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The Shock of Recognition: the Impact of World War I on America

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

A few words are in order about this essay’s title. It is pilfered from that great American man of letters, Edmund Wilson, who used it for his collection of American writing, The Shock of Recognition. I stole this title because it makes an important point. Wilson used the phrase because he wanted to convey what American writers had learned about themselves roughly between 1840 and the 1920’s—namely that their own country had a real literature, not just a minor derivative of what was produced in England. For Wilson’s subjects, this was a shocking experience in the sense that it profoundly, unsettlingly, and permanently changed how they viewed themselves and their fellow American writers. Unlike Wilson’s collection, this essay describes something that happened much more quickly. In fact, except in a few cases, this shock of recognition occurred suddenly, almost instantaneously. Also unlike Wilson’s work, this essay looks not only at our “best and brightest” but also at the masses of people. Those differences aside, the essay addresses the same phenomenon that Wilson did—an experience that profoundly, unsettlingly, and permanently altered how Americans viewed themselves and their place in the world.

The shock began with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. This was one of the great shocking events in all history. It came upon most people, including the young men of Europe who marched off to war, so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and so massively. Americans felt equally shocked. What was most striking about the way that contemporary observers reacted was their instinctive grasping for non-human, indeed superhuman terms to describe this conflict. Some used the language of natural catastrophe. One congressman called it “lightning out of a clear sky.” Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt called it “on a giant scale like the disaster to the Titanic.”

Because the most pervasive cultural influence in this country at that time was Bible-reading Protestantism, it came as no surprise that the most widely used term used to describe the war was “Armageddon.” No other term could have sprung more readily to Americans’ lips than the use of Armageddon in the Book of Revelation, the description of that final, nation-shattering miracle that precedes the Last Judgment. One magazine declared, “Now Armageddon has a real meaning. If this be not Armageddon, we shall never suffer the final death grip of nations.” Tragically, later events in the 20th century would prove that statement wrong.

Clearly, then, the outbreak of World War I came as a great shock to Americans. But, except in some rare cases, it was not a shock of recognition. And why should it have been? First of all, it was far away. The American ambassador in London wrote to President Wilson, “Again and ever I thank God for the Atlantic Ocean.” Moreover, Americans did not just feel geographically remote from this conflict; they also felt morally remote from it. Those age-old contrasts between the Old World and the New seemed to be getting spectacular proof and reinforcement from this conflict. For example, that always sober newspaper, The New York Times actually contrasted the opening of the Panama Canal, which also occurred in August 1914, with the world war this way: “The European ideal lays before the world its full fruit of ruin and savagery just at the moment when the American ideal lays before the world a great work of peace, good will and fair play.”

There was a bit of nastiness in that reaction. A lot of Americans were unconsciously repeating the Pharisee’s prayer, “Thank God, I am not as other men are.” But plenty of them also reacted with sympathy and help. In October 1914 President Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, sponsored a national day of prayer for the warring peoples, and a massive relief effort was already under way to aid the starving people of German-occupied Belgium. The Belgian relief effort, which came to be known by its initials “CRB,” cast a successful American international businessman in the public eye for the first time. His name was Herbert Hoover. His work as head of the CRB began the making of the greatest single public reputation and career in America to come out of World War I.

By and large, the dominant American response to the war at its outbreak and during its first months was one of remoteness and detachment. There were two exceptions that appeared to contradict that response, but actually those were the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. One exception was a widespread expression of sympathies for the belligerents. These sympathies were quite unevenly divided and distributed. According to the best available measure of opinion which was a set of polls of newspaper editors–impartiality toward the two sides in the war characterized about half of public sentiment. Among the other half, sympathies ran five to one in favor of the Allies, that is, Britain and France. Sympathy for the Central Powers, principally Germany, was almost entirely confined to first- and second-generation German-Americans.

Regionally, the distribution of sympathies varied greatly. The Northeast and the South showed more than a majority favoring one side or the other–in both cases, the Allies by wide margins. In the rest of the country, but especially in the Middle West, impartiality ran much higher, about three-quarters, with the remainder evenly divided in sympathies for the two sides. As to what these sympathies meant, all contemporary observers commented that pro-Aired sentiment did not imply any wish to help that side, much less to get into the fight. One journalist compared pro-Allied Americans to baseball fans sitting in the bleachers and rooting for one team. The British Ambassador reported back to the Foreign Office, regretfully, “It is useless and misleading to depend upon these people for practical sympathy.”

