Photo taken by Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

By Andrew S. Lewis

“It would be difficult to assert, based on Wilson’s foreign policy and his actions at Paris in 1919, that he was any more or less racist than many of the other Western world leaders of the time,” the head of the Department of Modern History, Politics, and International Relations at Sydney, Australia’s Macquarie University, Sean Brawley, told me recently. “Of course, that does not mean one should not honestly and faithfully document all aspects of Wilson’s personal and public beliefs, but using them to judge him against today’s ethical standards and beliefs is problematic.”

Brawley is of course talking about last month’s student protests at Princeton, calling for the stripping of the 28th president’s name from the university’s School of International Affairs and one of the campus’s residential complexes bearing his name. What is problematic, Brawley told me, is that “judging historical actors by today’s moral and ethical standards… further distorts our ability to make meaning of the past.” Echoing many others in this simmering debate, Brawley said, “The logical extension of such arguments would be that the American people would need to change the name of their national capital from that of a former slave owner.”

What has been conspicuously missing from the recent media spotlight, however, is an examination of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy beyond our national borders. Nuanced, scathing articles have done little more than include perfunctory nods to Wilson’s foreign-policy “idealism,” then focus the lens back on America. They’re missing another part of the picture.

When Wilson arrived to France in December of 1918 to lead the Paris Peace Conference, with his dream of a League of Nations, self-determination and call for peace without victory, it was he more than any other delegate from the “Big Four”—Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States—who could bring together a world all but shattered by World War I. It’s worth questioning, however, just what world—or more precisely, which parts of it—Wilson was most interested in saving.

“Wilson clearly was one of those democratic idealists who believed in the idea of White Men’s Countries—that democracy demanded racial homogeneity,” Marilyn Lake, a Professor in History at the University of Melbourne and co-author of the book, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, told me. (Wilson, Lake added, was an admirer of fellow Peace Conference delegate Jan Smuts, the South African minister of defense and member of the British Empire’s Imperial War Cabinet who supported the racial segregation of his country.)

In hindsight, it is no secret that early twentieth century white colonial world powers propagated racist values, but at the time such ideals were accepted as convention among most in the West.

In March of 1905, the English fantasy novelist Henry Rider Haggard stood before an admiring audience of Canadian Club elites in Ottawa’s swanky Russell House hotel, and, after remarking on “the enormous barrier of prejudice” he often felt as a writer of fiction, warned the room of the coming “yellow peril”—Asian migration to Western lands. “I say that very soon there is going to be an enormous competition for immigration, for population, and especially for Anglo-Saxon population,” he said. That was the truth, he went on, and the “marrow” of that truth was, “you must get your people on to the land out of the cities, and keep them on the land there to multiply as God commanded them of old.”

While Rider Haggard was interested in Anglo-Saxon expansion across the British Empire, the “land” he was most concerned with was the four-year-old nation of Australia, with its remote location in the Asian East and isolated white population of four million. Since its federation in 1901, Australia had been operating under the “White Australia Policy”—essentially, a strict set of immigration rules that made gaining Australian citizenship all but impossible for people not from English-speaking countries. (The “language dictation test,” for example, required one to a write out, in English, a fifty-word passage read to them in any European language of an immigration officer’s random choosing.) Chinese and Japanese immigration—Rider Haggard’s “yellow peril”—was Australia’s greatest fear.

Japan wanted assurance that, if a League of Nations were to be established, its members would “make efforts to secure suitable guarantees against the disadvantages to Japan which would arise as aforesaid out of racial prejudice.”

“Rider Haggard was the popular novelist par excellence, from the center of the sophisticated world (for Australia at the time, that was London), the prose laureate of the white man’s British Empire,” the Australian historian Alex McDermott told me. “He helped make the White Australia sentiment sort of—glow.”

Indeed, Australia was not alone in its efforts to block Japanese and Chinese immigrates. In 1882, complaints that Chinese immigrants were driving down wages and driving up unemployment among white settlers on the West Coast prompted the United States to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first major law restricting immigration. Fears of the “yellow peril” were fomented further following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. In May of that year—around the time Rider Haggard warned the Canadian Club that Japan and China were “casting their eyes around for worlds to conquer”—the Asian Exclusion League was formed in California. And by May of 1913—two months into Woodrow Wilson’s presidency—the California Alien Land Law was passed, which targeted Asian immigrants by denying them the right to own or lease land.

So it was in Paris in the first weeks of negotiations, that Wilson was taken aback when the Japanese delegation informed him that Japan’s support for the League of Nations was dependent upon the success of the Racial Equality Clause, a proposal the Japanese government wanted included in the League Covenant. Alarmed by the increasing Western resistance to Japanese immigrants, particularly in Australia and the United States, Japan wanted assurance that, if a League of Nations were to be established, its members would “make efforts to secure suitable guarantees against the disadvantages to Japan which would arise as aforesaid out of racial prejudice.”

