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The United States' Changing Role in World Affairs as a Result of World War I
W. Taylor Fain
Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia


During the First World War, the United States completed its transformation from an emerging economic power tentatively flexing its new muscles in the Caribbean and the Pacific to a Great Power able to determine the political and military balance in Europe. Following the war, American statesmen, led by President Woodrow Wilson, sat with their European counterparts at the Versailles peace conference to determine the shape and character of the postwar settlement. Americans, though, were uncomfortable with their new stature in the world and the obligations that President Wilson wanted them to assume. Ultimately, the Senate opted not to ratify the Versailles Treaty nor, consequently, to allow U.S. participation in the new League of Nations. While it remained economically and commercially engaged in Europe for the next twenty years, the United States actively avoided new political and strategic commitments there.

It is impossible to understand the rise of the United States to superpower status in the second half of the twentieth century without understanding how American policy makers grappled with the complex diplomatic issues they confronted during and just after World War I. Similarly, we cannot explain the ways the United States responded to these issues without examining President Wilson and his legacy. We know that Wilson's postwar objectives, based on his Fourteen Points, were to be predicated on international law, collective security, national self-determination, open markets, and American political and moral leadership. At the same time, Wilson tried to dissuade the allies from establishing a punitive settlement against Germany that would retard postwar economic recovery and poison the political atmosphere in Europe. But what drove Wilson to seek such a settlement? What were the philosophical bases of "Wilsonianism"? How did the twenty-eighth president try to meet the challenges posed by his European allies, by revolutionary ferment in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and by a Congress anxious to return the United States to its traditional isolation from overseas political embroilments? Finally, what was Wilsonianism's legacy for the international system and for American foreign policy in the decades to come? These are the questions at the heart of any serious study of America's role in the world following the Great War, and historians have debated them hotly for generations.

Wilson's efforts to shape the postwar settlement and to play the leading role at the Versailles conference were immediately controversial. In both the United States and Europe, the president faced vocal opposition and second-guessing. Some of the earliest and most influential critics of Wilson's diplomacy were Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Secretary of State Robert Lansing, individuals closely associated with the making of his foreign policy. As participants and close observers of the Versailles peace conference, both men mixed close analysis and a considerable amount of political axe-grinding in their appraisal of the immediate postwar scene. Lodge, who led the fight in the Senate to defeat the Versailles Treaty, reiterated the conservative case against the settlement in The Senate and the League of Nations (1925). While Lodge was not convinced that the peace agreement treated Germany too harshly, he did fear that the Versailles Treaty and membership in the League of Nations would commit the United States to burdensome overseas obligations. Lansing echoed Lodge's criticism in The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative (1921) and took Wilson to task for sacrificing allied strategic and economic interests for the sake of popular self-determination in Eastern and Central Europe. Meanwhile, the eminent British economist John Maynard Keynes attacked the peace settlement from a different direction, arguing that the harsh terms meted out to Germany sewed the seeds of future conflict. By depriving Germany of territory and imposing on it an onerous reparations regime, he wrote, the allies guaranteed that Europe would suffer future political instability and economic hardship. These ideas formed the core of his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), one of the most influential treatises of the early interwar period.

What ideas and assumptions shaped Woodrow Wilson's political philosophy and how did these beliefs shape the president's conduct of the First World War and American foreign policy in the immediate postwar era? Wilson was clearly a political visionary, and his views were informed by his devout Presbyterianism, his experiences in the Progressive political movement, and his education in the social sciences. Did that utopian vision for the international system actually make American diplomacy more effective? Did it endanger important U.S. foreign policy interests? Many critics of the president came to believe that "Wilsonianism" impeded the United States' ability to look after itself in the world. For example, the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, in his brief but very influential volume American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (1951) harshly criticized Wilson's excessive "legalism" and "moralism" -- traits, he charged, that blinded American statesmen to the realities of power politics by which the international system operated. Kennan placed Wilson squarely in the camp of the foreign policy "idealists" who, he believed, had wrested control of American foreign policy from political "realists." Realists maintained that a nation's diplomacy must be governed by a rational calculus of its interests and a careful assessment of the power it possessed to defend those interests. Kennan's critique of Wilson neatly encapsulated the most important argument among foreign policymakers and scholars of his day and applied it to the diplomacy of the Versailles era. By doing so, Kennan showed that American Cold War diplomacy derived in many ways from the legacy of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy. Kennan's characterization of Wilson as an "idealist" established the terms of debate on the man and his philosophy for years to come.

