Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left, and Wilsonian Internationalism by Elizabeth McKillen (review)
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Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left, and Wilsonian Internationalism. By Elizabeth McKillen. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Pp. 320. $55.00 cloth)

With her new book, Elizabeth McKillen makes another significant contribution to labor and diplomatic history. She analyzes the interactions between labor and socialist leaders, on one side, and President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, on the other, from its response to the Mexican Revolution, through the Great War in Europe during the years of U.S. neutrality and belligerency, to the Versailles Peace Treaty after the war. With one notable exception, she argues that Wilson’s priorities diverged from those of labor unions and socialist parties in the United States and Europe. Although Wilson called for making the world safe for democracy in his 1917 war address to Congress, while asking it to vote for war against Imperial Germany, his commitment to a world safe for workers was limited by his preference for [End Page 132] protecting U.S. commercial and financial interests abroad. He favored capitalism, not socialism, although workers benefited from some of his progressive reforms. Unlike the U.S. Socialist Party that Eugene V. Debs led, the president did not embrace industrial democracy in his vision of a new world order.

McKillen summarized this thesis about the differences between Wilsonian liberal internationalism and the alternative visions of internationalism of most labor and socialist leaders in her statement: “International labor experienced no ‘Wilsonian moment’ during which most labor groups aligned behind Wilson’s agenda. Rather, the continuing debate over Wilson’s foreign policy programs within U.S. and international labor circles exposed fundamental cleavages surrounding the question of whether the president’s unique brand of liberal internationalism really served, or could be modified to serve, the interests of the world’s workers” (p. 2). This fundamental divergence between the labor and socialist Left and the progressive capitalist Wilson culminated in the postwar rift between them, which expressed itself in the Red Scare and the labor and socialist Left’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty, particularly the League of Nations. McKillen’s persuasive argument refutes Thomas Knock’s interpretation in To End All Wars (1992), which emphasized Wilson’s appeal to the labor and socialist Left and downplayed substantial differences between him and them.

The most notable exception to this general pattern was Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Under his leadership, the AFL collaborated with the Wilson administration. When the president led the nation into war, Gompers supported U.S. belligerency and sought to improve the conditions of workers without resorting to strikes that would jeopardize wartime production. In exchange for this loyalty, the president appointed Gompers to the Commission on Industrial Labor Organization, which met in Paris in 1919 and created the structure for the new International Labor Organization (ILO). He succeeded in dominating these proceedings, despite widespread criticism from European labor and socialist leaders, [End Page 133] but failed to win U.S. membership in the ILO, which was founded in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1919. Along with rejecting the Versailles Treaty, the U.S. Senate kept the United States out of the ILO as well as the League of Nations. By the time of this failure, however, even Gompers recognized the limits of Wilson’s commitment to American workers.

One of the outstanding features of this book is McKillen’s coverage of the intersection between racial/ethnic identity and labor politics. Because American workers came from many backgrounds, racial and ethnic issues overlapped with questions of class in labor unions and their relations with employers and political leaders. She understands these dimensions very well. One minor flaw in this otherwise excellent book is her frequent reference to the Versailles Peace Conference instead of the Paris Peace Conference. Although signed at Versailles, the peace treaty was drafted at the conference in Paris.

Lloyd E. Ambrosius

LLOYD E. AMBROSIUS is the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of several books and articles on Woodrow Wilson and U.S. foreign relations.


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