Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University trustee A. Scott Berg ’71 gave a lecture on Tuesday on the life of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, depicting Wilson as a president deeply influenced by his regional and religious background and reluctant to take a stand against racism and women’s suffrage.
Berg’s Woodrow Wilson biography, published in the fall of 2013, is a New York Times best seller whose rights were recently been purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. However, Berg made only brief mention of the hype surrounding his biography, noting instead how Wilson’s policies were largely shaped by his identity as a southerner and the son of a Presbyterian minister.
“I believe Woodrow Wilson was the most religious president we ever had,” Berg said, explaining that Wilson’s personal, religious and moral convictions factored heavily into his political life throughout his presidency.
Berg also described the racist undertones of Wilson’s presidency, saying that most of Wilson’s cabinet was composed of southern racists and that Wilson, despite believing that the United States should eventually become desegregated, was unwilling to make any progress toward that goal.
“No matter what Wilson’s views were on race, and I believe they were evolving, he knew his southern brethren weren’t ready for integration,” Berg said, explaining why Wilson ultimately refused to address propositions for desegregation in the Treasury Department and the Post Office.
Furthermore, the lecture touched upon Wilson’s motivations to enter World War I. Although Berg noted that Wilson was reluctant to enter a war he considered unnecessary and initially insisted that the United States remain neutral, he added that Wilson ultimately realized “German belligerence” was only getting worse and that the United States had no choice but to go to war.
“The world must be made safe for democracy,” Berg said, quoting Wilson’s famous declaration.
Berg noted that this maxim has guided U.S. foreign policy ever since the Wilson presidency, dictating the decision to intervene in Vietnam, Iraq and the United States’s current stance towards Syria.
In response to an audience question about Wilson’s questionable stance on women’s suffrage, Berg said that Wilson was undeniably slow on this issue but quickly converted to the cause of women’s rights when World War I began and women started to occupy a much larger public role. Berg said that, at this point, Wilson began lobbying Congress to address the gender inequality in the United States, eventually resulting in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Another question brought up Wilson’s reenactment of the Alien and Sedition Act, which Berg calls the “low point of Wilson’s presidency.” He noted Wilson’s sense of duty to the soldiers he sent overseas, but also noted that even after the danger of the war had passed, Wilson still refused to release Socialist leader Eugene Debs from prison.
Throughout the lecture, Berg made several references to Wilson’s personal life, which he describes as the emphasis of his biography. Berg discussed Wilson’s relationship with his two wives, Ellen Axson Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, as well as Wilson’s failing health toward the end of his life.
“I felt no one had ever written a humanizing biography of Woodrow Wilson,” Berg said.
However, it wasn’t until the end of the lecture that an audience member brought up Wilson’s alleged affair with Mary Peck, to which Berg responded that this affair was most likely not a sexual affair but merely an emotional and “postal” affair.
The lecture was held in Dodds Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. on Tues. and was attended largely by community members.