Sixty-one years after his death, Woodrow Wilson remains a controversial figure in American history: viewed by many as a moral Titan who attempted to impose a principled order upon the strife of international life; discerned by a few as a false prophet who ignored the realities of power politics. Participation in World War I and the peace settlement marked America’s decisive entry into the world arena. Victory in 1918, as in 1945, was an American victory; the exhausted armies of France and Britain were saved by the infusion of two million U.S. troops. Thereafter, the fate of Europe could not be decided without America. The debate over the moral basis of America’s role in foreign relations, initiated by these great events, continues to this day. Above all others, Woodrow Wilson articulated the moral tenets and goals of American foreign policy. An understanding of Wilson’s role, both as statesman and symbol, is central to an understanding of American foreign policy. One must recall that even Richard Nixon characterizes himself as an admirer of Woodrow Wilson.
Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1921, by Robert H. Ferrell, is a volume in Harper & Row’s “New American Nation” series. Like other volumes in the series, it provides a concise and competent treatment of its subject by an accomplished historian. A. Lentin’s Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and the Guilt of Germany, as its title indicates, deals with a narrower subject. Lentin, a British barrister, has produced a superb book, marked by a thorough mastery of his subject and a keen understanding of the personalities involved in the Paris Peace Conference. Together, the books provide a balanced analysis of Wilson’s goals and his ultimate failure.
The core of Wilson’s foreign policy was a lofty idealism that shaped his views on the war, intervention, and the peace settlement: America was to serve the interests of mankind; universal moral principles were to supplant the pursuit of national self-interest. According to Wilson, “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifice we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind” (quoted in Lentin, p. 6).
Wilson’s commitment to the universal blinded him to the particular. With the outbreak of World War I, Wilson was unable to detect any significant differences between the cause of the Allies and that of the Central Powers. In his opinion, the war had been caused by the iniquitous balance-of-power system and the pursuit of imperial and national aggrandizement. Strict and impartial neutrality was pronounced. Ferrell correctly notes that when Admiral Benson told Admiral Sims that the United States would as soon fight the British as the Germans, Wilson shared his views. As late as 1916, Secretary of State Lansing privately lamented (as later revealed in his War Memoirs) that Wilson was unable to grasp the real issues of the war:
That German imperialistic ambitions threaten free institutions everywhere apparently has not sunk very deeply into his mind, for six months I have talked about the struggle between Autocracy and Democracy, but do not see that I have made any great impression.
After America’s intervention in the war in 1917 (provoked by Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram disclosing Germany’s aim of a war alliance with Mexico if the United States did not remain neutral), Wilson continued to distance himself from the war aims of the Allies: America, he stressed, was an “associated power.” The gap between Wilson and the Allies, the universal and the particular, widened with the peace negotiations.
In January 1918, without consulting Britain and France, Wilson announced his famous Fourteen Points as the basis for European and world peace. The major points were: (1) open covenants of peace openly arrived at; (2) freedom of the seas; and (14) a league of nations. Wilson supplemented his Fourteen Points with the Four Principles of February 1918, in which he announced the balance-of-power concept forever discredited; the Four Ends of July 4, which called for the establishment of “the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed, and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind”; and the Five Particulars of September 27, which proclaimed equalitarianism among nations.
The Allies had no enthusiasm for Wilson’s vision of a reformed world order. The French Premier, Clemenceau, privately ridiculed Wilson for claiming four more points than the Lord Himself. But in October 1918, when the outcome of the war hinged upon American might, Britain and France reluctantly acceded to the Fourteen Points—with the exception of reparations and the freedom of the seas—as the basis of an armistice with Germany. Compromise was coerced by the threat of a separate peace with the Central Powers.
A brief semblance of allied solidarity was shattered by Wilson’s arrival in Paris. Wilson saw himself as the spokesman for all mankind, but the Allied leaders were spokesmen for their own domestic public opinion. Lloyd George, pressured by inflamed public opinion, sought reparations for Britain’s economic losses in the war. Clemenceau, also pressured by an aroused public opinion, demanded reparations and security from the threat of a future, renascent Germany.
Months of difficult negotiations among the Allies eroded Wilson’s resolve. Although Ferrell correctly notes that the extent of Wilson’s compromises and surrenders at Paris is somewhat exaggerated, Wilson himself believed that his high principles were significantly compromised. National boundaries were drawn and populations and mandates distributed with scant regard for Wilsonian “self-determination.” But the major compromise involved reparations: Wilson originally said that the Allies would get nothing; in the end, he agreed to a commission that fixed German reparations in the amount of $33 billion. Lentin contends that reparations in excess of Germany’s ability to pay, along with the notorious war-guilt clause of the Peace Treaty—whereby Germany was forced to accept responsibility for causing the war and all losses and damages sustained by the Allies—created a legacy of bitterness and guaranteed that Germany would attempt to overthrow the Versailles Treaty.
Why did Wilson compromise at Paris? Both Ferrell and Lentin agree that Wilson simply lacked the strength of personality and skill to negotiate on a one-to-one basis with Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Further, Wilson made a grave tactical error in attending the conference personally instead of sending delegates. As Lentin aptly observes:
By coming “at last, to close quarters with the world,” he shed, unwittingly, his one indubitable quality of greatness-his radiant vision of things above and beyond the orbit of knowing politicians-and his ability to communicate that vision and endow it with form and beauty. . . . From those lofty heights he was unassailable. . . . Once he descended from thatsolitary eminence and began to deal, or appear to deal, with Lloyd George and Clemenceau on their level, he was done for. His prophetic mantle, as he rubbed shoulders with them, became sullied with their dross. His moral, and therefore his political authority was fatally impaired.
