The case against Woodrow Wilson, after 100 years

This guest post is a collective statement, written by Philip Conway in consultation with several other current and former PhD candidates at the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics. It is co-signed by a number of current and former Aber PhD candidates, not all of whom were directly involved in the drafting process. It does not, therefore, necessarily present a consensus. However, it does, we hope, present a constructive and forceful contribution to an important debate.

At Aberystwyth University, the year 2019 marks the Centenary of the Department of International Politics. A century, that is, since the philanthropists David, Gwendoline, and Margaret Davies donated a sum of £20,000—more than £1m in today’s money—in order to establish a Chair of International Politics (the first of its kind in the world). The Chair was established “in memory of the fallen students of our University.”[1] It was to be named after the then-current US President, Woodrow Wilson.

This was, and is, an appellation heavy with significance. At the end of the War, as Lord David Davies himself later wrote:

“Among the protagonists of the new Jerusalem stood President Wilson, towering head and shoulders above them all. […] By all those who sincerely desired a permanent peace and were prepared to sacrifice their imperialistic conceptions, he was acclaimed as the leader.”[2]

On 25th October last year, as part of the Department’s Centenary celebrations, a roundtable seminar was held, titled “Reflections on Woodrow Wilson.” It was instigated by the current incumbent of the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics, Andrew Linklater.

This instigation had, in turn, been prompted by a student request to take the occasion of the Centenary as an opportunity to re-evaluate the Department’s association with this particular historical figure.

On 30th May, a follow-up event will be held in the Department, further opening the debate by creating a space for students and staff alike to share their views with respect to the legacy of Wilson, in light of the Centenary. In anticipation of this discussion, we, the undersigned, outline below what we believe to be the strong case against retaining Wilson as a symbolic figurehead of both the Department and, by implication, the discipline of International Relations.

Given that this may, for a variety of reasons, be a sensitive issue, we would like to be clear from the beginning: The Davies family’s generous donation to an enduringly noble cause is certainly worth celebrating. The problems of war and peace may, today, be in many ways different but they are no less pressing than they were a century ago. We take no issue, therefore, with celebrating the Department’s legacy in general.

However, there is a problem: As all involved in the October roundtable recognised—though, in the following, we will attempt to lay out rather more comprehensively—the honour to be found in this ongoing association with the Wilson name is, today, decidedly open to question.

Woodrow Wilson, portrait by Harris & Ewing, 1919

Wilson was, of course, the President who brought the United States into the First World War, whose Fourteen Points provided a statement of principles for the peace negotiations, and who, ultimately, failed to bring his country into the League of Nations that he played a leading role in creating. In disciplinary textbooks, this remains his prevailing mode of memorialisation. However, in popular discourse today, Wilson is at least as much remembered as a White supremacist who lauded the Ku Klux Klan, segregated the federal government, and sold out the Black citizens whose votes he opportunistically courted.

In 2017, imagining the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner at the time of Wilson, the comedian Samantha Bee joked: “I don’t wish to say Mr. Wilson is a racist, but during dinner tonight he cut eye-holes in the tablecloth.”

Recent years have seen the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the universities of Cape Town, Pretoria, Oxford, and elsewhere,[3] the campaign to rename and reform the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton (of which more later),[4] and a growing number of such movements around the world, within universities and other public institutions.

After such examples, we wish to seriously consider what choosing to maintain this symbolic association says about our institution, our principles, and our community.

In raising, and now reaffirming, these issues, we wish to make clear that we do so while holding this Department in high esteem—and hence to high standards. We are not Oxford; we are not Princeton. We do not have their money or prestige; we are not encumbered with their proximity to power. Other student-led campaigns demanding symbolic and substantive reforms to their institutions have involved direct action against distant, unresponsive, and apparently hostile hierarchies. Here, by contrast, we have the opportunity to hold such conversations openly—and we wholly welcome the attempts made towards this end.