Such pro-Allied sympathy did not diminish the sense of moral remoteness from the war but actually reinforced it. In later years, historical revisionists and others who deplored American entry into the war would make certain claims. One was that British control of the transatlantic cables had prevented the German side of the story from reaching the United States. Another claim was that Allied propaganda, particularly lurid stories about alleged German atrocities in Belgium, had heavily influenced American opinion. More recently, however, a good deal of research has demolished those claims. The German side of the story found a full airing in the American press, and Allied propaganda in the United States, which was much less extensive and less sophisticated than German propaganda, did not sway much opinion.

Rather, pro-Allied sentiment rested overwhelmingly on one simple, incontrovertible fact. That was the German violation of Belgian neutrality, which was a flagrant violation of treaty obligations, coupled with the undeniable destruction wrought by the invading armies. Those actions gave the German image in America a black eye from which it never recovered. But revulsion against Germany did not make Americans feel any closer to or more involved in the war. Just the opposite—this was another spectacular example of how Europeans, in this case Germans in particular, were not like us and fortunately were far removed from us.

The other exception to the early mood of remoteness and detachment came from a small coterie who did not share that mood. One group did not need any shock to make them recognize how deeply and dangerously their country was involved in world affairs. This was the so-called “imperial elite,” the men who had helped to get the United States to acquire the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii in 1898 and who had subsequently tried to guide the country into fullfledged, self-conscious membership in the exclusive club of the great powers.

One man above all both epitomized and sometimes led that elite, Theodore Roosevelt. Behind his blustery often somewhat juvenile but tremendously popular public facade, TR had been an enthusiast for a much greater American role in international affairs since his youth. As president, he had played a shrewd, sophisticated role in the game of great power politics. It was true that he had played that role mostly in secret, but he had also used his “bully pulpit” to preach incessantly about the need to awaken to the duties, glories, and perils of international involvement. Roosevelt’s preaching had mostly fallen on deaf ears not only with the American public but also with the leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill and around the country. His failure was the necessary precondition to World War I becoming the shock of recognition that it was.

Where Roosevelt’s preaching had succeeded was among the already converted—that is, among his friends and fellow imperialists. Chief among those who were still living and active in politics in 1914 were his successor in the White House, William Howard Taft, his one-time Secretary of War and Secretary of State, Elihu Root, and his closest personal friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1912 Roosevelt had bolted the Republican party and run again for president at the head of the Progressive or Bull Moose party. That move had estranged him from Taft, Root, Lodge, and other likeminded Republicans, but by 1914 Roosevelt was seeking to return to the party fold and was using their shared repugnance toward Wilson and their common foreign policy outlook as a bridge toward reconciliation.

With the outbreak of World War I, TR jumped at the chance to resume both preaching and political activity aimed at awakening Americans to their international involvement. He took a high road and a low road toward that end. In the fall of 1914, he wrote a series of articles for The New York Times Magazine which constituted the most lengthy and thoughtful exposition of his foreign policy views that he ever gave. In those articles, he advanced such propositions as the need to have protested and taken action against Germany’s conquest of Belgium, the wisdom of withdrawing from the Philippines because of our strategic vulnerability on the far side of the Pacific, the desirability narrowing the application of the Monroe Doctrine in South America, and, most important of all, the wisdom of seeking to set up an international peacekeeping organization to prevent another great conflict like this world war. That last admonition repeated the idea that Roosevelt had first advanced in 1910 in his speech of acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was, in fact, the first major figure in the world to enunciate the league of nations idea. More generally, in those articles in the fall of 1914, Roosevelt argued for greater military preparedness and increased attention to foreign affairs.

But TR did not content himself with high-minded exposition of his views in print. He also tried to make political hay out of the military preparedness issue. Together with Lodge, Root, and several other Northeastern Republicans, he began to lambaste the Wilson administration for not having increased the size, weaponry, and reserve capabilities of the U.S. Army and Navy to levels anywhere near the level that might be needed to meet troubles that could arise out of the world war. The effort fell flat. Democrats pooh-poohed such alarmist talk, and few other Republicans jumped on this bandwagon. Most tellingly, Taft also ridiculed Roosevelt’s charges, and he was already devoting most of his attention toward action on the league of nations idea. With a group of lawyers and former diplomats, Taft was laying plans to set up the first organization to lobby for creation of an international peace-keeping organization, which would be called the League to Enforce Peace.

