Institution: University of Aberdeen

Author: Christopher J. Grundy


In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” the final words of the King epitomize, with exquisite conciseness and eloquence, an attitude to foreign policy which has permeated throughout nations since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia and the modern conception of the state.

I . . . had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days. (William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Act 4, Scene 3)

The dying King instructs his son to “busy giddy minds/with thy foreign quarrels,” and thus lays bare the conceived nature of foreign affairs as a sideshow with which to distract opponents and populace from the actual running of government. Shakespeare elliptically describes the essential dichotomy between domestic and foreign policy. Specifically he has given the purpose of foreign policy but has failed to mention the process in which it should be attempted; namely the safeguarding of national interests and security.


The history of all hitherto existing American Presidents is the history of domestic and foreign policy struggles. And no one has been as influential in determining the importance and very nature of foreign policy in America as the 28th President, Woodrow Wilson (Hofstadter 1963: 235). The manner in which he conducted his role as President was unequivocally shaped by the occurrence of the First World War, the outcome of which cemented his legacy and left an indelible mark on the course of history (Hofstadter 1963: 235) . Wilsonianism, as his particular brand of politics was to become known, stood in stark contrast to that of Roosevelt, the preceding president, whose meticulous understanding of the balance-of-power system in international relations, coupled with his fervour for Realpolitik was at complete odds with Wilson’s more idealistic persuasions (Kissinger 1994: 31). Wilson was one of the best prepared American presidents, however.

A college professor before he entered politics in 1910, he had written a major textbook on U.S. government and was a noted historian (Small 1986: 31) He therefore understood the complexities of domestic and foreign policy, although as Melvin Small (1986: 32) has said, “he anticipated…devoting himself to domestic politics, an area in which he felt most comfortable.” It is a sign of the monumental progress of American economic and political development that he had to contend with foreign policy at all considering the views of George Washington less than a century previously, “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.” (Washington cited in Goldwin 1959: 127)

In 1916 Wilson realised that isolated security, as propounded by Washington, was no longer a viable strategy stating, “we are participants, whether we would or not” (Wilson cited in Slosson 1930: 21) reflecting, accurately, the consequences of increased foreign trade, developments in transport and the prospect of truly global war.

This is, however, too simplistic an account of Wilson’s attitude to international affairs and fails to convey the numerous factors which influenced his formulation of American policy during World War 1. Some light is shed on the matter by Arthur Link (1987), whose monumental editorial effort, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, offers a stimulating array of information which allow for a re-examination of the U.S.’s involvement in the Great War. Link’s (1995: 466) interpretation abandons wholesale the notions of balance-of-power or the pragmatics of Realpolitik, and instead depicts Wilson as a sincere believer in American exceptionalism, which is inculcated into his policy making decisions. More specifically Link (1995: 467) says that Wilson aimed “to serve mankind through leadership in moral purposes and in advancing peace and world unity,” suggesting that national interests and American security played secondary roles in Wilson’s conception of American politics. Furthermore, Link (1995: 467) believes in the key role played by the idea of a “mission” which comprised the spreading of democratic, capitalist tenets, contingent in Christian beliefs and values.

Preston William Slosson (1930: 14), author of The Great Crusade and After 1914-1928, eloquently puts forward the argument that Wilson was far less motivated by ideals and instead driven by pragmatic considerations, such as the growth of American economic strength, unemployment and workers unions. Slosson (1930: 17), seemingly in complete opposition to Link, suggests that Wilson did not relish the possibility of spreading democratic values and beliefs of American exceptionalism and was determined to remain pacifist until threats to national security made this unfeasible. This interpretation offers a less euro-centric understanding of Americas’ involvement and instead shifts the focus to economic factors, both domestic and foreign.

Although Slosson offers an impressively lucid argument, dissenting opinions are not hard to come by. One of the most prominent intellectuals to have commented on this issue, Henry Kissinger (Diplomacy, 1994), dismisses Slossons’ interpretation and lends weight to Link’s proposition. Moreover, Kissinger (1994: 32) believes that “two factors projected America into world affairs; it’s rapidly expanding power and the gradual collapse of the international system centred in Europe.” Going on to highlight the importance of the President, Kissinger (1994: 33) discusses Wilson’s fervour and belief in American exceptionalism in even stronger terms than Link, stating, “For Wilson, the justification of America’s international role was messianic.”