We also welcome, then, the opportunity to extend these conversations, both on 30th May and at the forthcoming BISA Annual Conference in June, where roundtable sessions on “100 Years of (British) IR: Past Legacies and Future Trajectories” (Wednesday 13:45–15:10), and “Twilight of the Idols—Woodrow Wilson, and after?” (Thursday 11.20–12:45), will provide opportunities for further engagement (the latter having been arranged by one of our number).

That said, the purpose of the following is not simply to further a dialogue. More pointedly: We wish to make the case that the Department should take the opportunity of its Centenary to advocate the renaming of the Wilson Chair;[5] in so doing, to seriously consider the failures of the past 100 years, as well as the successes; and, finally, to consider what remains wanting in our programmes and curricula with respect to the problems thus raised.

If the greatest legacy of this Department’s founding is one of intellectual leadership then this is the kind of proactive thinking that, we believe, is needed today.

The Wilsonian Moment

Around about the year 1919, there was, it has been said, a “Wilsonian Moment”—a “widespread if short-lived adulation of that quintessential representative of the West, Woodrow Wilson, as a quasi-millennial figure whose vision could redeem the suffering of the war and usher in a new era of peace.”[6]

In that same year, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Later, at around the same time that Davies styled Wilson the leader of a “new Jerusalem,” H.G. Wells wrote that:

“For a brief interval, Wilson stood alone for mankind. […] He was transfigured in the eyes of men. He ceased to be a common statesman; he became a Messiah.”[7]

As W.E.B. Du Bois recalled, later still:

“I saw Woodrow Wilson but once in my life. I was standing at the edge of the Place de La Concorde in Paris when he rode through in December, 1918. He had come to attend the Congress of Versailles and he was at the moment without doubt the foremost figure in the world.”[8]

His Fourteen Points in hand, Wilson was in Europe to oversee the peace. However, it was not only in the West that his star was ascendant.

In June 1919, a twenty-eight-year-old Nguyễn Sinh Cung (later Hồ Chí Minh) set out from French Indochina to present a petition calling for self-determination, echoing the Wilsonian rhetoric lately reverberating through the wires and news-sheets of the world. Other aspirant anti-colonialists from Egypt to India to Korea, and beyond, did similarly. However, they were swiftly disappointed. Indeed, within a year, Nguyễn Sinh Cung had aligned himself with Bolshevism and Lenin rather than liberalism and Wilson.[9]

Figure 3—Nguyễn Sinh Cung, Indochinese delegate to the French Communist Congress, Marseilles, 1921

Whatever may have insinuated by the unprecedentedly sophisticated US wartime propaganda machine, Wilson’s universalist rhetoric was distinctly regionalised in its purpose.[10] Such references as to “great and small states alike” were, in practice, not all they seemed to be.

“Wilson’s own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, wrote later that the principle of self-determination clearly did not apply to ‘races, peoples, or communities whose state of barbarism or ignorance deprive them of the capacity to choose intelligently their political affiliations.’”[11]

Insofar as the question was of any concern for Wilson, colonised peoples were understood to be subject to “an evolutionary process under the benevolent tutelage of a ‘civilized’ power that would prepare them for self-government”[12]—a position quite accordant with the coming League of Nations mandates system.

In the rhetoric of Russian Bolsheviks, such as Vladimir Lenin, “self-determination” entailed the dismantling of colonial empires through world revolution. Wilson appropriated this terminology; however, he by no means shared its meaning. Wilsonian “self-determination,” rather, signalled the long-established liberal principle of the consent of the governed. It was, therefore, out of ideological competition with Leninism, rather than any meaningful commitment to anti-colonialism, that the adoption of this term arose.[13]

The colonised were quick to catch on. This was, indeed, not first time that Wilson’s lofty pronouncements had betrayed a subjugated people who had calculated him to be their best chance for advancement.

