Perhaps you’ve heard the old adage that “history repeats itself.” It may be trite, but it’s true.
Five years before the start of the U.S. Civil War, a boy named Thomas Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, to parents Joseph Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, and Jessie Woodrow, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Woodrow. The boy, who would later go by the name Woodrow, became a devout Christian, learning much about the faith from his father.
The Wilson family moved to Augusta, Georgia, and then Columbia, South Carolina, in the midst of postwar Reconstruction, an era in which the federal government extended amnesty to the former Confederacy, hoping to reintegrate the southern states into the nation they’d once helped create.
This particular upbringing shaped the young Wilson’s view on the duty of victorious combatants; during this time, a political ideology of morally obligatory interventionism and strict nonretributivism began to form.
Wilson attended Princeton University for his undergraduate years, going on to earn a doctorate in history and political science from John Hopkins University. He later became Princeton’s president, then the governor of New Jersey, eventually hitting his pinnacle, in 1913, by assuming the office of president of the United States.
War broke out in Europe a year later. For the remainder of his first term, Wilson was determined to maintain his nation’s neutrality, winning re-election on the slogan “he kept us out of war.”
Eventually, Wilson reneged his promise; intervention had not only become necessary, but vital. In 1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The U.S. would institute the largest draft in its history, all for foreign aid.
When the conflict subsided in 1918, Wilson became a prime supporter of establishing a “League of Nations,” an international diplomatic cooperative to forestall future conflict. A Republican-controlled Congress prevented the U.S. from joining, however, severely limiting the League’s legitimacy. It would take another world war for the country to assume the helm of a second, more successful, attempt: the United Nations.
Wilson had clear policy aims for the postwar world, which he presented to Congress in the form of his “Fourteen Points” speech. Adherence to this doctrine would ensure lasting peace in Europe, he believed. The speech adamantly declared that the First World War had been fought on moral grounds, but reparations against the defeated Central Powers must be limited, and certainly less severe than what France and Great Britain proposed.
As the Confederacy was offered redemption, the very same should be granted to Germany and her companions. It was not for the victors to enforce punishment when doing so would only prolong a rebuilding of the international order. The Allied Powers, instead, should do that which would ensure the greatest good for the world, regardless of which nations were morally culpable for the war’s destruction; it would be utilitarianism on a global scale.
Or perhaps just weighty idealism. Such passioned moralism can often lead a mighty country astray, as would later occur during the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Humility is a virtue, too.
We’ll never be truly sure, but one thing we do know: Harsh reparations and a weak League of Nations facilitated the rise of dangerous fascist regimes, culminating in another war even more costly than the first.
Even today, we should take care to heed Wilson’s warnings.