John Lukacs has observed that our century’s two most significant revolutionaries were Lenin and Wilson. Of the two, according to Lukacs, the internationalist Lenin had less destructive influence in the long run than the democratic moralist but fervent nationalist Wilson; today it may be said that the Wilsonians have outlasted the Commies. Democracy and national self-determination are words that have come to be used interchangeably by the press, except to denote those pockets of reactionary nationalists who have still not been brought to accept global-democratic orthodoxies. August Heckscher’s voluminous biography is intended to recall Wilson’s life and its meaning at a time when the rebirth of nations and of international law may be creating a climate particularly receptive to “the ideas of the man who first coined the term ‘New World Order.'”

A former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and present member of the advisory committee that thus far has edited 68 volumes of Wilson’s papers, Heckscher has a formidable knowledge of his subject. Rarely have I encountered a biography so exhaustively documented. Heckscher also exhibits a dedication to his subject that only few political biographers of this generation— Dumas Malone writing on Jefferson, Margaret Coit on Calhoun, George Nash on Hoover, and Stephen Ambrose on Nixon being other examples—have brought to their work. The problem here is that Heckscher has produced a monument instead of a probing biography. He has merely touched up, however lovingly, the portrait of that principled but forbidding statesman who emerges from Arthur S. Link’s multivolume study of Wilson. In the revised portrait, Wilson is made to appear sexually passionate with his two wives (and perhaps with other women), as well as “sensitive” to human concerns, particularly the quest for peace. Unlike Link, Heckscher diligently covers up Wilson’s foolish and deceitful conduct. Link, for example, depicts Wilson as clumsy in his Mexican adventures and as far less than an honest broker in trying to make peace between the two sides in the First World War. Heckscher, by contrast, moves gingerly whenever faced with his hero’s obvious dishonesty and ineptitude. When he does criticize Wilson, he faults him for being overly idealistic rather than mean-spirited, as he definitely was in telling his food commissioners after the war to feed only those who had fought on “the democratic side.”

This copiously documented hagiography ignores the fact that Wilson, like Bismarck, Cromwell, and Napoleon, does not lend himself well to saccharine portraits. Though less drawn to him than to those other men, I find that, like them also, Wilson was unquestionably a significant and personally interesting figure without being a morally noble one. He was not a principled aristocrat but a man driven by a vision for reconstructing human life; and, whether thrusting his country into war, suppressing its constitutional liberties, or imposing an administrative state upon his fellow citizens, he was working to give flesh to that vision. To those who may be offended by his righteous appeals to Providence, it may be answered that Wilson himself was acting providentially in some Hegelian sense. If world history is, as Hegel imagined, an unfolding divine judgment, then Wilson was the world historical figure who shaped the American century, for better or worse. He tore the theory and practice of American democracy away from self-governing communities and associated them irreversibly with an expanding civil service at home and an imperialistic mission abroad.

Since Wilson was neither a spellbinding orator nor a military leader, his accomplishments seem all the more remarkable. They were also necessary to turn a people once jealous of its liberties into the subjects of a national welfare state with global commitments. Despite Heckscher’s heroic efforts to portray a passionate and marvelously eloquent Wilson, I read his descriptions without being persuaded. The quotations he offers only serve to confirm a mordant remark by John Lukacs, that the great crusader for democracy spoke and wrote “warmed-over oatmeal.”

Given his formative influence upon the present American republic, the packaging of Wilson as a principled architect of the New World Order is likely to continue, subject to periodic variations. Thus, as twenty years ago Wilson was still made to combine idealism with Victorian demeanor, he has now been adopted by a new generation for whom he was erotic and sensitive as well as globally idealistic; eventually, perhaps, he will be found to have been an advocate of black civil rights and a Philosemite. Such biographical manipulations are necessary to sanctify those who contributed so heavily to making the nation what it has now become.

Clyde Wilson has expounded on this subject of historiographical refurbishment, and shown how such refurbishment increased dramatically after the Civil War. Professor Wilson highlights the marginalization of specifically Southern contributions to the national experience in textbooks published since Reconstruction and particularly since the 1950’s; Heckscher illustrates Wilson’s thesis by downplaying his subject’s Southern upbringing. Woodrow’s father, Joseph Wilson, a founder with that unmistakably Confederate theologian James Thornwell of the Southern Presbyterian Church, is persistently described as a Midwesterner. True, Joseph had held a pulpit in Chillicothe, Ohio, before going on to Virginia and Georgia. But his sojourn in the Midwest did not prevent him, as Heckscher concedes, from being an exuberant supporter of the Confederacy. Woodrow and his first wife Ellen were both raised in Georgia and returned there often to visit family. Attempts to present Wilson as a secularized Puritan ignore the biographical inconvenience that he was a displaced Southerner from a profoundly conservative church. He drew his democratic universalist ideas from the 19th-century Englishmen James Mill and John Bright, as Link shows, not from any Protestant creed.

In line with his overall cosmetic project, Heckscher has Wilson battling anti-Semitism to get Louis Brandeis confirmed as a Supreme Court justice in 1916. We are shown a Wilson “entirely without religious prejudice,” who was appalled by such atavistic hate. Though Wilson may have been religiously tolerant if not indifferent, he certainly despised Jews socially, a fact that other biographers have acknowledged. And the fight over Brandeis had far less to do with his Jewish antecedents than with the justified fear that this labor union advocate would not be a dispassionate judge in labor cases. Moreover, Heckscher cannot get on the subject of war without thrusting his own Utopian conceits into Wilson’s mouth. He does so most ludicrously when he depicts the nine-year-old Woodrow standing in the ruins of the fallen Confederacy pining for “an integrated world order.” Why is it so hard to find a biography explaining what made Woodrow Wilson tick? Perhaps it will take nothing less than a counterrevolution to change the situation.


[Woodrow Wilson, by August Heckscher (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) 743 pp., $35.00]