During his election campaign of 1912, Wilson had convinced many Black leaders of his commitment to their cause. For Du Bois, he was “a cultivated scholar” of “farsighted fairness” who would stay well away from “further means of ‘Jim Crow’ insult.” Wilson informed Bishop Alexander M. Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church that his people “may count on me for absolute fair dealing.” The newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter’s endorsement was secured by promising “to be a President of the whole nation—to know no white or black.”[14]

“[W]e were disappointed,” Du Bois later remarked, with evident understatement.[15]

Wilson at Princeton

Upon his appointment as president of Princeton University in 1902, Wilson had invited Booker T. Washington—founder of the National Negro Business League, and an advisor to successive Presidents—to the inauguration ceremony. However, over the subsequent eight years, he worked consistently to keep blacks both out of the student body and off campus altogether. (The first black student to graduate from Princeton did so in 1948.)[16]

Wilson’s academic career had long been deeply concerned with the origins of the White nation. For instance, his 1889 The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics “traced the constitutional development of the United States back through England to ‘the first Teutons’ who had come there with ‘a very fierce democratic temper.’”[17] His scholarship also promoted the “Lost Cause” mythology of the Civil War, which held the Confederacy to have been the noble, just, and victimised party that had sought only to preserve its humble agrarian way of life.

A 1901 essay in The Atlantic proclaimed the Southern Reconstruction to have been “nothing more than a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.”[18] In the fifth volume of A History of the American People (1902), Wilson wrote glowingly of the role the Ku Klux Klan played in saving White Southerners from the rising tyranny of rebellious Blacks and their Northern cronies.

“It became the chief object of the night-riding comrades to silence or drive from the country the principal mischief-makers of the reconstruction régime, whether White or Black.”

He acknowledged that “brutal crimes were committed.” However, this “reign of terror” was necessary for the Whites to “regain their mastery” by “intimidation and control of the negroes.”[19]

Infamously, in 1915, his words were taken as an epigraph to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that dramatised the Civil War, and celebrated the Klan’s role during the Reconstruction, characterising black men as sexual predators, swindlers, subordinates, and deviants.

Intertitle from The Birth of a Nation

On the scholar-President’s authority, the film could declare itself “an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” An unprecedented runaway success, The Birth of a Nation was perhaps the first cinematic blockbuster. It inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, even introducing it to the practice of cross burning.

Griffith’s motion picture was based on the novels of T.F. Dixon Jr., who Wilson had known since they studied political science together at Johns Hopkins University. Rather than attend a theatre, Wilson had a screening arranged at the White House in February 1915. His exact reactions are not altogether certain. However, he is often quoted as remarking that: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”[20] He is known to have called it “a splendid production.” In any case, the film certainly earned no reproach.[21]

“Wilson could not have repudiated The Birth of a Nation without destroying his southern political base and denying his own cultural values. Its message affirmed his own understanding of democracy and of America’s mission in international relations.”[22]

The resonances of this motion picture continue to reverberate in the present. A recent film of the same name (2016), directed by Nate Parker, dramatises the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in August 1831. The documentary 13th (2016), directed by Ava DuVernay, prominently features the White House screening as part of its discussion of how slavery was reproduced through the penal system after the Civil War and through to the present. In BlacKkKlansman (2018), directed by Spike Lee, a Klan meeting, led by David Duke, watches Griffith’s film, cheering each hateful moment. This is juxtaposed with a meeting of Black activists, sat solemnly around Jerome Turner (played by Harry Belafonte) as he softly and movingly describes witnessing the lynching of Jesse Washington, which occurred in Waco, Texas, on 15th May 1916.

Despite many and repeated demands, Wilson did not denounce lynching until July 1918, when unrest amongst Black troops threatened to undermine the war effort. Even then, his statement deplored the sullied reputation of the United States, rather than the brutalisation of the victims.[23]

Soldiers of the 369th, awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919

It is apparent, then, that, while he was consistent in his demands for moderation in the management of such issues, “Wilson did not disagree with the goals of conservative white supremacists, just their methods.”[24] He disagreed with slavery more for reasons of economics than morals. Plantation owners were, as Jennifer Keene puts it, seen as “benevolent caretakers instilling discipline and a valuable work ethic in their black laborers.”[25] The end of slavery was therefore necessary only in order to produce a more advanced liberal society that would bring lower races into economic usefulness through carefully managed freedom.

