By Max A. Joseph
The late Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University president, New Jersey governor and United States president, who ordered the first U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915-1934, has been in the news lately over his view on race, which many consider abhorrent and insensitive to Blacks. Lauded as an enlightened visionary by some and an unrepentant racist by others, the man was indeed a controversial figure. As a result, black students attending Princeton University are demanding that his name be removed from the school’s prestigious Public and International Affairs schools — a contentious request that is sure to elicit raw emotions on both sides.
Fittingly the present situation in Haiti and the history of open U.S. interventions in Haitian affairs, which begins under his administration, underscore the need to revisit the primary cause of that occupation. Historians of all stripes have concluded that Manifest Destiny, the 19th century political philosophy which holds the virtues of the American people and their institutions, bestow on the U.S. the right to dominate the entire Western Hemisphere, was the primary reason behind the occupation that lasted 19 years. Although this argument is theoretically sound, it doesn’t tell the whole story, as it fails to take into account Wilson’s negative stereotypical views of the Black race.
A Dec. 3, 2015 article in Foreign Policy magazine in which its author, David Milne, depicts Wilson as an “internationalist and progressive,” who was unfortunately a man of his time, only validates the argument of the U.S. president being an avowed racist rather than the enlightened leader many would want others to believe. The Abolitionists, Mr. Milne ought to be reminded, were also men of their time who could not in good conscience countenance the immorality of slavery. Wilson’s stance on racial matters was therefore a personal choice that had nothing to do with the period in which he lived.
Extrapolating on Wilson’s so-called progressive position on self-determination abroad and his blatant support of segregationist policies at home, the author also argues that “Wilsonianism, although flawed in many different ways, was more racially enlightened than Wilson himself.” This is a strange argument considering that Haitians and other non-whites would disagree with this assessment of Wilsonianism, particularly the notion it inadvertently gave impetus to the anti-colonialism that would later absorb the greater part of the 20th century. Crediting Wilsonianism for the anti-colonial struggles of the last century is mind-boggling, to say the least, seeing that it was, for all intents and purposes, the incubator of neo-colonialism.
Wilsonianism, it turns out, is predicated on the idea of “paternalistic gradualism,” which holds that some countries or peoples need supervision until they can stand on their own. Indeed, its most remarkable achievement is the legitimate conversion of malevolent colonial masters and slave-owning nations into benevolent overseers entrusted by a supranational body (the League of Nations and later the United Nations) functioning as custodian of the aspirations of the “less developed world.’ Generally speaking, it institutionalizes white supremacy in international affairs with its concept of “paternalistic 47gradualism;” lengthens rather than shortens various indigenous nations’ drive toward self-determination. Wilsonianism, if anything, is ultimately responsible for the colonial wars in Africa (Algeria, Angola,) and Indochina (Vietnam) for example, and a host of intractable issues facing our world today.
The smoking gun being the “inquiry,” an advisory academic group put together by Wilson to advise him on self-determination for the ethnic nationalities of the defeated Axis Powers (Austro-Hungary and Germany) at the conclusion of Great War (1914-18). A Columbia University history professor and member of the group, George Louis Beer, in reference to the Germany’s African colonies, allegedly cautioned against independence for these countries because “the negro race,” he believes “has hitherto shown no capacity for progressive development except under the tutelage of other peoples.” Such supremacist nonsense, which Wilson no doubt fervently believes in, explains the brutality of the occupation of Haiti, the demonization of the country’s African cultural heritage (Vodou) and dehumanizing of its inhabitants.
July 28, 2015 incidentally marked the 100th anniversary of Wilsonianisn in Haiti, which as you would expect, remains the foundation of U.S. policy in that country. Within that period, Haiti has become the prototype of the “paternalistic gradualism” experiment gone wrong. Countless dictatorships (civilian and military) and U.S. occupations later, no one can possibly predict when, if ever, the country would be able to stand on its own under the Wilsonian concept. Under this race-based imperial strategy, the US territory of Puerto Rico possesses more power in self-governance than “sovereign” Haiti, an anomaly accepted by Haitian politicians as divinely-ordered, thus unalterable or non-negotiable. Has Haiti or rather its political class traded a master for an overseer? I am inclined to believe the supreme sacrifices of the hundred thousand-plus men, women and children in the country’s war of liberation (1791-1803) preclude such arrangement but all indications suggest otherwise.
Not surprisingly, Wilsonianism endures almost a century after the death of its architect. The United Nations, successor to the Wilson’s cherished pet project (the League of Nations, 1920-46), and its omnipotent Security Council, presently embody the Wilsonian theory of an omniscient overseer for the conveniently-named less “developed nations.” By and large Wilsonianism impedes political maturity and encourages chronic instability whenever it is implemented. Haiti, once an improbable political success story that embodies the notion of “Out of many, one”, remains the prototype of this failure.