97 of 105 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2010
While in many ways this is a good, solid biography of Woodrow Wilson, the author's idolization of his subject colors the portrait. For example, there are multiple instances where Cooper writes that another person suggested an idea to Wilson. Cooper follows this fact with the assertion that Wilson would have thought up the idea on his own. As this happens multiple times it seems odd. There are a myriad of additional ways the author is defensive of long standing criticisms and interpretations of Wilson. Also, there is too much dependence on the diaries of Edward House, which seem untrustworthy. Cooper recognizes this, but leans heavily on them anyway. The narrative could be stronger and more concise. However, I suspect that this is the most thorough and detailed biography available. I recommend it, but I also recommend reading it with an awareness of the author's bias.
55 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2009
Professor Cooper has written a most outstanding biography of the academic Woodrow Wilson turned politician. It is an honest and complete appraisal of the man who was our only President with a Ph.D. degree. It is well-written; with each chapter flowing smoothly from start to finish. It is well-researched; every major primary source has been consulted, with an expertise that shows in this finished product. I highly recommend this book for even the casual reader of presidential history; every graduate History and Political Science student should include this on their reading list.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2010
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During the last days of his presidency,one famous journalist,Ray Stannard Baker, has visited Woodrow Wilson,who was recovering from a strong stroke.Baker was shocked and wrote:"A broken,ruined old man,shuffling along his left arm inert,the fingers drawn up like a claw,the left side of his face sagging frightfully.His voice is not human;it gurgles in his throat,sounds like that of an automaton.And yet his mind seems as alert as ever."
Sic transit gloria Wilson.He was indeed a very controversial president and his actions are still felt today.Suffice it to mention the Versailles Treaty which in itself caused a lot of post-war problems and is regarded as a conclave which has brought only further divisions and hardships among the many nations that were scrutinized and debated then.
Wilson was a Democrat who ascended to the White House after many years of Republican administrations,and he wanted to be remembered as a president who had worked in order to change not only his country but also the world order.It was Wilson who guided his nation through WW1 and Professor Cooper is extremely adroit in demonstrating how many efforts Wilson has made in order to avoid America's entrance into this horrible war.Volens nolens,in the end he had no choice and the barbaric submarine war conducted by the Germans pin addition to the Zimmermann telegram were the last straws which were used by the president to convene the Congress in order to declare war against Germany and its Allies.The isolationist days of America were over and now Wilson went out on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
Another controversial aspect discussed at length in this fascinating study is the way the subject of the League of Nations was advocated by Wilson but proved to be unsuccessful.In spite of this, Wilson managed to change the way people and policy makers would think about international relations that would carry America into the United Nations era.
On the one hand Wilson appears to be detached and cool, while on the other hand he is deeply a passionate man in his private life and Professor Cooper is superb when describing the president's private affairs, his two wives(Ellen and Edith),his lover(Peck), his children and in-laws.Quotes from the president's letters are supplied throughout the study.
Yet Wilson also vehemntly resisted progress for civil rights,while his attorney general launched an aggressive attack on civil liberties.Race relations were totally ignored.Wilson was prepared to fight his enemies and adversaries with all the means he got from his days as president at Princeton.He was the msot intellectual president the USA has had and one of his books is still regarded a milestone for those who study politics and constitutional law.It was Wilson who took care to nominate the first Jewish judge ,Louis D. brandeis,to the Supreme Court,in the era when anti-semitism played a significant role in the USA.Despite coming from a religious home,Wilson did not go to war in 1917 because he thought God was telling him to do so.As the president put it:"War is not declared in the name of God:it is a human affair entirely".Unlike Theodore Roosevelt,his greatest rival,he never compared politics to religion and preaching and had never supported the greatest moral reform crusade of their time-Prohibition.He despised Fundamentalist manifestations.
The best part of the book is the second one where Wilson is busy in his efforts to establish peace in Europe.The negotiations had worn him out physically and emotionally and the decisions he made in the process of peace-making have stirred almost as much argument as his decision to enter the war.His famous Fourteen Points have caused a lot of controversies not only in Europe but also at home and this further drew fire from his opponents.His stroke which made him an invalide also led America to undergo the worst presidential crisis in American history.
