Health Challenges of Presidents Can Have Outsized Impact on History

Archival Photo of the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919, ended the war with Germany. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the much-maligned treaty, which is blamed for causing conditions that led to WWII.

President Trump’s positive COVID-19 test and subsequent hospitalization has triggered a cascade of big questions about the American political process. With only one month until the 2020 election, the impact of Trump’s illness remains unclear.

The all-caps headlines make it hard to remember this is not the first time the President of the United States has faced serious health challenges. History Professor Dan Aldridge, who specializes in modern American history, notes that many of Trump’s 44 forebears have weathered illness. In the 20th century, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson all endured serious illnesses.

“During the final year of his presidency, Roosevelt was quite ill, including during the negotiations at Yalta when the United States, United Kingdom and Russia set the course for postwar Europe,” Aldridge said. “Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack in 1955 and then dealt with minor strokes and cardiac events on a pretty regular basis until his death in 1969.”

However, according to Aldridge, Woodrow Wilson’s health breakdown in 1919 might be the most relevant example.

“Wilson was on a nationwide speaking tour to build public support for ratifying U.S. membership in the League of Nations in the face of senatorial opposition,” Aldridge said. “He had a stroke, which resulted in partial paralysis and a temporary loss of vision in one eye.”

The stroke left Wilson forever changed physically—and it may have changed his attitude toward governing.

“His doctor claimed that the stroke also made Wilson more stubborn, inflexible and emotional,” Aldridge said. “The First Lady, Wilson's doctor and Wilson's secretary limited access to the President in an attempt to conceal the extent of his illness.” 

Historians speculate that Wilson's health negatively impacted his decision-making, Aldridge said.

They posit the stroke made Wilson less likely to compromise with Republican senators, and prevented the U.S. from ratifying the Treaty of Versailles and joining the League of Nations—a move Wilson had ardently advocated.

“Had the United States joined the League of Nations,” Aldridge said, “it is possible we could have done more to deter Germany and Japan from the expansionist actions in the 1930s that led to World War II.”

One major distinction between Wilson and Trump’s conditions is the length of their negative effects. While strokes can cause permanent changes, “Covid-19 is an acute illness even if potentially fatal,” Aldridge said. “I think it’s different in that way from Wilson’s stroke.”


  • October 5, 2020