As early as 1897, Wilson clearly set out his position on race relations: (a) Segregation was in the interests of both Blacks and Whites; (b) Whites would need “infinite patience” in their tutelage of the less fortunate races; (c) it would be Whites that would determine the pace of change.[26]

Having resigned from the Socialist Party in order to vote for him in 1912, in September 1913, Du Bois wrote in an open letter to the President: “Sir, you have now been President of the United States for six months and what is the result? It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged.”[27]

Wilson’s cabinet was crammed with “militant segregationists who enjoyed the (unscientific) ‘darky stories’ that Wilson sometimes told (in dialect) at their meetings.”[28] Swiftly betraying his campaign promises, and possibly spurred on by his first wife who expressed her horror at the sight of black men working alongside white women, Wilson allowed his cabinet to impose segregation upon the federal government, partitioning offices and lunchrooms, and requiring that applicants to the civil service provide photographs (whereas, previously, applications had been ostensibly “color-blind”).

Wilson and his war cabinet, 1918

Many black employees were sacked outright, some at Wilson’s direct order. Others were forced out by practices of bullying and persecution that were now openly encouraged. Since the federal government was one of the few places where black citizens could enter middle class occupations, this new regime was particularly punitive.

In November 1913, a delegation of The National Independent Political League, represented by its secretary William Monroe Trotter, and including the likes of the journalist Ida B. Wells, presented a petition against these new policies at the White House, featuring 20,000 signatures from 36 states. In response, Wilson told Trotter and his delegation that there was, in fact, no such policy, denouncing newspaper reports to the contrary as “an inexcusable misrepresentation.”

A year later, the same delegation returned, reaffirming that segregation was, for Black citizens, a “public humiliation and degradation.” Like Du Bois, Trotter recalled the promises of the 1912 election:

“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, resenting such impertinence, maintained that the race question was “a human problem, not a political problem,” and that “the best way to help the Negro in America is to help him with his independence.” Further aggravated at the insistence of his interlocutors, he ordered the delegation to leave. He later regretted only that his failure of temper had imprudently served to “raise an incident into an issue.”[29]

Internationally, Wilson’s reputation as a man of peace is also strained by investigation.

As part of the programme of segregation, White ambassadors were appointed to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, posts traditionally filled by Black candidates. Moreover, at the peace negotiations in 1919, Wilson worked with English and Polish delegates to arbitrarily quash a Japanese amendment proposing to establish national equality as a fundamental principle. This proposal had, already, been negotiated down from a principle of racial equality.

Baron Makino Nobuaki and Viscount Chinda Sutemi, leaders of the Japanese delegation, had met previously with Wilson’s closest advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, who received their concerns with apparent earnestness, admitting that the colour line was “one of the serious causes of international trouble, and should in some way be met.” On 13 February 1919, as a draft amendment to an Article concerning religious freedom, the Japanese proposed that:

“The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.”

This was, however, unacceptable to US and British delegates, with Lord Robert Cecil calling it “interference in the domestic affairs of State members of the League.” The International Council of Women’s demand for gender equality was excluded for the same reason.

After much negotiation, the Japanese relinquished any reference to “race” and asked, instead, that “the principle of equality of nations and the just treatment of their nationals should be laid down as a fundamental basis of future relations in this world organization.” This amendment passed 11–6. However, Wilson, acting as the session chair, did not accept the result—an arbitrary decision. Only British and Polish delegates concurred with Wilson in criticising the amendment.[30]

Nevertheless, the impact of Wilsonian racism on US foreign affairs went well treaty or institutional issues. As Greg Grandin puts it, “Wilson’s liberalism created a perpetual motion machine of endless interventionism.” Indeed, during Wilson’s two terms, the US engaged in more large-scale military interventions and occupations than during any other US presidency.