But was "idealism" all that motivated Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy? Is it possible move beyond the stark terms of the realist/idealist debate over Wilson and examine his diplomacy in more subtle and imaginative terms? One of the keys to understanding Wilson is to appreciate the complexity of the motives behind his policies. Economic self-interest, strategic calculation, and more traditional political "realism" all tempered the president's moralism. William Appleman Williams, in his influential book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), argues that Wilson's policies were motivated largely by economics; these policies, in turn, perpetuated the "Open Door" strategy articulated at the beginning of the century to secure markets and resources for America overseas. Other historians have tried to reconcile the idealistic and pragmatic aspects of Wilsonianism. In Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution (1968), N. Gordon Levin writes that Wilson pursued an ambitious and complicated diplomatic agenda informed by his sense of America's special role in the world, his antipathy for political solutions favored by the reactionary right and the radical left, his desire for moderate change in the international system, and a need to preserve the structures upon which American commerce and society depended. U.S. economic and political interests, Wilson felt, were identical to the interests of the world at large. Similarly, wrote Levin, Wilson saw American interests as consistent with American values. Arthur S. Link, one of the premier historians of Wilson and Wilsonianism, concluded in his book Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and Peace (1979) that the twenty-eighth president pursued a "higher realism" in his foreign policy, balancing ideological and ethical considerations with a keen appreciation of ends and means.

Link also served as editor-in-chief of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (1966-1993), a massive editorial and publishing endeavor that produced sixty-nine volumes of the president's correspondence and contributed to a flood of innovative scholarship on Wilsonian foreign policy that continues today. The most important of these works have shed new light on Wilson's attitudes and policies concerning the postwar international system, collective security, and the establishment of the League of Nations. For example, in his Fourteen Points, delivered to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson laid out his blueprint for a peaceful postwar settlement consistent with U.S. national interests. More than this, however, the president sought to offer an alternative vision of the postwar world that challenged the one espoused by Vladimir Lenin in the wake of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Gordon Levin has noted that Wilson's program envisioned an international system reformed by peaceful institutions rather than transformed through revolution.

President Wilson's unsuccessful fight to win Senate ratification of the Versailles Treaty and to lead the United States into the League of Nations is one of the most important chapters in the history of early twentieth-century American foreign relations. The determined opposition of Wilson's Republican political adversaries as well as the president's personal inflexibility and failing health doomed his effort to failure. The historian Lloyd Ambrosius argues in Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective (1987) that Wilson's struggle was shaped by his appreciation of the increasing interdependence of nations but doomed by his inability to comprehend their great diversity of motives and interests. Thomas Knock, in To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1992), claimed that the president lost the League fight because the left-of-center "progressive internationalists," who could have propelled him to victory in the conflict with his Senate opponents, had been systematically marginalized in the politically reactionary and xenophobic war years. Most recently, John Milton Cooper asserted, in Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001), that Wilson's obstinacy and rapidly deteriorating health prevented him from finding a compromise with Senate "Reservationists" and "Irreconcilables," many of whom shared with the president common values and assumptions about the course of postwar American foreign policy.

What can we conclude about the domestic political context that gave birth to Wilsonianism, and how do we assess Wilson's impact on subsequent American diplomacy? In important respects, as Thomas Knock argues in To End All Wars, Wilson was the product of a Progressive movement whose ideas on foreign policy were often influenced by socialist and pacifist doctrines; Knock's is an admiring portrait of Wilson as a champion of the political left. In a different vein, Frank Ninkovich has examined American diplomacy over the past eight decades in The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (1999) and identifies Wilson as the guiding spirit behind all of American foreign policy since the First World War. Similarly, Henry Kissinger, previously a vocal critic of Wilson's foreign policy, concedes in Diplomacy, his 1994 book, that the intellectual framework Wilson created for American diplomacy has "remained the bed-rock of all American foreign policy thinking" since World War I. Meanwhile, Tony Smith places Wilson in the continuum of American presidents who have promoted democracy abroad as a means to ensure American security at home. In America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide struggle for Democracy (1992), Smith examines Wilson's belief that because democracies share common values, they refrain from making war on one another, engaging in peaceful commerce instead. Wilson's legacy to American foreign policy, writes Smith, lies in his efforts to "provide a structure of international institutions and agreements to handle military and economic affairs among democratically constituted capitalist states."

