President Woodrow Wilson was notable for his neutral political stance in terms of America’s role in World War I. This stance could be attributed to Wilson’s academic background and religious upbringing. In his view, God did not intend the United States to enter the conflict, while his academic side supported the ideas of power rather than force. Thus, as the war broke out, “America, secure in its fortress of neutrality, watched the war at a remove and found it all unfathomable” (236).
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When on May 6, 1915, the German SM U-20 boat sank the Lusitania ocean liner, claiming the lives of 128 American civilians, President Wilson was faced with extreme pressure from US society. Although he was troubled by the incident, Wilson treated it with prudence as was reported in the press at that time. Under the influence of the country’s leaders, officials did not think that the government would take any serious action. Wilson explained the incident not as a deliberate attack by the Germans on a civilian ship but rather as a situation of confusion in the belief a hostile vessel was being bombed. Thus, the president used any excuse he could to prolong the United States’ neutrality.
Woodrow Wilson’s “Demons”
In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson delves into the personal life of Woodrow Wilson and explores the impact that the death of the president’s wife had on the well-being of the US leader. Losing Mrs. Wilson on August 6, 1914 (two days after Britain’s entry into the war) to Bright’s disease, the president was left not only without a life partner but also without his primary adviser.
Ellen Wilson had played a major role in shaping the political thinking of her husband, and for a period of time, the president’s grief “seemed incapacitating […] tears were streaming down his face. It was a heart-breaking scene, a sadder picture no one could imagine. A great man with his heart torn out” (Larson 59). Haunted by the memories of his wife, president Wilson was left alone in the White House.
As the United States struggled due to the adverse effects of economic recession, the president’s dominant concern was not to get drawn into the military opposition happening in Europe. However, in practice, neutrality was not easy to maintain, despite Wilson’s grasping at straws to shelter his country from the impact of the war. Dealing with the loss of his wife, Wilson was in a deep depression, and he tried to do everything in his power not to impose war-related depression upon the United States. He said, “we are at peace with all the world” and saw America as the greatest hope for all other countries (Larson 72).
Concluding whether Wilson’s reluctance to go to war was justified is a complicated task. On the one hand, a lack of moral support and the loss of his wife made the president more vulnerable than he should have been, thus justifying his reluctance. If a military leader lacks confidence in his power, then not plunging a nation into war is the most reasonable solution. On the other hand, the president used any possible excuse not to participate in the war, ignoring the devastating impact of the militant military expansion of Germany. Thus, “closing an eye” on a problem does not justify a lack of action. Overall, the period of America’s neutrality was mentally hard on Woodrow Wilson not only as a leader but also as a husband who had lost his beloved wife.
Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s “Angel”
Edith Bolling Galt was a friend of Woodrow Wilson’s physician, described by Larson as “a striking woman, with a complexion and manner, said to gleam, and eyes of a violet blue” (88). In March 1915, she was introduced to the president at a dinner at the White House, after which the two became friends. Edith began to occupy Wilson’s thoughts and imagination; she was a regular dinner guest, taking the president’s mind off the personal problems that he had encountered. In trying to brighten Edith’s days, Wilson consequently brightened his own life, burdened as it was by fears of war and the loss of his former wife.
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A year after Ellen’s passing, Woodrow asked Edith to marry him, but she refused, and this rejection left the president in “great sorrow and feeling almost disoriented as world events clamored for his attention. Even Britain had become a growing source of irritation” (Larson 354). This shows that Wilson’s personal life had a drastic impact on his attitude toward politics. Consequently, Edith’s resistance to marriage wavered, and on December 18, 1915, the two married privately, giving the entire White House a glimmer of hope that the president would recover emotionally.
Similar to the role that Ellen had played in the White House, Edith Galt Wilson became a trusted counselor to her husband, listening to the drafts of his speeches, critiquing notes sent to Germany, and offering general advice. In April 1917, when the United States finally entered World War I, Wilson was faced with tremendous pressure to maintain the morale of his soldiers while withstanding the strain from civilians. Edith wanted to support her husband and submerged herself fully into the life of her husband Woodrow. She accompanied the president to Europe when he consulted with America’s allies in establishing peace.
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson was left paralyzed by a stroke. As a constant attendant in her husband’s political affairs, Edith completed many general governmental duties. However, she took pains not to make serious decisions, delegating them to the heads of the relevant departments. Her stewardship was instrumental in keeping the United States stable during a time of doubt.
Edith Galt Wilson was a good match for the president because of her strong spirit and the true desire to help the president overcome his struggles. Infatuated with her, Wilson strove to become happy again, and in doing so, he became more optimistic about the fate of America during World War I and mentally prepared himself for the effects the war would have on the country. Overall, Larson’s description of Woodrow Wilson’s life was interesting because it included much more than general facts. It was fascinating to read about a president who was “human”—he cried in front of other people, showed enthusiasm for art and poetry, and wrote love letters to his future wife.
These descriptions remind readers that presidents can also struggle emotionally, and apart from dealing with complex political, social, and economic problems, they have to balance their personal lives and sustain their mental health. This is not easy even for people who do not have to worry about leading a country. Thus, Dead Wake was much more than an exploration of the Lusitania’s sinking but also an insightful look into the personal lives of some of the political giants involved in World War I.
Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Broadway Books, 2016.