The failure of Roosevelt and his cohorts to strike fire with the preparedness issue in the fall of 1914 attests nicely to the public mood of distance from and growing indifference to the world war. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this abortive effort is the role that Woodrow Wilson played in it. In public, the president abetted the ridicule that was showered on his opponents, and he profited from it, at least in the short run. In December 1914, in his state-of-the-union speech to Congress, he added to the scorn heaped on charges that anything beyond his administration’s program of modest expansion of the armed forces was required. Then, reportedly looking one of Roosevelt’s Republican allies in the eye, Wilson added, “More than this. . . would mean that we had lost our self-possession, that we had been thrown off our balance by a war which we have nothing to do, whose causes can not touch us, whose very existence . . .should make us ashamed of any thought of hostility or fearful preparation for trouble.”

Those words would soon come back to haunt Wilson, because within a few months he would advocate most of the increases that Roosevelt and his friends were advocating in 1914. Those words also reflected badly on Wilson because he was not being completely straight with the Congress or the American people about his own attitudes toward the world war. In private, he had been worrying since the outbreak of the conflict that it would have a major impact on Americans. Ethnic ties of recent immigrants to the belligerent countries particularly concerned him and lay behind his public admonition to Americans in August 1914 to be “neutral in fact as well as in name, impartial in thought as well as in deed.” Also, at some point during these early months of the war, Wilson came to share Roosevelt’s view that the United States could become involved in some way in the ramifications of the war, and he also came to believe that a league of nations should be established to prevent any more such conflicts. Given those private views, the president was being disingenuous when he took such delight in denouncing his opponents on the preparedness issue.

The dominant mood of remoteness and detachment grew in strength as the war in Europe stretched on through the winter and into the spring of 1915. Newspapers began to devote less coverage to the conflict, and the British ambassador reported back to London, “The American people regard the war either as a bore or as an immensely interesting spectacle of which they are commencing to be rather tired.”

The war did touch some Americans during these months. The British tightened their naval blockade of the Central Powers, thereby doing harm to some export-driven sectors of the American economy. The worst damage came to the cotton crop. Anti-British sentiment smoldered in the otherwise somewhat pro-Allied South, but preemptive buying by the British in the cotton markets dampened much of that sentiment. Also, the Germans’ newly initiated submarine warfare had an occasional impact. In the early spring of 1915, U-boats fired torpedoes at a few American ships, and one American who was a passenger on a British freighter was killed in a U-boat attack. These incidents bothered President Wilson enough for him to declare publicly, “. . .our whole duty, for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: ‘America first.’ Let us think of America before we think of Europe, in order that America may be fit to be Europe’s friend when the day of tested friendship comes.”

What might have happened if those conditions of the early months of 1915 had continued is an interesting matter for speculation. If matters had persisted in that vein—with some friction involving economic interest groups caused by the British blockade and occasional, small-scale incidents arising from German submarine attacks —then the impact of World War I on America might have been far different. Instead of a shock of recognition, it might be better to speak of a gradual dawning of recognition. Or, possibly, the course of events might have gone entirely differently, and World War I would not have had such a profound impact on America at all.


As things transpired, however, the shock of recognition did occur in one of the most sudden and dramatic ways possible. Nearly every American of any walk of life woke up to the possibility, the danger of involvement in World War I sometime during the afternoon of May 7, 1915. Those hours of that afternoon were when the news reached the United States of the sinking of the Lusitania. More than one thousand people died when that liner, the largest passenger ship afloat, went down. Of those who died, more than one hundred were Americans. The sinking of the Titanic almost exactly three years before offered a ready comparison, and the apocalyptic language describing the outbreak of the war supplied a frame of reference. One newspaper stated, “Now an act of man matches an act of God.”