Though not, at first, an open advocate of expansion, Wilson came to defend the annexation of Spanish territories, settled in the 1898 Treaty of Paris.[31] As President, he inherited the US occupation of Nicaragua (lasting from 1912 to 1933), which served to prevent competitors from constructing a canal, and Germany from building military bases. Nevertheless, it was during his own tenure that the US began to most clearly demonstrate its emergent militarism.

In April 1914, a minor incident between Mexican soldiers and US sailors provided the pretext for the invasion of the port city of Veracruz, with the purpose of destabilising the autocratic regime of General Victoriano Huerta.[32] A seven-month occupation ensued, and Wilson dispatched troops to Mexico on several further occasions.

Cartoon, 1913

In 1915, Wilson sent troops to occupy Haiti, and in 1916 did the same to the Dominican Republic. The latter occupation lasted until 1924, the former until 1934. These ventures were enacted under the guise of securing order; however, they served to secure US financial interests and, once again, preclude German encroachment.[33]

After achieving independence and emancipation in the Revolution of 1791–1804, from 1825, Haitians had been forced, under threat of French warships, to pay a severe debt to compensate former plantation owners and slaveholders. This debt tied the state to its former European coloniser. Accordingly, upon their invasion, US forces immediately moved Haiti’s financial reserves to their own territory and rewrote the Constitution to grant land-owning rights to foreigners. “Nation-building” enterprises such as constructing roads, schools, and hospitals were undertaken through forced labour.

A brutal counterinsurgency campaign was fought. From March 1919 to December 1920 alone, US forces recorded 3,071 Haitians killed, at a loss of 14 or 16 Marines. The former number was under-reported to Congress, though the ratio remained obviously extreme, being attributed to US experience in the Philippines and to the utility of machine guns. There were also many illegal executions.[34] By the end of the nineteen years of occupation, around fifteen thousand Haitians had been killed.

US Marines in Haiti, 1919

In Wilson’s second term, in addition to commitments to the European imperial conflict, such policies continued. 1917 (until 1922) saw the third invasion of Cuba since 1898, where Marines secured sugar plantations. The next year in Panama, Marines secured order around the canal area, continuing for two years. From 1918–1919, a naval blockade supported Tsarist forces in the Russian Civil War, while 5,000 troops were sent to north-western Russia, and around double that amount to Siberia.

Upon entering into the Great War in 1917, Wilson famously declared that this was “to make the world safe for democracy.” As Huey P. Newton later observed, from this “it was but a logical historical step to Secretary of State Byrnes’s remark at the close of the Second World War that the world must be made safe for the United States.”

To be sure, Wilson was not a one-dimensional politician. In February 1916, he proudly proclaimed that the American flag:

“stands for the rights of mankind, no matter where they be, no matter what their antecedents, no matter what the race involved; it stands for the absolute right to political liberty and free self-government, and wherever it stands for the contrary American traditions have begun to be forgotten.”[35]

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that so many were hoodwinked by Wilson’s undoubtable talent for soaring rhetoric and vaulting universalisms. Domestically, in his first Presidential campaign, where he seemed to promise so much to so many; internationally, as he emerged from the blood and terror of the War as the most powerful man in the world.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that many of those initially taken in by the ruse figured out the game fairly quickly.[36] Who, indeed, maintained the fantasy? Precisely those white Euro-Americans to whom Wilson, in reality, was speaking.

Wilson’s lionisation as a liberal-progressive icon was long in the making. For instance, in wartime 1944, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, an epic patriotic biopic—titled, simply, Wilson—was released to cinemas.

Advertisement for Wilson, 1944

The eponymous lead is portrayed as a true national hero; radical, decisive, “dangerous”; beloved by all but entrenched interests; outwitting and outwilling his foes at every turn; a reluctant but natural leader; an intellectual and a man of the people; ultimately, a martyr.

