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The Odious President Wilson

News broke on November 22, 2015 that a group of students called the Black Justice League have taken the Princeton administration to task and want to force the University to end the sanctification of the odious Pres. Woodrow Wilson, whose domestic policies regarding race and racism were abhorrent. He praised the film BIRTH OF A NATION, re-segregated the government services, and told a delegation of Africans who went to the White House to protest “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

Yet what needs to also be emphasized is the abhorrent foreign policy that Wilson was responsible for, policy that continues to kill black and brown people to this very day. The current protest, which includes an effort to remove the Princeton alum’s name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Perhaps a consideration of the ideology of that school and the man who inspired it is in order.

I am not an expert and do a huge disservice to the topic by failing to properly discuss the multiple Wilsonian excursions into Central and South America, including revolutionary Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Panama. Indeed, that topic alone took up almost an entire hour of the Oliver Stone-Peter Kuznick television collaboration THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES when the two produced an extra pair of bonus episodes for the DVD release. Nevertheless, one cannot look at the xenophobic discussion we have seen in the media over immigration in the past several years and not recognize Wilson haunting the discussion.

Now consider Wilson’s role in World War I. By this point in time, it is abundantly clear that Wilson lied repeatedly when he claimed he was keeping the nation neutral. He was fully aware and supported the banking loans to the Entente Alliance, creating a situation where, had the Germans defeated the British and French, a financial panic might have resulted. And if we are going to talk about racism, let us not forget that the entire war itself was a battle over colonial hegemony, Germany was working towards an alliance with the tottering Ottoman Empire to build trade via their Berlin to Baghdad railway that would have impacted petroleum markets for decades to come while also sparring with the British and French over colonial precedence in Africa and Asia. The great W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in at the time:

“[I]n a very real sense Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see; and these words seek to show how in the Dark Continent are hidden the roots, not simply of war to-day but of the menace of wars to-morrow.”

When the Bolshevik Revolution took place, Wilson and the other capitalist powers were horrified and reacted with contempt and paranoia. The Palmer Raids, which exiled all foreign-born radical Leftists from the country, defenestrated the labor movement, and hindered African civil rights efforts for decades. The Bolshevik call for world revolution was anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist, causing the forces of reaction, led by the Wilson vanguard, to invade Russia and aid the White Armies in the civil war. Leaving aside the rather tempestuous argument over whether the revolution was doomed due to Lenin’s vanguard party notions, no one can argue that part of the withering away of that revolution’s potential was caused by the Wilsonian reaction.

A direct offspring of that was the peace conference that led to the Treaty of Versailles. It was said by Herbert Hoover that Lenin’s specter haunted the halls like Banquo’s ghost. It is difficult to really judge how much guilt to dole out on Wilson, but at this point it is well known that the allowance of the war reparations and guilt clauses in the treaty regarding Germany directly fed into the madness of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. I say it is hard to parse this out because the fact is that the victorious Entente powers were demanding these payments so to in turn pay back the Wilson-approved American wartime loans! In turn, the Germans would look to the United States for loans to pay the reparation bills. In order to generate more currency, the American financial industry opened the stock market up to more vulnerability thanks to higher levels of speculation, leading directly to the Great Depression and in turn World War II.

On a final point, it is important to recognize that it is also hard to parse through exactly who is responsible for allowing the Mandatory system in the post-Ottoman Levant, but Wilson played a role in that and also had some knowledge at some point of the Balfour Declaration, the document that created the Zionist colonization of historic Palestine. Yet regardless of how much Wilson did or did not have to do with those affairs, we can see Woodrow Wilson in the eyes of every Palestinian today who is looking at the colonizing Israeli. Norman Finkelstein once famously said “Why should these Palestinians, who have lived in Jerusalem for hundreds of years, be evicted from their homes so that Jews from Brooklyn can live in them?” But perhaps one should also ask why they should be evicted at the whims of an academic from Princeton.

Woodrow Wilson was a disgusting, vicious racist. Yet it is important to understand that racism as an element of a larger imperialist vision. He was very open at his disgust at the French revolution and said the American revolution was not radical as later ones were. The recent scholarship of historians such as Dr. Gerald Horne indicates a level of truth behind this, that in fact the Declaration of Independence was a pro-slavery counter-revolutionary document intended to halt British abolitionist efforts in North America. In grasping this point and the fact that Wilson honored Washington and Jefferson so much, the effort to remove him from the Princeton campus takes on a much greater meaning. These students are not just taking on a bland, class-free identity politics cause, they have dared to strike at the very heart of the American imperial project by calling the twentieth century ideological framer of this effort what he really was, a racist. Let us all hope that this will have a further effect that condemns the empire in entirety.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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