As Professor Cooper points out, many saw or regarded Wilson as an Amerian Icarus,who perished because he flew too close to the sun.Boldness and thinking big marked the president all his life,and this charaterized him during his days at Princeton and as the governor of New Jersey.
This volume is very rich in details and is a very comprehensive combination of scholarship and narrative and shows an extraordinary but also deeply flawed president and leader who started hsi career as a dynamic reformer and ended it shortsighted and delusional.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
J.M. Cooper wrote previously the best book on the period following the Armistice, "Breaking the Heart of the World". This biography of Wilson brings together virtually all aspects of the chararcter of this complex leader--in a comprehensive, clear and impartial fashion. Cooper shows where Wilson was wrong and Wilson was right. In all instances, Wilson was human--either arrogant or humble. His ideas and policies, wrong and right, still permeate American political thought. The book should be read by all our historians and by individuals aspiring to be president.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2011
The traditional view of Wilson is that he was greatly influenced by his minister father and the family's religious dogma. Consequently, his politics, both national and academic, were as hard and unyielding as the faith that guided it. Cooper rejects that framework early on and suggests the picture of Wilson is more complicated than the stereotype. But his narrative ended up supporting the standard interpretation, even if Cooper fails to say so directly. Where Wilson was seen as stubborn, Cooper calls him determined, uncompromising, tenacious. Cooper rarely comments directly on Wilson's religiosity, but mentions it in passing time and time again: He violated his rule of not working on the Sabbath, or he found solace in his faith, or quoted a Bible passage. The stereotype makes Wilson a racist even by the standards of his time; Cooper all but ignores this important facet, calling it only puzzling that such a man so progressive in other areas would be so backward in his treatment of race.
In fact, Cooper finds a lot of things "puzzling" about Wilson. That word appears frequently, along with other admissions by the author of things he doesn't understand about Wilson's motivations and behavior. The religious framework explains a lot; the best Cooper can do by rejecting it is to say he doesn't know why Wilson behaved as he did.
And nowhere is that lack of clarity more glaring than in the subject of race. Cooper ignores it almost entirely. He gives cursory mention to the fact that Wilson dismissed -- or allowed to be dismissed -- all the African Americans in the federal government. This Cooper finds strange, and (perhaps for that reason) ignores the matter altogether. If anything is puzzling, it is Cooper's decision to downplay that important issue. The only other time he even brings up race is to remark on how Wilson lost his celebrated cool while talking to a black leader. For Cooper, the issue was Wilson's cool demeanor, not his cold heart. Much could be explained by reference to the traditional view of Wilson, but this Cooper rejected several hundred pages before.
He does a little better on the subject of women's suffrage, but does not really go into too much detail here either. Another subject Cooper downplays is the American participation in the Russian Civil War after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover. He correctly frames it within the context of World War I, but American troops continued fighting there after the war was over. "The decision to intervene," as Kennan called it, had significant long-term consequences for US-Soviet relations--or, at the very least, gave Moscow a significant propaganda tool. Cooper mentions it, and then drops it after a page or so.
Besides the religious framework, Cooper also rejects two other stereotypes about Wilson: that Col. House was the power behind the throne in the early years, and that Edith took over presidential duties during Wilson's stroke. In both of these, the author is, I think, more successful at painting the varied picture he attempts.
The author gives Wilson credit for progressive legislation passed at the beginning of his first term, but does not go into nearly enough detail on the background of the issues, or Wilson's commitment to them, in order to justify that credit. The omission is especially conspicuous when contrasted with the minute detail presented on Wilson's struggle for Article X and the League of Nations. This may be simply be a case of the author filtering the material through his own interests; his earlier book on the League goes into even more detail, and is also a good read.
The idea that Cooper's own interests drove this book is also apparent elsewhere. His analysis of the 1912 election, about which he has also written, is extraordinary and at times original. I don't always agree with his views of Roosevelt, but the section on the election, especially the comparison of the New Nationalism and the New Freedom, is worth the price of the book.
