The Princeton president is elected governor of New Jersey and President of the United States twice and is supported by his wives and daughters. He works for reforms and to avoid war; but then he leads the nation in the Great War and proposes a comprehensive peace with a League of Nations.
At a Princeton University football game in 1909 Woodrow Wilson (Alexander Knox) and his wife Ellen (Ruth Nelson) root for the home team; but their man fumbles, and the other team scores another touchdown. After the game Wilson tells the player who fumbled that he played a great game. A newsboy asks the university president Wilson to get a good football team.
Wilson, his wife and three daughters sing together. Senator Edward Jones (Thurston Hall) and two men call on Wilson and see the books he has written. Wilson calls the Senator “Big Ed” and meets the nephew of Jones and Edward Sullivan. Jones asks Wilson if he would like to be governor of New Jersey. Wilson says he is not a politician. They say there is a progressive movement, and Wilson has shown that he is against special interests and that his books on political science are respected. Wilson says he is a schoolteacher and a southern Democrat. He says he cannot decide overnight. Jones says it could be the beginning of a new era, and they leave. Wilson tells his wife and daughters they want him to run for governor. He asks Ellen’s permission and kisses her. She says it is an unusual opportunity to get out of a talking profession. He has always been interested in politics. His daughters tell him that when he was in college, he wanted to be a senator. Ellen says he believes in democratic equality, and she encourages him to consider it seriously. The daughters agree. He warns them they will have to kiss all the babies. They laugh and hug him.
At the state convention signs for WILSON are prominent as a brass band plays. Inside the auditorium students shout a Princeton cheer. Professor Henry Holmes (Charles Coburn) is attending. On the stage Wilson speaks and says he asks the people to think. His opponents think he has no political experience, but he is president of a university. Joseph Tumulty (Thomas Mitchell) stands up and asks about the boss system in New Jersey and if he has a made a deal with them. Wilson admits the system is notorious and says he will break it up. Tumulty asks if he means Big Ed Jones, Jim Beeker, and Ed Sullivan. After a noisy tumulty, a judge quiets the crowd. Wilson says that Jones understands how he feels and has given his word that he would not run for re-election to the United States Senate, for which Wilson considers him unfit. Jones says the candidate speaks for the party, and people applaud and shout. Jones says Wilson will win because he is a scholar and a gentleman with principles. Holmes says Wilson is radical because he means what he says.
On election night Wilson is leading by 40,000 votes. Before cameras Wilson and his family answer questions. Holmes says that any election is an upset if you are unfortunate enough to be elected.
At the state capital Governor Wilson tells three advisors that the Senate must bring up the legislation. Tumulty comes in and says Senator Jones is there. Jones says Wilson sent for him, and Wilson asks if he is running for the Senate again. Wilson objects to him going back on his word. Jones thinks people have forgotten about it, but Wilson disagrees. Jones says he nominated and elected him. Jones asks if he will be satisfied to oppose his election. Wilson says he will work hard against him. Jones recognizes how seriously Wilson takes reform issues. Jones thinks he needs a long rest, and Wilson asks him to leave. The judge tells Wilson he will have trouble running for President if his state party is against him.
In a restaurant Jones reads a newspaper and talks with two men. He would rather have Wilson as President than in New Jersey.
Tumulty at his desk talks with three Princeton men who support Wilson. The phone rings, and he tells a Congressman that Wilson is out of town.
Eddie Foy and a line of pretty women entertain on stage as he sings. Wilson, Ellen, and Holmes in the audience talk about the Wilson for President clubs. Holmes is helping finance them and wants to challenge Teddy Roosevelt. On stage a man in black face impersonates Teddy Roosevelt.
At the Democratic National Convention in 1912 a man introduces William Jennings Bryan (Edwin Maxwell) of Nebraska. William Macadoo (Vincent Price), William McCombs (George Macready) and Josephus Daniels (Sidney Blackmer) discuss the Bryan issue.
At a tent outside at home Wilson and Tumulty talk about Bryan.
Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama is introduced and cheered. Bryan introduces Champ Clark of Missouri. A man from New Jersey nominates the Princeton schoolmaster, Woodrow Wilson, and a demonstration begins.
Tumulty tells Wilson the result of the first ballot: Clark 440, Wilson 324, and Underwood 117.
