Modern history

Wilson and American Foreign Policy, 1912-1917

When Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, he pledged to open a new chapter in America’s relations with Latin America and the rest of the world. The United States would continue to support order, stability, and American access to overseas markets, but it would no longer “carry a big stick.” Disdaining power politics and the use of force, Wilson vowed to place diplomacy and moral persuasion at the center of American foreign policy. Diplomacy, however, proved less effective than he had hoped. Despite Wilson’s stated commitment to the peaceful resolution of international issues, during his presidency the American military intervened repeatedly in Latin American affairs, and American troops fought on European soil in the bloody global conflict that contemporaries called the Great War.

Diplomacy and War

Despite his stated preference for moral diplomacy, Wilson preserved the U.S. sphere of influence in the Caribbean using much the same methods as had Roosevelt and Taft. To protect American investments from political disturbances and economic crises, the president sent marines to Haiti in 1915, to the Dominican Republic in 1916, and to Cuba in 1917.

The most serious challenge to Wilson’s diplomacy came in Mexico, where he found his ideals tempered by reality. The Mexican revolution in 1911 spawned a civil war among various insurgent factions. The resulting instability threatened U.S. interests in Mexico, particularly oil. When Mexicans refused to accept Wilson’s demands to install leaders he considered “good men,” Wilson withdrew diplomatic recognition from Mexico. In a disastrous attempt to influence Mexican politics, Wilson sent the U.S. navy to the port of Veracruz on April 22, 1914, leading to a bloody clash that killed 19 Americans and 126 Mexicans. The situation worsened after Wilson first supported and then turned against one of the rebel competitors for power in Mexico, General Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In response to this betrayal, Villa and 1,500 troops rode across the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. In July 1916, Wilson ordered General John Pershing to send 10,000 army troops three hundred miles into Mexico in an attempt to capture Villa. The operation was a complete failure that only further angered Mexican leaders and confirmed their sense that Wilson had no respect for Mexican national sovereignty. In January 1917, Wilson ordered Pershing to withdraw his troops.

The president had little choice. At the same time as the situation in Mexico was deteriorating, a much more serious problem was developing in Europe. On June 28, 1914, an ardent Serbian nationalist, intending to strike a blow against Austria-Hungary, assassinated the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of the province of Bosnia. This terrorist attack plunged Europe into what would become a world war, fracturing the unsteady peace that had been maintained for the previous forty years. On August 4, 1914, the Central Powers—Germany, the Ottoman empire, and Austria- Hungary—officially declared war against the Allies—Great Britain, France, and Russia (Italy joined them in 1915).

As the most powerful neutral nation, the United States looked on from afar. For the first three years of the Great War, Wilson kept the United States neutral, though privately he believed that a British defeat would be “fatal to our form of Government and American ideals.” Nevertheless, the president urged Americans to remain “in fact as well as in name impartial in thought as well as action.” Peace activists sought to keep Wilson to his word. In 1915 women reformers and suffragists such as Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt organized the Women’s Peace Party to keep the United States out of war. One of its leaders, Lucia True Ames Mead, called replacing war with law “the most pressing reform before civilization to-day.” Yet even Mead showed how difficult it was to keep a neutral mind. “There can be no peace,” she exclaimed, “until the military domination of [Germany] is destroyed.”

Wilson faced two key problems in keeping the country out of war. First, America had closer and more important economic ties with the Allies than with the Central Powers, a disparity that would only grow as the war went on. The Allies purchased more than $750 million in American goods in 1914, a figure that quadrupled over the next three years. By contrast, the Germans bought approximately $350 million worth of American products in 1914; by 1917 the figure had shrunk to $30 million. Moreover, when the Allies did not have the funds to pay for American goods, they sought loans from private bankers. Initially, the Wilson administration followed the wishes of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who argued that providing these loans would violate “the true spirit of neutrality.” In 1915, however, Wilson reversed course. Concerned that failure to keep up the prewar level of commerce with the Allies would hurt the country economically, the president authorized private loans. The gap in financial transactions with the rival war powers grew even wider; by 1917 American bankers had loaned the Allies $2.2 billion, compared with just $27 million to Germany.

