Woodrow Wilson was the only Democrat to serve as president of a university and as president of the United States. As president of Princeton University, he turned it into a great centre of scholarship. As president of his country, he implemented a far-reaching program of economic reform which he called the “New Freedom”, led his country into First World War and won the Nobel Peace Prize.  

But a student group called the Black Justice League is demanding that Princeton rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a residential hall known as Wilson College because he was a thorough-going racist. The university has agreed to most of their demands.

The dark side of Wilson’s policies must come as a surprise to most Americans. Wilson was eminent academic and a political liberal. But his racist views are well documented. He supported segregation at Princeton and in the American public service. He admired the Ku Klux Klan. His actions blighted the lives of many hard-working African-Americans.

The dispute has become so prominent that the New York Times published an editorial this week backing the students to the hilt. Its view was that:

Student protesters at Princeton performed a valuable public service last week when they demanded that the administration acknowledge the toxic legacy of Woodrow Wilson … The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist.

The Times is wrong. Name changing is a tricky business. Names embody history and changing names rewrites history. The first instinct of a tyrant is to reset the odometer to Year 0 by renaming cities and institutions after himself and his party. Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad when the Communists took control. 

This impulse is more than mere hubris; it is an attempt to wipe the slate clean of the errors of the past and to declare the beginning of an era of ideological purity. This is exactly what the Islamic State did when it described ancient monuments from Babylonian and Roman times as blasphemous idolatry and dynamited them.

But the new name will eventually become blackened with cruelty and crime. A new regime will reject the old names: Stalingrad became Volgograd when the Communists lost control.

We can repudiate our history, but we can’t escape it. We can avert our gaze from the ghosts of the past, but still they will haunt us. They have shaped who we are, the choices we make, and our dreams for the future. It is better to face up to them than to pretend that they never existed by sandblasting them from our monuments.

Like all politicians – like all of us — Woodrow Wilson’s record was mixed as president of both Princeton and the United States. The students argue that the evil of supporting racism outweighs the good that he did. That is childish as well as mean-spirited. 

History should teach us humility: that great men can do evil things, that good intentions do not guarantee good results, that the conventional wisdom of our own time will sometimes become the crimes of the future.

From the distance of a century, Wilson’s views are a jumble of apparent contradictions: women’s rights, more immigration, supporting labour rights against big business, out-and-out racism, fervent Presbyterianism, eugenics, naïve idealism in world affairs … The unseen thread which draws all these together is a clue to the strengths and weaknesses of today’s Democratic Party. Cursing Wilson for just one of these not only does him an injustice, but it may hide the hidden links of the others to racism.   

But the greatest folly of the Islamic State approach to history is the illusion that we would never make the mistakes that others made.

It’s ironic that the Princeton activists are demanding both that Wilson’s name be expunged because he was a segregationist and that the university provide segregated spaces for “cultural affinity groups” and segregated “affinity housing” for African Americans. Have they never heard that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it? Don’t they realise that they are repeating it? 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

* A correction was made to acknowledge the fact that Dwight Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.