Herbert Hoover Describes The Ordeal Of Woodrow Wilson


I have no need to speak of his great scholarly attainments. They were built into a superior mind. He possessed great clarity of thought, with an ability quickly to reduce problems to their bare bones. His public addresses were often clothed with great eloquence. As a Jeffersonian Democrat, he was a “liberal” of the nineteenth-century cast. His training in history and economics rejected every scintilla of socialism, which today connotes a liberal.

He yielded with great reluctance to the partial and temporary abandonment of our principles of life during the war, because of the multitude of tasks with which the citizen or the states could not cope. But he often expressed to me the hope that our methods of doing so were such that they could be quickly reversed and free enterprise restored.

Coming from an academic ivory tower with only a brief political career, he at times stumbled badly in the thicket of politics. Some of the appointments to which he was persuaded by politicians were bad. However, of the men whom he selected for the conduct of major war activities few were political appointees and all were men of high ability and integrity.

In evaluating Mr. Wilson’s make-up there are a few phenomena to bear in mind. He frequently has been described as “obstinate.” In my view this was not true. His mind ran to “moral principles,” “justice” and “right.” In them he held deep convictions. In some phases of character he partook of the original Presbyterians—what they concluded was right, was thereafter right as against all comers. He often referred with pride to his ancestral inheritance from the Scotch Covenanters of 1638.

The trouble into which he fell with these principles and ideals lay in their conflict with the age-old concepts and aims of nations in Europe. In these conflicts he was at times compelled to choose the lesser of evils. But he was slow to budge. He was not a snob but he had little patience with small minds.

His further difficulty was that at times he became impatient with honest and proper argument against his conclusions, and too often for his own good he construed such argument as personal criticism. He sometimes carried resentment at what he considered personal criticism to the extent of casting loyal and devoted friends into outer darkness. At one time I myself ran into a minor mental barbed-wire entanglement but without serious results. In my work, even when Mr. Wilson did not entirely agree with me, he listened with patience and we were always able to find a path upon which to travel successfully together.


But above all, three qualities of greatness stood out in Woodrow Wilson. He was a man of staunch morals. He was more than just an idealist: he was the personification of the heritage of idealism of the American people. He brought spiritual concepts to the peace table. He was a born crusader.

America is the only nation since the Crusades to fight other peoples’ battles at her own gigantic loss. We may be proud of that crusade even if it did fail to bring peace to mankind. Woodrow Wilson, however, did spread lasting ideals over the world.

The story of this period is the story of the leader of this crusade. It unfolds a tragedy to the world against which he fought—and it becomes the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson.

The “Fourteen Points”

While the war was still being fought, Mr. Wilson began the enumeration of the principles which should form the basis of the peace which must follow after the inevitable victory over Germany and her allies. These were defined in four major addresses from January to December 1918. The President subsequently, for negotiation purposes, unified them as the “Fourteen Points and subsequent addresses.” They were Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation to all mankind of the New World ideals of peace. …


When at last the enemy states sought an armistice, they directed their request to President Wilson rather than to any Allied leader, and proposed that the basis of negotiations be the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses.”

The President at once took personal control of the negotiation. His purpose in doing so was threefold:

First, to assure before peace negotiations the withdrawal of enemy troops from occupied territory and the reduction of the strength of the enemy armies to impotence.

Second, to establish securely the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” as a basis for peace for Germany and the other enemy states.

Third, and of equal or greater importance, to secure agreement from the Allies that they, too, would adhere to the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” as the basis of peace.

[This was the beginning of what Mr. Hoover calls “the greatest drama of intellectual leadership in all history.”]

Woodrow Wilson had accomplished one of the most monumental feats of international action of any statesman of history. Singlehanded he had maneuvered the Germans from their island of safety, where they might have negotiated with their armies still standing, into almost complete surrender.

And, equally vital, he had won Allied agreement to the basis of peace laid down in his “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” with the exception of only one point—the freedom of the seas.

It was a vast triumph for Woodrow Wilson and a war-weary mankind.