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How an idealist distracted by romance confronted hard reality and emerged as a prophet before his time.

WOODROW WILSON LEARNED THE GRIM NEWS of May 7, 1915, before he read it in the papers, but the full-banner headlines about the German attack on a British ocean liner framed his predicament. “Lusitania Sunk by a Submarine; Twice Torpedoed Off Irish Coast,” the New York Times blared. “Washington Believes That a Grave Crisis Is at Hand.” The New York World highlighted the American connection to the liner: “Two Torpedoes Sink Lusitania; Many Americans Among 1,446 Lost.” The World added: “President, Stunned, in Seclusion.”

The president was indeed stunned. A high-minded intellectual and idealist who had been elected on promises of domestic progressivism, Wilson was suddenly forced to confront brutally real foreign policy issues. For nine months he had kept the United States out of World War I. Now, with the death of 144 Americans, the war was pressing closer to American shores. The Lusitania crisis was the first major test of Wilson’s judgment, concentration and nerve. In dealing with the crisis, he emerged as a war leader—something he never imagined—and a prophet before his time.

At the outset, Wilson knew he must respond sternly to the German U-boat attack. The question was, how sternly? He didn’t want to ask Congress for a war declaration, and he knew that most Americans didn’t want him to, either. For a century the United States had remained aloof from Europe’s troubles, and prospered. Now the country was on a precipice, and he had to step carefully. The world watched to see how he would perform under pressure and what sort of president he would prove to be.

What the world did not know was that Wilson was also laboring under a form of pressure familiar to millions of ordinary people but rare for sitting presidents. He was head over heels in love. His mind was spinning with thoughts of the woman he was wooing and wanted to marry. Try as he might to focus on the Lusitania crisis, Wilson couldn’t help thinking of Edith. He knew cool judgment was required at this fraught moment, but with his passions running hot, cool judgment came hard.


WILSON HAD NOT EXPECTED TO DEAL WITH either war or romantic passion during his presidency. “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” he said just after his election in 1912. During his first year he concentrated on tax reform, monetary policy and antitrust regulation, and he enjoyed striking success. The Federal Reserve System was established to manage the money system. The Federal Trade Commission was created to police unfair business practices. And the 1913 Revenue Act slashed the tariff and replaced it, in part, with a federal income tax.

But as Wilson was getting ready to lead the Democrats triumphantly into the midterm elections of 1914, a terrorist killed the Austrian archduke and triggered Europe’s first continentwide war in a century. Wilson responded by proclaiming U.S. neutrality, a policy that received broad approval and allowed the war-induced demand for commodities and finished products to boost prices, wages and profits nationwide. Neutrality was good for American business, and few were eager to disrupt it.

Meanwhile, though, Wilson was struggling with a personal tragedy. When he first took office, he was contentedly married. His wife of 27 years, Ellen Axson, had given him three daughters and all the support an ambitious man could ask. But in their first year in the White House she developed kidney disease and suffered a bad fall. Complications culminated in Ellen’s death in August 1914, just as Europe was erupting into war.

Wilson was devastated. “Oh, my God!” he lamented. “What am I to do?” He was a devout Presbyterian, but Ellen’s death tested his faith. Friends and associates who admired his self-discipline were astonished to see him sob uncontrollably at the funeral. “A sadder picture, no one could imagine,” observed Cary Grayson, a Navy surgeon who served as the Wilson family physician. “A great man with his heart torn out.”

Wilson’s distress worried and then alarmed those around him. Edward House, an informal adviser who was the president’s chief confidant, recorded his growing concern in his diary. After one dinner with Wilson, House noted, “His face became grey and he looked positively sick. I was unable to lift him out of this depression before bedtime. He said he was broken in spirit by Mrs. Wilson’s death, and was not fit to be President because he did not think straight any longer.” During a visit to New York, Wilson took a long walk with House after dark. “When we reached home,” House wrote in his diary, “he began to tell me how lonely and sad his life was since Mrs. Wilson’s death, and he could not help wishing when we were out tonight that someone would kill him.”