The second problem facing Wilson arose from Great Britain’s and Germany’s differing war strategies. As the superior naval power, Britain established a blockade of the North Sea to quarantine Germany and starve it into submission. The British navy violated international law by mining the waters to bottle up the German fleet and keep foreign ships from supplying Germany with food and medicines. The blockade even ensnared U.S. ships, despite the fact that the United States, as a neutral nation, had the right to ship non-war items to Germany. However, Britain extended the list of prohibited items and hauled American vessels into British ports. Although Wilson protested this treatment, he did so weakly. He believed that the British could pay compensation for such violations of international law after the war.

Confronting a strangling blockade, Germany depended on the newly developed U-boat (Unterseeboot, or submarine) to counter the British navy. In February 1915, Germany declared a blockade of the British Isles and warned citizens of neutral nations to stay off British ships in the area. U-boats, which were lighter and sleeker than British battleships and merchant marine ships, relied on surprise. This strategy violated the rules of engagement under international maritime law, which required belligerent ships to allow civilians to leave passenger liners and cargo ships before firing. The British complicated the situation for the Germans by flying flags of neutral countries on merchant vessels and arming them with small “defensive” weapons. Therefore, if U-boats played by the rules and surfaced before inspecting merchant ships, they risked being blown out of the water by disguised enemy guns.

Under these circumstances, American neutrality could not last long. On May 15, 1915, catastrophe struck. Without surfacing and identifying itself, a German submarine off the Irish coast attacked the British luxury liner Lusitania, which had departed from New York City en route to England. Although the ship’s stated objective was to provide passengers with relaxation, sumptuous dining, and dancing, its cargo contained a large supply of ammunition for British weapons. The U-boat’s torpedoes rapidly sank the ship, killing 1,198 people, including 128 Americans.

Outraged Americans called on the president to respond; some, including Theodore Roosevelt, advocated the immediate use of military force. Despite his pro-British sentiments, Wilson resisted going to war. Instead, he held the Germans in “strict accountability” for their action. Appalled by the loss of human life, Wilson demanded that Germany refrain from further attacks against passenger liners and offer a financial settlement to the Lusitania's survivors. Unwilling to risk war with the United States, the Germans consented.

Wilson had, however, only delayed America’s entry into the war. By pursuing a policy of neutrality that treated the combatants unequally and by insisting that Americans had a right to travel on the ships of belligerent nations, the president diminished the chance that the United States would stay out of the war. Recognizing this situation, Secretary of State Bryan resigned following the Lusitania affair over what he considered the president’s one-sided understanding of “strict accountability.” Wilson quickly replaced him with a more pro-British secretary of state, Robert Lansing, who endorsed Wilson’s expansion of the loan program to Britain.

Throughout 1916, Wilson pursued two separate but interrelated policies that embodied the ambivalence that he and the American people shared about the war. On the one hand, with Germany alternating between continued U-boat attacks and apologies, the president sought to build the country’s military preparedness in the event of war. He signed into law the National Defense Act, which increased the size of the army, navy, and National Guard. On the other hand, Wilson stressed his desire to remain neutral and stay out of the war. With American public opinion divided on the Great War, Wilson chose to run for reelection as a peace candidate. The president sent his personal emissary, Colonel Edward House, to Europe to negotiate an armistice and end the fighting, without success. The Democrats adopted the slogan “He kept us out of war” and also emphasized the president’s substantial record of progressive reform. Wilson won a narrow victory against Charles Evans Hughes, the former governor of New York, who wavered between advocating peace and criticizing Wilson for not sufficiently supporting the Allies.

Making the World Safe for Democracy

As 1917 dawned, the Great War headed toward its third bloody year. Neither side wanted a negotiated peace because each counted on victory to gain sufficient territory and financial compensation to justify the great sacrifices in human lives and materiel caused by the conflict. Nevertheless, Wilson tried to persuade the belligerents to abandon the battlefield for the bargaining table. On January 22, 1917, he declared that the world needed a “peace without victory,” one based on self-determination, freedom of the seas, respect for international law, and the end of hostile alliances. It was a generous vision from a nation that had made few sacrifices.