Kissinger’s eloquent and forceful arguments should not serve to dismiss Slossons’ analysis out of hand however, as demonstrated by Ross Kennedy in his book The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security. Here Kennedy (2008: 178) suggests that “Wilson’s ideas about American national security were closely connected to his assessment of the cause and likely outcome of the war,” relating Wilson to have been far more pragmatic and realistic than either Kissinger or Link make him out to be.

The historiography referred to above, although only a fragment of that available, is an attempt to highlight the controversy surrounding the factors which influenced Wilson in his formulation of American policy during World War I and demonstrate an awareness of the differing and opposing academic opinions on such an intriguing issue. This essay will now begin to discuss and evaluate the evidence available.

Wilson’s formulation of policy during WWI

“There is only one possible standard by which to determine controversies between the United States and other nations, and that is compounded of these two elements: Our own honour and our obligations to the peace of the world.” (Wilson cited in Kissinger 1994: 34)

The previous quote is a poignant excerpt from Woodrow Wilson’s first State of the Union Address, on December 2, 1913, and seems to give weight to the argument proposed by Link. Indeed, Wilson used this occasion to elaborate on his intended idiosyncratic style of governance, which was later to become known as Wilsonianism, and which focused on America’s “obligation to the peace of the world.”(1994: 32) This resembled a profound shift in American foreign policy because it acknowledged the obsolescence of the isolationist maxims with which previous presidents had approached the international sphere, and accepted a role on the world stage (Kennan 1951: 52).

This hypothesis his strengthened further by a speech given in 1915, in which Wilson (cited in Kissinger 1994: 38) proclaims, “we insist upon security in prosecuting our self-chosen lines of national development. We do more than that. We demand it also for others.” Here Link appears vindicated in his belief that Wilson’s approach to policy shaping was based firmly on his determination to spread the ideals which Americans held most dear. Further support can be found in another speech given by Wilson (cited in Link 1995: 469) in which he magnanimously proclaims:
“We set this Nation up to make men free, and we did not confine our conception and purpose to America, and now we will make men free. If we did not do that, all the fame of America would be gone, and all her power would be dissipated.”

This implies however that American national interest and national security are, in Wilson’s eyes, congruent with those of the rest of the World; a wholly unconvincing proposition.

Although some evidence can be found to support Link’s claim, the Achilles heel of his argument is the notion that a noted historian and political expert could be convinced of a supposition as short-sighted and unrealistic as American ideological supremacy over the rest of the world. To ignore the diversity of foreign cultures and attempt to impose the American will on non-democratic, non-Christian societies is an idea imperialistic in tone and cruel by nature.

On reflection it appears more probable for the well-educated and mellow tempered (Small 1986: 35) Wilson to have shaped policy more in line with Slossons’ interpretation. Slosson (1930: 17) makes a more persuasive and substantial argument by shedding light on Wilson’s domestic concerns and highlighting the economic consequences of war, which were numerous and significant. The passing of the Adamson Act in 1916, implementing fairer wages and an eight-hour working day was the result of threats of strike issued by the railroad brotherhood, a gesture that an imperialist, outward-looking President would surely not have prioritised (Slosson 1930: 34).

To be sure, there was much domestic economic strife in the time of Wilson’s presidency. “European demand for luxury manufactures ceased at once,” (Slosson 1930: 5) ill-fatedly accompanied by a collapse in the value of bonds and railroad shares adding to frequent strikes and price dislocation as well as the fact that, “During the entire period from 1916 to 1920 the professional classes, salaried clerks, civil officials, police, and others whose income was fixed by law or custom were worse off relatively, and in some respects absolutely, than at any time since the Civil War.” (Slosson 1930: 6)

Furthermore, Wilson took office in March 1913 when “the United States was in a recession that spiralled down toward a depression by the summer of 1914,” (Nordholt 1991: 29) and unequivocally pegging the importance of a healthy economy high on Wilson’s list of priorities. This helps to explain the gusto with which the U.S. managed to exploit the war in its favour, turning the old economic hierarchy on its head, so quickly after its commencement (Slosson 1930: 20).

