The Place to Find All Things Churchill

CHURCHILL AND THREE PRESIDENTS (1) – Winston Churchill’s Critique of Woodrow Wilson

Finest Hour 160, Autumn 2013

Page 12

By Justin D. Lyons

Because the realization of peace was -not preordained, Winston Churchill devoted much more thought than President Wilson to practical steps that could bring it about. Wilson’s vision was in large part unaccompanied by many practical suggestions. Churchill repeatedly emphasized that collective security does not work without collective force.

Woodrow Wilson is the American president about whom Churchill’s reflections are perhaps least known. Wilson necessarily appears as a key figure in The World Crisis, Churchill’s account of the First World War, and WSC adorns him with vibrant prose, writing that “he played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man….a monument for human meditation.”1 But Churchill’s complete judgment of Wilson was not one of unqualified praise.2

Churchill also finds fault with Wilson, “the inscrutable and undecided judge….He would have been greatly helped in his task,” Churchill continues, “if he had reached a definite conclusion where in the European struggle Right lay.”3 The President’s refusal to admit the implications of German aggression kept the United States out of the war during crucial years, whose suffering the world might have been spared:

What he did in April, 1917, could have been done in May, 1915. And if done then what abridgement of the slaughter; what sparing of the agony; what ruin, what catastrophes would have been prevented; in how many million homes would an empty chair be occupied today; how different would be the shattered world in which victors and vanquished alike are condemned to live!4

Pulled toward war by forces beyond his control, Wilson “finally proclaimed” the righteousness of the Allied cause in resounding and visionary phrases.

When in 1919 leaders of the victorious nations met at the Paris Peace Conference to shape the postwar world, Churchill was there representing the British War Cabinet, though he was excluded from the inner councils of the conference. It was here that his final impressions of Wilson were formed.5

On 8 January 1918, Wilson set forth America’s war aims in the form of his famous “Fourteen Points.”6 These became the basis for negotiation at Paris, where Wilson went personally, determined to alter European diplomatic tradition and bend it to his will. For Wilson, the Great War was a war to end an old order, to transform the conduct of human affairs. The Armistice coincided with the crowning moment of history, in which the war-weary world would be altered forever. The primary instrument by which lasting peace would be achieved was the League of Nations, an association of democratic countries joined together in solemn union to forsake the pursuit of selfish national interest and to put an end to the use of war as a political instrument.

In the capstone volume of The World Crisis, published as The Aftermath 1918-1928, Churchill seeks to correct the traditional telling of Woodrow Wilson’s meeting with the old European diplomatic order.7 His account illuminates the differences between Churchill and Wilson on questions of war and peace. Churchill repudiates the vague Wilsonian progressivism as an insufficient guide for international politics. In Wilson’s inability to wed general principle with the immediate and pressing practicalities of diplomacy, Churchill sees the roots of an irresolute and ineffective peace effort—as well as the cause of the failure of the Versailles signatories adequately to support the League of Nations.

Churchill’s own support for the League during the appeasement period fifteen years later further clarifies the divide. His position on the League of Nations amounts to a stinging critique of the Wilsonian understanding of what international peace-keeping organizations can be expected to accomplish, and how they ought to be organized. Rather than relying upon the moral force of League pronouncements, Churchill’s plan for the League put much greater emphasis on the combined strength of freedom-loving nations to deter any potential aggressor.

Diplomacy Old and New

The view of Wilson as the selfless champion of freedom, confronted by the dark agents of old world diplomacy and intrigue, had its most influential expression at the time in Ray Stannard Baker’s Woodrow Wilson and the World Settlement, a work which, in Churchill’s opinion, was more suited to popular entertainment than to history:

But Mr. Baker detracts from the vindication of his hero by the absurd scenario picture which he has chosen to paint…. A plot more suited to the fruity forms of popular taste is chosen; and the treatment of facts, events and personalities is compelled to conform to its preconceived requirements. For his purpose the President is represented as a stainless Sir Galahad championing the superior ideals of the American people and brought to infinite distress by contact with the awful depravity of Europe and its statesmen.8

In Wilson’s view, America was the only nation truly dedicated to the interests of mankind as a whole: “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of mankind.”9 His approach was based on his beliefs about the nature of democracy, which proved to be ill-founded.

