Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Great War’s Impact on American Foreign Policy and Civic Religion
The Great War’s Impact  on American Foreign Policy and Civic Religion

The Great War’s Impact on American Foreign Policy and Civic Religion

  • Walter A. McDougall
  • April 25, 2016
  • Center for the Study of America and the West
  • Program on Teaching Military History

Woodrow Wilson

This article is the text of his address to our History Institute for Teachers on America’s Entry into WWI, hosted and cosponsored by the First Division Museum at Cantigny on April 9-10, 2016.  The lecture is based on his book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (Yale University Press, forthcoming Fall 2016.)

Thirty-five years ago James Field wrote a provocative article titled “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book.”  His point was that none of the mighty forces that supposedly propelled the United States to world power can really be shown to have caused the Spanish American War of 1898 or U.S. annexation of an insular empire.  Not Social Darwinism, the White Man’s Burden, or the closing of the frontier; not industrialization and the quest for foreign markets, or fears about urbanization, immigration, and labor unrest; not even Europe’s scramble for colonies and challenges to the Monroe Doctrine.  At most those were ex post facto justifications for the leap into Progressive Imperialism, whereupon they took on a life of their own.[1]  Field concluded that imperialism was not the “American way of life” as historian William Appleman Williams claimed, or even the “aberration” Samuel Flagg Bemis claimed, but a sheer accident.[2] 

I agree that what happened in 1898 was accidental, but only in the sense that if you roll a die over and over again, it will turn up six sooner or later.  That is, the tipping point was sure to come given the temptations posed by all those transformations at home and abroad.  But what did not need to happen was the emergence of an entirely new civil theology that claimed a global, crusading mission for the United States.

The Classical American Grand Strategy, derived from the Protestant Reformation, Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, and Britain’s spectacular achievement of unity, empire, and commercial power, was clearly enunciated by George Washington.  His Farewell Address, which became over time holy scripture comparable to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, bestowed a series of explicit commandments which were honored by future generations and thus became mutually reinforcing traditions that shaped U.S. foreign relations for 120 years.  The first tradition was the jealous defense of Unity and Liberty at Home, which required Americans to resist the temptation to launch ideological crusades abroad.  The most eloquent expression of that principle was John Quincy Adams’ 1821 declaration that  “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy; she might become dictatress of the world but would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”  The second tradition was Unilateralism, which Thomas Jefferson firmly endorsed by bidding Americans make “no entangling alliances.”  That tradition has been routinely denounced in the 20th and 21st centuries as isolationism, but the truth is no people in history was ever less isolationist than Americans.  The third tradition was the aspiration for a republican American System of States for which the Monroe Doctrine became the shorthand.  The final tradition was continental Expansion, what Andrew Jackson’s romantic propagandists called America’s Manifest Destiny.

That is not to say Americans were never split-minded.  Jefferson, Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, and others sometimes imagined it America’s heavenly mission to redeem the world.  But utopianism never dictated foreign policy because the U.S. in the 19th century was contained and self-contained by four powerful checks against zealotry.  First was the new nation’s relative weakness in the dangerous world at large.  Second was westward expansion because no sane American wanted to risk the nation’s Manifest Destiny by picking fights with overseas monarchies.  Third were the lessons of history learned from the collapse of republics ancient and modern.  American statesmen lived in fear of an Alcibiades, Caesar, or Cromwell in their midst, and were always on guard against hubris.  Fourth was a residual Christian anthropology because nearly all the Founders believed in some version of original sin or its philosophical equivalent, the natural selfishness of human nature.  That is why they so carefully checked and balanced the powers of government.  Indeed, a major check on foreign policy adventurism was the Constitution itself.

So what happened in the 1890s to cause many Americans to reject the tenets of their civil faith in favor of ambitions previously denounced as heretical?  After all, Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley swore in their inaugural addresses to uphold America’s traditional foreign policy principles.  As late as 1897 McKinley stated explicitly: “Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who … will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in his footsteps….  It has been the policy of the United States since the foundation of the Government to cultivate relations of peace and amity with all the nations of the world, and this accords with my conception of our duty now.  We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.  War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed….”