Questions of race relations are singularly absent, although Wilson, while still Governor, is shown uproariously enjoying a black-face minstrel show (a scene serving to humanise the character rather than entail any discomfort).

The process of producing Wilson the Great Man has been a long one. We believe that it is time for it to end.

The next 100 years

The Pan-African Congress, 1919

On that day in December 1918 when, standing at the edge of the Place de La Concorde, Du Bois glimpsed the passing cavalcade of President Wilson, he was a figure at once esteemed and marginalised.

Du Bois had travelled to Europe despite opposition from the State Department. As he later recollected:

“I was put under strict military surveillance and forbidden to make any public addresses to colored troops whom I visited in the trenches and camps.”[37]

However, with help of Blaise Diagne (the first Black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies), he did succeed in convincing the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, to permit the assembly of the first Pan-African Congress, which then met on 19–22 of February.

As pointed out by Jenny Mathers during the October roundtable, these same months also saw the Second International Women’s Congress for Peace and Freedom, which was held in Zürich, organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Having been active since 1915, the WILPF President Jane Addams met with Wilson to work out common grounds as regards the peace. Reportedly, nine of Wilson’s Fourteen points were contributed by or agreed to by the WILPF.

Besides Du Bois, among the other Black Americans who travelled to Europe for the peace negotiations were William Monroe Trotter, and Ida B. Wells—both of whom also did so despite State Department obstruction.[38] Trotter, for his part, missed the Pan-African Congress, having had to find a job as a cook aboard the SS Yarmouth in order to gain passage to France.

Finding Wilson’s Fourteen Points to be, as Yuichiro Onishi puts it, “Jim Crow writ large,” in late 1918, Trotter had called for the inclusion of a Fifteenth: “the abolition of race-based polities in all nations.”[39] It was this kind of proposal that the Japanese subsequently tabled in a bid to secure equality between themselves and other imperial powers (though this tactic was relinquished as soon as it ceased being useful).

In any case, there were evidently many more persons involved in securing the peace, in all its multi-continental complexity, than the lone figure of Wilson, or the collocation of academics and advisors that supported him—the so-called “Inquiry.”[40]

That said, if we are brought to consider who might make an alternative, and better, “ancestral figurehead,” as we have put it—a representative of the best efforts of this, or any, time in international politics—it is rather easier to criticise than to propose.

The Pan-African Congress, raised by Du Bois and others, was hardly radical—especially when compared to other liberation organisations of the time.[41] The Congress “passed very moderate resolutions asking the peace conference to lay down regulations for good colonial governance in Africa,” and made no outright demands for self-determination.[42]

Furthermore, Du Bois himself is far from beyond reproach with respect to his politics. Though later recanting, he was guilty, at least early in his life, of colourism and anti-Semitism.[43] In 1953, he wrote a glowing eulogy for Joseph Stalin. As a student, he celebrated “Great Men” such as Thomas Carlyle and Otto von Bismarck, remaining convinced that his people would be raised up by their “talented tenth.”

Today, it is not only the likes of Confederate general and slaveholder Robert E. Lee whose bronzed likenesses are being torn down. At the University of Ghana, in Accra, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi has been removed, after protests against his well-known anti-black beliefs.

Such actions may be informative with regard to the situation in Aberystwyth. Until a few years ago, nominations for renaming such a position as this may well have raised the name of someone like Aung San Suu Kyi—something that would surely, now, be recognised as a gross mistake.

Celebrating any public persona is surely risky, especially one whose worldly actions are not yet concluded. As such, we could well conclude that the honorific identification of individuals is itself something to be left to the era of Wilson, Bismarck, and Du Bois. A “1919 Chair of International Politics” would surely be as prestigious, and as heavy with meaning, as any other.

In any case, we certainly do not see it as our place to make such a decision regarding this prospective renaming. We are simply making the case for this decision being made. Moreover, we are keen to present this as a positive and constructive step in building International Politics for the next century—precisely the kind of intellectual integrity and leadership that this Centenary is considered to celebrate.

