Essential Books on Woodrow Wilson
There are countless books on Woodrow Wilson, and it comes with good reason, aside from being elected America’s twenty-eighth President (1913-1921), he abandoned his original policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War I and led America into the conflict in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”
“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement,” he remarked. “You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson by A. Scott Berg
One hundred years after his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson still stands as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, and one of the most enigmatic. And now, after more than a decade of research and writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has completed Wilson – the most personal and penetrating biography ever written about the twenty-eighth President.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of documents in the Wilson Archives, Berg was the first biographer to gain access to two recently discovered caches of papers belonging to those close to Wilson. From this material, Berg was able to add countless details – even several unknown events – that fill in missing pieces of Wilson’s character, and cast new light on his entire life.
From the visionary Princeton professor who constructed a model for higher education in America to the architect of the ill-fated League of Nations, from the devout Commander in Chief who ushered the country through its first great World War to the widower of intense passion and turbulence who wooed a second wife with hundreds of astonishing love letters – this is a book at once magisterial and deeply emotional about the whole of Wilson’s life, accomplishments, and failings. This is not just Wilson the icon – but Wilson the man.
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr.
A Democrat who reclaimed the White House after sixteen years of Republican administrations, Wilson was a transformative president – he helped create the regulatory bodies and legislation that prefigured FDR’s New Deal and would prove central to governance through the early twenty-first century, including the Federal Reserve system and the Clayton Antitrust Act; he guided the nation through World War I; and, although his advocacy in favor of joining the League of Nations proved unsuccessful, he nonetheless established a new way of thinking about international relations that would carry America into the United Nations era.
Yet Wilson also steadfastly resisted progress for civil rights, while his attorney general launched an aggressive attack on civil liberties. Even as he reminds us of the foundational scope of Wilson’s domestic policy achievements, John Milton Cooper, Jr., reshapes our understanding of the man himself: his Wilson is warm and gracious – not at all the dour puritan of popular imagination.
As the president of Princeton, his encounters with the often rancorous battles of academe prepared him for state and national politics. Just two years after he was elected governor of New Jersey, Wilson, now a leader in the progressive movement, won the Democratic presidential nomination and went on to defeat Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in one of the twentieth century’s most memorable presidential elections. Ever the professor, Wilson relied on the strength of his intellectual convictions and the power of reason to win over the American people.
The Moralist by Patricia O’Toole
The Moralist is a cautionary tale about the perils of moral vanity and American overreach in foreign affairs. In domestic affairs, Wilson was a progressive who enjoyed unprecedented success in leveling the economic playing field, but he was behind the times on racial equality and women’s suffrage. As a Southern boy during the Civil War, he knew the ravages of war, and as president, he refused to lead the country into World War I until he was convinced that Germany posed a direct threat to the United States.
Once committed, he was an admirable commander-in-chief, yet he also presided over the harshest suppression of political dissent in American history.
After the war, Wilson became the world’s most ardent champion of liberal internationalism – a democratic new world order committed to peace, collective security, and free trade. With Wilson’s leadership, the governments at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 founded the League of Nations, a federation of the world’s democracies. The creation of the League, Wilson’s last great triumph, was quickly followed by two crushing blows: a paralyzing stroke and the rejection of the treaty that would have allowed the United States to join the League.
After a backlash against internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, Wilson’s liberal internationalism was revived by Franklin D. Roosevelt and it has shaped American foreign relations – for better and worse – ever since.
To End All Wars by Thomas Knock
Thomas Knock provides an intriguing, often provocative narrative of Woodrow Wilson’s epic quest for a new world order. The account follows Wilson’s thought and diplomacy from his policy toward revolutionary Mexico, through his dramatic call for “Peace without Victory” in World War I, to the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations.
This necessary addition to the ever-growing index of books on Woodrow Wilson also explores the place of internationalism in American politics, sweeping away the old view that isolationism was the cause of Wilson’s failure and revealing the role of competing visions of internationalism – conservative and progressive.
When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith
Author Gene Smith brilliantly captures the drama and excitement of Wilson’s efforts at the Paris Peace Conference to forge a lasting concord between enemies, and his remarkable coast-to-coast tour to sway national opinion in favor of the League of Nations. During this grueling jaunt across 8,000 miles in less than a month, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that left him an invalid and a recluse, shrouding his final years in office in shadow and mystery.
