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The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24

In The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-1924, Robert E. Hannigan challenges the conventional belief that the United States entered World War I only because its hand was forced and disputes the claim that Washington was subsequently driven by a desire "to make the world safe for democracy."

The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24

Robert E. Hannigan

2016 | 368 pages | Cloth $75.00
American History / History / Political Science
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Table of Contents


PART I. BACKGROUND (1890s-1914)
Chapter 1. The United States Steps Out

Chapter 2. Washington Reacts (1914-15)
Chapter 3. Pursuing a Seat at the Table (1916-17)
Chapter 4. China and Latin America (1914-17)

Chapter 5. "The Whole Force of the Nation"
Chapter 6. To the Fourteen Points Address
Chapter 7. Casting Every Selfish Dominion Down in the Dust (1918)

Chapter 8. The Future of Europe—and the World
Chapter 9. The Treaty of Versailles
Chapter 10. Americans in Paris: The Russian Revolution, the Royal Navy, Power in the Western Hemisphere
Chapter 11. Americans in Paris: The Colonial World
Chapter 12. Americans in Paris: The Adriatic and Shandong Controversies
Chapter 13. The Campaigns for Treaty Ratification (Summer 1919-20)

Chapter 14. Latin America and China
Chapter 15. Europe



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The Great War constituted a milestone in the development of the United States as a world power, a matter of immense importance to both American and world history. The United States—or at least elements thereof—grew rich as the European powers exhausted themselves during the conflict, while Washington deployed its growing economic leverage, its military might, and its diplomatic activity in numerous efforts both to shape the outcome of the war and to influence the future of international relations. It can indeed be suggested that the episode constituted a kind of first comprehensive rehearsal for Washington's subsequent engagement with other major powers, the underdeveloped world, and the foreign policy sentiments of the American people in the twentieth century.

As with most topics associated with what after 1939 would frequently be referred to as the First World War, this one has attracted the interest of historians before. Yet, I think it is hard to come away either from the general literature on the war or from the—on their own terms often quite excellent—studies of America's role feeling that the subject has been given its full due. This is perhaps because general studies of the Great War have largely been written by historians whose principal background, understandably, is in European history. But I would argue that it is also because those historians have had to rely on an American historical literature that cries out for a broader and more long-range view.

This book delineates the meaning and nature of American policy during the World War I era. Before all else, I would argue, it is a task requiring that U.S. activity be put in proper context. The subject of America and the Great War is usually treated as if it had little to do with events before August 1914, or even May 1915, when the Lusitania was sunk. But that approach makes all but impossible a clear appreciation of what American policy in the era of the Great War was about, this because it simply ignores all-important issues having to do with Washington's preexisting attitudes toward the world (and not just Europe). Likewise, and far more troubling from the standpoint of the ostensible mission of professional history, the Wilson administration's planning for the peace is still too often written as if its goals can be discerned by simply taking at face value the rhetoric of America's wartime president. Well before 1914, the United States (albeit without the strong support—or even knowledge—of most Americans) had begun to emerge as a player with its own aspirations on the global stage. And, not surprisingly, this powerfully conditioned its reaction to the European war. Washington's response to the Great War is fundamentally the story of how the United States sought to protect and then put on more stable foundations an international order to which American leaders, well before 1914, had already become strongly attached.

The study is divided into five parts. The first, consisting of one chapter, provides a discussion of American world policy as it had developed before 1914, the year war in Europe broke out. In part a distillation of my book The New World Power, on U.S. policy in the very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it argues that, regardless of changes in administration, Washington had, well before 1914, adopted a basic approach to the world that was inherited and adhered to by the Wilson presidency (please note I am not suggesting that each administration in this period did not have its own distinctive qualities and style). Part II, consisting of three chapters, treats the period of what the Wilson administration insisted was American neutrality. It explains the U.S. reaction to the war against the backdrop of Washington's commitment to a particular international order. And it traces how that administration was guided by the desire to protect and, if possible, reform that order so as to put it on firmer foundations. Ideally, the Wilson administration hoped to achieve its goals without U.S. military involvement in Europe, but its pursuit of a particular set of arrangements and, related, of a particular place for the United States in the coming twentieth-century world, in the end mattered more.