Churchill writes that “Wilson created world democracy in his own image.”10 That is to say, Wilson imagined world democracy as he himself saw it. He imagined that nations, released from the grip of their cliquish and self-interested governments, would prove true to the same benevolent and altruistic feelings which inspired him— that they would share his vision of the world to come. In the event, their concerns proved to be more immediate: “…the ‘plain people’ of whom he spoke so much, though very resolute and persevering in war, knew nothing whatever about how to make a just and durable peace. ‘Punish the Germans,’ ‘No more War,’ and ‘Something for our own country,’ above all ‘Come Home,’ were the only mass ideas then rife.”11

Baker’s account makes much out of the horror felt by the American delegation at discovering the full extent of European diplomatic corruption, as evidenced by a host of secret treaties the Allies had entered into during the war: “The first shock which the President and his Delegation is said to have received was confrontation with the secret treaties made between the Allies during the war. Mr. Baker in lurid pages has gloated upon their unmoral character.” Here was all the corruption of the old world laid bare—proof that European statesmen had failed to heed the new dawn in human affairs. Churchill criticizes the American reaction as unrealistic and unfair. It is easy, after all, to judge the actions of others when it is not your neck on the block, to criticize in hindsight without having experienced the fear of defeat and destruction. If America had entered the war earlier, Churchill points out, her statesmen could have played their part in deciding these matters and her strength would have made some actions taken in desperation unnecessary: “Mr. Baker pretends that all these inter-Allied agreements represented the inherent cynical wickedness and materialism of old-world diplomacy. They were in the main simply convulsive gestures of self-preservation.”12

Wilson’s lack of consideration for practical difficulties in war extended to the peace process. He was so anxious to put his new international organization in place that he rushed the diplomatic process into the larger issue of the League, leaving many issues without due consideration:

The moment at length came for the President to launch his main policy. He declared that a League of Nations must become an integral part of the Treaty of Peace and must have priority over all territorial or economic settlements….now it seemed that the Conference was to dive into interminable academic discussions upon a new Constitution for mankind, while all the practical and clamant issues had to drum their heels outside the door.13

Three months passed before the Covenant of the League was finished. “In many regions,” Churchill writes, “the power of the victors to enforce their decisions had obviously diminished. A heavy price in blood and privations was in the end to be paid by helpless and distracted peoples for the long delay.”14

Differences over the League of Nations

Though Churchill did not admire Wilson’s diplomacy, he did support the League of Nations idea. Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and America makes it clear how much Churchill dwelt upon and regretted America’s later failure to support the nascent League.15 Gilbert includes a quotation from a 1937 letter Churchill wrote his American friend, Bernard Baruch: “How you must regret, how we all regret, that Wilson’s dream was not carried through, for I have no doubt it would have made the difference between a safe, happy and prosperous world and the present hideous panorama.”16

If our impressions rest here, however, we will be left with a false sense of conceptual harmony.

The foremost difference between Churchill’s and Wilson’s views of the League, which largely gives rise to all the others, is that Churchill did not believe an international organization for promoting peace would fundamentally transform the rules by which the world operates, and by which peoples and nations order their lives. Churchill, rather, was attached to the League idea for both historical and principled reasons.

First, he saw involvement in the League as being in accord with the traditional British foreign policy. Defending the League in 1936, Churchill reminded his listeners that British policy had for 400 years been based on opposing any continental power that sought to dominate.17 Second, Churchill believed the League to be in harmony with the principles that animated Britain’s institutions and way of life. In fact, it represented an extension of those principles to other nations.18 He was a staunch defender of the League in the inter-war period, and spoke of it often as the only hope for peace.19 But he knew that such hope could only be realized through directed and sustained effort.

Determining the required effort demands reflection on ends and means. The extent of reflection devoted to these issues also marks a divide between Wilson and Churchill. For Wilson, the end was simply the cessation of international conflict, a version of the universal brotherhood of man governed by international law. Churchill too desired peace, but he did not expect that it could ever be finally or completely achieved. Wilson believed that a perpetual peace would be the result of the organic development of civilization. Because the realization of peace was not preordained, Churchill devoted much more thought than Wilson to practical steps that could bring it about. As Churchill notes in The Aftermath, Wilson’s vision was accompanied by few practical suggestions.20

Wilson’s vagueness may be contrasted with Churchill’s very definite ideas about how to keep the peace. Through the inter-war years, he expressed these forcefully, concretely, and often: “We express our immediate plan and policy in a single sentence: ‘Arm and Stand by the Covenant.’ In this alone lies the assurance of safety, the defence of freedom, and the hope of peace. What is this Covenant by which we are to stand? It is the Covenant of the League of Nations.”21

A mere expression of ideals would not be enough. Churchill put much greater emphasis on the strength civilization must embody if it is to conquer and on the effort necessary for peace to be maintained:

But it is vain to imagine that the mere perception or declaration of right principles, whether in one country or in many countries, will be of any value unless they are supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage—aye, and by those instruments and agencies of force and science which in the last resort must be the defense of right and reason.22

Churchill’s emphasis on strength as the surest path to peace should not be taken to mean that he did not appreciate and think important the moral force of the League of Nations. Indeed, the ideals of the League were a sure foundation on which peace could be built.23 But he repeatedly emphasized that collective security does not work without collective force. Only by accepting this reality could the League of Nations fulfill its promise:

Civilisation will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.24

But the promise of the League was thrown away because the nations of Europe did not deal with realities. Churchill’s own country was among the worst offenders, pursuing peace naively and fearfully rather than through the judicious gathering of collective strength.