Thus, with regard to Wilson, we say, quite simply, that 100 years is enough.

Of course, it must be said that when the Davies family nominated the name Woodrow Wilson for the new Chair, calling it “illustrious,” they may not have been according this symbolic choice as much significance, and may not have given it as much thought, as we are now urging the matter to be granted. They certainly could not know what this name would mean many decades later, and perhaps could not easily have known what it meant to other communities in their own time.

However, to be clear, it is not the original choice that is at issue but, rather, the decision to maintain this association into a new century.

The names we surround ourselves with tell us who we are and who we exclude. In the words of a Princeton student, on the subject of protests concerning Wilson’s association with that institution:

“‘As a black female student, when I go into the Woodrow Wilson School knowing that he actively worked so that I could not gain admission to this university, there is a conflict,’ said Mariana Bagneris […]. ‘There’s always going to be that notion of knowing that you don’t belong at a place that you worked for, got good grades for, and were accepted to just like everyone else.’”

Formed in 1930, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs certainly bears the Wilson name, and the Wilsonian history, more prominently and profoundly than does the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics. No doubt, the learning environment here is nothing like as saturated with Wilson’s institutionally maintained presence. Nevertheless, we believe that it would be irresponsible to discount the effect of such associations, even if, as already recognised, “we are not Princeton.” These histories cannot be altogether disentangled.[44]

We do not, indeed, need to look very far to bring these issues a little closer to home. It is no secret that the first incumbent of the Woodrow Wilson Chair, Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, held the British Empire to be the “greatest instrument world has ever seen for good government.”[45] In 1936, he wrote of the “duty which the advanced peoples owe to their backward brothers, a duty rendered more imperative by the memory of the slave trade and other past misdeeds.”[46] Unravelling this knot of colonial guilt and neo-colonial condescension is a task, today, that is well underway but far from complete.

However, we must reaffirm: It is not with a will to point fingers and issue blame that we raise such issues. Rather, it is with a view to what will make peace possible in the coming years, in a world still riven by racism.

In 1903, Du Bois famously wrote that:

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”[47]

Three decades later, in his magnum opus The Problem of the Twentieth Century, David Davies wrote:

“In the closing months of 1918 all these humble folk instinctively yearned for peace and hailed President Wilson as their leader. What an electorate, what a constituency, restricted by no territorial or national limits! This was the psychological moment: everything was in the melting pot. The Kantian forces were in full operation, they had reached the highest pitch of their intensity. Would his ‘Empire of Right’ at last be realised?”[48]

We know how this story ends. Or do we?

The problems of the twentieth century are very much with us in the twenty-first. In an age of rabble-rousing bigots and brutally hardening borders, liberal internationalism cannot be taken for granted. However, we cannot afford naivety regarding the legacies that we seek to inherit.

Moments of celebration are also moments of renewal. Relinquishing the name of Woodrow Wilson, we believe, would be a fitting way to renew what is most valuable in the legacy that we, this year, are brought to celebrate.

Dr Philip Conway

Tom Vaughan

Dr Carolin Kaltofen

Amal Abu-Bakare

Paul Blamire

Dr Danielle House

Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg

Quincy Cloet

Irene Cuogo

Dr Justa Hopma

Dr Lydia Cole

Dr Ira Bliatka

Emma Kast

Dr Katarina Kušić

Douglas Pryer

(N.B. The above are either current PhD candidates in the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics or were in the recent past.)


[1] David Davies, quoted in Ken Booth, ‘What’s the Point of IR? The International in the Invention of Humanity’, in What’s the Point of International Relations?, ed. Synne L. Dyvik, Jan Selby, and Rorden Wilkinson (Taylor & Francis, 2017), 27.

[2] David Davies, The Problem of the Twentieth Century: A Study in International Relationships, New and rev. 3rd ed. (London: Ernest Benn, 1938), 118.

[3] Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinangamso Nkopo, eds., Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire (Zed Books Limited, 2018); Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu, eds., Decolonising the University (Pluto Press, 2018).