I expect you know what happened.  In 1895 Cubans launched a second war of independence against Spain, and the guerrilla war and counter-insurgency escalated amidst awful atrocities.  For three years Cleveland, then McKinley, tried to mediate peace.  But by 1898 a self-conscious war party stirred up such outrage in the Congress and public that McKinley at last succumbed.[3]  The war party was led by well-placed officials including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Captain A. T. Mahan,[4] but the war party might not have triumphed without an army of unlikely auxiliaries – Progressive Protestant clergy  – who damned the Catholic Spaniards and demanded the U.S. intervene.  Thus did McKinley’s brother privately write: “You have no idea of the pressure on William from religious people.”

The political war party was cunning.  It hoped to exploit a war to implement its so-called “large policy,” including naval bases in the Caribbean, a Central American canal, and colonies in the Pacific. The religious war party was naive.  It just hoped for a humanitarian intervention in a neighboring “failed state.”  But in that long-gone era both agendas so violated the Washingtonian principles of peace, reciprocity, and non-interference as to constitute sin.  No wonder McKinley agonized, lost sleep, and wept!

The war party prevailed because five events over ten weeks early in 1898 played into their hands.  First, Cubans rioted against an offer of mere autonomy, which undermined U.S. mediation.  Then the New York Journal printed a purloined letter from the Spanish ambassador that insulted McKinley and the jingoes.  Then the battleship Maine exploded off Havana, killing 258 sailors.  Then Senator Redfield Proctor (R., Vt.) declared himself a convert to intervention after witnessing Cuba’s torments first-hand.  Finally, on March 28 the Navy’s inquiry predictably blamed the loss of the Maine on an external weapon.[5]  The war party and clergy turned up the volume until the White House and Congress succumbed.  Representative Richard Bartholdt (R., Mo.) later recalled how “messages by the score poured in on me peremptorily demanding that I either vote for war or resign….  I regret that vote to this day.”[6]

Did the war party have the ulterior motive of crashing Cuba’s independence party in order to impose a U.S. protectorate over the island?  There is strong circumstantial evidence to that effect.  Secretary of State John Sherman stated in advance that “Spain will lose Cuba.  That seems to me to be certain.”  Ambassador Stewart Woodford reported from Madrid in March 1898 that the Spanish government just wanted a face-saving way to end the fighting.  But from the moment the U.S. intervened the Cuban War of Independence disappeared down the memory hole, to be replaced by the Spanish-American War.[7]

To be sure, Congress passed the Teller Amendment forswearing any ambition to control Cuba, but that was undone by the 1901 Platt Amendment, which declared Cuba a protectorate, and the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary, which asserted America’s police power over the hemisphere.   Meanwhile, war correspondents, who previously romanticized the Cubans’ cause, decided they were unfit for self-government.[8]  So the U.S. Army and civil commission would have to rule after all even though they were utterly unprepared to do nation-building, while scores of Protestant missionaries expected to transplant middle-class American life in a culture 270 years older than the United States itself!  Cuba was the first in a long series of occupations that revealed how ignorant Americans were of the realities of the mentalities of the localities in countries they purported to help.[9]

In one of my own books I wrote, “the decidedly new, problematical feature of the era was not the colonialism that everyone now condemns, but the moral progressivism that most now applaud!  A newly prideful United States began to measure its holiness by what it did, not by what it was, and committed itself, for the first time, to the pursuit of abstractions such as liberty, democracy, or justice.”[10]

Moreover, it was in 1898 that political elites discovered a large political base could be mobilized for assertive foreign policies so long as they could draped in morality.  Cuba was easy: Americans imagined themselves liberators.  The Open Door policy was easy, too: Americans imagined themselves chivalrous guardians of China against the imperialists.  Annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines was a harder sell, but appealed to Americans’ missionary spirit.  Senator Albert Beveridge (R., Ind.) famously preached: “God has not been preparing the English-speaking peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle … self-admiration.  No!  He has made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns….  And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world.  This is the divine mission of America….  We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace”[11]  Famous Protestant pastors concurred.  Washington Gladden said, “If this is imperialism, I am an imperialist.”  Lyman Abbott baptized “the imperialism of liberty.”[12]  Walter Rauschenbusch, equating Americans to the Israelites in the Sinai, proclaimed: “The pillar of fire has lifted and moved.  We must break camp and follow….”[13]

Such Progressive Imperialism marked a great change in civil theology.  The notion that the U.S. ought only to be a good example for other nations now seemed tantamount to hiding one’s lamp under a bushel (Matthew 5:15).  The United States was called to wage righteous war in the world,[14] beginning in the Philippines themselves, because it turned out the U.S. had crashed an independence party there as well, forcing the Army to wage a three-year counter-insurgency that took 100,000 Filipino lives.  But McKinley assured his countrymen: “The American people, intrenched in freedom at home, take their love for it wherever they go, and they reject as mistaken and unworthy the doctrine that we lose our own liberties by securing foundations of liberty to others.  Our institutions will not deteriorate by extension, and our sense of justice will not abate under tropic suns in distant seas.”  The president then solemnly intoned: “We are not waging war against the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands.  A portion of them are making war against the United States.”

