The World

The Accidental Anti-Imperialist

Woodrow Wilson was no less a racist in his foreign policy views than he was at home. But he inadvertently inspired opponents of colonialism around the world.

George and Orlando speak to each other with Clemenceau and Wilson nearby
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in Paris on Jan. 19, 1919. Getty Images

In 1919, the pioneering newspaper editor and civil rights activist Monroe Trotter obtained papers to work as a cook on a ship sailing from the United States to France. After the ship docked, he learned that crew members were not permitted to disembark, so he sneaked off and arrived in Paris “ragged and hungry and in need of funds,” he would write later.

This was not his first choice as a mode of transportation. Trotter had requested permission from the State Department to travel to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of World War I, to advocate for the Black American community to the delegates, including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. But he was denied a visa.

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Trotter and Wilson had a history. In 1914, Trotter had led a group of Black activists, all of whom had supported Wilson’s elections, to a meeting with the president where they expressed disappointment with his support for segregation. After Wilson gave a patronizing lecture about how Black Americans would be better off not competing against whites, Trotter told Wilson he risked losing Black voters, at which point the president angrily ended the meeting.

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But five years later, after Wilson had sent U.S. troops into World War I in order to, as he put it, “make the world safe for democracy,” and had spoken eloquently about his desire to see “equality among nations,” Trotter sensed an opportunity. He felt that the peace conference, “with its talk of democracy and self-determination,” could “provide a stage from which to tell the world about the plight of the blacks in the United States,” he wrote.

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Over the past century, Wilsonian has become a shorthand in U.S. foreign policy debates for the desire to use American power and influence to promote democracy and human rights around the world. Trotter was certainly not the last to note the irony that this principle is associated with a president who sought to deny democracy and human rights to many of his own citizens. Now, this contradiction has led to a reconsideration of Wilson’s legacy: On Saturday, Princeton University—where Wilson attended and later served as president—announced that it was taking his name off the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, one of the country’s most prominent public policy schools. Other institutions around the country named after the 28th president are also considering a name change, prompted by the current public reckoning over America’s racist history.

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Wilson was undoubtedly a racist—even by the standards of his time. His administration resegregated several federal agencies; he wrote sympathetically about the Ku Klux Klan; and he described Southern Black people as an “ignorant and inferior race” who couldn’t be trusted with political power.

At the same time, his advocacy of “self-determination” unintentionally inspired people fighting colonialism and European imperialism around the world. However, this is less a contradiction than an example of the unintended effects of American foreign policy rhetoric.

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In 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, Wilson gave his “Peace Without Victory” speech calling for an “organized, common peace” among a “community of nations” rather than “a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished.” The speech has been called the first “penetrating critique of European imperialism” by a major state leader. The following year, he issued his famous 14 points, calling for a “free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determination all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.” As Henry Kissinger put it, this was a message to European powers that “the international system should be based not on the balance of power but on ethnic self-determination.”

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As the Harvard historian Erez Manela writes in his book The Wilsonian Moment, Wilson was “hailed around the world as the prophet of a new era in world affairs.” His remarks were widely reprinted in newspapers around the world, and a number of anti-colonialist movements “adopted Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination and the equality of nations to formulate their demands and justify their aspirations, both because they found his language appealing and more importantly, because they believed it would be effective in advancing their cause.”

This included Egypt, where the media reported extensively on Wilson’s statements and hoped that he would pressure the British government to withdraw their troops from the country; India, where the language of self-determination was taken up enthusiastically by pro-independence politicians; and China, where one journalist wrote that Wilson was “the best qualified statesman to assume the role of champion of human rights generally and of the rights of China in particular.”

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As I write in more detail in my book, Invisible Countries, by denying political legitimacy to territorial empires, Wilson helped set in motion the wave of decolonization that, several decades later, would redraw the map of the world.

Manela relates the story of Nguyen Tat Thanh, a 28-year-old Vietnamese kitchen assistant and budding political activist in Paris who tried to present a petition to world leaders at the conference and sought an audience with Wilson to plead his country’s case for independence from France. Wilson never answered the request. The man who would later be known as Ho Chi Minh abandoned Wilson for Lenin and communism a short time later.

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Does this mean that Wilson was more enlightened than his contemporary critics give him credit for? Not quite. Wilson almost certainly didn’t intend to empower anti-colonial revolutions. When he spoke about self-determination and “consent of the governed,” he was referring to nonindependent European nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Wilson was no less a racist in his foreign policy views than he was at home. He defended America’s recently acquired colonial holdings in the Philippines, arguing that “the consent of the Filipinos and the consent of the American colonists to government, for example, are two radically different things.” His secretary of state, Robert Lansing, wrote that self-determination clearly did not apply to “races, peoples, or communities whose state of barbarism or ignorance deprive them of the capacity to choose intelligently their political affiliations.” Despite his admirers in Egypt and India, he believed the U.S. should follow in the tradition of the British by helping “less civilized” peoples achieve the “habit of law and obedience.”

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Wilson was also something of a pioneer when it came to “regime change” wars, deploying U.S. troops to Mexico in 1914 to overthrow the government of Victoriano Huerta, and later deploying U.S. Marines to Haiti to protect U.S. business interests. Many of Wilson’s global admirers in 1919 came to be disappointed by his failure to apply the doctrine of self-determination universally, and it would take another three decades and another world war for the collapse of Europe’s global empires to begin in earnest.

As for Trotter, he received widespread attention from the French press, but his petitions for American racism to be addressed at the conference were ignored by Wilson and the other delegates.

Wilson is hardly the last American politician whose lofty rhetoric raised expectations among beleaguered people around the world that he had no intention of fulfilling. Nor is he the only leader whose inspiring talk of freedom and democracy abroad was undermined by his policies back home. Perhaps leaving his name off an institution educating the country’s future leaders and diplomats will start to break that habit.

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