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Latest in the American Presidents series, profiling a respected but now overlooked chief executive.

“Woodrow Wilson lived too long and then died too soon,” writes Brands (History/Texas A&M; The Strange Death of American Liberalism, 2001, etc.). Born before the Civil War, Wilson lived into the mid-1920s, long enough to see the emasculation of his pet project, the League of Nations. By this account, Wilson was an accidental politician, roped into running for New Jersey office after he lost a long battle as president of Princeton over where to locate the new graduate school. Elected by a commanding margin after wowing listeners with his fine oratory, Wilson earned good marks as governor, though his handlers weren’t pleased when he demolished former patron Boss Smith’s political machine. He was recruited to run as a Democratic candidate for president in the 1912 election, the first, Brands writes, “in which party primaries played an important role.” Lifting a page from Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson pledged not just to rein in the trusts but to destroy them, a sentiment that played well to Progressive audiences. But Brands suggests that Wilson was not particularly popular once in office, especially after he went back on his pledge to keep America neutral in WWI. Neither was he an effective lawmaker, perhaps because he was severely depressed following his wife’s death in 1914. When Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919, second wife Edith and confidantes in the White House “conspired to shield the public from full knowledge of the president’s disability.” Brands argues that Wilson might have been better served had he died as a result of that stroke, “a martyr to the cause of world peace,” rather than living to see that cause jeopardized by the Versailles Treaty and the economic ruin it wreaked on Germany, opened the way for WWII.

A worthy overview that acknowledges Wilson’s considerable strengths and his many limitations.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-6955-0
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2003

Kirkus Interview
H.W. Brands
October 11, 2016

As noted historian H.W. Brands reveals in his new book The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, at the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about the possible use of atomic weapons in response to China's entry into the war, Truman replied testily, "The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has." This suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, the willful, fearless, and highly decorated commander of the American and U.N. forces, had his finger on the nuclear trigger. A correction quickly followed, but the damage was done; two visions for America's path forward were clearly in opposition, and one man would have to make way. Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. The contest of wills between these two titanic characters unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of a faraway war and terrors conjured at home by Joseph McCarthy. “An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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