Cooper likes Wilson, and is inclined to read the best of intentions where he can, and ignore those areas where he cannot. Where Wilson makes mistakes, Cooper understands why, and suggests to us that, after all, Woodrow was only human, and anyone would have reacted that way. I find the those rationalizations a bit off putting.
Finally, judging from Cooper's treatment, Wilson was not close to his children and had little to say to them. His major relationships are with his wives, Ellen and Edith, and these provide the bulk of our connection to Wilson as a human being. Woodrow the father practically doesn't exist. So it's a stretch to call this a true "life of Wilson." It's more of a political biography. In that, Cooper knows his subject. The research--his knowledge and use of sources both primary and secondary--is superb. The writing is accessible, although I dislike the literary device of presenting a quotation in one context and then citing it again in another a few pages later.
In all, Cooper's book is an integral part of the resurgence of interest in Wilson almost 100 years after his election.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2010
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book provides an interesting account of not only the accomplishments, but also the failures that marked Woodrow Wilson's political and academic careers. It is a well written biography of a stubborn, bold, and intelligent man.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2011
Woodrow Wilson came to the Presidency with a superb, analytical mind, easy self-assuredness in approaching complex problems, and an unyielding moral code. He was only the second Democratic President in an era dominated by the Republican party stretching, with only the interruption of Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms, from the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to the end of Herbert Hoover's term in 1933. His first term of office, from 1913 to 1917, provided the building blocks of a far more active and involved central government. His record of legislative achievements during this term is remarkable. During this short four year period, Wilson steered through Congress and signed into law the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, child labor laws, a massive reduction in tariffs, freedom for the Philippines, and an income tax. But for all of this, Wilson seemed more conservative than radical. He moved cautiously to build consensus and opposed the more radical elements of the Democratic party, particularly William Jennings Bryan, who was politically neutralized and eventually became Wilson's first Secretary of State.
Of course, Wilson's most important act, one that he dreaded throughout the eight years of his Presidency, was bringing America into the conflict in Europe. This was a tortuously difficult decision that led America into its first major international war, one that had many twists and turns. At times, it seemed that Germany, the subject of a British-enforced blockade which was gradually cutting off the importation of vital food and materiel supplies, was justified in the use of its newly-developed submarine fleet. But Wilson ultimately was unable to watch Britain, the home of the Parliamentary government that Wilson so vastly admired, flounder in its battle with Germany. America entered the war and the power of America's resources of manpower and technology finally tipped the balance of power to the Allies.
The peace that followed contained the seeds of European destruction a generation later, seeds that Wilson so accurately foresaw. He struggled magnificently but unsuccessfully, to create a different kind of peace, one that was founded on the basis of a League of Nations. A revitalized Republican party, that swept back into Congressional power in the midterm election of 1918, proved to be overwhelmingly dominant in opposing Wilson's proposals for a world order.
Wilson left office, a disappointed and dispirited man, suffering from the effects of a stroke that he suffered in the final days of campaigning for the League in the autumn of 1919. His administration lingered on, rudderless and powerless, for another year and a half. In this wonderful biography, John Milton Cooper presents a complete picture of Wilson. He was a strange man in many ways: he had a firm belief in his ability to think problems through and to arrive at correct conclusions. He was convinced that his viewpoints were correct and imperative. However, he lacked any semblance of the common touch, suffered disagreements quite acrimoniously, and had virtually no lightness of touch in dealing with his opponents. He was a tough customer and probably not an easy man in his human interactions. Cooper paints a complete picture of Wilson: so admirable in so many ways but disappointing and difficult in so many other ways.
