don't think it's ever used favorably in the press. George Bush vigorously denies that he's a Wilsonian idealist, and it's largely an accusation leveled at him, not something he claims for himself. Henry Kissinger's book, Diplomacy, opens with a discussion of Wilson versus Theodore Roosevelt, and he states it very clearly. One is an idealist, one is a realist.

I think the tide may be about to turn for Wilson. I do think he is a pivot for all of American history before him, converting it into the twentieth century. For my research, more than anything, I read his speeches, which was a pleasure. There are a lot of Wilson's speeches, and they are fascinating. They are radically different from what came before. They are radically different from what Theodore Roosevelt was saying. We think of them as roughly equal levels of orators, but I think Wilson vastly exceeded Teddy Roosevelt, and there's nothing in the late nineteenth century like him at all. You really have to go back to Abraham Lincoln for a sense that there's a mystical power in American history that's very forceful, that is acting through Wilson and through the American people and exerting considerable force on world events....

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