It stands to reason that the Fargo Public School Board of Education would bow to political correctness and drop Woodrow Wilson's name from one of its schools. (Not the Woodrow Wilson school on north University from which I graduated kindergarten in a previous eon.) It was the right move for the wrong reason. As Forum columnist Jim Shaw demonstrated, only one voice is necessary to topple an edifice founded on sand and defended by hollowed-out citizens.


President Wilson was indeed a racist and something of a misogynist as well. His greater sin, however, was his inexplicably deranged decision to drag America into the Great War, aka World War I. But going to war is practically never held against presidents no matter how idiotic the rationale or how destructive the war. Thus we peaceably allowed Wilson's name on our schools despite his involving America in a purely European war among colonial powers, killing 116,000 American soldiers and twice that number of sick and wounded. Jacques Barzun in his “From Dawn to Decadence” writes that WWI “hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction” and WWII was its sequel.

Those harms we readily accept. Death and needless war on an industrial scale? Fine. Just don't trifle with lesser sins.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Barzun is not alone. Some historians have considered WWI to be the start of the downfall of western civilization. It brought down four empires: German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman, which were replaced by Nazism, Communism (with its unfathomable 100 million or more murdered persons), and a disruption in the Middle East that echoes even now, a century later.

The war ended the “belle epoque,” a time of relative peace and cultural advancement after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. WWI was a war of stunning stupidity. America's entry into the war tipped the scale against Germany, leading to a punitive armistice that could not have been better aimed at starting another war. A few prescient people in 1918 predicted the next war in 20 years, and were horribly right.

Wilson had opponents to his warmongering. Wisconsin Senator “Fighting” Bob La Follette, in a speech an onlooker said to a friend that “this was the greatest speech that either of us will ever hear,” laid bare the wasteland of Wilson's call to war. He attacked the idea of reflexively backing the president. “What if the president were wrong?” La Follette pointed out the hypocrisy of warring to make the world safe for democracy by pointing out England's repression of India, Ireland, Egypt and other countries.

It was hopeless. Americans everywhere were champing at the bit to fight, North Dakotans not least of them. Congressman Fred Britten remarked that “there was something in the air” forcing Congress to vote for war when a majority supposedly opposed it. La Follette wept at the end of his speech, and after the overwhelming vote to go to war he was handed a rope on the way out of the chamber.

This is why Wilson's name on schools should be dropped. This is what Veterans Day should be—a remembrance of WWI's end, not a jingoistic display of militarism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.