MEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS – The questions surrounding events between April 1917 and April 1919 – from America’s entry into World War I until the proclamation of the Covenant of the League of Nations – are much the same questions we face today, as we begin to mark those events’ centenaries. They are questions concerning the relevance of liberal internationalism for the future, and they become more poignant with each passing day of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States.
Fascism died with World War II in 1945 (though in many places it survives in mutated forms), just as communism died as a living ideology with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. So will we now witness at the hands of the Trump administration the end of a framework that outlasted both of the twentieth century’s main totalitarian systems and brought relative order to a violent and chaotic world? If so, it is likely to be the result of issues much like those that shaped the rise of liberal internationalism a century ago.
The Roots of Neutrality
With the outbreak of war in Europe in the summer of 1914, President Woodrow Wilson faced the greatest challenge of his presidency: how might the US secure an enduring world peace once the military struggle ended? Wilson’s initial reaction to the war was to proclaim US neutrality; the country’s role would be to mediate among the warring parties. Indeed, it took more than two and a half years for the US to engage directly in the combat.
Theodore Roosevelt maintained that Wilson was too moralistic and idealistic to take America into the war by joining with the British early on, as he should have. Others argue that Wilson intended to join the Allies all along, but believed that an anti-war platform would best serve his 1916 reelection.
Both allegations miss the formidable obstacles to immediate American entry on the side of the Allied powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia, plus a host of other states that later joined) against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary, later joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). Long-standing public sentiment in the US opposed “entangling alliances,” a wary stance harking back to the nation’s founding and the warnings of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. A good part of US public opinion, moreover, thought that war was par for the course among Europeans: “let’s leave them to their own devices to get out of a mess of their own making” was a dominant sentiment for much of the war. And in any case, it would take time for the US to prepare itself for such a fierce and distant battle.
The policy of neutrality also reflected immigration patterns to the US, which seriously complicated entering the struggle. The question of “hyphenated Americans” – German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-American, and so forth – had become an acute national problem. The same ethno-national divisions fueling the European war could be found in the US. Many German-Americans called for neutrality to block what they correctly assumed was an Anglo-American tilt toward the British. Many Irish-Americans, understandably protesting British rule in Ireland, did not want to enter the war on the British side. Scandinavian- and Jewish-Americans rightly tended to regard Czarist Russia as an enemy to their ethnic brethren in Northern and Eastern Europe. In contrast, others – Polish-, Czechoslovak-, Southern Slav-, and Armenian-Americans – joined the Anglo-American elite in favoring the Allies.
Demographic statistics are telling here. Of a US population of 92 million in 1910, some 12 million were born in belligerent or partisan countries in the Great War. Another 17 million had at least one parent from these lands. These populations were concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest and constituted large voting blocs. As Wilson remarked in 1914, “We definitely have to be neutral, since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on one another.”
The First America First
During the presidential contest of November 1916, the Democratic Party played on Wilson’s supposed call for “America First” by appealing to traditional isolationist sentiment: “He kept us out of war,” the party’s campaign flyers proclaimed of the candidate. But if Wilson did indeed use the phrase (there is no real documentary proof that he ever did), he should be understood not as someone who embraced isolationism – the meaning “America First” took on before World War II and with Trump’s presidency – but instead as a committed “internationalist.” In a number of addresses he made in 1916 (none more important than one delivered in May before the League to Enforce the Peace), Wilson sketched a global peacekeeping institution to be created at the war’s end.
Wilson was drawing on a proposal he had already drafted with his secretary of state, Robert Lansing between late 1914 and 1916, usually referred to as a Pan-American Treaty, as well as on arguments that had been formulated in Great Britain and by concerned Americans. Such thinking did not commit Wilson to calling for American armed intervention in the European war, but it most certainly could not be reconciled with pacifist or isolationist sentiment.