At first, Wilson supported the clause, allowing it to be entered as an amendment to the proposed Covenant’s “religious freedom” Article 21, as:

The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.

How do we honor what is supposed to be a less racist, less morally corrupt present without forgetting the troubling historical context from which our supposed enlightenment grew?

But opposition came swiftly when Billy Hughes, the bombastic prime minister of one of the Conference’s most promising young nations, Australia, refused to a allow any suggestion of equality into the Covenant. Across the Atlantic in the United States, anti-Japanese sentiment also remained strong. There was fierce bi-partisan objection, both in Congress and their constituents, to Wilson’s League of Nations. In March of 1919, after hearing of the proposed Racial Equality Clause, the California Senator James Duval Phelan launched a propaganda campaign against the proposal and sent a stream of telegrams to the American delegation in Paris. In one, he wrote, “Believe Western senators and others will oppose any loop hole by which Oriental people will possess equally with white race in United States. It is vital question of self-preservation.”

While there is no clear evidence that Wilson was directly influenced by Senator Phelan, there is no doubt that Billy Hughes’ resistance campaign was successful in dismantling the Racial Equality Clause. Wilson was in Paris, above all, to see the creation of the League of Nations through. In the fifteenth and final meeting of the League Commission on April 11, the Japanese moved to have a drastically altered version of the clause—thanks to Hughes—included in the preamble of the Covenant. To Hughes’ horror, a majority of the delegates approved inclusion. Edward M. House—Wilson’s advisor for the negotiations who had also initially supported the clause but had since backed away from it—slipped Wilson a note, which read, “The trouble is that if this Commission should pass it, it would surely raise the race issue throughout the world.”

Wilson, who presided over the Commission, saw no reason for an issue such as race equality to squelch efforts to create the League. He told the Commission, “My own interest, let me say, is to quiet discussion that raises national differences and racial prejudices . . . I would wish them, particularly at this juncture in the history of the relations of nations with one another, to be forced as much as possible into the background. . . .” Still, the Japanese delegates insisted there be a vote. Wilson then made the last-minute, unprecedented decision that the vote had to be unanimous, and only positive votes would be registered. Without the support of the delegates from the United States, the British Empire, Portugal, Poland, and Romania, the Racial Equality Clause was defeated. And by registering only positive votes, the dissenting nations entered the record not as negatives, but simply as “not registered.”

Whether he knew it or not, Wilson’s on-the-fly tactics also safeguarded him from charges of racial bias, with regard to the Paris Peace Conference, permanently—and especially right now.

Thus, the Princeton-Wilson controversy can be seen, at least in part, as a debate about memory. How do we honor what is supposed to be a less racist, less morally corrupt present without forgetting the troubling historical context from which our supposed enlightenment grew? After all, recognizing the inextricable impact of the smallest of decisions on the greatest of outcomes—political, cultural, environmental, etc.—is crucial to the engine of progress. But while it might be true that, as Brawley told me, “one must accept [Wilson] was a man of his time and place,” the question must be asked: what, exactly, do we have to accept today, nearly a century later?

Certainly, our ability to deduce the significance of historical moments is not entirely dependent upon names on things. And yet, in the context of this story, our present world suggests that it is

Or, perhaps the question should be not one of what, but who. In the towns across the United States with elementary schools, high schools and universities whose buildings bear Wilson’s name, are there not other leaders who have come since whose names would serve as better representations of our country’s progress? Certainly, our ability to deduce the significance of historical moments is not entirely dependent upon names on things. And yet, in the context of this story, our present world suggests that it is:

Mount Rider, British Columbia, Canada: Named in honor of Henry Rider
Haggard Hughes, Canberra, Australia: Named in honor of Billy Hughes
The Phelan Building, San Francisco: Named in honor of James Duval Phelan

And then earlier this month, on December 3, as the Princeton student protests slipped to the back of the news cycle then disappeared completely, George W. Bush, Joe Biden and a slew of other political leaders spoke glowingly of Dick Cheney at the unveiling of the former vice president’s marble bust at the US Capitol Visitors Center. The ceremony was seen as an effort to rehabilitate Cheney’s image. For those of us who are living with the disastrous consequences of his foreign policy decisions, Cheney’s image is inalterable. But what about future generations? What kind of man will they see? Should they see him at all?

Andrew S. Lewis

Andrew S. Lewis is a frequent contributor to Outside magazine. He is completing a book, called I Could Live Here, about his career as a journalist in search of “undiscovered” waves and the impact that surf tourism has had on coastal cultures around the world.

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