Domestic Leadership

Churchill also criticizes Woodrow Wilson for the way he handled domestic politics with regard to the peace settlement. His errors in dealing with the Republican Party resulted in the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the treaty and the withdrawal of the vital support of the United States from the nascent international organization. Churchill’s treatment does not revolve around the debates over the commitments implied by Article X,25 but rather Wilson’s failure to cultivate national unity with respect to the peace process: “It was as a Party and not a National leader that he sought to rule the United States and lecture Europe.”26 Wilson’s devotion to the idea of the League led him to scorn those who would question it in any way, dismissing their concerns in noble-sounding but vague phrases tinged with moral superiority. When his own greatest test came, Churchill was careful to cast himself as a national, not a party leader.

Wilson had brought much opposition upon himself by failing to include Republicans or the Senate in his activities in Paris. While he had taken a host of advisers with him to Europe, no Senators had been included in the peace mission and his advisers had not been submitted to the Senate for confirmation. Churchill believes Wilson’s inability to work with those for whom he had political distaste caused America’s rejection of the League:

Peace and goodwill among all nations abroad, but no truck with the Republican party at home. That was his ticket and that was his ruin, and the ruin of much else as well. It is difficult for a man to do great things if he tries to combine a lambent charity embracing the whole world with the sharper forms of populist party strife.27

In the end, Wilson misjudged even his own country’s devotion to the League of Nations, as he discovered when he proudly carried back the fulfillment of his vision from Paris to Washington, only to meet with stiff opposition, a long and hard-fought losing debate, and the eventual repudiation of his greatest dream.

Dr. Lyons, a longtime contributor to Finest Hour, is an associate professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.


1. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918, with a new introduction by Martin Gilbert (New York: Free Press, 2005), 694.

2.  As they virtually have in, for example, John Milton Cooper Jr., ed., Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1, 9.

3. The World Crisis, 695.

4. The World Crisis, 696-97.

5. As Colonial Secretary beginning in 1921, Churchill would be heavily involved in shaping the postwar world, through the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the organization of British mandates in Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Iraq; but in 1919 he was not a world leader, and he played only a limited role in the Paris negotiations. See Robert Lloyd George, David & Winston: How the Friendship Between Lloyd George and Churchill Changed the Course of History (New York: Overlook Press, 2008).

6. See E. David Cronon, ed., The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965), 406-14. For the text of the Fourteen Points see pp. 438-45. For the Four Supplementary Points see pp. 446-50.

7. Winston S. Churchill, The Aftermath 1918-1928 (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1929). Churchill published a further World Crisis volume on the Eastern Front in 1931, but The Aftermath remains the historical capstone of his account of the First World War.

8. The Aftermath, 118-19.

9. Quoted in The Aftermath, 123.

10. The Aftermath, 124.

11. The Aftermath, 125.

12. See The Aftermath, 127.

13. The Aftermath, 144.

14. The Aftermath, 162-63.

15. Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America (New York: Free Press, 2005). See pp. 91, 95, 102, 110, 161, 325, 395, 408.

16. Churchill and America, 158.

17. “British Policy and Europe,” March 1936, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI 5694-96.

18. “Civilisation,” 2 July 1938, Complete Speeches, VI 5991.

19. “Arm and Stand by the Covenant,” 9 May 1938, in Complete Speeches, VI 5963.

20. See Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 225: “Never before had such revolutionary goals been put forward with so few guidelines as to how to implement them.”

21. “Arm and Stand by the Covenant,” Complete Speeches, VI 5956. In this speech, Churchill outlines a practical plan, naming the specific countries that should be approached in terms of security and national self-interest.

22. “Civilisation,” Complete Speeches, VI 5991.

23. “Arm, and Stand by the Covenant,” VI 5959.

24. “Civilisation,” VI 5991.

25. League opponents in the Senate questioned the obligation imposed upon member countries in Article X of the League Covenant to come to each other’s defense, bypassing the constitutional power of Congress to declare war.

26. The Aftermath, 148.

27. The Aftermath, 125.

Related Story

Join Now

Join or Renew NowPlease join with us to help preserve the memory of Winston Churchill and continue to explore how his life, experiences and leadership are ever-more relevant in today’s chaotic world. BENEFITS >BECOME A MEMBER >

The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.