Three characteristics about Americans’ reactions to the sinking of the Lusitania demonstrated conclusively that this was the true shock of recognition. First, although public opinion polling as later practiced did not begin for another 20 years, an equally good measure of how people received the news does exist. Ten years later, an enterprising journalist looked into the matter. While he was writing his popular history of the first quarter of the 20th century, Our Times, the veteran reporter Mark Sullivan did what came naturally to him—he talked to lots of people. Sullivan found that all the people he talked to remembered vividly where they had been when they had heard the news about the Lusitania. Further, he found that they all remembered what they had thought and felt at that moment and what they had done for the rest of the day. Clearly, this was a consciousness-searing event, comparable to other such events in this century. I remember my parents talking the same way about hearing the news of Pearl Harbor. For myself, I remember the news of John Kennedy’s assassination the same way.

The second characteristic of Americans’ reactions to this event—likewise shows how it was the shock of recognition. This is the way that nearly everybody immediately grasped what was at stake. What surprised many observers at the time was how few cries for war were raised. The last time anything like this had happened to Americans had been the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898.”Remember the Maine” had immediately become the slogan of warhawks like Roosevelt who had helped push the country into the Spanish-American War.

Now, however, there were no cries of “Remember the Lusitania.” Some figures, most notably Roosevelt and his friends, demanded strong action that could well lead to war, as they hoped it might. But they were a tiny minority. A group of New York newspapers conducted the closest thing then possible to an instant public opinion poll. They asked editors around the country to telegraph in their views about how the United States should respond. Of 1,000 editors who answered this request—representing virtually every newspaper of any size in the country—those who called for war numbered six.

Why there were so few cries for war is evident. Even without electronic media, Americans had gotten a good idea of the true horror of the Western Front. For months, newspapers had devoted much, sometimes all of their front pages to the war, and their Sunday rotogravure sections had carried photographs from the front—albeit highly sanitized depictions. Just two weeks before the sinking of the Lusitania, the news had reached America of the first use of poison gas. Now, there was no room as there had been in 1898 for spring holiday rhetoric about a “splendid little war.” This was a big, dirty, horrendously mechanized war, and, as one politician later put it. “From 1914 to 1916, Americans had visualized their sons at the battlefront.”

The final characteristic of reactions to the Lusitania that demonstrates the shock of recognition is the kind of political debate and conflict that incident touched off. In view of the manifest public antipathy toward any thought of intervention, few politicians, even Roosevelt, openly broached such an idea. They did the next best thing, in their view; they wrapped themselves in the flag, upholding national honor and demanding satisfaction for this outrage. Once more, Roosevelt and his friends found Wilson severely wanting. They fired incessant verbal barrages at the president for “cowardice” over the next two years, until America did at last enter the war. But as before, their viewpoint attracted more attention than support. Early in 1916, when Congress took one of its few votes on a measure directly related to the response to submarine warfare, the Rooseveltian war hawks suffered severe embarrassment when more than half the Republicans in the House voted against their position.

Contrariwise, almost at once after the Lusitania incident, anti-interventionist sentiment showed its strength. Initially, that sentiment manifested itself most clearly within Wilson’s own party, the Democrats. Two weeks after the sinking of the liner, the party’s congressional leaders privately warned Wilson that they would not support any moves that might lead to intervention in the war. Publicly, a number of Democrats and Republicans, particularly such prominent Middlewestern insurgents as Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska, declared that they opposed any war-like moves. Most significantly, the former leader and three-time presidential nominee of Wilson’s party, William Jennings Bryan, publicly resigned from his post as secretary of state in protest against what he regarded as a war-risking response to the Lusitania. Bryan made clear that he was not going gentle into that good night of private life. Instead, he pledged himself to speak and work against anything that he believed might threaten to take America into the world war.

Obviously, with such powerful, vociferous advocates on opposite sides of the issue, Woodrow Wilson had his political work cut out for him. He described the situation right when he told Bryan just before he resigned, “I wish with all my heart that I saw a way to carry out the double wish of our people, to maintain a firm front in respect of what we demand of Germany and yet do nothing that might by any possibility involve us in the war.”