The entire course of U.S. belligerency was dominated by the Wilson administration's desire to play a major role in the settlement of the conflict, this so as to reconstruct and stabilize the world along the lines that it wanted. That story is related in the three chapters of Part III. These focus on the mobilization of U.S. power, on the public diplomacy conducted by Wilson in the period up to and after the Fourteen Points Address, and on the negotiations for an armistice.

The six chapters of Part IV discuss the American policy makers' agenda and activities at the Paris Peace Conference in service of the same aims, including U.S. participation in the design of the League of Nations and in the framing of the Treaty of Versailles. Also examined is the president's losing battle for the ratification of that treaty after his return home. Finally, in Part V, the book adumbrates the continuities between Wilson and the Republicans who succeeded him. It describes how, under circumstances that were considerably more constrained, the policy makers of the Harding-Coolidge administration sought to realize fundamentally similar international objectives. Insofar as the Great War is concerned, these culminated in the adoption of the Dawes Plan in 1924.

Absolutely central to this study of course is Woodrow Wilson, an activist president who played a pivotal role in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy for most of the years that are the principal focus of this book. It will quickly be noted that this study takes sharp issue with a view of the twenty-eighth president that remains pervasive not only in popular discourse but even in the writings of many biographers and historians (despite numerous specialized studies in recent decades that point in a different direction).

The notion that still dominates is that Wilson was essentially unique. While other great-power statesmen in history were driven by the readily identifiable motives of greed, power, and national self-interest, Wilson, it is asserted, was actuated by disinterested altruism. With a missionary's zeal and an unwavering commitment to principle, he sought to promote global peace, self-determination, and democracy. Befitting a figure propelled by such goals, he was supposedly dismissive of traditional considerations of strategy, power, and geopolitics.

This portrayal of Wilson first came broadly to be accepted in popular culture during his presidency. Perhaps that explains why it has been so easy for people to repeat it ever since. But it should never have gained the kind of authority it has, above all because its origins lay precisely in how the president advertised himself. Students of Wilson regularly comment on the care he lavished on his speeches, on the emphasis he placed on language and rhetoric. Yet, after all these years, this has not stopped many scholars from continuing to take largely at face value the president's own depictions of his actions.

Perhaps the explanation rests in Wilson's exceptionally persuasive way with words. I do not wish merely to argue though that he consciously sought to put a particular gloss, especially an idealistic gloss, on his diplomacy. Not unlike many statesmen, the twenty-eighth president had little trouble convincing himself that the policies he wanted to pursue were noble and in the interests of all. (If he differed from others, it was rather in the degree to which he also believed that he, and only he, could be entrusted with those interests.)

Too many scholars have also failed to explore the meaning of the terms and concepts Wilson employed in his writings and speeches. Wilson's rhetoric begs to be compared with his practice. Likewise, historians and biographers have no justification for saying that he was committed, for instance, to peace—which he most definitely thought he was—without exploring what Wilson implicitly meant by that. The same is true of his commitments to democracy and self-determination.

Woodrow Wilson has excited strong feelings among those who have written about him, but many critics and devotees have taken only a surface measure of the man. Supporters have hailed Wilson as a kind of secular martyr—given the president's physical collapse and the Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty—on behalf of peace, freedom, and American ministrations to the world. Critics meanwhile have held that his foreign policies were inattentive to considerations of self-interest, to the realities of the world scene, and to diplomatic factors based on considerations of strategy and power. Both of these views proceed from the president's own description of himself.

The flesh-and-blood Wilson was, however, much less consistent than he has often been (and wanted to be) portrayed, and he most certainly did not preside over a disinterested diplomacy. Nor did Wilson pursue a foreign policy in which geopolitical and strategic factors were absent. Whether he was a successful diplomatist is of course a separate matter.

Woodrow Wilson is a more complex, and at least in some ways more sophisticated, figure than the abstraction of him that has survived in far too much public discourse and scholarship, but he may also be a more important figure—especially for Americans—to grapple with. For it is tempting to venture that there is another reason why the abstraction—often held to be the template of a "Wilsonianism" running through much subsequent U.S. diplomacy—has persisted so long. And that is that it has offered Americans the comparatively happy (if misdirected) task of debating whether it is good or bad for the United States that its policy in the world has been so idealistic.

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