Germany quickly rejected Wilson’s proposal. America had never been truly neutral, and Germany’s increasingly desperate leaders saw no reason to believe that the situation would change. In 1915 and again in 1916, to prevent the United States from entering the war, Germany had pledged to refrain from using its most potent weapon, the U-boat, against passenger ships and merchant ships. However, the Germans now chose to change course and resume unrestricted submarine warfare, calculating that they could defeat the Allies before the United States declared war and its troops could make a substantial difference. On February 1, 1917, Germany announced that it would attack all ships, including unarmed American merchant vessels that penetrated its blockade of Great Britain. In response, Wilson used his executive power to arm merchant ships, bringing the United States one step closer to war.

The country moved even closer to war after the Zimmermann telegram became public. On February 24, the British turned over to Wilson an intercepted message from Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, to the Mexican government. The decoded note revealed that Germany had offered Mexico an alliance in the event that the United States joined the Allies. If the Central Powers won, Mexico would receive the territory it had lost to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century—Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When U.S. newspapers broke the story several days later, it inflamed public opinion and provided the Wilson administration another reason to fear a German victory.

In late February and March, German U-boats sank several armed American merchant ships, and on April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany and the other Central Powers. After four days of vigorous debate led by opponents of the war—including the first female elected representative, Jeanette P. Rankin from Montana—Congress voted to approve the war resolution. However, the United States underscored its historic commitment against “entangling alliances” by refusing to officially join the Allies, instead declaring itself an “Associated Power.”

President Wilson had not reached his decision lightly. For three years, he resisted calls for war. His policies had tended to favor the Allies, but the president understood that going to war would have grave consequences. He knew that he would be sending thousands of American men to their deaths and that the “spirit of ruthless brutality [would] enter the very fiber of our national life.” In the end, however, Wilson decided that only by going to war would he be able to ensure that the United States played a role in shaping the peace. For the president, the security of the nation rested on respect for law, human rights, and extension of free governments. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he informed Congress in his war message, and he had concluded that the only way to guarantee this outcome was by helping to defeat Germany.

Trench Warfare Trench warfare was at the center of the fighting in World War I. Both sides constructed a network of trenches and dugout shelters, fortified by barbed wire, and fought from these trenches to wear the enemy down. In this photograph, members of the 369th Infantry, a segregated African American unit nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," occupy trenches to repel a German offensive into France in 1918. The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

It would take a while for Americans to live up to the lyrics of George M. Cohan’s patriotic song “Over There,” which announced that “the Yanks [were] coming” to rescue the Allies from defeat. First, the United States needed a large army, which it created through the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1917 conscripted 3 million men by war’s end. Mobilizing such a large force required substantial time, and American troops on the battlefield did not make much of an impact until 1918. Before then, the U.S. navy made the greatest contribution. American warships joined the British in escorting merchant vessels, combating German submarines, and laying mines in the North Sea. The United States also provided crucial funding and supplies to the Allies as their reserves became depleted.

U.S. troops finally began to make an impact in Europe in May 1918. Allied forces were exhausted and weary, and in November 1917 they had suffered a further blow when the Russian Revolution installed a Bolshevik (Communist) regime that negotiated a separate peace with the Central Powers. Fresh recruits from the United States helped shift the war toward Allied victory. From May through September, more than 1 million American troops under the command of General Pershing helped the Allies repel German offensives in northern France near the Belgian border. One momentous battle in the Argonne Forest lasted two months until the Allies broke through enemy lines and pushed toward Germany. Nearly 50,000 American troops died in the fierce fighting, and another 230,000 were injured. Like their European counterparts, who suffered a staggering 8 to 10 million casualties, Americans experienced the horrors of war magnified by new technology. Dug into filthy trenches, soldiers dodged rapid machine-gun fire, heavy artillery explosions, and poison gas shells. In the end, however, American troops succeeded in tipping the balance in favor of the Allies. On November 11, 1918, an exhausted Germany surrendered.


• In what ways, if any, did President Wilson's approach to Latin American affairs differ from that of his predecessors?

• Why did President Wilson find it so difficult to keep the United States out of World War I?

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