For decades, Woodrow Wilson has been remembered as either a paternalistic liberal or reactionary conservative at home and as a naïve idealist or cynical imperialist abroad. Historians’ harsh judgments of Wilson are understandable. He won two elections by promising a deliberative democratic process that would ensure justice and political empowerment for all. Yet under Wilson, Jim Crow persisted, interventions in Latin America increased, and a humiliating peace settlement was forced upon Germany. A generation after Wilson, stark inequalities and injustices still plagued the nation, myopic nationalism hindered its responsible engagement in world affairs, and a second vastly destructive global conflict threatened the survival of democracy worldwide—leaving some Americans today to wonder what, exactly, the buildings and programs bearing his name are commemorating.
In Power without Victory, Trygve Throntveit argues that there is more to the story of Wilson than these sad truths. Throntveit makes the case that Wilson was not a “Wilsonian,” as that term has come to be understood, but a principled pragmatist in the tradition of William James. He did not seek to stamp American-style democracy on other peoples, but to enable the gradual development of a genuinely global system of governance that would maintain justice and facilitate peaceful change—a goal that, contrary to historical tradition, the American people embraced. In this brilliant intellectual, cultural, and political history, Throntveit gives us a new vision of Wilson, as well as a model of how to think about the complex relationship between the world of ideas and the worlds of policy and diplomacy.