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Woodrow Wilson and The Birth of a Nation: American Democracy and International Relations

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President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War One, promising to make the world safe for democracy. Advocating liberal internationalism, he called for collective security and national self-determination. He wanted democratic states to create the League of Nations as a partnership for peace in a new world order. But in his thinking and statecraft, the text of modern liberalism was intertwined with the subtext of White racism. His friendship with Thomas Dixon, Jr., and his contributions to David W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation revealed this nexus between liberalism and racism. His liberal civic ideals appeared quite different from the ultra racism of the film, which was based on Dixon's novels. He seemed to advocate inclusive nationalism, in contrast to its exclusive Americanism. The president's apparently universal principles, however, were still influenced by the White South's Lost Cause. His diplomacy and his legacy of Wilsonianism combined racism with liberalism. He adhered to the color line at home by promoting Jim Crow segregation in the federal government and abroad by limiting his liberal internationalism in practice. Historians and political scientists have typically identified Wilsonian diplomacy only with liberalism. To see him and his legacy in international history from a different perspective, which brings into focus the experience of people of color, it is necessary to recognize the subtext of racism in the text of Wilson's liberalism. Racism shaped his understanding of America's national identity and global mission, and thus his vision of liberal democracy and peace.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2007

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