While current US President Donald Trump is known for providing a platform for white nationalist views, he is certainly not the first and definitely not the worst. Nominating a president who espoused racist views, reversed black American progress, all the while maintaining an aura of ‘progressive’ politics, we can look no further than the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
Princeton University decided to remove Wilson’s name from their School of International and Public Affairs – a decision taken last June. Wilson built up a reputation as an expert on global affairs, a peacemaker, principal advocate of the League of Nations and, among the ultrarightist Armenian diaspora at least, a hero for advocating an enlarged Armenian territory in the aftermath of World War One. How can Wilson be considered a racist?
Unrepentant white supremacist
Wilson was an unrepentant white supremacist, and his racism informed his foreign as well as his domestic policies. Perhaps we are judging his views and conduct with today’s standards – Wilson surely, was a product of his time and place. Even conceding that point, by the standards of his day, Wilson espoused white nationalist policies, and repudiated the efforts of civil rights advocates to rectify American racism.
The term Wilsonian has entered the lexicon as a description of American foreign policy geared towards democracy promotion and the implementation of nation self-determination. Though Wilson spoke of self determination, it extended to white European nations, such as the Serbs, Poles, or other Eastern Europeans. He denied anti-imperialist aspirations for black, Asian and nonwhite peoples of the world.
At home, Wilson re-segregated the federal government and its agencies, sacking black employees, and defending segregation to a group of African American civil rights leaders who visited the White House to question the president on this issue. Wilson was a vocal defender and admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, advocating a neo-Confederate view of history.
A descendant of Confederate soldiers, Wilson condemned the Reconstruction period after the civil war. He lamented the defeat of the Confederacy, and denounced ‘liberal’ northern industrialists who encouraged the supposedly racially inferior peoples to dominate American society. Sympathising with the KKK, Wilson regarded the Confederate ‘lost cause’ as a righteous venture, and helped that monstrosity enter the mainstream American society.
He spoke eloquently about the equality of nations, and proposed the establishment of the League of Nations to set out international laws. These laws would govern the conduct of international actors, and avoid devastating and catastrophic military conflicts, such as the terrible global conflagration of WW1. These proposals were motivated, not by humanitarian concern, but by coldly calculated economic and political interests.
Wilson supported the self-determination of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other subjugated Eastern European nations for the purpose of creating a cordon sanitaire, a bloc of anti-communist nations to isolate Soviet Russia. His advocacy of Wilsonian Armenia, at the expense of the defeated Ottoman Turkish empire, had more to do with establishing a ‘Christian’ and reliably anti-communist Armenia as a southern bulwark against Soviet Russia.
In the United States at the time, being a Christian from the Middle East was a portal into transformation from unacceptable nonwhite migrants – namely Muslim – into legally tolerable Christian, if not completely white, migrants. Wilson did not hesitate to deploy troops, along with 13 other nations, to grab territory from Russia during that nation’s civil war. Wilson’s long-standing reticence to get involved in WW1 quickly evaporated when the opportunity arose to annex Russian Siberia, and oppose the Communist state, in the immediate aftermath of the world war.
All notions of the equality of nations disappeared in 1915, when Wilson unhesitatingly sent US troops to militarily occupy the nation of Haiti. The US authorities, under Wilson’s instructions, assumed control of the key sectors of the Haitian economy, installed a president friendly to US interests, and displayed racist attitudes towards the predominantly black Haitian population.
Defeating the racial equality proposal
This invasion does not correspond to the portrayal of Wilson as an idealistic and anti-imperial statesman. Indeed, when provided the opportunity to enshrine racial equality as a founding principle of the League of Nations, Wilson did his utmost to manoeuvre behind the scenes to defeat such a proposal. During the Paris Peace Conference, the new imperialist power in the game, was Japan. The latter was obviously nonwhite, and had the strength to put their case during the 1919-1920 peace conference.
Japan suggested including a Racial Equality Clause in the foundational document of the League of Nations. It was a modest proposal, and to be sure, Tokyo was concerned with the mistreatment of Japanese migrants in America, and not motivated by general anti-racist consciousness. Be that as it may, the United States and the UK jockeyed behind closed doors to oppose this clause.
The loudest and most obnoxious opponent of the racial equality clause was Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes. Bombastic and stubbornly racist, Hughes was a committed white supremacist, and strenuously opposed Asian migration to Australia. Wilson, while maintaining a formal neutrality on the issue, deployed a procedural manoeuvre to squash the racial equality clause – the vote on it must be unanimously affirmative, otherwise it would be rejected.
No other proposal in the League of Nations required a unanimous vote – with Australia firmly opposed, the racial equality clause was defeated. Wilson’s democratic idealism demanded white racial homogeneity. Anti-colonial struggles were all well and good, but were outside the realm of approval for Arab, Asian, black and nonwhite peoples.
Wilson drew the racial colour line, both domestically and globally. He did his utmost to maintain a system of racialised economic inequalities. That is the legacy which must be rejected.