The Education of an American President Woodrow Wilson and the Study of Central and Eastern Europe

There has certainly never been an American president who cared more passionately about Central and Eastern Europe and did more to transform its geopolitical circumstances than Woodrow Wilson. With America‘s entry into World War One, declaring war against Germany in April 1917 and against Austria-Hungary in December, Wilson was keenly focused on Eastern Europe as a site for defining war aims and peace terms. Already in the famous Fourteen Points Speech of January 1918, Wilson dedicated points 10 through 13 to Eastern Europe, advocating autonomous development for the peoples of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, political independence and territorial integrity for the Balkans states, and the creation of an independent Poland for the first time since the partitions of the eighteenth century.

The eventual outcome of the Paris Peace Conference—guided principally by Wilson together with David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau— produced an even more radical transformation of the map with the former imperial realms replaced by a set of interlocking national states. This has remained the template for the mapping of Central and Eastern Europe over the last hundred years since the peace treaties of 1919 and 1920.

Wilson had a Ph.D. in political science, held a professorship at Princeton, and served as president of Princeton before entering politics. He is still the only American president to have earned a doctorate. Yet Wilson knew almost nothing about Central and Eastern Europe before he went to war in 1917, and he never in his life laid eyes on any of the territories of the region.

As a student at Princeton in the 1870s, he was a fierce partisan of the British Liberal leader Wiliam Gladstone, and therefore followed the Eastern Crisis of that decade through Gladstone’s anti-Ottoman polemics on behalf of the Christian Slavs of southeastern Europe. In Wilson’s published work, notably his multi-volume History of the American People of 1902, his awareness of the peoples of Eastern Europe was largely a matter of patrician condescension toward American immigrant populations, cited as “men of the meaner sort of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor intelligence.”

Between 1917 and 1919, Wilson put himself through a crash course of self-education concerning Eastern Europe, without actually putting aside either his Gladstonian Liberal perspective or his ambivalence about American immigrant groups, whose support he had to solicit in his presidential campaigns of 1912 and 1916. By the time he reached Paris in December 1918, after the war was over, his Platonic inexperience of Eastern Europe was partly camouflaged by his studious preparation which was shaped by a set of sentimental sympathies and personal prejudices. At the conference, he would translate his own mental mapping of Eastern Europe into the new geopolitical mapping that characterized the postwar settlement.

The eventual outcome of the Paris Peace Conference produced an even more radical transformation of the map with the former imperial realms replaced by a set of interlocking national states.

The Most Important Figure

Wilson’s wartime education was assisted by the intellectual enterprise known as “The Inquiry”—assembled by Wilson’s closest adviser Colonel Edward House for the precise purpose of offering the President information relevant to war aims and peace terms. The chairman of The Inquiry was the philosopher Sidney Edward Mezes, the president of the City College of New York; the young journalist Walter Lippmann also played a leading role. Isaiah Bowman, the director of the American Geographical Society, was crucial for providing maps—both of geography and ethnography—and he would go to Paris as Wilson’s Chief Territorial Specialist.

The most important The Inquiry figure for understanding Central and Eastern Europe, however, was Harvard professor of history Archibald Cary Coolidge. He was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, a remote cousin of future president Calvin Coolidge, and probably the American academic who knew most about Eastern Europe at that moment. He had done all the travelling that Wilson had never done: had visited Ottoman Constantinople, Habsburg Vienna, and Romanov St. Petersburg in the 1890s, and had even been presented to the Tsar. He also brought into The Inquiry research pool his graduate students Robert Kerner, with expertise on Czech and South Slavic history, and Robert Howard Lord, with expertise in Polish history.

At the time of the peace conference, Wilson stayed in Paris (with brief trips to London and Rome), but Coolidge, Kerner, and Lord fanned out across Central and Eastern Europe to provide reports to the president, offering eyewitness accounts of the territories under discussion in Paris. In November 1918, following the armistice, Coolidge received “instructions to proceed to Eastern Europe to investigate and report upon conditions there.” Kerner was of Bohemian descent and was presumed to be sympathetic to Czech interests, while Lord, with his Polish expertise, was regarded as a friend of Poland and punningly dubbed by the Poles as “nasz Lord”—Our Lord.

The Role of Personal Friendships

The academic experts played an influential role in providing Wilson with necessary information and analysis, partly compensating for his own relative lack of knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, he also forged his own perspective based on personal friendships that he had developed during the final years of the war, most notably with Tomáš Masaryk, the Czech national leader and future president of Czechoslovakia, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist who later represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference and then became prime minister of Poland.

Both of these men were, without any doubt, lobbying Wilson during the war on behalf of their respective political causes, but Wilson came to feel that they were his friends and that his personal friendship for them could serve as a metonymy for his friendship toward their entire nations. “It is deeply gratifying to me,” wrote Wilson to Masaryk in January 1919, “that the Czecho-Slovak peoples should recognize in me their friend and the champion of their rights.”

