Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Chapter 15: Wilson’s War

Chapter 15: Wilson’s War

The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy:

How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest


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The original draft of this book contained 172 pages of endnotes, which had to be shed in the name of economy. Thanks to the Internet, readers can access them here. Unfortunately, of course, the author had to substitute page and paragraph numbers for the original superscripts in the text, but in most cases it should be clear which sentences in a given paragraph match up with which sources.

Paragraphs appearing in their entirety on a single page are identified by the page number (e.g., p. 122). Paragraphs divided between two pages are identified by those pages (e.g., pp. 92-93). Paragraphs that share a page with another complete paragraph are identified by the page number and paragraph number (e.g., p. 103, ¶ 1).





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Chapter 15: Wilson’s War:

141: John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2009), p. 4.

142: 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.

143: Wilson Inaugural Address (March 4, 1913):

143-44: H. W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (New York: Oxford University, 1992), p. 104; Wilson, U.S. Naval Academy Commencement Address, Annapolis, Md. (June 5, 1914):; Wilson, Address Before the Southern Commercial Congress, Mobile, Ala. (Oct. 27, 1913):

144-45: Malcolm D. Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 2008), pp. 1-39 (quote p. 35).

145: Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Perseus Books, 2003), pp. 9-10; Edward M. House, Philip Dru, Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow 1920-1935 (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1912).

146: Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 21-29. Ambrosius wryly noted the adoring raves Wilson earned when it appeared his ideas had triumphed after the Cold War. Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1994), p. 9, said “the most consistent tradition in American foreign policy with respect to this global change has been the belief that the nation’s security is best protected by the expansion of democracy worldwide.”  Amos Perlmutter, Making the World Safe for Democracy: A Century of Wilsonianism and Its Totalitarian Challengers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1997), p. 134, wrote that Wilsonianism “cast a long shadow over U.S. foreign policy concepts” that allowed the United States to defeat rival ideologies.  Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), pp 5-6, wrote, “For the United States, ideology worked.  And, by that rather vulgar pragmatic standard, it was true – all of which helps to explain why American have been uninterested in learning from the alleged mistakes that realists and other critics continue to point out.”  The enthusiasm for Wilsonianism even survived the War on Terror for several years as neo-conservatives and liberal internationalists dueled over who best represented Wilson’s legacy.  The quotes at the end are from Fleming, Illusion of Victory, pp. 298-99, and Thomas A. Bailey, Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal (New York: Macmillan, 1945), p. 344.  For an excellent analysis of Wilson’s Progressivism see Charles R. Kesler, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism (New York: Broadside Books, 2012), pp. 31-102.

146-47: On the public’s support of Wilson’s neutrality scholars largely agree. See Justus D. Doenicke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2011); Robert W. Tucker, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914-1917 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2007); Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (New York: Oxford University, 1992); John Coogan, The End of Neutrality: The United States, Britain, and Maritime Rights, 1899-1915 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1981); Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality (New York: Oxford University, 1974); Arthur S. Link, Wilson the Diplomatist (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963). Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), makes an incontestable argument for the religious nature of the First World War, but does not make explicit the connection between romantic nationalism (which Carlton J. H. Hayes called “the dominant religion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”) and civil religion.

147: 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. 111-48 (quotes, pp. 119, 128-32). Progressive clergy were overwhelmingly pro-British, which reinforced the nation’s – and Wilson’s – self-righteousness. Only orthodox witnesses such as Machen and those attuned to German-American sentiments dared suggest a certain moral equivalence between the Allies and Central Powers or point out that the British Empire denied democracy to more people than any polity on earth.

147-48: Ross A. Kennedy, The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University, 2009). According to Tucker, Wilson and the Great War, p. x, “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the law of neutrality – or rather Woodrow Wilson’s version of this law – constituted almost the whole of his foreign policy toward the war during the fateful years 1914-17.” He was, however, distracted by the death of his first wife the same week war broke out in Europe, by courtship and marriage to Edith Bolling Galt the following year, and by hundreds of rounds of golf played with his doctor “on doctor’s orders.”  On the president’s advisers see Tucker, Wilson and the Great War, pp. 17-52.  Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2012), concludes: “Far from displaying an attitude of benevolent neutrality toward Britain, the Wilson administration acted ruthlessly to protect America’s national interests and in so doing secured from Britain very significant concessions, substantially robbing the weapon of economic coercion of its effectiveness” (p. 503).  But U.S. trade with Germany through neutral countries was tiny compared to that with the Allies, so it was no wonder the British were pleased to appease the Americans.  Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (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.”