Diplomatically, that “double wish” defined Wilson’s task for the next two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. For half of that time, until the spring of 1916, he engaged in a long, wearying, frustrating diplomatic fencing match with the Germans—a match that was punctuated by fresh incidents caused by U-boat attacks. Ultimately, Wilson played his trump card. He threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany, which was a clearly understood threat of war. For reasons of their own—mainly because they did not yet have enough submarines to sever the Allies’ overseas lifeline of munitions and supplies—the Germans backed down and moderated their use of the submarines. The threat of war receded for nearly nine months, until the end of January 1917, when the Germans decided to reopen and expand submarine warfare. That move finally led to American intervention in the war.

But diplomatic fencing with Germany defined only part of Wilson’s task of dealing with the changed political environment surrounding America’s stance toward the world war. The sinking of the Lusitania made foreign policy a genuinely major political issue for the first time in a century. The debate that began after that catastrophe occupied three spheres.


The first, most immediately important sphere concerned the diplomacy that Wilson followed toward Germany and at first implicitly toward the Allies. Much of the debate in this sphere took place behind the closed doors of the White House and the State, War, and Navy building next door. Before his resignation, Bryan upheld the anti-interventionist side of the “double wish,” while his chief deputy and successor Robert Lansing upheld the threatening side, as did Wilson’s confidant Colonel Edward M. House on the sidelines. In open political debate, Bryan went public with his arguments as soon as he left the State Department, and various politicians, mainly Democrats, supported him. Conversely, Roosevelt and like-minded Republicans vociferously demanded a tough line and threats toward Germany, and some Republicans joined them.

For the most part, elected officials and spokespersons of both parties tended to avoid open commitments to one side of the double wish or the other. In part, those people were displaying the politician’s normal reticence about making a commitment before it was necessary. In this case that was sensible, because except during the brief flurry of debate over the congressional resolutions related to submarine warfare there was little action that anyone outside the executive branch could take. An even weightier influence, I think, in this reluctance to jump directly into the debate over how to respond to submarine warfare was the persistence of the double wish. Like Wilson himself, the great majority of political leaders of both parties still wanted to have things both ways. Likewise, every indicator of public opinion available showed that the great majority of people remained on that fence right down to the time that Wilson finally did take the country into war in April 1917.

There was another issue, however, around which heated, immediately relevant political argument and conflict could and did occur. This issue defined the second sphere of debate in this new political situation. Here, the issue that Roosevelt and his friends had raised in 1914—military “preparedness,” as they called it—came back with a vengeance and served as a surrogate for debate over submarine policy. Wilson reversed himself soon after the sinking of the Lusitania, to advocate a program of big increases in the Army and Navy. This reversal placed him once more squarely in the middle between two extremes. Roosevelt and others of his persuasion denounced Wilson’s program as too little too late, while Bryan and his large following among congressional Democrats denounced the defense build-up as a step toward war.

Wilson handled this dangerous political situation with consummate skill. Despite Roosevelt’s fulminations, the president knew that he could count on grudging Republican assent to his program as better than nothing. Toward his own party, he used a classic carrot and stick tactic. The carrot was a strategic compromise in which he dropped the most controversial part of his program—a plan for raising a large army reserve force that opponents decried as a “standing army.” The stick was a public tour, in the Northeastern states early in 1916, where he argued for his preparedness measures as necessary in the new circumstances of danger of possibly being dragged against our will into the world war and greater international complications. On that tour, the professor-turned-president practiced one of the things he did best—education of the public about larger issues and deeper meanings behind current controversies.

Wilson’s tactic worked. He effectively wrested control of the Democratic party from Bryan and thereby insured his unchallenged renomination for president in 1916. In bringing off that feat, Wilson helped himself by pushing an ambitious domestic reform program through Congress, to the delight of the same people who were tempted to follow Bryan. The combination of having beaten back the threat of war, having mastered the Democrats, and having pursued an attractive domestic agenda put Wilson in excellent shape to run for re-election in 1916. As it turned out, he needed all of those advantages to prevail narrowly over the recently reunited Republicans and their candidate Charles Evans Hughes. Because the threat of intervention in the world war had receded, the Democratic campaign cry “He Kept Us Out of War” actually played far less of a role in Wilson’s victory than many interpreters have believed.

Debate in the final sphere that arose after the sinking of the Lusitania did not play a big role in the 1916 election, either. This was the clash of big ideas and grand strategies about America’s role in the world. Perhaps the clearest indication of how much had changed so fast and so deeply since that fateful day in May 1915 was the readiness with which leading spokespersons articulated what can properly be called foreign policy ideologies. The first such ideology on the scene was what soon came to be called “internationalism.” This was the argument that America’s fundamental ideals of freedom, justice, and peace required active, permanent involvement in world politics for the sake of building a new world order.