[4] Asanni York, ‘An Interview with Princeton’s Black Justice League’, in Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire, ed. Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinangamso Nkopo (Zed Books Limited, 2018), 212–26.

[5] N.B. We recognise that the prerogative regarding such matters as the naming of professorial chairs is not held by the Department alone. Nevertheless, we believe the Department to be the appropriate addressee for this message.

[6] Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2007), 12.

[7] H. G Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (London: Hutchinson, 1933) bk.1, ch.10.

[8] W. E. Burghard Du Bois, ‘My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson’, The Journal of Negro History 58, no. 4 (1 October 1973): 453,

[9] Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, 3–4.

[10] Ibid., 48.

[11] Ibid., 24.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 37–39.

[14] Kenneth O’Reilly, ‘The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 17 (1997): 117,

[15] Du Bois, ‘My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson’, 455.

[16] O’Reilly, ‘The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson’, 117–120.

[17] Lloyd E Ambrosius, ‘Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation: American Democracy and International Relations’, Diplomacy & Statecraft 18, no. 4 (13 December 2007): 693,

[18] Woodrow Wilson, ‘The Reconstruction of the Southern States’, The Atlantic, 1 January 1901,

[19] Quoted in Ambrosius, ‘Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation’, 691.

[20] Quoted in ibid., 702–704.

[21] Jennifer D. Keene, ‘Wilson and Race Relations’, in A Companion to Woodrow Wilson, ed. Ross A. Kennedy (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 144–145.

[22] Ambrosius, ‘Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation’, 705.

[23] Keene, ‘Wilson and Race Relations’, 148.

[24] Ibid., 134.

[25] Ibid., 144.

[26] Ibid., 140.

[27] Du Bois, ‘My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson’, 455.

[28] O’Reilly, ‘The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson’, 118.

[29] Ambrosius, ‘Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation’, 700–701; Keene, ‘Wilson and Race Relations’, 142; Christine A. Lunardini, ‘Standing Firm: William Monroe Trotter’s Meetings With Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1914’, The Journal of Negro History 64, no. 3 (1979): 244–64,

[30] Yuichiro Onishi, ‘The New Negro of the Pacific: How African Americans Forged Cross-Racial Solidarity with Japan, 1917-1922’, The Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (2007): 194–195; Ambrosius, ‘Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation’, 709; Naoko Shimazu, Japan, Race and Equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919 (London; New York: Routledge, 2003),

[31] Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, 28.

[32] Ibid., 32.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (Rutgers University Press, 1995), 103–104.

[35] An Address on Preparedness in Topeka, Kansas, 2nd February 1916, quoted in Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, 32.

[36] Ibid., 13; Keene, ‘Wilson and Race Relations’, 141.

[37] Du Bois, ‘My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson’, 458–459.

[38] Onishi, ‘The New Negro of the Pacific’, 208.

[39] Ibid., 191–194.

[40] Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, California Studies in Critical Human Geography 9 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[41] Onishi, ‘The New Negro of the Pacific’, 197–198.

[42] Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, 59.

[43] Kehinde Andrews, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2018), 43–44.

[44] Cecelia Lynch, ‘The Moral Aporia of Race in International Relations’, International Relations, 30 April 2019, 004711781984227,

[45] Quoted in G. Sluga, Nation, Psychology, and International Politics, 1870-1919 (Springer, 2006), 49.

[46] Quoted in Robbie Shilliam, ‘Intervention and Colonial-Modernity: Decolonising the Italy/Ethiopia Conflict through Psalms 68:31’, Review of International Studies 39, no. 5 (December 2013): 1140,; cf. G. K. Peatling, ‘Globalism, Hegemonism and British Power: J. A. Hobson and Alfred Zimmern Reconsidered’, History 89, no. 295 (1 July 2004): 381–98,

[47] William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1903), 13.

[48] Davies, The Problem of the Twentieth Century, 119.



2 thoughts on “The case against Woodrow Wilson, after 100 years

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s