Former Senator Carl Schurz saw through the humbug.  “Do not deceive yourselves,” he said. “If we turn that war which was so solemnly commended to the favor of mankind as a generous war of liberation and humanity into a victory for conquest and self-aggrandizement, we shall have thoroughly forfeited our moral credit with the world <and our> proclamations of noble humanitarian purposes … will never be trusted again.”[15]  William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1900 on an anti-imperialist platform, but he lost in a landslide.  It seemed Americans were proud of their nation’s new stature, especially under the bluff leadership of Theodore Roosevelt who began the Panama Canal, sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour, and made serial interventions in the Caribbean.  Now, all those policies might have made sound strategic sense from a geopolitical perspective.  But the evolving civil religion required that Americans act out of altruism rather than self-interest – Americans always want to feel good about doing well – which is why the key word in Progressive Imperialism is the adjective, not the noun.

Historians disagree on how to date and define the Progressive Era except to say it had everything to do with reform.[16]  By the 1890s it was apparent that American institutions couldn’t cope with the modern problems thrown up by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, including corporate trusts, labor strife, corruption, big city machines, public health, women’s rights, and more.  To elites in the academy, government, business, and the clergy it seemed the modern solution to those modern problems was scientific management by credentialed experts.  As one scholar put it, “The Progressives believed in a … national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”[17]

Note the words “believed in,” “contempt,” “social evils,” and “real enemy.”  We think of Progressivism as a secular movement inspired by the natural and social sciences of that era.  Why then does a language of faith and good vs. evil come so easily to the historian of Progressivism and why does it go unnoticed by most readers?  The short answer is that secularism is a myth or, to put it another way, if you don’t believe in sectarian religion you will believe in some species of civil religion.

For a hundred years after 1789 Americans were not conscious of a potential conflict between their mostly Protestant faith and their civil faith because the former encouraged republican virtue and the latter ensured free exercise of religion.  But under the stress of the Civil War and the onslaught of modernism (Charles Darwin first published in 1859) the main-line Protestant churches surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible, and surrendered cultural authority to … the Progressives!  That is why, in the words of my colleague Bruce Kuklick, “We should associate Progressivism most with the rise of a more relaxed Protestantism in higher education after the Civil War.”  Ivy League universities, new ones like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, and land-grant universities devoted themselves to secular research on the German model, and the knowledge generated in science and engineering, sociology, political science, and economics easily persuaded politicians that cultural authority must pass from the clergy to the intelligentsia, who knew how to “manage God’s universe for the benefit of mankind.”[18]

Progressives meant to break up capitalist concentrations of power and wealth, purge federal, state, and municipal governments of corruption, and protect and empower the people.  We know their accomplishments including trust-busting, the Pure Food and Drug Act, civil service reform, the income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve bank, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition.  But these were also the heyday of Jim Crow laws.  There was no contradiction in that because the science and social science of that era endorsed racial hierarchy, Social Darwinism, and “the propriety of American imperialism.”[19]

What has all that to do with “a more relaxed Protestantism”?  The answer lies in the parallel Social Gospel movement whose preachers imagined their modern spirituality was the counterpart to modern science.  “The law of progress is the same in both,” said Lyman Abbott, whose “applied Christianity” blessed philanthropic cooperation with Progressive government.  The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and City of God.[20]  It stressed collective reform over personal salvation.  It made peace with evolution, put its faith in progress, and imagined good government could perfect society over time. In Walter Rauschenbusch’s exultation, “The social gospel registers the fact that for the first time in history the spirit of Christianity <can> form a working partnership with real social and psychological science.”[21]

The origins of liberal theology are legion: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, discoveries in geology and paleontology that seemed to debunk the Genesis account of Creation, psychological theory that seemed to debunk the concept of sin, and technological wonders that seemed to leave nothing beyond mankind’s reach.  In the intellectual universe of liberal pastors Christ ceased to be a redemptive messiah and became a prophet of social uplift.  Some post-millennialists even believed America was called to build a literal heaven on earth in preparation for the Second Coming and thousand-year reign of the saints.

