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Woodrow Wilson: Idealist

2017-09-04

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  • VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.
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  • Today we are talking about Woodrow Wilson.
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  • He served two terms, from 1913 to 1921, and led the United States through the first World War.
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  • Wilson might have seemed an unlikely war president.
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  • He was a university professor before he entered politics.
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  • And, when the conflict began in Europe in 1914, Wilson strongly rejected the idea of the U.S. getting involved.
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  • He even campaigned for his second term on the slogan “He kept us out of the war.”
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  • But Wilson’s idealism eventually made him believe the U.S. must enter the conflict.
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  • He famously said, “The world must be safe for democracy.”
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  • He spent the last months of his presidency fighting to create a league of nations that would prevent future wars.
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  • Wilson did not succeed in that effort.
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  • But the effects of his presidency are still seen today in both the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States.
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  • Woodrow Wilson was born in the state of Virginia in 1856 and grew up in the South.
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  • Wilson’s father was a Protestant Christian minister who supported the views of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
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  • Wilson’s mother had been born in England but raised in the United States.
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  • She was reportedly warm and loving, especially to her husband and four children.
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  • Wilson’s early life was marked by poor health and a passion for learning.
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  • His education included tutoring by Confederate soldiers, classes with his father, a year at Davidson College, a bachelor’s degree from the school now called Princeton, one year of law school, and a doctoral degree in history and political science from the University of Johns Hopkins.
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  • He remains, so far, the only president with a Ph.D.
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  • Wilson’s academic interests were in government, and how it could be most effective.
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  • Even as a young man, he supported the idea of a strong executive, either a prime minister or a president.
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  • He wrote a number of books, including a biography of George Washington, and a history of the United States.
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  • He also taught popular classes at several colleges, including Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, Wesleyan in Connecticut, and Princeton in New Jersey.
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  • In time, Wilson became the president of Princeton.
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  • He made major reforms to the school until some faculty and alumni resisted his efforts.
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  • Wilson had always been interested in political power.
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  • The Democratic Party in New Jersey became interested in Wilson when they were looking for a candidate with an honest public image.
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  • In truth, party officials believed he would be a weak leader whom they could influence.
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  • Wilson surprised them by winning the seat as New Jersey governor easily, and then rejecting their efforts to control him.
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  • He went on to pass major reform legislation in New Jersey that reduced corruption and protected the rights of workers.
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  • His actions drew the attention of Democratic Party leaders seeking a candidate for president in 1912.
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  • Voters did not overwhelmingly choose Wilson in 1912.
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  • Although he did well in the Electoral College, he earned only a little more than 40 percent of the popular vote.
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  • Other votes were mostly divided between two former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft.
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  • Yet Wilson quickly asserted authority over Congress and pushed through a number of laws aimed at dramatic reform.
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  • Historian Kendrick Clements at the University of South Carolina says Wilson had a strongly progressive vision.
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  • He was interested in “expanding economic opportunity for people at the bottom of society and eliminating special privileges enjoyed by the richest and most powerful members of society.”
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  • One of Wilson’s most important acts was to create a new federal agency called the Federal Reserve Board.
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  • It still regulates American banks, credit, and money supply.
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  • He also created the Federal Trade Commission to ensure fair business practices, and the Department of Labor to protect workers’ rights.
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  • And he supported laws to reduce working hours for railroad employees, bar child labor, and offer government loans to farmers.
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  • But even during Wilson’s busy lawmaking, the threat of world war demanded his attention.
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  • Wilson had declared that the U.S. would remain neutral in the growing conflict between the Allied and Central Powers.
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  • One of his reasons was that people in the U.S. were immigrants from the countries that were at war.
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  • Wilson did not want the conflict to divide Americans.
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  • However, he permitted international trade, including with Britain and France.
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  • As a result, many believed the U.S. was favoring those countries.
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  • In 1915, a German submarine sank a British ship called the Lusitania and killed more than 100 Americans on board.
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  • Wilson protested several times to Germany about the sinking.
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  • He warned that the U.S. would not accept another such aggression.
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  • But two years later, Germany attacked U.S. commercial ships.
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  • It also invited Mexico to enter into an alliance against the United States.
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  • At the beginning of Wilson’s second term in office, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany.
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  • The U.S. entered World War I on the side of the Allied Powers.
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  • The additional support came at an important time.
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  • American soldiers were able to help resist German troops in France.
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  • In time, Germany asked for an armistice – an agreement to stop fighting.
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  • Following the war, Wilson had a grand vision for how to gain lasting peace in Europe.
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  • In a speech known as “Fourteen Points,” he proposed that the countries that had won the war not punish Germany.
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  • Wilson also wanted European colonies to rule themselves, and other areas be given immediate independence.
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  • Most importantly, Wilson suggested a League of Nations that would guarantee the member countries’ independence and safety.
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  • But few world leaders agreed with his plan completely.
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  • Even in the U.S., many Republican lawmakers in Congress resisted Wilson’s idea for a League of Nations.
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  • Some strongly objected to any treaty that would limit the country’s independence.
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  • Others did not want the country to be involved in world issues at all.
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  • So Wilson began a trip across the U.S. to raise public support for the League of Nations.
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  • He traveled more than 15,000 kilometers in 22 days and gave 29 speeches.
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  • Wilson’s doctors warned him that the trip was hard on his health.
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  • But Wilson was firm about pressuring Senate Republicans to adopt the agreement.
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  • Finally, he collapsed from exhaustion.
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  • Shortly after, he suffered a major stroke.
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  • Although he recovered somewhat, he remained partly paralyzed.
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  • He rarely appeared in public again.
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  • Instead, Wilson communicated to Congress through his wife.
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  • When Republicans changed the treaty to deal with their concerns, Wilson told his supporters to reject it.
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  • In the end, the U.S. never did join the League of Nations.
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  • When a new president, Warren Harding, was sworn-in in 1921, Edith and Woodrow Wilson retired to a house in Washington, D.C.
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  • Three years later, the former president died quietly there, finally at peace.
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  • I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
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