Chapter X of From Colony to Superpower covers the Wilson administration. There’s a lot here; much of the chapter deals with US relations with Mexico, which Erik is probably a bit more qualified to discuss, and which I’ll accordingly return to in the second round. To start with, I’ll concentrate on Herring’s treatment of the Road to the Great War.
The presence of the United States on the world stage had been steadily increasing since the Revolution. During the Roosevelt administration, the United States became a more or less conventional great power, building and consolidating a colonial empire and evening the field economically and militarily with the most powerful European state. Accompanying this rise to conventionality, such that it was, the idea of American exceptionalism developed and matured. Under the Wilson administration, these strands came together in the construction of a theory that could explain and guide the behavior of the United States in the international sphere; liberal internationalism. It’s not quite right to say that the ideals of liberal internationalism (pursuit of a particular vision of democracy, free trade, international organizations, United States as first among equals) emerged solely from the United States during this period, but it is remarkable the degree to which coherent vision of American foreign policy and the international system was in place by 1916. This vision crossed party boundaries (both Roosevelt and Taft shared general principles with Wilson, although they disagreed on specific points), and offered a narrative of US participation in the First World War. For a variety of reasons, the first US experiment with liberal internationalism was a qualified failure.
Herring capably describes the development of liberal internationalist sentiment (which was structured, in many ways, by the Great War), and the eventual collapse of Wilson’s efforts in Europe and the United States. Abroad, Wilson failed to create what he understood to be an equitable peace with Germany (on his own terms; I think there’s a good argument to be made that Germany should have been punished much more harshly, but Wilson didn’t believe so), to save a reformed Austria-Hungary, to structure new European borders safely and fairly, and most notably to challenge the foundations of European imperialism. At home, he was unable to make the case necessary to enrolling the United States in the central multilateral institution of the period. I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that Wilson’s foreign policy, while ambitious, resulted in utter failure on its own terms.
Herring briefly discusses the Lusitania incident. I have long believed that the sinking of the Lusitania rivals the sinking of the Titanic in the extent to which its significance has been overblown; for all the heat, the actual sinking seems to have had very little impact. The US did not enter the war or substantially change its policy towards Germany as a result of the sinking. The outrage surrounding the loss of Lusitania was one of several reasons why the Germans moderated their submarine policy, but German U-boats were not numerous enough in 1915 to decide the war in any case. Moreover, German behavior of 1917 provided ample causus belli independent of the sinking of Lusitania; this is not to say that the US decision for war was a good one, but rather that the Germans furnished reasons for war (Zimmerman Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare) that would have held in the absence of Lusitania’s destruction. Thus, while the destruction of Lusitania was certainly tragic (and was incidentally not solely the fault of the Germans, as the ship was being used to smuggle arms to the UK), I do not understand why it has earned such a place of priority in accounts of US participation in World War I.
This brings me to a related question. It’s commonplace to argue that US participation in World War I was a tragic and avoidable error. Indeed, I’ve argued so myself. However, I think that while the “tragic” part is sound, the “avoidable” is in much greater question. The United States could have avoided entanglement by observing an embargo against all belligerents, but it’s fair to say that this is not something that an American President could have advocated in 1914. William Jennings Bryan made, as Secretary of State, some effort to limit US trade, which was met by howls of protest from, well, pretty much everyone. It was also inevitable, I think, that American trade would heavily favor the Allies. Without ordering the US Atlantic Fleet to escort convoys to Germany, there was no way to break the British blockade. As such, it’s very difficult to imagine how the United States could have gotten to 1917 without being intricately bound up in the war, formally neutral or not. After that, it’s not easy to construct a scenario under which an American president, even one opposed to the war (and Wilson certainly lacked enthusiasm for it) could have navigated public outrage generated by German diplomatic clumsiness and the renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare. I suppose that the very best that could have been hoped for would be a replay of 1940-41, in which the US engaged in more or less active maritime hostilities against Germany without a declaration of war, or direct intervention on the continent. I do think that this would have represented a better choice in 1917; however, I suspect it would have been very difficult to pull off politically.
Finally, as I’ve argued before, I would liked to have seen more about US military policy; if in the next chapter we don’t get some account of the importance of the Washington Naval Treaty, I’ll be quite put out.