"Wilson" by A. Scott Berg
Before reading Berg's new biography, my limited knowledge of Woodrow Wilson had left me with a fragmented perception of Wilson as an Ivy League intellectual, an unlikely choice as President of the United States whose legacy was the failed League of Nations and a presidency noted for his incapacitation following a stroke during his second term.
I now realize that Wilson was a much more complex and accomplished man, and President, and Berg's book filled in the gaps in my knowledge. Wilson was, indeed, a Princeton intellectual who rose from the faculty to the presidency of the university, where he gained recognition as a reformer and progressive. It was that position which vaulted him into national prominence and then into politics, first as Governor of New Jersey, then as President.
In the chapters leading up to Wilson's political emergence, Berg reveals that from his childhood, Wilson was a serious and principled person, always shunning the frivolous and devoting himself to self improvement and education. Although Wilson is often thought of a devoutly religious (a critic once called him “that Presbyterian priest”), in Berg's telling religion played a formative but not controlling role in Wilson's life.
A strength of Berg's book is the detailed and incisive narrative of Wilson's presidency, particularly in relating Wilson's guidance of the country during the early stages of World War I, when the country was ill-prepared for war and public opinion was against involvement in Europe's problems. Wilson, while reluctant to join in the war, realized that the United States could not remain disengaged for long, and he worked tirelessly in diplomacy while helping the county gear up for the inevitable. The inevitable was hastened by Germany's ham-handed efforts, as revealed by the famous Zimmerman telegram, to encourage Mexico to declare war on the US in exchange for Germany's promise to restore Texas and more of the US southwest to Mexico following victory, as well as by the continuation of submarine warfare against the merchant fleets of non-combatants, including the US.
Following the American entry in into the war and the victory of the Allied Powers, Wilson suffered the greatest of his political defeats, when American membership in his cherished creation, the League of Nations, was rejected by Congress. It was during the protracted campaign to secure membership in the League that Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke while on a train tour of the west (falling ill in Colorado, Wilson's next stop in Wichita was canceled). Berg sympathetically recounts Wilson's struggle to recover from both illness and disappointment, and discusses the months during which Wilson was essentially incapacitated and the administration was effectively run by his wife, and situation inconceivable today.
Readers who relish a good political biography will find Berg's Wilson a rewarding choice.
Review by Carl Caton