An expert's point of view on a current event.

Woodrow Wilson Was More Racist Than Wilsonianism

America’s 28th president reversed racial progress at home. But internationally he was ahead of his time.


Students from Princeton University’s Black Justice League recently sparked an overdue discussion when they called for the name of the 28th president of the United States to be removed from the school’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, a housing complex on campus. The group contends that Woodrow Wilson’s racism — most brazenly manifested when he authorized cabinet members to re-segregate federal government departments in Washington, D.C. — makes him an oppressive presence on campus and hence unworthy of adulation.

Yet this national conversation about Wilson’s legacy has a global dimension, too. Wilson’s impact on international affairs was profound; few nations were unaffected by his words and actions, while adherents to his diplomatic vision, Wilsonianism, remain an influential force today. And, here, Wilson’s racial views are more complex. This context does not mitigate the cruelty of his segregation order, but it does cast a kinder light on his worldview. Where Wilson’s foreign policies were informed by a crude ethnocentrism — and they clearly were — it was often of a milder sort than those of his contemporaries in the United States and particularly in Europe. Indeed, Wilson’s veneration of “self-determination” and his opposition to annexation caused considerable dismay in London and Paris, and made him something of a hero — for a while, at least — in the colonized world.

Wilson was forced to confront the future of colonialism by World War I — specifically, the question of what ought to be done with the territories of the losing side. Wilson’s ideals propelled the creation of the mandates system, through which “civilized” nations would offer benevolent “tutelage” to those areas cast adrift by the defeat of the Central Powers. The system was informed by Wilson’s belief in the merits of “self-determination,” a phrase that he first uttered in a speech on Feb. 11, 1918, a month after his more famous Fourteen Points address that set out his nation’s war aims. Wilson, in the February speech, stated that “national aspirations must be respected,” that people may be “dominated and governed only by their own consent,” and that “every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned.”

“Self-determination” was not a “mere phrase,” Wilson declared, but “an imperative principle of actions, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” Yet Wilson was clear that its universal application would proceed in stages, not in one fell swoop — that only “well-defined national aspirations” warranted unequivocal support and that progress would be slow where a threat of “discord” existed. Wilson amplified the moral imperative later that year when he observed that any peace settlement should reflect “full and unequivocal acceptance of the principle that the interest of the weakest is as sacred as the interest of the strongest.”

But Wilson’s pursuit of this moral principle was not quite so unequivocal in practice. What to do with Germany’s colonies in sub-Saharan Africa was not a high priority issue for Wilson when he set sail for the Paris Peace Conference in November 1918. But Wilson offered a novel view on how to proceed nonetheless. The president believed that these territories should become the “common property” of the League of Nations, that abstract and untested entity in which he vested too much hope. But within that system, he wanted these colonies to be administered by a small non-imperial state, not Great Britain or France, until their residents — “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” as Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations would later describe it — proved themselves capable of self-government. Perhaps a Scandinavian nation could perform that tutelage function, Wilson mused.

As Susan Pedersen recounts in The Guardians, her revelatory history of the League of Nations’ mandate system, many observers were alarmed by Wilson’s proposal. “The negro race,” said George Louis Beer, a Columbia University history professor who counseled Wilson as part “The Inquiry,” an academic advisory group convened by the president, “has hitherto shown no capacity for progressive development except under the tutelage of other peoples.” Beer was adamant that it made little sense to invite a nation like Norway to take charge, when the British — vastly experienced in such matters and at a higher rung in the hierarchy of European civilization — could govern Africans much more effectively.

Such was the manner in which white men of means and influence discussed the fate of non-Western peoples in 1918. To be progressive at that time was not to dispute that “the negro race” was unfit for self-government, but to suggest that the Scandinavians might have a go at educating such benighted people instead. Wilson’s racial paternalism appears egregious today, but it was broad-minded by the “Western” standard of that time.

