Woodrow Wilson ranks among the most controversial presidents in American history. Elected at the peak of the Progressive movement in the United States, he secured passage of a number of new measures that fundamentally transformed the government’s relationship with the economy, yet presided over the introduction of segregation at the federal level. While promising a new approach to foreign policy governed by morality rather than crass personal interest, he initiated Latin American military interventions little different than those pursued by his predecessors. And while he led his nation into a war to make the world safe for democracy, the resulting peace only laid the groundwork for another, even more devastating conflict just two decades later.
For these reasons, Wilson has not wanted for historical study, yet a good biography has long proved elusive. John Morton Blum’s Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality and Kendrick Clements’s Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman are both valuable short introductions to Wilson’s life, but a more detailed examination that fits Wilson within the context of his time has been lacking until now. John Milton Cooper has meet the need for such a work with this book. A scholar who has spent his career studying Wilson and the Progressive era, he brings the benefits of his extensive knowledge to bear in this study. While not uncritical, he is generally sympathetic towards Wilson, and works to dispel the image of the stern moralist that persists in the popular imagination. His Wilson is at his core an educator, a president who was most successful when he explained his proposals and intentions to the public. Such efforts helped win for Wilson a number of impressive legislative and other policy achievements, while his failure to do so (such as in the fight over the League of Nations) often emerges as a major factor in his greatest failures.
Such an approach can seem forgiving, and at times Cooper can come across more like an advocate for the defense than a scholar weighing the evidence. Yet this is a minor complaint when weighed against the scope of his achievement with this book. Cogently written and supported by a wealth of material, it enriches its readers' understanding of Wilson as a person and a president, and will likely be the standard by which future biographies of our nation’s 28th president are judged for decades to come.