Charles Murphy of New York announces they are changing their 90 votes to Clark. A woman is paraded as the statue of liberty. McCombs calls Wilson and tells him there is a stampede for Clark and that Wilson must withdraw his name. He says no candidate has ever received a majority without getting the nomination. He says it will be Clark on the next ballot. Wilson is ready to give in, but Macadoo and Daniels tell him he is stronger than ever; his delegates will stick all summer. Wilson asks others, and Ellen says he has nothing to lose by staying in. Wilson agrees.
Bryan explains that he will withhold his vote from Clark and vote for Wilson, and Wilson supporters march around.
Tumulty gets a message and shouts that Wilson won on the 46th ballot. A band marches through the encampment. Wilson shakes hands with Tumulty and kisses Ellen.
Wilson takes his “New Freedom” campaign to the country traveling by train. He speaks of business and government in order to rehabilitate democracy which can meet the problems they face. He agrees with Lincoln that democracy is the future of the world.
Wilson speaks in a packed arena about America coming into the full light of the day because she puts human rights above all other rights.
On election night a crowd in New York City waits for results and cheers Wilson.
At home Ellen reads to Wilson congratulating telegrams from President William Howard Taft and Theordore Roosevelt. They hear students outside serenading him. They walk out on the porch. Wilson says he feels a solemn responsibility and pleads with the young to stand behind him and support him. Then he says goodnight, and they sing again. Holmes sings along.
In Washington at the White House the Wilson family arrives, and the usher shows them their living quarters. Wilson says it is big, and they see a portrait of Taft. Ellen reads a plaque about the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln signed there. The daughters wish their father had allowed an inaugural ball. They visit the Lincoln bedroom. Ellen gives the daughters bracelet watches, and Wilson gives his wife a necklace.
Wilson signs the Federal Reserve Bank Act, the Underwood Tariff, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, the Federal Trade Commission, and a bill establishing the eight-hour day.
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Cedric Hardwicke) and other senators call on Wilson. Tumulty welcomes Col. House (Charles Halton) who just returned from Europe, and he tells Lodge that Wilson must see House first.
Ellen writes invitations with her secretary Helen. Jessie Wilson (Madeleine Forbes) is getting married. The Wilsons sing together. They notice that Ellen is not feeling well. She sits down and says her job is to entertain. She asks them to go on singing without her.
Ellen is in bed while her daughters stand by her. She feels sorry for her husband. She tells her girls that she will be all right; but if anything does happen, she asks them to promise that they will not let their father be a lonely, great man. He needs companionship with a wife. They promise.
A nurse keeps Wilson out of the bedroom, and he sits with the daughters. Tumulty comes in and asks if a senator can see him about a bank matter. Wilson says he cannot do that now nor will he play golf that day. He says he cannot go on without Ellen. He remembers how they met in a church in Georgia. He says they were happier than anyone when he was teaching. He says she has done too much. A doctor comes out of the room and says she is sleeping. He says there is a gradual weakening.
People come to the White House for a memorial service.
A newspaper headline says that Germany has declared war on France. House and the daughters see Wilson at the piano, and they wish they could help.
Newspapers report that the Germans sank the Lusitania, and Americans react in anger. Senator Lodge says the President is too proud to fight.
Wilson and his cabinet discuss whether to declare war, and Bryan says no. Wilson says they can call him a coward, but he will not be rushed into a war. He will warn the German government. Wilson says their responsibility is to keep out of the war if they can so that later they can help bring about a lasting peace. He will keep his head and stay out of the mess. Advisors say how their economy is hurt by the uncertainty. Wilson says it would be easy to ask for a declaration of war, but he would not have do the fighting and dying. He wants to be sure that what Americans die for will be worthwhile. He ends the meeting.
Wilson is typing at his desk, and his daughter Eleanor (Mary Anderson) brings him milk. He talks to her about two weeks he took off with her mother.
The message from the United States is sent to Germany. A newsboy announces that Germany agreed to end submarine warfare. Senator Lodge discusses this with others while dining. He says they must lead the way.
Wilson returns to the White House after exercising. His cousin introduces Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and he dines with them and his daughter Margaret (Ruth Ford). While drinking tea Wilson gets to know Edith who tells him about her golf game.
Wilson rides in a car with Edith and others. Edith agrees to accept an invitation because Wilson asked for her.
Edith receives an orchid with a note from Wilson. The two walk at night on the White House porch. He says he needs her and asks her to be his wife. She asks how he can be so sure after only a few months. He says his daughters like her too. She has only thought of him as a President. She is touched but needs more time with him. He asks if she wants to see him, and she says yes. He warns her that a spotlight is on that house and that he cannot protect her privacy. She suggests they go on, but she cannot agree to marry him now. He hopes she will change her mind, and she says she reserves that right.
