Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

America's Road to War: Did President Wilson Make the Right Decision? Yes, Says Commentator Walter Lippman

Walter Lippman (1889–1974) was America's most respected and influential commentator on foreign policy for much of his life. In 1942 with the nation again at war with Germany, he took a fresh look at Wilson's decision to take America to war in this Life magazine article.

Walter Lippman, 1889–1974

Yet it is the fact that we intervened in 1917 in order to defend America by aiding the Allies to defend the Atlantic Ocean against an untrustworthy and powerful conqueror. This can be proved.  As proof I venture to submit excerpts from some articles which were published in February 1917 by the editors of the New Republic. They may be used as evidence because the journalists who wrote them had made it their business to know what was in the minds of President Wilson and of his Administration. 

One of these articles, published February 17, 1917, is called "The Defense of the Atlantic World" and it states that "if the Allied fleet were in danger of destruction, if Germany had a chance of securing command of the seas, our navy ought to be joined to the British in order to prevent it. The safety of the Atlantic highway is something for which America should fight. Why? Because on the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean there has grown up a profound web of interest which joins together the western world. Britain, France, Italy, even Spain, Belgium, Holland, the Scandinavian nations, and Pan America are in the main one community in their deepest needs and their deepest purposes. They have a common interest in the ocean which unites them. They are today more inextricably bound together than most even as yet realize. But if that community were destroyed we should know what we had lost. We should understand then the meaning of the unfortified Canadian frontier, of the common protection given Latin-America by the British and American fleets. 

"It is the crime of Germany that she is trying to make hideous the highways by which the Atlantic Powers live. That is what has raised us against her in this war...When she carried this war to the Atlantic by violating Belgium, by invading France, by striking against Britain, and by attempting to disrupt us, neutrality of spirit or action was out of the question. And now that she is seeking to cut the vital highways of our world we can no longer stand by...A victory on the high seas would be a triumph of that class which aims to make Germany the leader of the East against the West, the leader ultimately of a German-Russian-Japanese coalition against the Atlantic world." 

For Lippman the Control of the Atlantic Was 
the Vital National Interest in Both World Wars

...Let [us ask ourselves] whether the men of Wilson's generation were the deluded, starry-eyed, hysterical fools that our cynical historians have taught us to think they were. For 20 years after the Allied victory had averted the danger which Wilson foresaw, it was very easy indeed to sneer at Woodrow Wilson's demand that the world must be made safe for democracy, and sneering at it, not to understand that he saw then, as we see now, what a victory of German militarism over the sea power of the West would mean. It has taken this country 25 years to realize again what Wilson and his advisers saw then, that "with Germany established in the position of mistress of the seas, our trade would encounter closed doors on every hand...The passing of the power of England would be calamitous to the American national interest. It is as much our concern that England should not be beaten into surrender as it was England's concern that Belgium should not be brutally trampled under...(America) will be morally and politically isolated."

...There was plenty of emotion, and even of hysteria, in 1917. But beneath it was a reasoned and statesmanlike judgment of what was vital to the defense of America, and it was this reasoning, and not the emotion and the hysteria, that moved President Wilson, the most determined pacifist that has occupied the White House since Thomas Jefferson. He did not invent this conviction of what is vital to America. The knowledge that the survival of Britain is necessary to the sure defense of America is as old as the American republic itself.

Whenever Britain's survival against a continental conqueror has been in doubt, American statesmen have realized that a fundamental American interest was at stake.

Tomorrow:  Did Wilson Make the Right Decision?, Part II


  1. " a German-Russian-Japanese coalition" - that's an odd phrase, since Japan was an Allied nation in 1917.
    Russia: is he thinking of a conquered Russia serving Germany's empire?

    1. I agree with Mr. Alexander. Lippmann is begging the question. One needs to remember that Lippmann was writing in the midst of the Second World War and it would be dangerous to question the merits of the first one at that time

  2. I’m student of history and trust me, this article is really going to help me in my research and I’m going to recommend this blog to me class fellows.

  3. Maybe if President Wilson was more forceful, the Kaiser would not have allowed Germany to provoke the US into War!
    President Wilson was a wimp and the Germans thought that the US would not fight back.

  4. It is not a question of the President's lack of will, it is a question of America and Americans desire for peace. Europe had been fighting wars from before and thru the 1700 and 1800's, and we as a 1776 republic did not want to get mixed up in these complicated, convoluted and ever changing alliances. However, the world had radically changed and was changing evermore to a new order. Of industrialization, trade and commerce, communication, and a global understanding such that interdependency was becoming of vital interest. And any aggressor of sufficient power to destroy these links must be dealt with by major powers that could stand against them. And since the steaming of the Great White Fleet and Spanish American War, we were now joining the world as a major power and must stand for our principles.