Finally, one must understand Wilson’s compromises in the context of his commitment to the League of Nations. He believed that the League would provide a mechanism to redress international wrongs and to correct any mistakes made at the Paris Conference. The more Wilson compromised, the greater became his commitment to the League. Lentin concludes that Wilson seemed to envisage the League “as a kind of international pharmacopoeia, with a patent remedy for every problem.”
The most perplexing issue of Wilson’s statesmanship is his refusal to accept any reservations to the Peace Treaty, thereby contributing to its rejection by the Senate. Opposition to the Treaty focused on Article 10: “The members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League.” Opponents of the Treaty argued that Article 10 obligated the United States to use military force, and conflicted with Congress’s constitutional obligation to declare war. Wilson “was not forthcoming with any convincing argument to the contrary. His equivocations were ironic. As Lentin notes, when Clemenceau had demanded teeth for the League-an international army and general staff-Wilson nervously changed the subject and spoke of the Monroe Doctrine.
Along with most historians, Ferrell speculates that Wilson’s failure to compromise on the Treaty was due to poor physical and mental health. Such factors certainly contributed to Wilson’s obstinacy, but they were not its principal cause: After Paris, the League was an instrument not only to redeem mankind but also to redeem Woodrow Wilson’s compromises.
It is unfair to blame Wilson’s intransigence for the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty. Even with Senator Lodge’s reservations circumscribing Article 10, the Treaty failed on a first vote in November 1919: 55 against, 39 for; and, without reservations, 53 against, 38 for. In a second vote in March 1920, the Treaty, with Lodge’s reservations, failed again to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote: 49 voted in favor, 39 against passage. The Treaty was rejected because of the perception that it required the United States to surrender control of its foreign policy to foreigners. Contrary to Ferrell’s optimistic views, it is possible that nothing Wilson could have said or done would have made any difference for the simple reason that on this issue Wilson did not speak for the American people. In the end, Theodore Roosevelt proved to be correct when, in 1918, he brutally denied that “Wilson, his Points, his Principles, or his Particulars ‘have any shadow of right to be accepted as expressive of the will of the American people'” (Lentin, p. 32).
With the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty, Wilson was politically dead; but he nonetheless endures to this day as a vital symbol of moralism in U.S. foreign policy. With the tragic outbreak of World War II, a general belief seemed to emerge that the United States should have joined the League of Nations and that U.S. participation would have made a difference. Somehow, Wilson seemed vindicated by subsequent events. But a detailed assessment of the interwar years shows this conception of Wilson’s prescience to be fanciful. Reparations and the war-guilt clause inflamed German hatred, but the peace settlement did nothing to check Germany: she remained territorially intact and the largest homogeneous racial bloc in Europe. For this reason alone, Marshall Foch observed: “This is not a Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Idealists who point to the formation of the United Nations as a vindication of Woodrow Wilson overlook the post-World War II dismemberment of Germany as a vindication of Foch.
The League of Nations ultimately failed because it had no teeth. It had no teeth, in part, because within a few years after the war’s end Britain and France differed on how to treat Germany: Britain wanted to conciliate “good” Germans; France wanted to use force. There is no reason to believe that U.S. membership in the League would have provided the will to use force. It was the very possibility that the United States might again become involved in a European war that gave rise to the Treaty reservations; the Treaty’s rejection by the Senate; interwar isolationism; and the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. Moreover, Wilson’s derogation of the balance of power and his emphasis on the rule of law and moral suasion, cast the use of force into disrepute. Wilson’s attempt to transfer the concepts of domestic law into the international realm oversimplified the origins of war and overestimated the readiness of Germany to abide by the peace settlement. Wilson ignored the issue of how nations which accept law and international organization as the basis of their foreign relations are to deal with regimes willing to use force to impose their will. As Michael Howard has observed:
Law could be no substitute for power, for without power there could be no law; but power involved precisely those strategic considerations of force-levels, arms procurement, alliances, staff talks and availability of bases for military operations which enthusiastic protagonists of the League of Nations were so determined to avoid.
Wilson’s legacy proved to be a hodge-podge of simplistic and emotion-laden concepts, which Hitler successfully used to manipulate and divide Western opinion.
Debate over a multitude of recent issues—Vietnam, the Shah, Central America, and South Africa—undeniably shows moralism to be a dynamic factor in U.S. foreign policy. A proper understanding of Wilson, his strengths and weaknesses, contributes to a proper understanding of the goals of U.S. foreign policy. Wilson repudiated national self-interest as the basis for U.S. foreign policy, seeking instead to serve the interests of mankind. As Robert Osgood has observed, the mistake of Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists was “in confusing what was ideally desirable with what was practicably attainable.” While Wilson is to be praised for recognizing the bond between America’s domestic morality and the projection of those standards into international
affairs, he was unrealistic to expect other nations to conform to his moral standards and aspirations. In practice, Wilson’s diplomacy was a form of intellectual imperialism, rooted in the arrogant and specious assumption that the opinions of a small—but influential—coterie of Anglo-American intellectuals were the opinions of mankind. Consequently, Wilson was more inclined to imposing moral solidarity upon his Allies than with recognizing the greater threat posed by a common foe. Such a course proved to be destructive, both to universal principles and to national self-interest. We must always remember that the proper goal of our foreign policy is to advance prudently the independence and security of the United States, not to repudiate those already in our camp for failing to conform with our domestic moral standards. All too often in recent years, idealists have demanded, in the name of Wilsonian principles, that we abandon beleaguered allies-only to see their peoples subjected to far greater cruelties than those decried by shortsighted critics, and U.S. security interests weakened. In dealing with
the Shahs of the world, we must reflect on the likely alternatives and how they may advance or impede our interests. We must not be moved by the visions of Woodrow Wilson, but chastened by the possibility of the mad mullah.