By Emre Turkut*
It attracted great attention worldwide when students from Princeton University demanded the name of Woodrow Wilson, who served as the 28th President of United States, be removed from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Relations and from Wilson College, a residential college named after Wilson.
A group of students, called the Black Justice League, outlined a list of demands and called the university to openly acknowledge the racist legacy of Wilson. The president of Princeton University, Christopher Eisgruber, has agreed to further discussions and, as a gesture of goodwill, promised the removal of the large mural of Wilson from Wilson College. It will soon be evident whether or not the demands of the students were too hefty when Eisgruber begins discussions with the trustees, a group to which Eisgruber himself belongs.
Woodrow Wilson is, without a doubt, an important figure for the studies of international law and relations. The 19th century marks the most profound period of change and transformation, aside from the 16th century, that gave birth to a political system called the Westphalian order, placing sovereign states in its centre. In this era, as a result of proliferation and an increase in terms of economic, trading and socio-cultural relation between nation states, a more “internationalized” system was needed. Here, Woodrow Wilson was the one to embody the steps, aiming to respond to the metamorphosis that the “internationalized” system underwent in the 19th Century. Wilson, who also served as the president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, put forth the new dynamics of the international system by introducing the 14 Points in 1918. He even proposed to set up a union over all states to guarantee the sovereignty and political independence of smaller states. This idea itself underlined the very foundation of the League of Nations. Starting from the “world government” League of Nations to the United Nations, today international organizations play a vital role in the functioning of the international system. This, indeed, gives us a clue as to the value of the legacy that was inherited from Wilson.
However, a “racial-justice” themed wave has been sweeping across American universities since September 2015. The wave finally hit Princeton University when the students stormed the president’s office and demanded the removal of Wilson’s name from all programs and buildings. Since, the discussions on acknowledged but unlighted and seldom discussed aspects of Wilson’s legacy blazed out: his racist views and segregationist policies during his time as president.
Woodrow Wilson, who held office as governor of New Jersey before becoming the president in 1913, was born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina. “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” by John Milton Cooper reveals certain facts about Wilson’s father, including that he was a slave owner and a passionate Confederation supporter. American historians agree on the notion that Wilson has deep sympathy –even love – for the Klu Klux Klan.
It is also not original or new to claim that his racist views turned into segregationist and bigoted policies when he began his first term as president in 1913.
As an academic reference, in his famous book “Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America”, author Eric Yellin writes that Wilson had imposed Jim Crow laws on the federal government, conducted discriminatory policies, fired many innocent black Americans and replaced them with staff who share his segregationist views. It is no surprise to conclude that this discrimination was established as a national norm in the Wilsonian era.
Conclusions must be made cautiously since it is very common to treat Wilson’s potential racism as an anachronism. However, it can be said that Wilson was a racist by the conjuncture of the 1910s and by today’s understandings and standards. As a historical record, W.E.B. DuBois writes in his letter of 1913 to Wilson as an uprising to his racist policies, “…President Woodrow Wilson, that is the burden of our great cry to you. We want to be treated as men. We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on street cars and railroads.” DuBois, in a cynical and bitter manner, as a way of reminding Wilson of the anti-negro attitude of his university presidency, also writes, “To the quiet walls of Princeton where no Negro student is admitted, the noise of the fight and the reek of its blood may have penetrated but vaguely and dimly.” These salient examples show that Wilson’s racism was not a matter of a few unfortunate remarks but a fundamental part of his political identity. Hence, it is possible to agree with many American historians who claim that Wilson was a racist and white supremacist.
Nevertheless, a distinction must be made at this point. I would not raise a “yes, but” argument when making it. Wilson could be labelled as a racist and segregationist; however, his racism should be weighed separately from his contribution to the international system. As we all know, genius German scholar Carl Schmitt was a Nazi, and even one of the leading Nazi ideologists. The Weimar Republic, according to Schmitt’s work, was not sovereign and only Nazis could save the German people from the Weimar Republic and establish sovereignty. Schmitt’s ideas, surely, were enough to make him a dangerous genius; however, they did not eradicate his contribution from international academia. Just the same, Wilson’s personal convictions and number of policies should not eradicate his contributions from the international system and society, and thus, from mankind.
*Emre Turkut holds an LLM from the University of Kent, UK. Mr. Turkut is an active researcher in the field of public international law, international criminal law and human rights law and has published works in national and international journals.