The American Civil Religion implications of the Progressive Social Gospel were profound.[22]  The cross got confused with the flag, which preachers like Josiah Strong and politicians like Beveridge made into a veritable fetish.  “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner … for liberty and civilization are God’s promises fulfilled, and the flag must henceforth be the symbol and sign to all mankind.”[23]   William Guthrie, a University of Chicago professor, even preached a “religion of Old Glory” and “evolutional view of good and evil,” even prophesying the Stars and Stripes would become “the flag of a Federation of Nations” and “the Ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”[24]

In sum, the Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with the civil religion.  Their offspring was a newly Progressive ACR that no longer preached virtue, prudence, humility, and self-reliance, and instead preached  power, glory, pride, and paternalism at home and abroad.

The Progressive Era had plenty of contradictions.  What era doesn’t?  But the one that puzzles me most is this.  If urban industrial society and government had grown so squalid, corrupt, and dysfunctional that it begged for wholesale reform, why did Americans choose that moment to beatify their way of life and yearn to export it?  Perhaps Americans are most anxious to prove their “national greatness” abroad when they are least confident of it at home.  In any event, the United States began to play God in 1898.

Needless to say, the personification of Social Gospel Progressivism in American politics was the Presbyterian Princeton Professor and Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson.  In 1911 he lectured a Denver audience that “there are times in the history of nations when they must take up the crude instruments of bloodshed in order to vindicate spiritual conceptions.  For liberty is a spiritual conception, and when men take up arms to set other men free, there is something sacred and holy in the warfare.  I will not cry ‘Peace’ so long as there is sin and wrong in the world.”[25]

The apotheosis of Woodrow Wilson is especially bizarre given his presidential candidacy was a fluke , his campaign was a fraud, and his landslide a fable.  Wilson was nominated on the 46th ballot as a dark horse compromise engineered by Colonel Edward House, a High Progressive from Texas whose novel Philip Dru, Administrator, imagined a benevolent dictator the savior of America.  Wilson got lucky again when TR ran on a third party ticket, enabling the Democrats’ unlikely coalition of northeastern Progressives, Southern segregationists, and Great Plains populists to prevail with just 42 percent of the vote.  Nevertheless, Wilson claimed his election proved:

“The Nation has been deeply stirred by a solemn passion, stirred by the knowledge of wrong, of ideals lost, of government too often debauched and made an instrument of evil. The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heartstrings like some air out of God’s own presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled….  This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication.  Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity….   God helping me, I will not fail them.”

In theory the Democratic platform of 1912 had condemned “the experiment in imperialism as an inexcusable blunder.”[26]  In practice, Wilson ordered more military occupations than TR and Taft put together and invaded Mexico twice, ostensibly “to teach the South Americans to elect good men.”  He assured Naval Academy graduates that “The idea of America is to serve humanity,” and told a Mobile, Alabama, audience that humanity was approaching the mountain top of perpetual peace: “It is a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in terms of material interest.  It is not only unfair to those with whom you are dealing, but it is degrading as regards your own actions….  We have breasted a considerable part of <our climb up the mountain of civilization> and shall presently – it may be a generation or two – come out upon those great heights where there shines unobstructed the light of the justice of God.”[27]

Wilson’s messianic utopianism predated the Great War and cast the United States in the role of the world’s savior.

Now, I ask that you hold on to that thought for a few minutes, while I backtrack to describe a second historic transition occurring during those years: the decline of the Pax Britannica.  In retrospect, British naval, colonial, commercial, financial, and cultural hegemonies were certain to fade as industrial technology diffused throughout the northern hemisphere.  By 1900 the British Empire was challenged by its old enemies, France and Russia, and by new rivals such as Germany, Japan, and not least the United States.  Britain could no longer cling to its policy of Splendid Isolation and instead had to secure its imperial lifelines through appeasement.  In 1901 the British concluded a treaty that conceded the Western Hemisphere to the U.S.  Between 1902 and 1907 the British made alliances and ententes with Japan, France, and Russia.  But a similar effort to placate Germany aborted because the Kaiser was determined to build a great navy that by dint of geography was sure to contest British control over the very sea lanes whereby they imported their daily bread!  No wonder the First Sea Lord Sir “Jacky” Fisher stated bluntly in 1906: “it’s not invasion we have to fear if our navy is beaten.  It’s starvation.”[28]  Bear in mind those alarms even predated appreciation of the deadly effectiveness of submarine warfare.