Relief from his gloom came in February 1915, when Wilson was riding in a car with Grayson down Connecticut Avenue in Washington. Grayson waved at a female acquaintance on the sidewalk. “Who is that beautiful lady?” Wilson asked. She was Edith Bolling Galt, a widow who ran her deceased husband’s jewelry business, drove her own car—the first woman in Washington to do so—and circulated among the salons of Dupont Circle.

Grayson, encouraged by this spark in his depressed patient and friend, arranged an introduction in March. Wilson found Edith captivating. She was intelligent, informed and eager to hear everything he had to say about himself, his work and his aims for the country. Their first meetings were private, but they soon began appearing in public together. He thought everything she did was delightful. He still thought so two months later as the Lusitania crisis unfolded. In a note penned on May 9, two days after a German U-boat sank the liner, Wilson told Edith: “I need you as a boy needs his sweetheart and a strong man his helpmate and heart’s comrade.”


FROM THE START OF THE WAR WILSON AND HIS advisers had interpreted the principle of neutral rights as protecting American ships and their cargoes from attacks by either side. The British were the more serious violators at first, clamping a blockade on Germany and declaring as contraband almost anything that assisted the German war effort, including foodstuffs. The British halted and boarded American ships, forced them into British and French ports and seized their cargoes. The Wilson administration protested.

The anti-British feeling about the blockade, however, was nothing like the public storm that followed the sinking of the Lusitania. The British violated property rights; the Germans massacred innocent people. Reports, later proved true, that the Lusitania was secretly carrying munitions did little to soften the anti-German outrage. Nor were critics mollified by the news that the German government had warned passengers that the ship would be entering a war zone.

Popular and editorial demands for an energetic response created friction within Wilson’s inner circle. “America has come to a parting of the ways, when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare,” Edward House told Wilson. “We can no longer remain neutral spectators.” But Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan urged the president to move cautiously. He recommended that Americans be kept out of harm’s path, if necessary forbidding them by law to travel on ships carrying munitions. And he reminded Wilson that Britain violated American neutral rights more often, if less lethally, than Germany.

Wilson sympathized with Bryan’s desire to protect the nation from the maelstrom in Europe, and he hoped to tamp down the rising war fever. On a trip to Philadelphia he tested one pacifist message in a speech. “Americans must have a consciousness different from the consciousness of every other nation in the world,” he said. “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”

The trial balloon sank almost as soon as the words left his mouth. Even commentators supportive of peace wondered what it meant to be “too proud to fight.” More than a hundred Americans were dead as a result of German ruthlessness: Was this the best the president had to offer?

Wilson quickly realized he had erred. “I have a bad habit of thinking out loud,” he admitted confidentially. “That thought occurred to me while I was speaking, and I let it out. I should have kept it in.” Publicly, he backtracked: “I was expressing a personal attitude, that was all.”

What Wilson declined to share with the public was why his judgment had faltered. He was utterly distracted by his budding romance. Thoughts of Edith filled his head. He saw her two or three times a day, despite the demands of his presidential schedule, and he sent her cards and notes frequently. In one message he attributed his fumble in Philadelphia to his infatuation, writing: “My heart was in such a whirl from that wonderful interview of yesterday and the poignant appeal and sweetness of the little note you left with me.”


WHEN HE REGAINED HIS COMPOSURE, WILSON sent a message to the German government condemning the Lusitania sinking as illegal and barbarous. A passenger ship had been torpedoed “without so much as a challenge or a warning,” he wrote, and “a thousand souls who had no part or lot in the conduct of the war…were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare.” The American deaths were a special concern, he went on, but the principle involved was larger than this, or any other, incident. “The Government of the United States is contending for something much greater than mere rights of property or privileges of commerce. It is contending for nothing less high and sacred than the rights of humanity.” Wilson concluded his note by demanding that Germany change its submarine policy and offer guarantees that attacks on civilian vessels like the Lusitania would not recur.

