Phil Caldwell

Sports Blogging With a Grin

Woodrow Wilson and World War One

with one comment


On one of the  SeattlePI’s threads today,  we’re having a raging debate about a key component of foreign policy.  I’ve long argued that World War One happened because of a situation which is disturbingly similar to what we find ourselves getting into today with Obama.  A leader with a reputation of softness.  One who will be very reluctant to act when problems arise internationally.  So let’s join this debate with some actual study of history:

From the book Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy by William C Widenor:

Middle of page 140: This, in the opinion of partisans, was the cornerstone of the Rooseveltian solution. They felt he conducted foreign relations of the United States in such a matter that “the governments of other countries came to understand that he meant what he said” thus he created and impression of resolution and purpose which “raised the prestige of the United States to a height it had enver before attained.” Reputation and good faith were more important than any particular issue.

The nation should adopt for the preservation of its peace was the maintenance of a complete defense against armed aggression. In their strategy he saw a new urgency. “for today great wars are fought in a few months, while it takes years to build modern ships and case rifled guns.” But the wisdom of preparation was scarcely new to either Roosevelt or to Lodge. To understand the emotional and intellectual capital they invested in this issue, one must view the matter in it’s historical context.

As Harold and Margaret Sprout have demonstrated, the political alignments which grew out of the Jefferson-Hamilton split “foreshadowed the future politics of American naval development in general.” Roosevelt first went into print to instruct his generation in the lessons of the War of 1812, and Lodge devoted a large portion of his writing to the same purpose. They were convinced from their reading of American history was but the story of how the Jeffersonians’ gossamer theories had been “crushed in the iron grasp of facts.” The wisdom of preparation was as old as the difficulty of getting it accepted. Even in 1921 Lodge chose a Federalist example to make the point that to disarm in the midst of an armed world was, as Hamilton said in his report on Manufacturers, as idle talk about free trade in a protective world. the problem was perennial and particularly American, and the Roosevelt who, as President, wrote to Elihu Root exclaiming “Oh, if only our people would learn the need of preparedness, and of shaping things so that the decision and action can alike be instantaneous” differed little from Roosevelt the imperialist of from Roosevelt the militant World War 1 interventionist.” They never expected the problem to go away, but as long as Roosevelt was in command they could feel that some progress was being made, that the nation was slowly being led to believe in self-reliance and preparedness.

Lodge gave recognition to Roosevelt’s talents in this area whenhe secured Roosevelt’s appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and when, in 1899, he confessed that he thought the Secretaryship of War the post best suited to Roosevelt. The object of their endeavors in this, to them, absolutely crucial area of preparation was, and by force of circumstances had to be, twofold: they had to fit the defense needs of the United States to the changing international situation, but, and this was the greater task, they also had to find a means of impressing those needs upon the American people.

Now here’s the key point to this policy/theory (we’re at the bottom of page 142):

….The dual nature of this operation comes through clearly in Roosevelt’s confession in his Autobiography

Jump up to bottom of page 143:

Preparedness was also a means of effecting the nation’s other foreign policy goals. The navy, in Lodge’s view, was an important instrument of diplomacy. The nave had kept the Germans out of Venezuela and given the United States a say in the fate of China; the fleet in its voyage around the world did “more to promote peace that anything that has been done” and demonstrated the truth of Lord Nelson’s adage that his “seventy-fours” wer the best negotiators in Europe. Not even the objects of peace societies could be promoted from weakness. Roosevelt felt that he “would have been powerless to speak for peace” if it were thought that he wished peace “because the nation I represented was either unable or unwilling to fight if the need arose” Similarily Lodge was convinced that the United States could not promote disarmament from weakness and even believed large armaments were conincident with peace. Only with its own peace assured could the United States labor successfully for the peace of the world. Preparedness became in their view the sine qua non of having any American foreign policy at all. Roosevelt told his last Congress:

“No friendliness with other nations, no good will for them or by them, can take the place of national self-reliance. Fit to hold our own against the strong nations of the earth, our voice for peace will carry to the ends of the earth. Unprepared, and therefore unfit, we must sit dumb and helpless to defend ourselves, protect others, or preserve peace.”

Lodge, reviewing Roosevelt’s conduct of foreign policy, had this to answer for those who had been alarmed by his combativeness and apparent militarism. The Roosevelt solution had worked.

“There never has been an administration……when we were more perfectly at peace with all the world, nor wer our foreign relations ever in danger of producing hostilities. But this was not due in the lest to the adoption of a timid or yielding foreign policy; on the contrary, it was owing to the firmness of the President of all foreign questions ……  Thus it came about that this President, dreaded at the beginning on acount of his combative spirit, received the Nobel prize in 1906 as the person who had contributed most ot the peace of the world in the preceding years, and his contribution was the result of strength and knowledge and not weakness.”

Bottom of page 165

Such idealism, however qualified, had to operate from a base of power. This is where they parted company from so many of their countrymen. Idealism in international relations was not a self-fulfilling proposition. Little could be accomlished from a position of weakness. Roosevelt tended to view the role of the United States in world affairs in much the same manner as he regared his own domestic leadership. As he told Lodge:

“I believe in the perpeturity of the American Republic, partly because we as a people give our heartest admiration and respect, not to the mere strong man, regardless of whether he is good or bad, nor yet to the weakling of good purposes, but to the strong man who uses his strength deisinterestedly for the public good; and our greatest national asset is that of this type, the Timoleon and Hampden type, we have produced the greatest examples that the world has ever seen in Washington and Lincoln.”

Transfer the arena to international relations and you have the belief that “our cheif usefulness to humanity rests on our combining power with high purpose” The lesson of the American historical experience (the Revolution and the Civil War being the major cases in point) was the agreeable belief that moral force and physical force were complementary. Applying the same wisdom to international relations resulted in the conviction that influence came most readily to the “just man armed” and that only from that position could one really work for world peace. It was a neat little package; only by effecting a combination of the interests of the American national state with those arising from the idealism of her citizens could American foreign policy be successfully conducted and only then could world peace be ensure. A peace, it just so happened, which was also in the interest of the United States.

Top of page 180: To compound matters Wilson thereby established a pattern which plagued him in so many of his diplomatic dealings; his first notes were strong and ominous, but the subsequent ones dribbled off into futility. He threatened and then when his wishes were not met he took no action. Huerta came as a result to believe that Wilson was bluffing”


On pages 184 thru 209,  Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy by William C Widenoron,  the argument was not about whether the USA should get involved with WW1, the argument was that had the USA been prepared to fight, and had they remained prepared to fight, that WW1 would have never happened in the first place because of the “balance of power” issue that all leaders considered before military conflicts. If the USA had been prepared, the balance of power equation would have been dramatically different. But under Wilson, who had a reputation of being a “wet paper bag,” they all knew that they could fight this conflict and even if the USA was prepared (which TR & HCL claimed they were not) Wilson wouldn’t have sent the troops. Because Wilson was known a President who threatened, had public tantrums, but then never did anything to counter international aggression. Hence that reputation had more to do with decisions to send troops to battle in Europe, than any other point. Because had they known absolutely that if you attack Britain then you attack the USA too, and had the USA been prepared to fight …….. decisions would have been different.
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Written by PhilCaldwell

July 15, 2010 at 8:42 am

One Response

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  1. USA weakness caused World War One…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    Personal Care 101

    July 15, 2010 at 7:03 pm


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