Who Was the Most pro-Jewish U.S. President? Woodrow Wilson, Obviously

A new biography of the 28th American president depicts him as an idealist Democrat whose moral and political influence still reverberates today. Haaretz talks to its author, A. Scott Berg.

Galia Licht
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Galia Licht

After addressing some of the problems plaguing our modern world – including war, chemical weapons, terrorism and the global economic crisis – U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday by saying, "I know what side of history I want the United States of America to be on. We’re ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges with you, firm in the belief that all men and women are, in fact, created equally…. That’s why we look to the future not with fear, but with hope, and that’s why we remain convinced that this community of nations can deliver a more peaceful, prosperous and just world to the next generation."

Obama's address included more than faint echoes of another principled Democrat intent on transforming American society and the world beyond it: Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, and the man who led his country into the First World War.

Now, 100 years after his inauguration, Wilson is the subject of a new biography that portrays him as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, an idealist who uttered such gems as, "Tell me what is right and I will fight for it." Wilson has been described as a hopeless romantic and a stubborn fool who was outmaneuvered by France and Great Britain at the negotiating table following WWI.

However, in A. Scott Berg's biography, "Wilson" (Putnam Press), the book's namesake emerges as a formidable statesman, one who has influenced the decision-making of every American president since his tenure.

Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Charles Lindbergh and Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, sat down with Haaretz to discuss Wilson's legacy and its effect on modern politics and the Obama administration's policies – and why Wilson is what he calls the most pro-Jewish president in American history.

Why is the Wilson presidency so relevant to the Obama presidency?

"Wilson is the father of America's modern foreign policy. For 125 years, the U.S. was an introverted nation that clung on to its isolationism. Wilson posed the question: What is America's role in the world? And the answer he gave, in his speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, asking the legislature to declare war on Germany, was that it is America's duty to ensure "the world must be safe for democracy." This credo has been espoused, for good and bad, by every president since Wilson, most recently by Barack Obama.

"Wilson was the most idealistic of America's presidents. He spoke often and eloquently about America's moral obligation. He wed idealism with interventionism. He urged his countrymen to fight preemptively for principles, instead of retaliating for attacks against them. And he obliged the U.S. to assist all peoples in pursuit of freedom and self-determination. Obama has fully embraced this moralism, most recently, when he sought congressional approval to punish Syria for its deadly use of chemical weapons. In fact, listening to his speech [on Syria], I thought Obama's ideas and phraseology were ripped right out of Wilson's playbook."

Yet Obama has been criticized for a lack of leadership.

"Obama was described as too slow to act on Syria. But I see his deliberation as strength, not weakness, and I see a parallel to Wilson.

"Wilson believed in patient consideration, in creating space for solutions to appear. There was nothing hot-headed about him. In fact, much like Obama today, Wilson was considered an aloof intellectual. But to my mind, Obama took a very reasoned approach toward Syria. Had he lurched into attack, the Russian proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons could not have emerged."

You write that Wilson was a highly effective president, ruling 'mostly with his rhetoric.' Couldn't the same be said for Obama?

"Obama is a great orator, but he is less successful than Wilson. Wilson did not rely on speechwriters or pollsters. He wrote all of his own speeches, and everything he uttered came from his heart and mind. He spoke directly to the people [Wilson was the first president to deliver an address by radio and also the first to hold formal press conferences] and he spoke to the people through reporters. More importantly, he engaged lawmakers in person. He was the first president since John Adams to deliver his message on the floor of Congress, and he had a sustained dialogue with Congress. He called 25 joint sessions in order to advance an ambitious progressive agenda, and he spent a lot of time at the Capitol.

"Congress sometimes gave Wilson a hard time – [he] failed to convince a Republican Senate to accept his cherished vision for a League of Nations. But for most of his presidency, lawmakers listened to him, because if you appear regularly before your potential enemies, they respect you. Wilson thought that executive and legislative [branches] should co-operate. Obama lurches from crisis to crisis. A continuity of dialogue is lacking."

Was Wilson naive, an innocent abroad? Is Obama?

"Wilson was unabashedly hopeful; he believed in humankind. Entering the First World War, he called on Americans to fight for a 'peace without victory,' not for empire, nor for riches. Speaking about America's role abroad, Obama echoes this sentiment. Is that naive? Perhaps, but it is inspiring."

In late 1917, the British Government asked President Wilson to support a declaration of sympathy with the Zionist movement.

"And he did. Wilson supported the Balfour Declaration – 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.' He did so despite the advice of his most trusted confidante, Col. Edward House, who acted as America's first national security adviser. You must remember that, at the time, the U.S. was an extremely anti-Semitic country, so expressing support for the Balfour Declaration was a very courageous act.

"Wilson was the most Christian president the U.S. has ever had. He was the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers; he prayed on his knees twice a day and read the Bible every night. But he was also the most pro-Jewish president the U.S. has ever had. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, a fervent Zionist, who counseled Wilson about the Balfour Declaration, and who would go on to champion an individual's right to privacy and free speech. He brought the financier Bernard Baruch into government, and he appointed Henry Morgenthau as the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

"Earlier, as president of Princeton University, Wilson appointed the first Jew to the faculty, and as governor of New Jersey, prior to becoming president, he appointed the first Jew to the state's Supreme Court."

Woodrow WilsonCredit: Wikimedia Commons

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