Clearly, Wilson articulated a complex political philosophy and directed a foreign policy whose legacy for American diplomacy is as controversial today as it was eighty years ago. Less debatable is that the United States emerged from the First World War a vastly more powerful and influential nation than it was before 1914. As John W. Coogan notes, Wilson's adaptation of neutrality between 1914 and 1917 allowed the United States to enjoy three years of peace and prosperity while the warring nations of Europe exhausted themselves in search of military victory. The president's wartime polices contributed to the defeat of German power while Britain, France, Russia, and Italy paid most of the price in terms of lives and property. In peace, Wilson allowed the European allies to overextend themselves as they attempted to secure their overseas empires and to prevent Germany and the Soviet Union from overturning a European settlement they could not abide. Coogan maintains that "had the president of the United States deliberately set out in March 1913 to bleed the Great Powers of Europe to death over the next eight years and expand American influence to fill the vacuum, he could hardly have been more successful."

Recommended Reading and Works Cited:

Ambrosius, Lloyd. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

A latter-day "realist" critique of Wilson's foreign policy, Ambrosius's book argues that the president was unable to grasp the complexity and "pluralism" of the postwar world.

Coogan, John W. "Wilsonian Diplomacy in War and Peace," in Gordon Martel, ed., American Foreign Relations Reconsidered, 1890-1993. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Coogan's essay is a useful overview of the literature on Wilson's diplomacy. It should be supplemented with David Steigerwald's historiographical essay,

"The Reclamation of Woodrow Wilson," in Michael J. Hogan, ed., Paths to Power: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations to 1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Cooper, John Milton. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

This recent book by a prominent scholar of early 20th century U.S. history charges that Wilson's failing health and personal inflexibility ensured his failure in the "League Fight."

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

This extremely influential treatise by one of the most important architects of American foreign policy in the post World War II era was among the first to criticize Wilson's excessive "moralism" and "legalism" as a diplomat.

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920.

Keynes, one of the fathers of modern economics, excoriates the punitive nature of the Versailles settlement in this influential examination of immediate post-World War I Europe.

Kissinger, Henry A. Diplomacy. New York: Simon&Schuster, 1994.

The former U.S. secretary of state, a confirmed foreign policy "realist" and an accomplished diplomatic historian, grudgingly acknowledges the value of Wilson's diplomatic vision for U.S. foreign policy.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Knock's book examines Wilson's political background in the Progressive movement and argues that his abandonment by left-wing political allies cost him the support necessary to defeat his Senate opponents in the "League Fight."

Lansing, Robert. The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971 [Reprint of 1921 edition].

Wilson's secretary of state, an important participant in the Versailles peace conference, critiques Wilson's diplomatic efforts and is dubious of American policy toward Eastern and Central Europe in this early assessment of post-World War I peacemaking.

Levin, N. Gordon. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Levin's work traces President Wilson's efforts to reconcile American values and foreign policy interests as he sought to bolster a stable, liberal-capitalist world order both during and after the First World War.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing, 1979.

Link, the editor of Woodrow Wilson's public papers, refutes critics who see Wilson as a starry-eyed idealist and argues that the president's diplomacy was guided by a keen understanding of the United States' ends and available means in making foreign policy.

Lodge, Henry Cabot. The Senate and the League of Nations. New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1925.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the "League Fight" lays out the case against ratification of the Versailles Treaty and U.S. membership in the League of Nations in this first-person account of the domestic politics of peace.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Ninkovich's study asserts that the liberal internationalist principles of Woodrow Wilson's statecraft determined all subsequent U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Smith, a political scientist, argues that Woodrow Wilson's views on national self- determination and international order shaped later American efforts to foster democratic government abroad as a key to U.S. security.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1959.

Appleman's classic study of American foreign policy in the 20th century examines the economic motives behind Woodrow Wilson's diplomacy.

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