Wilson once told a black delegation, that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." But his racism wasn't just a product of his Southern roots; it was often of a piece with the reigning progressive obsession with eugenics, the pseudoscience that strove to perfect society through better breeding.
Again, Wilson was merely one voice in the progressive chorus of the age. "[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many," declared the progressive social activist Jane Addams.
"New forms of association must be created," explained Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading progressive theologian of the Social Gospel movement, in 1896. "Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life." Elsewhere, Rauschenbusch put it more simply: "Individualism means tyranny."
Not surprisingly, such intellectual kindling was easy to ignite when World War I broke out. The philosopher John Dewey, New Republic founder Herbert Croly, and countless other progressive intellectuals welcomed what Mr. Dewey dubbed "the social possibilities of war." The war provided an opportunity to force Americans to, as journalist Frederick Lewis Allen put it, "lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step." Or as another progressive put it, "Laissez faire is dead. Long live social control."