148: The so-called Belgian Atrocities allegedly committed by the German Army in 1914 were the subject of especially effective British propaganda. Historians assumed for a very long time (i.e., well beyond World War II) that the atrocities were exaggerated. But John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), and Larry Zuckerman, The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I (New York: New York University, 2004) have now researched the course of fighting in Belgium during August and September 1914 and present convincing evidence of war crimes against civilians.  However, it is also the case that the trigger-happy Germans were culturally conditioned to expect resistance from irregulars (francs tireurs) by their grandfathers’ experiences in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.  The British propaganda machine was led by Charles F. G. Masterman and run out of Wellington House, the press lord Alfred Harmsworth (later elevated to Lord Northcliffe) ably assisting.  See Fleming, Illusion of Victory, pp. 43-83.  The key figure on the code-breaking side was the chief of British naval intelligence Captain William Reginald Hall.  Hugo Münsterberg, The Peace and America (New York: D. Appleton, 1915), tried to explain that freedom did not exist apart from duty in German culture and that the Germans believed they were fighting for the national genius God had imparted to them.  Apart from a few rarified Hegelians in the Ivy League, that meant nothing to Yanks.

149: Wilson, Speech to League to Enforce Peace (May 27, 1916): Arthur S. Link, et al., eds., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1966-1994), 37: 113-16; Cooper, Woodrow Wilson, pp. 370-72.

149-50: Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2012), pp. 217-49; quotes pp. 223-25.

150-51: The German Naval General Staff had lobbied hard for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. In December 1916 Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff specifically promised that it would starve Britain into suing for peace within five months. He expected it would also provoke U.S. belligerency but promised that the “disorganized and undisciplined” Americans could not land “a single soldier” in France in time to prevent a German victory: “Document of Note: The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-boat Warfare,” Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (Jan. 2004): 215-24.  Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation, pp. 354-67, called it a veritable “Second Decision for War” on the part of Germany.

150-51 cont.: Progressive intellectuals disagreed with Wilson on this because they rightly expected war would empower the president and render the nation almost infinitely “plastic” (a favorite word at the time). John Dewey explicitly defended American belligerence on the grounds that war would be an ideal opportunity for socialization, democratic social engineering, and the application of science and scientific management for communal purposes. It certainly was, for a year and a half, at least.  Wilson’s Second Inaugural Address at:

151, ¶ 1: Thomas Boghardt, The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2012), pp. 115-80 (quotes, pp. 115, 147, 180).

151, ¶ 2: Cooper, Woodrow Wilson, pp. 386-87. William Pfaff, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy (New York: Walker & Co., 2010), pp. 67-68, also comes close this formulation by asserting the importance of national myth. “A belief in national election and mission was integral to the American identity during the first century and a half of the nation’s history, but its effect was to emphasize the separateness of the American union from the Europe from which nearly all of its people had come, and to validate a foreign policy that isolated the United States from the affairs of Europe….”  With Wilson the myth was turned into “a philosophy of national action.  The United States became convinced that it could provide a solution to the crisis that gripped Europe.  Its national virtues would enable it to become the savior nation the world presumably awaited.”

151-52: Azar Gat, an Israeli author, credits Americans with rather more realism than they deserve. In War in Human Civilization (New York: Oxford University, 2006), he argues that in both world wars the United States pursued an off-shore balancing strategy that maximized its own interests. But the collapse of Russia in 1917 and France in 1940 disrupted the limited-liability approach and forced the United States to intervene with land armies.  On the Progressive clergy, some of whom (like Lyman Abbott in Brooklyn, even “declared war” on Germany in anticipation of the President, see Gamble, War For Righteousness, p. 148.

152: Wilson’s War Message to Congress (April 2, 1917):

The comparison to the Truman Doctrine is my own, but Ross A. Kennedy, “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 1-31, concurs that Wilson left a dangerous legacy.  He abhorred the prospect of a garrison state, yet his vision of collective security implied that the United States had an interest in conflict wherever it occurred.  When the United States did embrace collective security in the 1950s, the result was a military-industrial complex.

152-53: Boghardt, Zimmermann Telegram, pp. 181-90 (quote p. 188).



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