Wilson throws out a baseball while attending a game with Edith. People notice her.
Edith is told about the gossp, and Wilson has learned of it too. Dr. Grayson (Stanley Ridges) says he is angry, and his friends are afraid that a second marriage would cause his defeat. Edith says that nothing must stand in the way of his re-election. He tells her that Wilson needs her.
Reporters are playing chess and talking to Tumulty who puts a paper on the table, saying it is routine. One sees it and jumps up. Wilson and Edith were married.
A reception is held at the White House, and Wilson and Edith come down the stairs. They greet dignitaries who file by and shake their hands.
At the Democratic National Convention in 1916 Wilson is nominated again.
Women singers praise President Wilson in different places. Republicans nominate Charles Evans Hughes for President, and he calls Wilson a coward. Democrats say he kept us out of war. Republicans say that private initiative is being stifled by an idealist.
Wilson reads a speech from a newspaper at a dinner. Edith complains, and he says that was what they said about Lincoln in 1864. Wilson says they may be in the war soon. Holmes asks if he would mind being defeated. Tumulty comes in and says that the New York Times has declared Hughes the winner. Holmes asks how they can be sure so early. Wilson says the Times is usually right. Wilson says Hughes is not bad, but he knows Edith feels different. Wilson is re-elected and is congratulated. Macadoo says Wilson got three million more votes than before.
Men come to the White House and are told to wait. Wilson comes in, and the Secretary of State of Robert Lansing (Stanley Logan) says that Count Von Bernstorff has informed him that Germany is going to resume submarine warfare against neutral vessels in German waters. Wilson asks the count to sit down. Lansing also says that Germans have used cables to try to make trouble between the United States and Mexico. Wilson tells Bernstorff that Germans are denying Americans their rights. He asks if the Germans will be civilized. He says they are not fools to what Germans have been doing against them. He refuses to let the count leave and lectures him. He says they are uniting the Americans against their evil and autocratic power. He tells Lansing to give the count his passport and dismisses him. The count leaves. Wilson paces and looks at the portraits of Washington and Lincoln.
Wilson addresses the Congress about the step he is taking. He advises them to accept the belligerency thrust upon them and declare war against Germany. He says they desire no conquest nor any material compensation for their sacrifices. They are a champion for the rights of mankind. He says war is a fearful thing, but the right is more precious than peace. He says they must fight for democracy and the rights of small nations and for a concert of nations to make the world free. They can dedicate their lives and fortunes for the principles that gave their country its birth.
A movie newsreel shows the Vice President beginning the drafting of men who are being trained in camps. Liberty ships are being launched. Women are working and singing. Farmerettes march in a parade. Soldiers on horses ride by the White House as Wilson watches. People contribute to the war effort. Troops board ships and depart for France. Soldiers arrive in Europe as “Over There” plays.
Wilson at his desk and Edith greet a young soldier who is leaving. He wishes his son-in-law well, and they shake hands.
Soldiers in a large Red Cross building ask Edith who is serving if she is the President’s wife. She shows them President Wilson, and he shakes hands with them. The soldiers are from different backgrounds and states. Wilson says they are all working together, and that made America what it is. That is what the whole world must do someday. He says universal peace is not just an idle dream. He says they are fighting so that there will be no more wars. They may call it a league. An officer orders them to get back on the train.
Wilson makes a special address to the Congress on the Fourteen Points that include open covenants, freedom of the seas, self-determination, free trade, adjustment of all colonial claims, and a league of nations.
On October 7, 1918 Dr. Grayson gives Wilson the casualty estimates while Edith watches. The fighting has been ceaseless for a week. Wilson says 112,000 have died. Tumulty comes in with a message from the Swiss embassy. Wilson reads it and says the German government has asked for a peace based on his fourteen points.
On November 11 an armistice is proclaimed, and people celebrate in the streets. During a piano concert at the White House the President says he is going to Paris to help with the peace process. Holmes asks who is going with him. Wilson says Lansing and House, but Holmes suggests Senator Lodge. Wilson disagrees. Macadoo says this is the age of nationalism and urges him to have a practical man with him. Wilson says that might hinder because he believes in the power of right. He hopes to be spokesman for all the nations. Holmes still wishes he would take Lodge.