Everyone who mattered on both sides of the ocean knew what that meant: the United States might someday have to come to Britain’s rescue.  Roosevelt, Lodge, and Mahan knew it.  So did Progressive intellectual Herbert Croly, whose 1912 book The Promise of American Life called for “a security treaty in which the United States would ensure the sea lanes that carry North American food to Britain in case of a war in Europe.”  So did diplomat Lewis Einstein who wrote in 1913 warning that in case of an all-out war the U.S. would had no choice but to intervene to save England.[29]

Woodrow Wilson knew it, too.  But when the Great War broke out in 1914 Wilson, like all Americans, was shocked by Europe’s atavistic slaughter and took it for granted that God’s appointed role for him was to mediate peace.  Wilson also worried about the millions of German-, Irish-, and Jewish-Americans who had pro-German, anti-British, or anti-Russian sympathies.  So Wilson’s call for Americans to be impartial in thought and in action was not only utopian, but a howling pretense.  Had he really meant to be strictly neutral the president might have embargoed trade with both belligerent coalitions, or else protected trade with all parties by sending the U.S. Navy across the Atlantic and daring anyone to shoot first, or else he might simply have warned Americans that they sailed into war zones at their own risk.  But he did none of those things because the president and – after Secretary of State William Jennings  Bryan resigned – his whole cabinet were fervent Anglophiles – and because U.S. manufacturers, farmers, miners, and merchants made windfall profits selling to Britain and France no less than 40 percent of their war materiel by 1916.[30]  To pay for it all the Allies liquidated their American assets at fire-sale prices, then sold millions in war bonds through Wall Street banks, thus reversing a century-old flow of capital and making the United States the world’s biggest creditor.[31]  Wilson pretended to condemn material self-interest, but his defense of “neutral rights” amounted to defense of the war profiteers colluding in the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany.

Twenty-five years before FDR coined the phrase, therefore, Wilson made “all aid short of war” the American policy toward Britain.  He doubtless expected that U.S. economic support would enable the Allies to prevail or at least force Germany to negotiate.  That expectation enabled him to seek – and barely win – re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”  As late as January 1917 Wilson stated categorically, “This country does not intend to become involved in war.  We are the only one of the great White nations that is free from war today, and it would be a crime against civilization for us to go into it.”  So he instead he issued his grand appeal for a Peace Without Victory because punitive settlements would only prolong the cycle of vengeance.

Wilson must have been sorely disappointed when, over that same winter, the British war cabinet, now led by David Lloyd George, quietly confessed that its cupboards were bare and credit exhausted.  That forced the president to make a fateful choice independent of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and provocative Zimmermann telegram to Mexico.  Wilson’s choice was either to cling to neutrality and accept the risk of a German victory – or to explain to the nation that technology and geopolitics obliged the U.S. to enter the war for its own security, Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding – or to preach a universal crusade on behalf of a Progressive new world order.

Scholars such as Niall Ferguson have speculated that the first choice might have been best.  This was not Hitler’s Germany, after all, and after their sacrifices in a total war the Germans themselves would likely have demanded democratic reforms.  Moreover, a German victory in the Great War might well have meant no fascism, no communism, no World War II, no Holocaust, and no Cold War.

Scholars such as Henry Kissinger have speculated that the second choice – Teddy Roosevelt’s choice – might have been best, with the U.S. waging war to restore a balance of power on terms the Allies, Germans, and American Senate could have lived with.

But Wilson made the third choice, because he believed God was now calling his nation to wage holy war – and, possibly, because he judged the American people could be unified and incited to wage total war on no other basis.  But the ominous outcome was that Wilson had to imagine himself a new Martin Luther making a Reformation that turned Washington’s civil religion on its head and declared America the world’s messiah.[32]

The war of 1917 was a war of choice[33] made under the worst possible circumstances.   For by the time Wilson delivered his war message to Congress in April 1917 he already knew Senators Lodge, William Borah, Robert LaFollette, and their respective camps were hostile to the (originally British) idea of a League of Nations.  He already knew the Allied powers were hostile to many of his principles later expressed in his 14 Points.  He already knew that most of those principles, not least self-determination, could not apply to most of the human race.   He already knew the German people remained fiercely loyal to their imperial state.  He already knew the U.S. must wage a total ground war, not a limited naval war, to gain the leverage he would need at the peace conference.  He already knew that a total war effort would undermine his domestic agenda, violate civil liberties, stretch the Constitution beyond limits even Lincoln dared not test, and invite Americans to indulge their worst instincts (indeed, Wilson’s own propaganda campaign all but ensured it).  Despite all that, Wilson flipped the old civil religion’s “thou shalt nots” into “thou musts” and insisted the nation obey him.

