Two of the three “American History Guys“–Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh– discuss the difficult legacy of Woodrow Wilson. You can listen to it here.
Here is a taste of the transcript:
ONUF: Well, that racism goes back to Jefferson’s time. The whole American narrative begins with Jefferson, you might say, and his famous words in the Declaration of Independence. And Jefferson was a white nationalist. And that’s the hard fact we have to come to grips with. I fashion myself as a kind of Jefferson therapist. I think there’s a place for…
ONUF: …Wilson therapy. That is, we have to work through it. Our history is full of -rough patches is a nice way to put it. But let’s just say that white supremacy is a major fact and we’re only coming to grips with it in the modern period.
NEARY: All right, if we keep that therapy metaphor going for a moment, are you saying we need to confront the truth and then do what?
ONUF: I think what the answer, Lynn, when something disturbs us in history is not to turn away from it but engage it. The answer is more history, not the denial of history.
BALOGH: Lynn, I would just add to what Peter said is that we simply can’t understand the racism that exists in society today – and it is significant – without understanding how we got there. And we got there through people like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.
NEARY: Well, Brian, at Princeton, now of course students are calling for Woodrow Wilson’s name to be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs. Do you think anything would be accomplished by doing that?
BALOGH: No, I actually think it might be a step backwards. I don’t believe in kind of buffing or smoothing out the rough edges of history. Of course, Jim Crow segregation and racism is a lot more than just a rough edge.
NEARY: Let me ask you this. That name has been there for a pretty long time. Why is it suddenly bubbling up to the surface like this? Why is that name on that building suddenly provoking a conversation that hasn’t been had up until now?
BALOGH: Well, first of all, the main reason I support keeping it there is not about Woodrow Wilson. It’s about the almost hundred years of history since Woodrow Wilson that people didn’t have a problem with it. And what that says to me is that America is becoming more racially sensitive, and that’s a good thing. The negative formulation of that is nobody thought about this for a hundred years. What does that tell you about America?