This was a big turning point in American politics. America was on the verge of becoming a world power. Its economy was in the process of becoming the dominant economy of the world. Its society was becoming far more diverse and conflicted. Wilson dealt with all of these changes, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes disappointingly. Cooper's biography is a big step in understanding where America had come from and where it eventually was headed.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2010
Dr. John Milton Cooper, Jr. has taken his more that forty years of scholarship into the pivotal first twenty years of the 20th Century to write a meticulously research and detailed account of the 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson A President who is still a very controversial figure full of contradiction. While Wilson is proclaimed a great reformer he is also denounced for bring "Jim Crow" racial discrimination into full force in the Federal Government. The author of the "Fourteen Points" who severely limited civil liberties during and after World War One. The leader who in the eyes of many conservatives is condemned as an arrogant intellectual whose distaste for the constraints of the constitution and belief in the continual evolution of our political institutions lead to an enormous, and abusive centralization of power in the federal government. A position layout in scholarly form by Ronald J. Pestritto in his "Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. On the other hand Wilson is often defended as a gifted, idealistic, rigid and ultimately tragic leader who as president brought the Progressive Era movement to its legislative zenith and pushed America into the 20th Century. What is not in dispute is Woodrow Wilson critical impact on the direction of the United Status.
Into this mix of conflicting views Dr. Cooper has tried to present a detailed sympathetic review of Woodrow Wilson's life. Arguing in a revisionary manor for Woodrow Wilson position as one of the great presidents worthy of our attention in the 21st Century.
The real strength of this book comes for Dr. Cooper's ability to portray the world through Wilson's eyes In making his argument Dr. Cooper gives great attention to the personal as he fleshes out a complicated person who has been far too easily pigeonholed. As Dr. Cooper writes: "Behind Woodrow Wilson's distinctive and often caricatured features - his long nose, big jaw and pince-nez eyeglasses - lay one of the deepest and most daring souls ever to inhabit the White house:" Dr Cooper when not dealing with the character of Wilson offers a very detailed political history recounting in great detail the lengthy political battles to pass his long lists of transformative legislation and finally the ultimate failures of his diplomatic initiatives at the end of World War One. The book is not strong on putting Wilson within the social context of the era. To understand, the enormous social and economic changes driving this period one needs to turn to other works such as the classic "Age of Reform" written by Richard Hofstadter.
In summary Dr. Cooper has offered a very detailed somewhat lengthy view into the life and character of Woodrow Wilson. Well written for a general audience, but with the scholarly depth to be a key reference for student of this period for decades to come
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2010
I picked up this biography hoping to learn more about the man that was Woodrow Wilson; and I did. Though this book was boring in some spots, and I had to put it aside a couple of times, I found the man fascinating and how he was able to do all the great things he set out to do. Though Wilson was not the greatest of our presidents, he was definitely up there when it came to running and presenting himself as a good man, that did well for our country. The writing is good and dense, but don't be surprised if you might doze a couple of times. I might lay off the political subject for awhile in my future reads, since I received an overdose of it in this volume. Also, I was a little disappointed with the writer when WWI became the prime subject. I didn't learn anything about the Great War, and that was one thing I was hoping to get great detail on. The author should have given more information about the war, then just how Wilson was involved in it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2013
Woodrow Wilson had all of the potential to be a great president, but through circumstances and personal flaws proved to be at best an above-average leader. A southerner by birth and upbringing, Wilson graduated from Princeton, earned a law degree from University of Virginia and then found his life calling with a PhD in political science at Johns Hopkins. After a professorship at Bryn Mawr, Wilson become a professor and then president of Princeton University. Through a combination of extraordinary timing and luck, he became Governor of New Jersey and then a short two-years later President of the United States. No other individual in modern history has risen as quickly from obscurity to the highest office of the land as Wilson. Clear parallels can be seen between Wilson's rapid ascent and the 21st century rise of Barack Obama. Wilson was a progressive with forward thinking ideas. But his roots in the racist south prevented him from ever seeing the need to embrace civil rights. Wilson presented bold ideas about international relations founded in the League of Nations and his 14 points. But Wilson's inexperience lead underestimate nature of politics and how to accomplish his goals. This biography is rich with detail, but the writing was often be slow and the author didn't weave as rich a story as could be told. This is a good one-volume biography of an accomplished with lessons for any reader on fortune and dangers of rapid political success.