“The war reversed the financial relation of the United States to Europe. There had long been an excess of exports over imports, but this beneficial trade balance was increased from five to tenfold by war conditions.” (Slosson 1930: 21-22) A few examples of the American economy benefitting hugely from the waging of war can be seen in drugs and chemicals industries (Thomson et al 2002: 142). Slosson (1930: 12) states that the value of the output of “coal-tar chemicals in the United States increased from $13,492,453 to $133,499,742, and the value of drugs from $176,747,060 to $418,221,150,” expressing huge increases in money and wealth in these sectors of the economy alone.

Further evidence suggesting that Wilson was primarily attentive to economic factors during World War I can be gained by examining the reaction of Wilson and his administration when the Allied credit balances were exhausted around 1915 (Hofstadter 1962: 260). With respect to America’s position of neutrality a ban on loans to the warring parties had been imposed and upheld (Hofstadter 1962: 259-260). Faced with the prospect of declining foreign trade, a consequence of the depletion of Allied credit balances, Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo (Slosson 1930: 35) impressed upon the President that the Bryan ban on loans stood in the way of continued prosperity by positing:

“Great prosperity is coming. It will be tremendously increased if we can extend reasonable credits to our customers . . . to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop and that would be disastrous.” (McAdoo cited in Slosson 1930: 35)

McAdoo was not alone in his vociferous advocacy of economic principles. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing (Hofstadter 1962: 260) was equally vocal in his attempts to compound the imperious role of the economy in the President’s mind, as illuminated by a speech in which he declared:

“If European countries cannot find means to pay . . . they will have to stop buying, and our present export trade will shrink proportionately. The result would be restriction of outputs, industrial depression, idle capital and idle labour, numerous failures, financial demoralisation and general unrest and suffering among the labouring classes. . . Can we afford to let a declaration as to our conception of “the true spirit of neutrality” stand in the way of our national interests, which seem to be seriously threatened?” (Lansing cited in Hofstadter 1962: 260)

Here Lansing clearly alludes to the key role of economic prosperity in relation to national interests. He dismisses the concept of “neutrality” as merely idle terminology, unimportant in the face of potentially declining trade.

Thus it is easy to see how Slosson comes to the conclusion that economic matters were the principle factor in Wilson’s design of policy. For the sake of a balanced discussion it is important to note the opinion of Henry Kissinger however, who fully disagrees with Slossons’ observations and espouses instead, the notion that Wilson was directed predominantly by a sense of American obligation and messianic zeal (1994: 30).

Kissinger derives his evidence partially from a speech Wilson gave in 1917 in which he states:
“We set this Nation up to make men free, and we did not confine our conception and purpose to America, and now we will make men free. If we did not do that, all the fame of America would be gone, and all her power would be dissipated.” (Wilson as cited in Kissinger 1994: 39)

Thus Wilson seems to advocate the imperialistic notion that America had an obligation, not, as Roosevelt believed (Kissinger 1994: 33), to act as counterweight to the major powers, but to spread its principles throughout the world. During the Wilson Administration, America emerged as a key player in world affairs, proclaiming principles which, while reflecting the truisms of American thought, nonetheless marked a revolutionary departure for Old World diplomats (Keene 2000: 79).

These principles held that peace depends on the spread of democracy, “that states should be judged by the same ethical criteria as individuals, and that the national interest consists of adhering to a universal system of law,” as Kissinger states (1994: 35).

Despite Kissinger’s confidence, he concedes: “Wilson’s view about the ultimately moral foundations of foreign policy appeared strange, even hypocritical,” (1994: 35) yet counters this observation (1994: 29) by highlighting, in his book Diplomacy, the survival of “Wilsonianism” as a method of political governance to the present day. With this interpretation Kissinger is suggesting the matters of national security and national interest to be inconsequential in Wilson’s formulation of policy during the war. Instead Kissinger ascribes a vast amount of importance to the Presidents faith in American exceptionalism, and commands evidence such as the following excerpt from a speech given in 1916:

“It was as if the Providence of God a continent had been kept unused and waiting for a peaceful people who loved liberty and the rights of men more than they loved anything else, to come and set up an un-selfish commonwealth.” (Wilson cited in Kissinger 1994: 49)

American exceptionalism and a profound trust in the U.S.’s ethical superiority of other nations certainly play a role in Wilson’s devising of policy, yet as Ross Kennedy (2008: 132) astutely points out, such an insightful mind and skilled politician must have been preoccupied with more practical issues. Kennedy (2008: 132) submits that Wilson was alarmed by the progress of technological warfare before the outbreak of World War I, realising that a globalisation of war was no longer unthinkable. Indeed, evidence can be found to support Kennedy’s claim; one such example being Wilson’s remarks proposing “the position of the neutral sooner or later becomes intolerable,” elaborating “this is the last war of the kind, or of any kind that involves the world, that the United States can keep out of” (Wilson cited in Kennedy 2008:133). This confirmation of Kennedy’s position seems to refute Kissinger and Link, understanding more practical concerns, such as national security and national interests, to have been pivotal in Wilson’s shaping of policy.