A newsreel shows Wilson and his wife arriving in Paris in carriages with King George of England. The big four are Wilson, Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of England, and Orlando of Italy.
A newspaper reports that they accepted the League of Nations as part of the peace treaty. Republicans complain about what he is giving away. They have 37 senators signing the document, and Lodge agrees to introduce it.
Wilson and others debate over a map at a table. Clemenceau says the Germans are murderers. Wilson refuses to give part of Germany to France. Wilson asks him to abide by the terms of the armistice and threatens to go home. He says the League Covenant will guarantee the safety of France if Germany ever became hostile again. He says England and America will defend France. Clemenceau notes the Republican opposition to his ideas. Wilson says other Republicans agree with him. He says the American people will defeat Lodge and his group if they oppose the treaty.
The treaty is signed at Versailles by the national leaders and by Wilson.
Wilson at home talks with Senator Lodge and others. He says they are trying to serve the best interests of the American people. Lodge says the treaty would have been ratified if it were not for his league. Wilson notes that Lodge favored a league earlier. Lodge fears they will become involved in quarrels constantly. Wilson says their government promised to find some way to avoid wars. He does not understand how they could go back on their word. Lodge is about to leave, and Wilson admits they all have made mistakes. He reminds them the League is a part of the treaty and that it is the only hope for avoiding wars in the future. Unless they have a better idea, he hopes they will save that. Lodge says he wants a realistic peace that does not commit the resources of the United States. He wished Wilson had consulted him before he made concessions. Wilson says America has two choices—to accept the League of Nations or live with a gun in its hand. He ends the meeting, and they leave. Wilson tells Tumulty to make arrangements for his trip around the country. Tumulty warns him what Grayson said about the risk. Edith comes in and asks him to listen to her. He asks her not to desert him too. He says he cannot accept any changes because it would end the league.
Wilson travels by train and gives speeches about the League of Nations in Columbus, St. Paul, Kansas, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City. Dr. Grayson advises Wilson to give up the trip and return to Washington. Edith says he made forty speeches in 22 days. Wilson says he must speak in Pueblo. Edith warns him he will kill himself if he does not stop. He stands up and speaks from the train to the crowd gathered. He wishes he could see the boys who fought, and he would tell them that it was a war against wars. He is trying to fulfill that promise. He is mortified to come before them and says he has been unable to do that. He says they have been betrayed, ending the glory of the US military in a nightmare of dread. He fears the vengeful providence of God bringing another struggle that will kill even more people. He speaks of the final freedom of the peoples of the world. He feels weak and thanks them for coming. Edith and the doctor help him to sit down. He says he is so tired. Edith orders Tumulty to tell the newspapers that they are returning to Washington.
Wilson rests in bed. Dr. Grayson tells Edith and Tumulty that his left side is paralyzed, but his mind is untouched. He needs rest from any disturbance. She asks if he should resign and be replaced by the Vice President. The men agree that would be politically bad. Grayson suggests that she can serve the President by helping make decisions in order to save his life. She agrees to try.
Wilson sits in a wheelchair that is brought out on the porch. He calls Edith Mrs. President, but she says she did not make one decision without his consent. He knows it, but his enemies do not. He says the Senate sent Albert Fall to see if he is insane. Wilson is more concerned about what future generations think of him than what the present lords of the earth say. He says they are going to have prohibition. Tumulty says the Democrats have nominated Cox who favors the League. Wilson says the lines are drawn, and the people will decide.
Tumulty gets the election results showing Harding beating Cox badly. He tells Wilson the result and that Harding has announced that the League of Nations is a closed incident. Wilson asks to be alone with Edith, who helps him leave the room.
Wilson says he is leaving in the morning before Harding is inaugurated as President. He says goodbye to his closest advisors and tells Daniels he hopes to see him in his new house. Wilson still hopes for peace and says what he stood for will triumph eventually. A few men in power now cannot obstruct them. He says it may come out in a better way than they proposed. He says he is no longer President. Senator Lodge comes in with five men and says that the Senate is ready to adjourn. Wilson says the President has nothing further to communicate. He takes his cane and leaves with Edith.
This biopic of a great American president follows the sudden rise of Wilson’s career to governor and president but concentrates most on his family life and his efforts to prevent being drawn into the war and to promote a peace plan that could prevent future wars. Made during World War II, this movie reflects the current need for an agreement to bring nations together so that such devastating wars will no longer occur. With wars still continuing in the world, the tragedy depicted in this true story still carries a powerful message.