Everyone knows his soaring phrases: “the right is more precious than peace,” “make the world safe for democracy,” “a universal dominion of right by a concert of free peoples,” “America is privileged to spend her blood”; and “God helping her, she can do no other.”  But the passage in Wilson’s war message that really portended the millennium was this one:

“Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples at stake….  We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and responsibility … shall be observed among nations and governments that are observed among individual citizens of civilized states.”

Even the Truman Doctrine was modest compared to that declaration of perpetual war for perpetual peace.

LaFollette, who represented Wisconsin’s German constituency and who clung to the old civil religion, emotionally rebutted Wilson point by point.  If Germany was waging a war against all nations, why was the United States the only neutral to object?  If the world was being made safe for democracy, why didn’t Britain grant it to Ireland, India, or Egypt?  If Wilson was distinguishing between the German people and their oppressive rulers, how come more Germans supported the Kaiser than Americans voted for Wilson?  But Congress bowed to the wishes of the executive.  On April 6 – Good Friday, as it happened – the Senate voted 82-6 in favor of war and the House 373-50 the next day.  As in 1898 more than one member privately confessed that many were opposed to war but dared not admit it, and Ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice reported to London that Americans had gone to war “with the greatest reluctance.”[34]

Not so the Progressive clergy!  In May 1917 the Federal Council of Churches representing 35 denominations met in Washington, D.C., to offer its services to George Creel, the crusading Progressive journalist picked by Wilson to direct the Committee on Public Information, a euphemism for the war propaganda office.  Creel proselytized what he called the “gospel of Americanism”[35]  through every available medium, including pamphlets and posters promising parents their son would “Come Back a Better Man!” from his adventure as a “Victorious Crusader,” and films such as Pershing’s Crusaders and Hearts of the World directed by D. W. Griffith.  Wilson personally praised the “singular insight” of a pastor whose book declared the president’s goal to be nothing less than the fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”[36]

American clergy called Germany pagan and the Kaiser the devil, and enlisted recruits and sold war bonds from the pulpit with lurid tales of German atrocities.  Lyman Abbott even boasted of not being able to pray “Father, forgive them” because, he said, “the Germans know very well they are robbers, murderers, pillagers of churches, and violators of women.  I do well to hate them.”[37]

Civil religious zealotry justified unprecedented censorship and repression.[38]  The Justice Department prosecuted over 2,000 Americans for disloyalty under new Espionage and Sedition Acts.[39]  The daily agenda included censorship, intimidation of dissidents, and depictions of the Germans as Huns and gorillas.[40]  Republican statesmen approved.  Elihu Root spoke of “this great struggle between the principles of Christian civilization and the principles of pagan cruelty and brutal force,” and J.P. Morgan insisted a German victory would mean the “complete destruction of the liberties of the rest of the world.”[41]

By contrast Wilson, in his 14 Points speech, declared universal war aims he expected Americans and all other nations to honor.  He did not question whether open covenants openly arrived at, absolute freedom of the sea, removal of all economic barriers, disarmament, colonial rule in the interest of the inhabitants, or a League of Nations were even definable propositions, much less feasible, desirable, or Constitutional.

I leave peacemaking after the Great War for my colleague Ron Granieri to address, but suffice to say I think Wilson’s war was an American tragedy that compounded the European tragedy, cost 117,000 lives and half a trillion 1914 dollars, and set up the American people for a crushing disillusionment that inspired, among other exquisite works of nostalgia, this Cantigny estate and museum.  But what made the Progressive Protestants’ entry into the Great War tragic was not only the cost or the failure to achieve the millenarian ends.  It robbed Americans of any consensus – any civil religious orthodoxy about their nation’s identity in time – history – and space – the world.  Washington’s Classical ACR had died, but Wilson’s Progressive ACR had proved stillborn.   So the United States stumbled forward through a long cusp during which its citizens fought, fretted, or just forgot what it was God expected of them in the twentieth century.


