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  • Isabel Mathews

Woodrow Wilson’s Racist Domestic Policy Cutting Into International Leadership

The 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, is most notable for his strong diplomacy during World War I, guiding the international system to “make the world safe for democracy.” However, he is also infamous for his extremely racist stances on both domestic and international policy which continue to have lasting impacts.

Nominated right here in Maryland at the Democratic Party Convention for President, Wilson won the Presidential Election of 1912, championing democratic principles for corporate reform, individualism, and states rights. Wilson proved crucial in lobbying for lower tariffs (through the Underwood Act), antitrust legislation, and labor laws that prohibited extensive work hours and child labor. Wilson campaigned for his second term as World War I plagued Europe - clinging to the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” However, upon winning his election, Wilson soon left his stance of neutrality and declared war on Germany. American efforts in the war soon led to a victory of the allied powers.

Although Wilson had a significant impact on the Progressive movement, passing antitrust and child labor legislative reform, his outlook towards non-Whites was anything but progressive. While much good was done to improve working conditions, Wilson supported legislation that declared interracial marriage a felony in the District of Columbia. Not only this, Wilson re-segregated the executive, cabinet, and military offices. When asked by black leaders why he made this racist decision, he claimed that these measures were to reduce racial friction and that they were in the best interest of both blacks and whites. In protest, famous black civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter told details of Wilson’s prejudicial attitudes through a press conference on White House grounds. Wilson was also challenged by prominent black thinker W.E.B DuBois. Wilson undid much of the work to racial equality from previous administrations, like Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, by firing 15 of the 17 black supervisors in federal service and replacing them with whites. Following this, many black workers were fired from governmental jobs, with segregation becoming even more acceptable. Besides bigoted policy initiatives, Wilson infamously screened Birth of a Nation, a film glorifying the Klu Klux Klan in the White House. Although the film was banned in many urban centers for its racial violence-justifying plot, the KKK revived as a result, aggravating already present racial conflict.

Wilson founded much of liberalism’s ideology in international political relations, as outlined in his 14 Points speech to Congress. Given on January 8, 1918, his ideals for a new cooperative world order was not implemented in its full capacity on an international scale, but it surely set the stage for states to favor cooperative action and discussion over conflict. In his address, Wilson argued for states to have self-determination, freedom of navigation, free trade, and political sovereignty. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the first World War took a few elements from Wilson’s ideas, including an international forum for states via The League of Nations. One could argue that without Wilson’s 14 Points Address, Britain and France would have been much harsher in dealing with their adversary Germany, and there would be less hope for cooperation between nations in the future. Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles could be considered a failure, creating more conflict, including global economic depression and the rise of Hitler in Germany.

Even though the United States Congress blocked joining the League of Nations, the concept itself was ingenious for its time, even if cooperation was not its immediate result. Still, The League of Nations is the most predominant precursor to the United Nations, which today attempts to ensure global peace and prosperity. Wilson is known for stating that "national aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. 'Self-determination' is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril."

However, even with his collaborative concepts for world peace and order in the future, Wilson’s intolerant views limited his innovative foreign affairs policy. Although Wilson argued for countries to have self-determination and sovereignty, the League of Nations preserved past racist views and upheld eurocentrism in the world order. His progressive ideas were contradictory in practice. Wilson helped perpetuate this hierarchy where imperial powers had the most voice. For example, Japan’s Racial Equality Proposal was denied by the major players creating the Treaty of Versailles, perpetuating white supremacy. More specifically, Japan’s proposal included language for equality of races in immigration to other nations. While France, Greece, and Italy agreed to this proposal, Britain disagreed with it, and Wilson avoided the proposal by declaring that all players at the Paris Peace Conference had to agree with the treaty in its entirety. Additionally, Wilsonsian self-determination failed to apply to giving colonial states independence, only tightening imperial power. Wilson never supported “ethnic nation-states.” Instead, Wilson’s dream was an “integrative internationalism,” epitomized by the League of Nations. Wilson’s 5th point referred to colonial holdings, but only advocated for the voices of the colonial people to be weighed in accordance with colonial powers - not true self-determination. Ireland, India, and African colonies would wait decades before receiving such self-determination. These eurocentric beliefs in international orders are seen through post-colonial theories for examining international relations, which argue that now the United Nations also did not make protections to listen to non-Western and often colonized states.

Ultimately, Woodrow Wilson’s inventive liberal ideology for world order and domestic structures can be considered to be overshadowed by his deep racist legacy of exclusion and intolerance on both foreign and American spheres. He exemplifies that American ideas like liberal democracy, autonomy, and progressive thought are beneficial, but effective when truly applied to all people.


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