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

Sunday, August 11, 2019

How Going to War Reshaped President Wilson's Thinking

President Wilson at a Preparedness Parade

By Erez Manela
From: The Wilsonian Moment: Self Determination and the International Origins of Anti-colonial Nationalism, Oxford University Press, 2007

The lessons of these failed interventions [in Mexico and Haiti] were not entirely lost on Wilson. Moreover, as the world war itself gradually prompted him to adopt and articulate an expanded conception of America’s world role, it also influenced his stand on U.S. colonial policy. By 1916, as the administration launched its preparedness program and the president began to contemplate the possibility of joining the conflict, colonial policy became even more directly linked in his mind to the larger context and goals of the United States’ growing world role.

1914 Cartoon Depicting Wilson's Patronizing Posture Toward Latin American Governments

In its actions and policies in the Philippines, Wilson declared in February 1916, the United States had to prove its disinterested and benevolent attitude toward peoples of all races and in all regions of the globe. What America had to give the world was of universal value, transcending differences of geography, ancestry, or race. The American flag, he said, ‘‘stands for the rights of mankind, no matter where they be, no matter what their antecedents, no matter what the race involved; it stands for the absolute right to political liberty and free self-government, and wherever it stands for the contrary American traditions have begun to be forgotten.’’ Self-government, then, was a universal right, not a privilege limited to specific geographical regions or racial groups.

The war increasingly led Wilson to imagine American society as a model for the world, one whose internal conflicts and contradictions were being performed before a global audience. This new context prompted Wilson to begin to voice more forceful opposition than he had previously to domestic practices that were in clear breach of the exalted principles for which, he was trying to convince the world, the United States stood. If the United States was to be a light unto the world, the antithesis of the militarism and barbarity that Wilson attributed to the Central Powers, then the stakes involved in American race relations were higher than ever before. No longer were they crucial only for the future of American society but also for the future of the world. Thus, in July 1918, the president delivered a sharp if shamefully belated public denunciation of acts of lynching directed both at African-Americans and, as happened repeatedly during the war, at those deemed ‘‘German sympathizers.’’ The perpetrators of such acts, he charged, were emulating the ‘‘disgraceful example’’ of Germany and harming the war effort by sullying the image of the United States abroad:

We proudly claim to be the champions of democracy [but] every American who takes part in the actions of a mob [is] its betrayer, and does more to discredit her by that single disloyalty to her standards of law and of right than the words of her statesmen or the sacrifices of her heroic boys in the trenches can do to make suffering people believe her to be their savior. How shall we commend democracy to the acceptance of other peoples, if we disgrace our own by proving that it is, after all, no protection to the weak?

Wilson Would Eventually Reverse His Position Against Suffrage

On the long-standing issue of female suffrage, too, Wilson’s wartime conception of America’s global responsibilities seemed to have helped to change his attitude. Initially reluctant to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the vote, he changed his position by 1918, telling the Senate in September that passing the amendment would help the United States to retain the faith and trust of the common people of the world. ‘‘The plain, struggling, workaday folk . . . are looking to the great, powerful, famous Democracy of the West to lead them to the new day for which they have so long waited; and they think, in their logical simplicity, that democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men.’’ The next day, the amendment came up for a vote in the Senate and fell only two votes short of achieving the requisite two-thirds majority. It finally passed the following summer and was ratified in August 1920.

By mid-1918, then, Wilson had come to view the major social and political issues within American society as intimately connected to the global role he envisioned for it in the postwar world, as a model for the new international society he wanted to build. 

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