[1]. James A. Field, Jr., “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book,” The American Historical Review 83, no. 3 (June 1978): 644-68; Walter LaFeber and Robert Beisner, “Comments,” pp. 669-78.

[2]. Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (New York: Henry Holt, 1936), chapter 26.

[3]. Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), proudly describes the interlocking roles played by John Hay, A. T. Mahan, Elihu Root, H. C. Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt in forging what Roosevelt called “national greatness” partly through war.  See my article on war parties at

[4]. See the new book by Evan Thomas, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 (New York: Little, Brown, 2010).

[5]. The case was reopened in 1976 by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.  His scientific team reexamined the documents from the first two investigations and concluded that the damage was inconsistent with that caused by a mine.  The most likely cause was a coal dust fire.  These finding have in turn been challenged, so the mystery of the Maine lives on.

[6]. Richard Bartholdt, From Steerage to Congress: Reminiscences and Reflections (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1930), pp. 160-161.

[7]. Louis A. Pérez, Jr., The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998), pp. 1-22 (quotes pp. 12-14, 20-21).  

[8]. Ibid., pp. 81-107, quotes following p. 84.  The New York Times said of Cuban self-rule, “It would be a tragedy, a crime, to deliver the island into their hands.” (84) The New York Tribune asked why the war was made and answered “Because Cuban leaders declared, and their friends here declared, that the people of the island were ready for self-government….  Have our troops found such to be the case?  The answer is an unhesitating and emphatic No.”  The New York Evening Post echoed the sentiment: “We have bought a gold brick in Cuba Libre.”  On the U.S. military’s incompetence see Graham A. Cosmas, An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish American War (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1971).

[9]. This apt phrase was coined by political scientist James Kurth.

[10]. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 121; internal quotation from Norman A. Graebner, Foundations of American Foreign Policy: A Realist Appraisal from Franklin to McKinley (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1985), p. 352; last sentence inspired by Robert W. Beisner, From the Old Diplomacy to the New, 1865-1900 (Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing, 1975), p. 76.

[11]. Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 33, part 1, p. 711 (1900), cited by  Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University, 1997), pp. 430-31.

[12]. Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2012), pp. 207-32 (quotes, pp. 225).  The Southern Methodist missionaries in Cuba from 1898 to 1941 is the subject of Mark Brennan’s Penn dissertation.

[13]. Winthrop S. Hudson, “Protestant Clergy Debate the Nation’s Vocation,” Church History 42, no. 1 (1973): 110-18 (quotes pp. 117-18)..

[14]. This alternate chronology dovetails with that of David C. Hendrickson, Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789-1941 (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2009), albeit Hendrickson does not employ the concept of civil religion.

[15]. Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953), p. 49.

[16]. Alonzo L. Harriby in Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur, eds., Progressivism and the New Democracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1999), p. 40, neatly describes the current state of Progressive studies: “a plethora of scholarship in the last half of the 1950s left the old consensus in shreds while producing a plethora of alternative views that defy rational synthesis.”

[17]. William Leuchtenburg, “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1916,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 3 (1952):  483–5 (italics added).

[18]. Bruce Kuklick, A Political History of the USA: One Nation Under God (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 190.  The Social Gospel sociologist Edwin L. Earp first published The Social Engineer in 1911.

[19]. Smith, Civic Ideals, pp. 410-33 (quotes pp. 412-13).

[20]. Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003), pp. 25-47 (quotes pp. 30-31)

[21]. Kuklick, Political History of the USA, p. 191; on the Social Gospel and Progressive reform see Henry May, The Protestant Churches and Industrial American (New York: Harper, 1949); the revival movements in American history are explored by Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).

[22]. Paul T. McCartney, Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2006), examines the “cultural milieu”of the war because he believes it was not just a case of humanitarianism that developed into imperialism, but was tinged with many other features of American identity including racism, but also the Methodist themes of “duty and obligation” that resound so powerfully in McKinley’s sincere speeches.


[24].William Norman Guthrie, The Religion of Old Glory (New York: George H. Doran, 1919), p. 415.  Guthrie gave eloquent voice to the common view of most Protestant churches that U.S. entry into the Great War had eschatological significance: “We raise our flag the more proudly then, we men of self-disciplined mind, we patient, urgent never-surrenderers of the Cause; we abiders of the propitious times and the prophetic seasons, – but aspirers, conspirers always; we constructive meliorists….  ‘Solidarity’ as Walt Whitman was wont to sing, the divine ‘en masse.’  No other upheaval is to us an uprising.  And for that we watch, and wait and work” (p. 233).

