restricted access 11. Conclusion
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11 Conclusion To evaluate American policy during the first half of World War I, one must focus on the leadership of Woodrow Wilson. As president he held responsibility for the individuals he chose to advise him and execute his policies . Here, far too often, the chief executive made poor choices. Secretary of State Bryan remained an inept moralist, for whom every broad problem could be solved by a dogmatic form of neutrality and every narrow one by cooling-off treaties. Colonel House, although far more cosmopolitan, was equally inexperienced at diplomacy. Given the sensitive nature of his missions , his capacity for self-deception made him much more dangerous than Bryan. Robert Lansing revealed himself a disloyal subordinate, undercutting the president when Wilson undertook his December 1916 peace initiative to end the war. The president retained two major ambassadors at major posts despite their pronounced drawbacks. Page was so pro-British that he could not properly represent his nation; Gerard was so inept that Joseph Grew handled many significant matters. Except for House, Wilson was aware of the many defects of his subordinates, but he retained them in places of trust. As far as European policies were concerned, Wilson compiled a mixed record. His prewar writings stressed the need for markets and an Open Door global economy. In 1914, with his nation in recession, he realized that the need to sell overseas was greater than ever. Given this outlook, he understandably found it difficult to see what the United States could gain by challenging the British blockade, a policy that would force confrontation with the world’s greatest sea power. Admittedly, the president’s acquiescence bolstered German accusations of rank partiality, particularly given the huge quantities of armament shipped to the Allies. Britain stood in flagrant viola300 Conclusion 301 tion of international law, a matter that did not go unnoticed in Washington. American diplomats devoted countless man hours to such matters as contraband , continuous voyage, and stop-and-search proceedings. In 1936 historian Charles A. Beard wrote The Devil Theory of War, based on a series of articles he had written for the New Republic. The Columbia historian , prowar in 1917, showed himself fiercely anti-interventionist two decades later. He aptly argued that only radical changes in America’s economic system, centering on the necessity of absorbing industrial and agricultural surpluses at home, could have served as an alternative policy. Rather than blame bankers, “politicians,” and munitions-makers, as many opinion leaders of his time were doing, Beard found the American public, focused on the desire to export its products, bearing ultimate responsibility.1 He titled one chapter “War Is Our Own Work.” Had the United States resisted the British blockade, it would have needed some means of enforcing its policies. Could Wilson have ordered warships to escort American merchantmen? With pacifistic-minded Bryanites dominating in the House of Representatives, would the legislators have acquiesced in such a costly and brazen military move? Could the president have carried the public with him? Such suppositions are at best problematic. None of this is to argue that Wilson practiced the most astute diplomacy . Consider the outcome of the president’s three major aims: to keep the United States out of war, to uphold the right to sell American goods without hindrance, and to negotiate a conflict that he realized was becoming increasingly fratricidal. At certain crucial junctures, his policies proved counterproductive to these goals. In the American note of February 10, 1915, the president held the Germans to “strict accountability” concerning the destruction of “an American vessel or the lives of American citizens on the high seas.”2 Yet, as John Milton Cooper Jr. shows, the missive did not specify precisely what this strict accountability might mean or how one could hold the Germans to proper behavior. Had counselor Lansing, who drafted the message, limited his concern to protecting American citizens on American ships, rather than on those of the belligerent nations, the United States would not have been in the quandary it soon found itself in. As it was, a single American traveler journeying on a British vessel appeared to confer immunity from attack by German U-boats. Lansing purposely and irresponsibly obscured the issue. In a personal letter dated just over two weeks later, he admitted as much, calling this particular matter “open to interpretation.”3 302 Nothing Less Than War Wilson’s first Lusitania note, of May 13, 1915, reveals the baneful consequences of “strict accountability,” the policy he specifically...


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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Diplomatic history.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Public opinion.
  • Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1913-1921.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- United States.
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