Unlike his European interlocutors at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson believed that independence for colonized nations was inevitable and was appalled that the French and British favored the straightforward annexation of the spoils of war: “The world would say that the Great Powers first portioned out the helpless parts of the earth and then formed a League of Nations,” Wilson protested. The president ultimately prevailed on this issue, and a mandates system was agreed upon, with each former colony allocated a place on a sliding scale of developmental potential. The former Ottoman territories were classified as “A” mandates, East and West Germany and the Central African colonies as “B,” while those colonies in Southwest Africa and the Pacific were graded “C,” meaning they faced the longest journey to independence.

This proposal followed from Wilson’s view in the 1900s of the Philippines and Puerto Rico — which the United States had annexed following the Spanish-American War of 1898 — where self-government would happen “if they be fit to receive it, so soon as they can be made fit.” Following his election victory in 1912, as Erez Manela observes in his 2009 book, The Wilsonian Moment, Wilson appointed “Francis Burton Harrison, a liberal-minded Democrat, as governor of the islands with instructions to give native Filipinos majorities in both houses of the Philippine legislature and to respect the decisions of that legislature. Wilson explained this move as part of the developmental progression toward self-government, since it would allow the Filipinos to prove their ‘sense of responsibility in the exercise of political power’ and, if successful, would allow them to proceed toward full independence.”

This paternalistic gradualism informed Wilson’s conception of the mandate system, and it jarred with the implications of “self-determination” in the Universalist manner he described it. Wilson’s soaring rhetoric raised expectations in the colonized world, only to dash them when Western actions failed to correspond. “Imagination fails to picture the wild delirium of joy with which he [Wilson] would have been welcomed in Asiatic capitals,” Indian politician V. S. Srinivasa Sastri observed in 1925. “It would have been as though one of the great teachers of humanity, Christ or Buddha, had come back to his home.” A young Vietnamese nationalist named Nguyen Tat Thanh — who later took the name Ho Chi Minh — famously petitioned Wilson in June 1919, inviting him to make good on his rhetoric and help secure his nation’s independence from France. Anti-colonial leaders from Egypt, China, Korea, and elsewhere followed suit. When it became clear through the course of 1919 that independence was not going to happen, anti-colonial protests erupted: the March 1st movement in Korea, the May 4th protests in China, and the 1919 Revolution in Egypt.

In that sense, Wilson inadvertently gave impetus to the anti-colonial movement, which eventually won a series of successes in the early and middle decades of the Cold War, as waves of nations broke free from European rule. As Manela notes, anti-colonial activists “embraced the language of self-determination that he brought to prominence, refashioning their goals and identities in its image even as they recast its meanings in theirs.” Wilson had set an important precedent, even if his understanding of what he had helped to create was woefully incomplete.

One of the tragedies of Wilson was that he failed to apply the principle that “the interest of the weakest is as sacred as the interest of the strongest” to the nation he led. Wilson’s racism was that of a Virginian steeped in that southern milieu, and he did not transcend those prejudices at home. On Nov. 12, 1914, William Monroe Trotter, the African-American editor of the Guardian, a Boston newspaper, visited the White House and upbraided Wilson: “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race. What a change segregation has wrought!” Wilson’s disingenuous parry that it “takes the world generations to outlive all its prejudices” elicited from Trotter the scathing and accurate response that Wilson’s willingness to segregate sprang from prejudice, pure and simple — at which point Wilson ordered him removed from the White House.

Four-and-a-half years after Wilson had treated him so shabbily, Trotter traveled to Paris to restate the case to Wilson for black liberation in the United States, deploying the president’s progressive foreign-policy rhetoric against his regressive domestic policies. Trotter noted that the Paris Peace Conference, “with its talk of democracy and self-determination,” could provide a “stage from which to tell the world about the plight of blacks in the United States.” Trotter was right, and it is a significant blot on Wilson’s legacy that he declined to see or act on this contradiction — and indeed purposefully exacerbated it. When it came to addressing racial injustice, the president was more focused on the world’s perfectibility than that of the United States. Although flawed in many different ways, Wilsonianism was more racially enlightened than Wilson himself.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

David Milne is a professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia. He is the author or editor of three books, most recently Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy. Milne is co-editor and co-author, with Christopher McKnight Nichols and Danielle Holtz, at work on the forthcoming Ideologies and U.S. Foreign Policy: A New History.