[25]. The Bible and Progress: Address by the Hon. Woodrow Wilson, Governor of New Jersey, on the Occasion of the Tercentenary Celebration of the Translation of the Bible into the English Language, Denver, Colorado (May 7, 1911), p. 3.

[26]. H. W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (New York: Oxford University, 1992), p. 104.

[27].  U.S. Naval Academy Commencement Address, Annapolis, Md. (June 5, 1914):; Address Before the Southern Commercial Congress, Mobile, Ala. (Oct. 27, 1913):

[28]. Salisbury Address at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Guildhall, November 9, 1898, in New York Times (November 20, 1898). Thanks to Anne-Louise Antonoff for alerting me to these speeches.  Fisher quote in Geoffrey Till, The Development of British Naval Thinking (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 75.  See also Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 217-43.

[29].  Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1965 <1909>, pp. 289-314; Lewis Einstein, “The United States and Anglo-German Rivalry,” National Review 60 (Jan. 1913): 736-50.

[30]. Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2012).

[31]. Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 328-29, likens U.S. entry into the war to a “bailout” for J. P. Morgan.  The war debts also caused Wilson to exaggerate American leverage: “when the war is over we can force <the British> to our way of thinking.”

[32]. My discussion of Wilson is based on the recent works by John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2009), Malcolm D. Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 2008), and especially Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Perseus Books, 2003).

[33]. Cooper, Wilson: A Biography, p. 4.

[34]. Thomas Boghardt, The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2012), pp. 181-90 (quote p. 188).

[35]. George Creel, How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information That Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920).

[36].  Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and his Legacy in American Foreign Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 137-55, argues that Wilson’s presidency cannot be  comprehended without regard for his physical and psychological condition, his progressivism, especially his Social Gospel as he interpreted US participation in the World War within the framework of his Christian faith.  I agree, but by labeling the last his American civil faith all else falls into place.

[37]. Ray H. Abrams, Preachers Present Arms: The Role of American Churches and Clergy (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1969 <originally New York, 1933>), seriatim, quotes on pp. 99, 101, 106, 110, 229.  Herald Press is a Mennonite imprint.  Abrams was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

[38]. One Democratic opponent of Wilson’s “dictatorship” was the blind Progressive Senator Thomas Gore.  A former ally of Wilson, he was unsurpassed in opposing his wartime policies and the illiberal trappings of the League of Nations.  “Gore did not for a moment accept the Wilsonian presumption that the world would be moved beyond the pale of power politics.  In addition, Gore acknowledged the inevitable role of the national interest standard in foreign policy conduct while contending that a war to make the world safe for democracy would assuredly make Americans less secure and less free to enjoy the blessings of liberty.” See Greg Russell, “Defending Democracy in Wartime: Thomas P. Gore’s Liberal Dissent in World War One,” Democracy and Security 4 (2008): 119-147 (quote p. 120).

[39]. Debs warned the jury at his trial that war and fear were the greatest threats to liberty and that not he, but “American institutions are on trial before a court of American citizens”: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1982), p.295.

[40]. One well-known poster depicts the German as a slavering gorilla in a spiked helmet with a bare-breasted virgin in one hand and a club labeled “Kultur” in the other.  But one of the most widely viewed American productions was a silent (of course) film released in March 1918.  It was called “The Kaiser” or “The Beast of Berlin,” ran 70 minutes, and starred Lon Chaney, Sr. 

The script put laughably false words into the Kaiser’s mouth that nonetheless found their way into a popular textbook by Henry Eldridge Bourne and Elbert Jay Benton, A History of the United States (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1919), pp. 544-46.  Americans began to realize the purposes of the military masters of Germany.  The successes of the German armies tempted German writers and speakers to boast how they were to make the world over.  Smaller and weaker nations were to have no place.  The law of might was to be the rule….  Such a Germany would threaten the peace of the United States.  The German Emperor said to the American ambassador, ‘After the war I shall stand no nonsense from the United States’” (italics added).

[41]. Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Knopf, 2007), pp. 36-41.  Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), p. 120, notes that Wilson’s vision suffered from a basic contradiction in liberal political theory, which is that imposition of laws and norms will simply make politics disappear.  It doesn’t, which is why liberalism “always ends up using illiberal, political means or criminalization when the irreconcilable returns.”

FPRI’s program in teaching military history is supported by grants and contributions from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and H.F. Lenfest.