Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Foreign Affairs

Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, came into office with little experience in foreign relations but with a determination to base their policy on moral principles rather than the selfish materialism that they believed had animated their predecessors' programs. Convinced that democracy was gaining strength throughout the world, they were eager to encourage the process. In 1916, the Democratic-controlled Congress promised the residents of the Philippine Islands independence; the next year, Puerto Rico achieved territorial status, and its residents became U.S. citizens. Working closely with Secretary of State Bryan, Wilson signed twenty-two bilateral treaties which agreed to cooling-off periods and outside fact-finding commissions as alternatives to war.

In a statement issued soon after taking office, Wilson declared that the United States hoped "to cultivate the friendship and deserve the confidence" of the Latin American states, but he also emphasized that he believed "just government" must rest "upon the consent of the governed." Latin Americans were delighted by the prospect of being free to conduct their own affairs without American interference, but Wilson's insistence that their governments must be democratic undermined the promise of self-determination. In 1915, Wilson responded to chronic revolution in Haiti by sending in American marines to restore order, and he did the same in the Dominican Republic in 1916. The military occupations that followed failed to create the democratic states that were their main objective. In 1916, Wilson practiced an old-fashioned form of imperialism by buying the Virgin Islands from their colonial master, Denmark, for $25 million.

Aggressive Moral Diplomacy

Mexico posed a special problem for Wilsonian diplomacy. Having been in revolution since 1899, Mexico, in 1913, came under the rule of the counterrevolutionary General Victoriano Huerta, who clamped a bloody authoritarian rule on the country. Most European nations welcomed the order and friendly climate for foreign investments that Huerta offered, but Wilson refused to recognize "a government of butchers" that obviously did not reflect the wishes of the Mexican people. His stance encouraged anti-Huerta forces in northern Mexico led by Venustiano Carranza.

In April of 1914, Mexican officials in Tampico arrested a few American sailors who blundered into a prohibited area, and Wilson used the incident to justify ordering the U.S. Navy to occupy the port city of Veracruz. The move greatly weakened Huerta's control, and he abandoned power to Carranza, whom Wilson immediately recognized as the de facto president of Mexico. One of Carranza's rivals, Pancho Villa, moved to provoke a war between the Carranza government and the United States by crossing the border into New Mexico on March 9, 1916, and killing several Americans. Wilson, without securing permission from Carranza, sent an expedition of 7,000 U.S. soldiers commanded by General John "Black Jack" Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. The expedition failed to capture Villa but provoked a confrontation between the Americans and Carranza's forces in which men on both sides were killed and several Americans were captured. Alarmed by the danger of war, Wilson reaffirmed his commitment to Mexican self-determination and agreed to discuss methods of securing the border area with the Mexican government.

Early in 1917, when it began to appear that the United States could not avoid being dragged into the European war, Wilson withdrew all U.S. forces from Mexico. The decision coincided with the publication of an intercepted message from Arthur Zimmermann in the German foreign office to the German minister in Mexico, instructing him to propose an alliance with Mexico against the United States if Germany and the United States went to war. Following an American defeat, Mexico would regain New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California, which had been ceded to the United States after the Mexican War in 1848. Wilson's release of the "Zimmermann Telegram" solidified U.S. public opinion against Germany, though Mexico was never tempted to accept the German proposal.

Neutrality in World War I

With the outbreak of fighting in the "Great War" in Europe in August 1914, President Wilson appealed to Americans to remain strictly neutral. He believed that the underlying cause of the war, which would leave 14 million Europeans dead by 1917, was the militant nationalism of the major European powers, as well as the ethnic hatreds that existed in much of Central and Eastern Europe. The conflict lined up the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria—on one side, against the Allied Powers—initially Great Britain, France, Russia, and Serbia, and later Italy, Japan, Portugal, certain Latin American nations, China, and Greece—on the other. It started with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a young Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in June 1914. This incident triggered an explosion of demands and counterdemands. Within months, a complex set of entangling and secret treaties and alliances engulfed much of the world—due to the imperial holdings of Germany, France, and England—in war.

With nearly one in every seven Americans having been born in the countries at war, Wilson believed the United States must remain neutral. Because the American economy was in a recession when the war began, however, and the British and French were eager to buy American products, the administration interpreted neutral duties in ways that tended to favor the Allies. When Germany retaliated by using submarines to blockade the British Isles, Wilson refused to ban U.S. travel on British or American passenger ships or to cut off arms sales to the warring nations, as the Germans demanded.

End of Neutrality

In May 1915, a German submarine—called a "U-boat," which was a relatively fragile vessels that depended on surprise attacks from below the surface for its success—torpedoed the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Wilson urged patience but demanded that Germany either halt or drastically curtail submarine warfare. Convinced that the President's policy would lead to an unnecessary war, Secretary Bryan resigned in June 1915. For a time, German concessions preserved peace, but Britain refused to abandon its blockade of Europe, and early in 1917, Germany resumed its submarine warfare. The Germans calculated that the move would force the United States into the war but not before they could mount a massive attack on Allied forces while destroying the British navy. After several American ships were sunk and the public release of the Zimmermann telegram outraged Americans, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war on April 4, 1917; the House concurred on April 6 by a vote of 373 to 50. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives, was among those who voted against the war.

Wilson's war message condemned German U-boat attacks as "warfare against mankind" but emphasized that the main goal of the war should be to end militarism and make the world "safe for Democracy," not merely to defend American ships. He promised that the United States would fight to ensure democracy, self-government, the rights and liberties of small nations, and an international peace organization that would end war forever.