The German government equivocated. It cited the difficulties of waging war at sea, and it pushed the blame on Britain for loading weapons on passenger ships.

Wilson rejected the German response and dispatched a second note that sharpened the American position. British actions had nothing to do with the present case, he said. Killing civilians from a neutral country was “illegal,” “inhuman” and “manifestly indefensible.” If Germany persisted with its naval policies, the United States government would interpret such a course as “deliberately unfriendly.” Wilson’s words suggested that another sinking could bring the United States into the conflict on the side of Germany’s foes.

This was what Bryan feared. The secretary of state argued against pushing Germany into a corner. At the least, he argued, the president should balance his demands of Germany with criticism of the British for their violations of American neutral rights.

Wilson refused to alter his stance, but he did his best to placate Bryan. “You always have such weight of reason, as well as such high motives, behind what you urge that it is with deep misgiving that I turn from what you press upon me,” he told Bryan.

Bryan was not appeased. The president’s path was dangerous, he reasserted. He complained, as well, that Wilson was paying more attention to Edward House, a mere private citizen, than to him, the secretary of state. “Colonel House has been secretary of state, not I,” Bryan said to Wilson. “I have never had your full confidence.”

Wilson couldn’t deny the truth of Bryan’s remark. But he wouldn’t change his policy, and, as matters proved, he couldn’t change Bryan’s mind. Bryan quit.


WHILE WILSON’S FIRM POLICY TOWARD BERLIN cost him his secretary of state, it bought him time with Germany. The German government ordered its submarine commanders not to target passenger vessels. At first this order was secret, but after one U-boat captain violated it and torpedoed the British liner Arabic, killing two Americans and two score others, the German ambassador to the United States revealed the orders lest the latest incident further inflame American feeling.

Germany’s retreat enabled Wilson to keep the United States out of the European bloodbath for another 18 months. During that time he campaigned for a second term on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” and was reelected. A reluctant realist when it came to the military conflict, Wilson tried to organize a peace conference, and broached the concepts of “peace without victory” and a “League of Peace”—an international body with the power to enforce good behavior among nations.

But he couldn’t stop the war, or keep his nation out of it. In early 1917 the German government, desperate to break the deadlock on the western front, declared a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. German U-boats began sinking American vessels. Wilson responded by making good on his earlier threat: In April 1917 he asked Congress for a war declaration, and Congress approved.

By then Wilson was fully focused on the grave matters of state. He’d resolved his crisis of the heart more than a year earlier, in December 1915, when he married Edith in a private ceremony at her home. Some of his advisers had recommended postponing the wedding but Wilson wouldn’t hear of delay. Perhaps he knew that he’d never be able to concentrate on his job until Edith was his wife.


THE WAR WENT WELL FOR THE UNITED STATES, but the peace proved complicated. Wilson led the country to victory and then headed the American delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He cajoled U.S. allies into accepting the League of Nations as an instrument for preventing another war, but many Americans resisted the compromise of sovereignty that membership would entail. Wilson toured the country generating support for the peace treaty and the League, and his efforts appeared to be paying off until he suffered a stroke that largely incapacitated him for the rest of his presidency.

He might have resigned had the public understood the gravity of his condition. But Edith Wilson kept all but his closest advisers away. She carried messages into his sickroom and brought decisions out. No one could tell whether the decisions were his or hers. Edith doubtless saw little distinction. Since the Lusitania crisis he had confided all his important decisions to her; she confidently judged she knew his mind as well as he did.

But she—or he—didn’t know the mind of the Senate, which rejected the peace treaty and the League. Wilson left office a broken man. By his death in 1924 the United States had turned isolationist—irretrievably so, it seemed. Yet harsh reality eventually proved this idealist right, for when fascism enveloped the world in a second cataclysmic war, Americans belatedly came to appreciate Wilson’s wisdom. Their government’s 1945 sponsorship of the United Nations, an updated version of his League, was a posthumous nod to his prescient internationalist vision.


H.W. Brands’ most recent book is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.