Further validation springs from Wilson’s Fourteen Points, contained in a speech given to Congress on January 8, 1918, in which he laid out policies congruent with the war aims of the United States (Kennedy 2008: 198). The Points focus, in chronological order, on a frank undertaking of international diplomacy, freedom of navigation upon the seas, the removal of economic barriers and the establishment of equality of trade, the reduction of armaments and then proceeds to concentrate on the setting up of borders for Belgium, France and other belligerents (Kennedy 2008: 200). It seems significant that no word is lost on the matters of democracy, Christianity, capitalism and no attempt is made fulfil the “messianic role” which Kissinger so ardently advocates.

This point is seized by Kennedy (2008: 208)who deliberates on the final objective in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, namely the launching of the League of Nations, and builds on substantiating evidence provided by Wilson who states: “There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organised rivalries, but an organised common peace” (Wilson cited in Kennedy 2008: 209-210)This quote seems to confirm a strong conviction in the President’s’ mind to cooperate with foreign powers, acknowledging the legitimacy of non-American values in the process, whilst fashioning compromises in order to promote world peace.

Theodore Roosevelt, the head of state preceding Wilson, lends weight to Kennedy’s argument by stating, rather presciently, in a message to Congress in 1902:

“More and more, the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilised and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world.” (Roosevelt cited in Kissinger 1994: 34)

Roosevelt accurately conveys the intricacy of international relations and thus, Wilson having been a scholar of Political science, allows the supposition that Woodrow Wilson will have understood the complicated nature of foreign affairs as intimately as Roosevelt (May 1959: 10). Alternatively Kennedy (Kennedy 2008: 24) sets out an analysis which emphasises the importance of Wilson’s’ relationship with Great Britain and his distrust of Germany. A point strongly supported by the historian Melvin Small (1986: 468)who suggests, in Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Intervention in World War 1, a greater emphasis on Wilson’s “Anglophile” disposition and his fervent dislike of the German elite. Small claims “[Wilson’s] belief in a world without empires and alliance systems could also be interpreted as a highly realistic policy,” dismissing Kissinger’s’ theory, and going on to deal a blow to Slosson’s’ analysis, “by 1915 hard times were over, and the economy boomed through the end of the war” (1986: 467-468).

Richard Hofstadter, former professor of American History at Columbia University and author of The American Political Tradition, provides an erudite synopsis which encapsulates Small’s’ argument impeccably. Hofstadter begins by quoting Wilson as having said, “it would be a calamity to the world at large…if we should be drawn actively into the conflict, and so deprived of all disinterested influence over the settlement,” (Wilson cited in Hofstadter 1962: 257-258) interpreting this as a convincing reflection of the strong pacifist sentiment, prior to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, permeating American society (Hofstadter 1962: 258). Following on from this quotation, Hofstadter provides compelling evidence of Wilson being a “thorough Anglophile,” asserting that “he had learned his greatest lessons from English thinkers; he had taken English statesmen as his models of aspiration and the British Constitution as his model of government,” (1962: 258) and had based his work as President of Princeton on introducing “the English idea of a university.” (1962:258)

Furthermore, the private secretary of the president, Joseph Patrick Tumulty, has recorded, on paper, Wilson as having said “England is fighting our fight…I will not take any action to embarrass England when she is fighting for her life and the life of the world” (Wilson cited in Hofstadter). It is important to note that the British diplomats knew that they had administration sympathies (Cooper 1983: 79); Walter Hines Page, ambassador to the United Kingdom, was present in London to soften the impact of every American protest, resulting from British offences; and “serious action by the United States to enforce the rights against British practices seemed unlikely” (Page cited in Hofstadter 1962: 258). As the American diplomat, Edward House wrote in 1914, “I cannot see how there can be any serious trouble between England and America, with all of us feeling as we do” (House cited in Hofstadter 1962: 259). Small, supports this argument by underlining the President’s perception of public opinion, positing that:

“Wilson’s pursuit of neutrality was affected by general American attitudes toward the belligerents. When the war began the vast majority of his countrymen, perhaps as many as 80 percent, preferred a British to a German victory.” (2008: 476)

Hofstadter does not simply argue that Wilson’s’ conduct of American policy was primarily shaped by a sympathetic attitude toward the British but also detects a significant strain of anti-German sentiment in the American President (1962: 256-264). Hofstadter grounds his argument in a vast supply of primary evidence from speeches and correspondence between Wilson and his subjugates. An example of this are Wilson’s’ statements to Joseph Patrick Tumulty, private secretary to the President, admitting a deep dislike of German philosophy and culture, telling him it “was essentially selfish and lacking spirituality” (Wilson cited in Hofstadter 1962: 257). Wilson’s’ disaffection with the German elites was, according to Hofstadter (1962: 257-259), a powerful factor in influencing his opinion on policy formulation, and draws support for his hypothesis from Wilson’s’ unambiguous declaration:

“We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties.” (Wilson cited in Hofstadter and Kissinger 1994: 35)


“There can be no greater error than to expect to calculate upon real favours from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.” (George Washington cited in Goldwin et al 1971: 128)

This essay has tried to highlight and evaluate the most prominent understandings, using primary and secondary sources, on the highly contentious issue of key influences on President Wilson’s formulation of policy, and the consideration which he gave to national security and national interest in the process. It would be obtuse to suggest that a definitive answer could be given in the space of an essay considering Norman Graebner’s (1984: 4) claim that “scholars have failed to grasp…the key factor behind Wilson’s diplomacy during World War 1.” Elaborating, “Lloyd E. Ambrosius, N. Gordon Levin, Jr, Thomas Knock, Tony Smith, Klaus Schwabe, David M. Esposito, John Milton Cooper, Jr, and Link, among others . . . have. . .not put forward a convincing, coherent, and sustained analysis of exactly how President Wilson defined U.S. national security interests during World War 1 and how his ideas about national security influenced his policies.” (1984: 4-5)

Certainly, the paradoxical synthesis of naïve idealism and cool, incisive political understanding which Wilson undoubtedly inculcated (Kissinger 1994: 34), coupled with the great wealth and range of his speeches and utterances, providing substantial support for various analyses, might be indicative of the inexplicable nature of this question.

Some incontestable facts about Wilson and the direction in which his policies steered the U.S. remain, despite the convoluted subject-matter. As pointed out by Slosson (1930: 14), the “war trade presented a much needed shot in the arm to the ailing American economy,” surely an ineluctable fact of history, yet somewhat mitigated by Kissinger and Link (1994:33, 1987: 78)who supply ample support for the “messianic” and “morally obligated” interpretations, respectively, and the central part American exceptionalism played for Wilson.

Indeed, Link’s (1987: 74) argument hinging on America having had “no right to hoard its values for itself,” in the mind of the President, is coherently argued and supported by a significant amount of primary evidence. Regardless, Hofstadter’s (1962: 254-262) point concerning Wilson’s espousal of practical politics or Realpolitik is strong due to the diplomatic shift undertaken by the President and his advisors in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania, and the subsequent anti-German sentiment which pervaded American Society (Hofstadter 1962: 258).

Nonetheless, Kissinger’s (1994: 39) claim that “America sought no other benefit than the vindication of its principles,” does not ring completely false, and neither does Kennedy’s (2008: 26) assertion that, “Wilson’s ideas about American national security were closely connected to his assessment of the cause and likely outcome of the war.” Despite the strength of alternative theories, Hofstadter’s argument seems especially forceful due to Wilson’s history at Princeton and the clear “Anglophile” approach which he exhibited both there and as President in his correspondence with Ambassador Tumulty (Hofstadter 1962: 257, 263).

Furthermore, the acknowledgement of Wilson’s erudition and expertise on the matter of policy formulation would suggest that he, like George Washington, understood the amoral arena of international affairs, necessitating a pragmatic approach due to its morally unprincipled conduct which “may touch us to the quick at any moment.” (Wilson cited in Kennedy 2008: 28)


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