The emerging adherents to this ideology believed that the chief means to their desired end was creation of an international organization empowered to suppress war and maintain peace. Although this idea would soon come to be associated most closely with Woodrow Wilson, he was not the first prominent American to advance the idea. Roosevelt had put feelers out in that direction in his Nobel Prize address in 1910 and in those articles at the beginning of the world war, but the first leader to inject this idea into the political arena was the other living ex-president, William Howard Taft. The first public meeting of Taft’s lobbying group, the League to Enforce Peace, occurred coincidentally six weeks after the sinking of the Lusitania, and Taft immediately linked his group’s program to the new state of affairs by arguing that such a peace-enforcing league was necessary in order to prevent America from being dragged into the world war.

An opponent emerged to both Taft and his program within days. Now liberated from the confines of official life, Bryan made good his promise to speak out on major issues. Besides denouncing what he regarded overly tough diplomacy and bigger armaments that might provoke war, he also responded to Taft’s enunciation of internationalism by stating an opposing ideology. Bryan countered the contention that American ideals required involvement in world affairs by maintaining that such involvement would destroy those ideals by fostering militarism, despotism, and imperialism. Instead, he argued, Americans could remain true to themselves and to their mission in the world only by sedulously avoiding any involvement in international politics that might carry the risk of war.

A name soon arose for the foreign policy ideology that Bryan was advancing— “isolationism.” It is necessary to make two points about this expression of isolationism in 1915. First, although Bryan and others who joined him appealed to traditional foreign policies, this was a case of new wine in an old bottle. Before this time, American “isolation”—denoting avoidance of alliances and political commitments outside the Western Hemisphere—had been largely taken for granted and could mean as much or as little as various leaders wanted to make of it. Both the acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 and Roosevelt’s great power diplomacy from 1901 to 1909 had already demonstrated how little constraint any isolationist tradition might offer.

Bryan and his fellow proponents of this new, self-conscious isolationism were arguing that those loose, easygoing good old days were over. Now, there must be eternal vigilance to avoid the temptations and dangers of international politics. Furthermore, there must be active, sometimes even sacrificial efforts to fend off those temptations and dangers. The emergence of such a fully articulated doctrine of isolationism resembled a an analogous development around the same time in American Protestantism. The term “fundamentalism” was not coined until 1909, when conservative evangelicals formed a movement to preserve what they regarded as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Before then, no such term or movement had been necessary because their beliefs could be taken for granted and believers felt little or no sense of being under attack. The same thing was now happening with respect to foreign policy. This emergence of self-conscious isolationism is another example of how the shock of recognition had hit America.


Between them, Taft and Bryan had opened the greatest 20th-century debate over foreign policy of that century. The debate would wax and wane over the next quarter century until it was closed after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best indication of how compelling this larger, deeper debate immediately became was that the nation’s other two leading political figures soon weighed in as well. During the summer of 1915, Roosevelt also attacked Taft and his ideas—but from a diametrically opposite direction. Disowning his own brainchild, Roosevelt scorned the League to Enforce Peace as a distraction from the present crisis and from the overriding need for total military preparedness. More broadly, he admonished Americans to take their rightful part in the existing system of world politics and accept the burdens and joys of being one of the great powers, rather than follow chimerical dreams of international utopia. Roosevelt was articulating ideas of self-regarding nationalism that during the ensuing two and a half decades’ debate would become entwined with both internationalism and isolationism.

The other main player held his peace for a full year. Privately, President Wilson had come to believe in internationalist ideas that were similar to Taft’s, but he kept those ideas to himself. More pressing matters, such as diplomatic dueling with Germany and the politics of preparedness, also occupied him, and he was also showing the same reticence as did other politicians about taking stands before they had to. Wilson came out of the closet as an internationalist in May 1916, when he spoke at dinner sponsored by the League to Enforce Peace and endorsed their basic idea of an international peace-keeping organization. This was the small beginning of the championship of the League of Nations first as an ideal and later as an organization—the cause that would ultimately consume the rest of Wilson’s political career and, indeed, his life.

