The real problem here is not that Berg asks us to behold a Great Man — for there are plenty of reasons to regard Wilson as such — but that he supplies few tools to gauge the man’s Greatness. “Wilson,” Berg writes, “articulated ideas that would crystallize into the foreign policy that would extend through the next century.” This is incontrovertible, but Berg has so little to say about America’s role in, and view of, the world that it becomes hard to appreciate the ways in which the Wilson administration did (or did not) mark a point of departure. Berg asserts that Wilson brought “an abandonment of isolationism.” Yet neither Roosevelt nor William Howard Taft, Wilson’s two immediate predecessors, can be characterized as isolationists; Taft, in fact, propounded the idea of peace through international arbitration well before Wilson conceived of his League of Nations. Wilson effected a meaningful shift but not a clean break.
Similarly, Berg asserts that Wilson was not an effete, aloof intellectual but “an unexpectedly evolved political animal, with a tough hide and sharp claws.” Here, again, his contention is right, but his support is thin. Berg misses important opportunities to show just how hard and how shrewdly Wilson fought to advance his pre-war agenda. He almost entirely overlooks Wilson’s successful battle, in the face of fierce opposition, for military preparedness. And he breezes through the legislative struggle to create the Federal Reserve system — a signal achievement that, as Cooper explains in his far more enlightening account, required Wilson’s utmost persistence and persuasiveness, plus a good deal of “wrangling, coddling, arm-twisting, lobbying, and threatening.”