Between 1917 and 1919, Wilson put himself through a crash course of self-education concerning Eastern Europe, without actually putting aside his ambivalence about American immigrant groups.

His personal attachments would lead to a sense of disillusionment at the peace conference when the nations that he had befriended conducted themselves as political (rather than sentimental) entities with national interests that were inevitably self-serving and self-aggrandizing. On the way to Paris in December 1918, sailing on the USS George Washington, Wilson is said to have exclaimed, “Three million Germans in Bohemia! That’s curious! Masaryk never told me that!” Wilson was interested in the geographic and ethnographic mapping of Eastern Europe, but his mental mapping was often personal and sentimental.

When Wilson spoke on behalf of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, he sometimes verbally drew a map for his audience. Speaking to the Democratic National Committee in late February 1919, on a brief visit back to Washington during the Paris Peace Conference, he explained, “We are carving a piece of Poland out of Germany’s side; we are creating an independent Bohemia below that, an independent Hungary below that, and enlarging Rumania, and we are rearranging the territorial divisions of the Balkan states.”

In September 1919, during his whistle-stop tour on behalf of the treaty, which faced opposition in the Republican Senate, Wilson orated in Des Moines, Iowa: “And south of Poland is Bohemia, which we cut away from the Austrian combination. And below Bohemia is Hungary, which can no longer rely upon the assistant strength of Austria, and below her is an enlarged Rumania. Alongside Rumania is the new Slavic kingdom.” The geography of Central and Eastern Europe was something that he had recently attempted to master himself, and now he laid it out, like a schoolteacher, to the American public. His verbs made very clear the power of the peacemakers to transform Eastern Europe: we are carving, we are creating, we are rearranging. Thus he helped to produce the new map of interlocking national states in the region.

America’s Move to Isolation

Wilson’s cross-country tour was so stressful that he collapsed in Colorado in September and then suffered a major stroke in Washington in October, leaving him significantly incapacitated for the last year of his presidential term. With the United States Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in 1919 and 1920, followed by the election of Republican Warren Harding to the presidency in 1920, America moved toward isolation.

Yet, though Wilsonian internationalism would have to recede in the 1920s and 1930s, the war and the peace conference provided a powerful scholarly impetus to the academic study of Eastern Europe, which gained strength through the twentieth century and came fully of age when America reengaged with Europe during World War Two and the Cold War.

Archibald Cary Coolidge returned to Harvard after the peace conference and continued to teach courses on Central and Eastern Europe, and to build the Slavic collection of Widener Library, until his death in 1928. In 1922, he became the founding editor of the journal Foreign Affairs. While the government in Washington turned toward isolation, Coolidge at Harvard redoubled his academic commitment to Eastern Europe and created a whole new field of academic study within the American university system. His student Robert Kerner—in Europe at the time of the peace conference—became professor of East European history at Berkeley in 1928 and founded the Berkeley Institute of Slavic Studies in 1948.

When Wilson spoke on behalf of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, he sometimes verbally drew a map for his audience.

The Impact of Wilsonian Internationalism

Kerner’s student Wayne Vucinich—who worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War Two—taught at Stanford from 1946 to 1988, and helped to establish the Stanford Center for Russian and East European Studies. I myself studied for my doctorate in East European history at Stanford with Vucinich. The whole field of study of Eastern Europe in the United States descends from Coolidge, and those descendants remain active in American universities today. Wilsonian internationalism had an energizing and influential impact on American academic life, even as it was effaced in American foreign policy.

After the Paris Peace Conference, when the Senate refused to approve the treaty, and when Harding took the White House with a commitment to American isolation, Wilson was unable to play any role in superintending the new states of Central and Eastern Europe that he had helped to situate on the map.

After the Paris Peace Conference, when the Senate refused to approve the treaty, Wilson was unable to play any role in superintending the new states of Central and Eastern Europe that he had helped to situate on the map.

Yet, the new states remained sentimentally important to him during the last years of his life. In 1923, one year before his death, Wilson, himself the son of a Protestant minister, corresponded with a Protestant minister in the new state of Czechoslovakia: “It makes me proud indeed to know that I am thought to have promoted the liberties of the people of Czechoslovakia. My interest in them can never grow less, and I shall always deem the title ‘friend of Czechoslovakia’ as one of the most distinguished I could bear.” Later that year he received a photo album from Czechoslovakia celebrating himself, and he wrote to President Masaryk to thank him for “the really magnificent volumes in which you have so thoughtfully had bound photographs of places and objects which citizens of Czechoslovakia have been so gracious as to name for me.”

A statue of Wilson was erected in 1928 at the Prague train station, which was also named for him, a mark of appreciation and a memento of the American internationalism that remained unfulfilled in the 1920s. The statue was taken down during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and stayed down during the decades of Soviet domination during the Cold War. In 2011, a new statue of Wilson was unveiled in Prague and still stands today as a reminder of the historical importance and potential future significance of American international engagement.

Larry Wolff

is the Silver Professor of History at New York University, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994), The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (2010), and, most recently, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.