Neither the president’s newfound internationalist faith nor others’ dissident ideas played much of a role in the 1916 election because the time for full-scale argument over them had not yet come. Those ideas did get a brief airing soon after the election. Warned by sources in Europe that Germany might soon resume submarine warfare, Wilson mounted a peace offensive. First, he publicly offered both mediation to the belligerents and the establishment of a league of nations in which the United States would be committed to maintaining peace, by force if necessary. Then, in January 1917 he further expounded his vision of a compromise peace and a new world order in one of his most eloquent speeches, in which he called for a “peace without victory.” Those promises of future membership in a league of nations prompted others to articulate their opposing views still further. Republicans such as Senator William E. Borah of Idaho now joined Bryan in espousing clear-cut isolationism, while Senator Henry Cabot Lodge joined his friend Roosevelt in declaring that they found old-style American isolation a lesser evil than Wilson’s fanciful and dangerous internationalism.

That airing of grand schemes for American foreign policy also proved premature. At the end of January 1917 the Germans did resume and expand their submarine warfare. In response, Wilson promptly severed diplomatic relations and armed American merchant ships, and, after two months of agonized soul-searching, he decided to intervene in the world war. For the next year and a half, winning the war became the order of the day, largely but not totally displacing other concerns. Contrary to Wilson’s pledge that “politics is adjourned,” plenty of debate and conflict did occur, but it revolved mostly around alleged shortcomings in the war effort and the suppression of dissent, rather than future directions of foreign policy. As soon as the Armistice came, however, the great debate resumed, and this debate quickly came to dominate politics throughout 1919 and 1920.

Those two years witnessed Wilson’s travels to Paris to negotiate the peace treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations, his fight with the Senate over American membership in the League, his physical collapse when he suffered a major stroke, and his eventual political collapse which ushered in a Republican landslide in the presidential election. The watchword of the winner in 1920, Warren Harding, was “normalcy.” In foreign policy that slogan meant, not isolationism, but an attempt to return to the good old days of having as large or small a role in world affairs as we pleased, at our own choosing, with no strings attached.

To give Harding and the other two Republican administrations of the 1920’s their due, their “normalcy” worked for a while. Wilson’s defeated rival from 1916, Charles Evans Hughes, became secretary of state during the first half of this decade, and he wrought prodigious feats of diplomacy within the limits of normalcy. Abroad as well as at home, there was a spring time of hope in the 1920’s, a brief detente between Germany and the former Allies, moderation of Japanese expansionism in Asia, and a general amelioration of the international climate. That hopeful season ended with the onset of the Depression and renewed aggression, first by Japan in Manchuria in 1931, and later in Africa and Europe by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Here at home, those events revived the previous debate over foreign policy. That debate had lain partially but not totally dormant in the 1920’s, and now it resumed exactly where it had left off at the end of World War I.

For all their basic similarities, this renewed debate differed from its predecessor during World War I in several respects. For one thing, these debates began before the outbreak of World War II because there was nothing unexpected about that war. For another thing, none of the fumbling, hesitancy, and avoidance of taking stands occurred now. Instead, politicians did not hesitate to stand up and be counted on one side or the other. And not only politicians: writers, business leaders, and religious spokespersons also jumped into the fray.

In short, there was no shock of recognition this second time around. That shock had come more than 20 years earlier, and it had hit Americans at large just as Edmund Wilson had portrayed the literary shock of recognition hitting writers. For some of his writers, recognition of their literary identity had been unwelcome and contested, and some had tried to resist it. But once the recognition came, there was no going back. Something analogous happened with regard to foreign affairs during World War I and in the two decades afterward. Americans had finally come to see that they were involved in world politics, whether they liked it or not. For many, such a recognition was unwelcome, and they disagreed profoundly over how to react to it. But even isolationists bowed to the necessity of dealing vigilantly and painfully with international affairs. An effort at denial had ensued for a while after World War I, but that proved ephemeral. From the mid-1930’s onward, all debate and conflict over foreign policy took place under the terms set down by what had become entwined during that First World War. The shock of recognition had done its work.


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JM · 8 years ago

Paragraph 1 is incomplete, so  I wonder what else is missing.  I hope the editors will repost a complete version.

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Jon Peede · 7 years ago

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