In graceful and dramatic prose, Smith portrays a White House mired in secrets, with a commander in chief kept behind closed doors, unseen by anyone except his doctor and his devoted second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, a woman of strong will with less than an elementary school education who, for all intents and purposes, led the government of the most powerful nation in the world for two years.
Woodrow Wilson by H. W. Brands
On the eve of his inauguration as President, Woodrow Wilson commented, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” As America was drawn into the Great War in Europe, Wilson used his scholarship, his principles, and the political savvy of his advisers to overcome his ignorance of world affairs and lead the country out of isolationism. The product of his efforts – his vision of the United States as a nation uniquely suited for moral leadership by virtue of its democratic tradition – is a view of foreign policy that is still in place today.
Acclaimed historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H. W. Brands offers a clear, well-informed, and timely account of Wilson’s unusual route to the White House, his campaign against corporate interests, his struggles with rivals at home and allies abroad, and his decline in popularity and health following the rejection by Congress of his League of Nations.
Wilson’s War by Jim Powell
Offering a critical perspective on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, Jim Powell reveals the horrifying consequences of our twenty-eighth president’s fateful decision to enter the fray in Europe. It led to millions of additional casualties in a war that had ground to a stalemate. And even more disturbing were the long-term consequences – consequences that played out well after Wilson’s death. Powell convincingly demonstrates that America’s armed forces enabled the Allies to win a decisive victory they would not otherwise have won – thus enabling them to impose the draconian surrender terms on Germany that paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Powell also shows how Wilson’s naivete and poor strategy allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia. Given a boost by Woodrow Wilson, Lenin embarked on a reign of terror that continued under Joseph Stalin. The result of Wilson’s blunder was seventy years of Soviet Communism, during which time the Communist government murdered some sixty million people.
Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? by Tina Cassidy
Woodrow Wilson lands in Washington, DC, in March of 1913, a day before he is set to take the presidential oath of office. He is surprised by the modest turnout. The crowds and reporters are blocks away from Union Station, watching a parade of eight thousand suffragists on Pennsylvania Avenue in a first-of-its-kind protest organized by a twenty-five-year-old activist named Alice Paul. The next day, The New York Times calls the procession “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.”
Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? weaves together two storylines: the trajectories of Alice Paul and Woodrow Wilson, two apparent opposites. Paul’s procession of suffragists resulted in her being granted a face-to-face meeting with President Wilson, one that would lead to many meetings and much discussion, but little progress for women. With no equality in sight and patience wearing thin, Paul organized the first group to ever picket in front of the White House lawn – night and day, through sweltering summer mornings and frigid fall nights.
From solitary confinement, hunger strikes, and the psychiatric ward to ever more determined activism, this gem reveals the courageous, near-death journey it took, spearheaded in no small part by Alice Paul’s leadership, to grant women the right to vote in America.
Edith and Woodrow by Phyllis Lee Levin
“Former New York Times reporter Levin (Abigail Adams) delivers a beautifully written and impeccably researched account of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson and her key role after President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke on October 2, 1919. The second Mrs. Wilson who had married the president one year after the untimely death of First Lady Ellen Wilson acted very much like a regent, restricting access to her sickly husband and issuing executive orders and directives that she presented at the time (and later, in her memoirs) as Wilson’s own instructions,” Publishers Weekly Writes.
Adding, “Levin demonstrates, however, ‘the story of Wilson’s second marriage, and of the large events on which its shadow was cast, is darker and more devious, and more astonishing, than previously recorded.’ Drawing on a wealth of formerly unavailable medical reports, White House memoranda and internal executive-branch communications, Levin shows that the second Mrs. Wilson did indeed run the executive branch, if not the government as a whole, during Wilson’s last year and a half in office.”
The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson by Kendrick A. Clements
This gem among books on Woodrow Wilson may be the best one-volume study available on his very productive presidency. Historian Kendrick Clements analyzes the reasons for Wilson’s successes and failures in both domestic and foreign arenas, and investigates representative administrative departments to find out how the Wilson administration actually worked.
Drawing upon the latest secondary literature and recently discovered medical records, Clements also reexamines the impact of Wilson’s illness on his diplomatic and domestic leadership in the last year and a half of his presidency.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Woodrow Wilson, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on George Washington!