American Troops in the War

Wilson had proposed a program of military preparedness as early as 1915. This helped the U.S. Navy move quickly to aid the British fleet in destroying the threat of German submarines to Allied shipping by late 1917. The Army required more time, however, before it was ready for action. Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May of 1917, and eventually 2.8 million men were drafted—about 72 percent of the entire Army. No women were drafted, but 13,000 joined the military, serving in clerical capacities in the Navy and Marines. Although the Army refused to enlist women, nearly 18,000 served in the Army Corps of Nurses but without rank, pay, or benefits. Another 5,000 civilian women served in various capacities in France, sometimes near the front lines. Many of these women were wealthy and well-educated; at first, they saw the war as a grand adventure, but like the soldiers, they soon understood its true horror.

Approximately 400,000 African Americans also served in the war, and 200,000 were sent overseas. Emmett J. Scott, an African American and former secretary to Booker T. Washington, functioned as the special assistant to the secretary of war in charge of black soldiers. Nonetheless, black soldiers were generally treated as second-class participants. Most black troops were commanded by white officers, served in segregated Jim Crow units in the Army that received the worst assignments, were relegated to food service in the Navy, and were totally excluded from the Marines.

Commanded by General John J. Pershing, American troops, defined as "associated" rather than Allied forces to preserve their independence, joined the Allied forces just in the nick of time. In the spring of 1918, a massive German offensive was launched to within fifty miles of Paris. When Russia pulled out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in November of 1917, tens of thousands of German soldiers were freed from the eastern front to join the assault on the western lines. With fresh American troops, the Allies launched a counteroffensive in July of 1918. A large contingent of newly arrived American soldiers and thousands of U.S. mules, which were used to pull heavy equipment through the viscous mud of the European front, pushed back German forces in a stunning one-day offensive at the Battle of St. Mihiel. By early November, after the victorious Allied offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region, the Germans faced defeat and called for an armistice. At that point, more than 2 million American soldiers were in France, giving the Allies an advantage of almost 600,000 men. Of the more than 8 million soldiers and 6 million civilians killed in the war, the United States lost 115,000 men, including 48,000 killed in action. The rest died from diseases and accidents, especially a global influenza epidemic that killed 600,000 Americans at home and abroad.

Wilson and the Fourteen Points

Victorious in war, Wilson hoped to revolutionize the conduct of international affairs at the peace table. He first outlined his vision in the "Fourteen Points" speech delivered to Congress in January 1918. It called for a "new diplomacy" consisting of "open covenants openly arrived at." No more secret treaties, like the ones that had pulled the world into war in 1914 would be tolerated, and all territories occupied during the war must be evacuated. Wilson wanted to dismantle the imperial order by opening up colonial holdings to eventual self-rule and all European sections of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires to immediate independence. He also proposed a general disarmament after the war, with the Germans and Austrians giving up their armed forces first. Fair treatment of revolutionary Russia, he declared, would be the "acid test" of the peace. Other points included freedom of the seas at all times and free trade all over the world. But Wilson's most important proposal was the prevention of future wars by means of a new international organization, a league of nations, open to membership by all democratic states. This new world body would be in charge of disarmament and the dismantling of colonial possessions. Most importantly, the League would hold power over all disputes among its members. Wilson believed that this League would transform international relations and usher in a new era of world peace.

When Wilson sailed for France in December of 1918 to head the American peace delegation, it marked the first time an American President in office had gone to Europe. He brought along some 200 experts on European history, culture, and ethnology but no Republicans as advisers, although a Republican majority controlled the Senate that would have to approve the final treaty. Everywhere he went in France, Britain, and Italy, huge crowds cheered him as the leader of the nation that had finally brought the slaughter to an end. He knew that few of the Allied leaders were ready to accept his proposals, but he hoped that if he could get his message to ordinary people, they would force their leaders to listen. The alternative, he feared, would be a victory for communism or a return to prewar militarism and imperialism. But ordinary Europeans, like their leaders, were embittered by four years of war and wanted vengeance on Germany.

In the end, faced with the determined insistence of Allied leaders to punish Germany with heavy reparations, territorial occupation, and total disarmament, Wilson was forced to compromise on most of his points. He got his League of Nations, but instead of a "peace without victory," the "Big Four" leaders—David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), and Wilson—held secret negotiations and produced the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty imposed harsh terms on Germany, and Wilson was forced to present to the Senate a treaty that bore little resemblance to the ideal peace most Americans expected.

The opposition at home equaled the opposition abroad. Senate Republicans, who controlled the Senate, were split into two groups: the "reservationists" and the "irreconcilables." The first group was led by Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lodge believed the obligations of the League would compromise American independence and proposed amendments to meet that threat. The second group was smaller and was opposed to any involvement of the United States in world affairs. Most Senate Democrats supported Wilson and the treaty.

Embittered over Republican opposition, Wilson launched into an arduous speaking tour to rally the nation to his cause—9,981 miles with speeches in twenty-nine cities. The effort depleted his already exhausted body, and he collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25. Soon after, he suffered a serious stroke that left him half-paralyzed and totally secluded for the remainder of his presidency. In one of the most controversial episodes in presidential history, Wilson—completely out of touch with the situation in the Senate—refused to consider any compromises to the League, issuing his orders via his wife, who was one of the few people, other than his doctors, who spoke with him during the League battle. When the Senate Republicans amended the treaty—to ensure that the President could not use U.S. forces on League business without securing congressional assent—Wilson told his supporters to vote against the amended treaty, and they joined with the Republican "irreconcilables" to reject the League. America never joined the international organization that Wilson had envisioned as the foundation of his new world order. This failure of the League was a devastating conclusion to Wilson's almost superhuman efforts for world peace based upon international cooperation and the peaceful solution of international disputes.