History has often shown that altruism is rarely, if ever, the sole basis for a nation entering into war. However, if taken on face value, President Wilson’s speech to Congress in April 1917, shows the Great War for America was inspired by lack of self-interest and a noble desire for peace and justice. To see if this interpretation of American motives is true, other reasons such as economic interest, national prestige and future security have to be examined. America’s expressed motives have to be assessed upon entrance into the war, in comparison with her conduct during and after the war to determine whether her declared motives were maintained and genuine. The thesis of this essay is that American war motives were based on a mixture of ideals. Whilst economic and security issues played a very significant role in the decision for war, the commitment of many Americans to the preservation of democracy cannot be denied.President Wilson’s speech claimed German aggression had become a “challenge to all mankind”1 and that this selfish and autocratic power had to be dealt with in order to “vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world”2. He went on to say that America would fight for the rights of nations to choose their way of life and have full democracy.
In light of this speech many scholars went on to class Wilson as a “romantic moralist, who…raised every issue and conflict to a high stage”3, too idealistic to consider practical issues in foreign relations. However recent scholars like Daniel Smith have argued that it was possible for Wilson to take this moral view coupled with practical considerations.America was in itself a “satisfied power seeking no additional territory”4 and therefore this minimised clashes between abstract and practical ideas.
Wilson therefore was able to put forward his ideals because it served national interest. Up until 1917 he believed they could be met via a policy of neutrality where the US could stand apart from the world as a model. In doing this it objectively mediated for world peace between belligerents and thus served all mankind.
And once Wilson became convinced, through German submarine activity, that “armed neutrality was impracticable”5 he took the country into the First World War in order to preserve the rights of his citizens. Historians such as Walter Feber agree with this “there was idealism here, certainly, but also realism”6.Within Wilson’s government few disagreed with “making the world safe for democracy”. Although many of Wilson’s advisors, like William Bryan and Robert Lansing, disagreed with each other over why and when to go to war, there was never any doubt about their commitment to democracy. Bryan, although extremely neutral, advocated the US being a yardstick to all mankind and “was determined to use the nation’s influence for good in world affairs”7. More realistically Lansing knew that relations between states were characterised by materialistic and selfish motives no matter how moral a country was. But he still firmly believed in democracy and condemned the aggressive Central Powers. So this proves that the motive of “making the world safe for democracy” was not just a slogan but also permeated many people’s thinking in believing that Germany was a “menace to the principles of democracy”8.
However the idealistic goals of the war were perhaps overemphasised and could have been one of the factors that prepared the way for later disillusionment through people possibly expecting too much.There were also definite economic reasons for war as shown by the fact that the incidents sparking American entry were partly protests over attacks by submarines on trading ships, thus threatening American commerce. Although neutral in name, the war had brought great trade, particularly with the Allies as they “choked off virtually all American trade with the Central Powers”9.
It transformed what was a sluggish economy and after all restrictions were removed there was a boom in American manufacture, trade, and foreign investments.For many businesses it was in their interests for American to become more closely involved in the War on the side of the allies in order to prevent any potential German competition and increase their exports. Remaining neutral might have meant adopting a full trade embargo to make sure it was clearly not taking sides but this would have seen the economy slide into a depression. Indeed a lot of disillusionment after the war came because of the view that America had been pushed into the war by businesses eager for. So economic advantages for business were bound to be considered by the leaders before deciding on war.The US not only wanted to make the world safe for democracy but because of concerns about national security, also wanted to make the world safe for America.
It cannot be denied that self-interest was a factor in American thinking. It was thought by many that a German victory would bring danger to the US. “Germany had been unpopular with Americans since the 1880’s” and there was suspicion of German economic and territorial ambitions in Latin America and worries about the threat to American security. Given that the two nations were industrialising the US saw German power as potentially dangerous.
This threat to the Monroe Doctrine meant the Navy had called for increased expansion and even outside of military circles there was apprehension over German designs. So even before the war started “they distrusted the German government, considering it unprincipled and militaristic”10. This made it easier to condemn Germany on moral grounds.This can partly explain why the US took an unofficial pro-ally bias in the first years of the war or as Ernest May calls it “benevolent neutrality”11. It was extremely tolerant towards Britain “violating every rule of international law which it believed might hinder its campaign against German imports”12 offering no meaningful resistance but holding Germany to “Strict Accountability”13. A German triumph would have affected American economic and political interests abroad and created an unfavourable balance of power. This is where the link with democracy comes in because if one democracy was threatened and fell, others might follow. So this help toward Britain can be seen as its unofficial commitment to democracy.
It was debated whether national interest required an allied victory and American intervention to prevent German domination. In view of this suspicion of Germany better relations with Britain were fostered and co-operation between the two was advocated to deal with this common problem. Opposition to this came from people like Bryan who didn’t believe that a German victory would endanger the US and therefore did not consider it reasonable to go to war or to compromise neutrality by siding with Britain. But there were great men on both sides like James Brown Scott, William Phillips and Frank Polk (later under-secretary) believing in the realistic appraisal that saw German victory would affect American interests.The school of thought backing this in the 1930’s was the “Revisionist school”14 led by Charles Tansill.
It emphasised America’s un-neutrality, and economic and sentimental ties to the allies, claiming that this pulled the US into the conflict. The tacit acquiescence of war trade and permission of war credits and loans reflected economic interests in the war, whilst the strict accountability policy in submarine warfare combined economic and moralistic factors with a desire to uphold the nation’s prestige. The opposing “Submarine school” led by Charles Seymour, dismissed economic and political factors, as at most sideline causes, and emphasised the submarine challenge to American rights and lives. Both these schools make good points in that together they realise the variety of motives for entering the war.
Seymour is correct in that without the issue of submarine warfare there would have been no immediate reason for war but Tansill also makes good points about other reasons. So therefore motives for going into the war seemed to be a combination of ideological, economic and national security issues. However these motives were all set out and their genuineness has to be evaluated in America’s actions with other nations during the war and also after it.One way their mixture of motives can be seen is in the timing of their entrance into the war. America’s late entry brought a lot of controversy over what it was exactly fighting for as, if it was a true democracy, why did it not come into the war earlier.
Wilson had often remarked that the allies were fighting for the same cause as them and a lot of public sympathy was with the allied cause. This therefore perhaps indicates it was self-interest that brought the country in only when it was personally threatened. Another issue to consider is the impeccable timing with which Russia had just recently thrown off its autocratic regime and adopted a “democratic” form of government. This perhaps led to more ideological coherence amongst the Entente and meant “that when the US enters the war it will be as a great democracy aiding in the overthrow of an autocracy of the worst sort”15. Another consideration is that Wilson was often concerned that the allied cause was not the American cause and this was most shown in allied flouting of international law, embarking on blacklists and mail censorship in the US and not being overly keen to accept Wilson’s basis for peace.
Sometimes he deemed their war aims just as selfish as those of the Central Powers and “that all the wrong was not on one side”16. Also the true nature of democracy means that war would only be agreed on if it was in accordance with the popular will. Pacifist and isolationist sentiment were still strong and due to the election in 1916 issues of peace and neutrality were critical.
Indeed Wilson’s narrow victory was owed greatly to the widespread sentiment for peace, as shown in the popular slogan “he kept us out of the war”17. So America’s timing of her entrance can be explained in light of her motives of commitment to democracy and her economic and self-interests.At the close of the war, especially during the negotiations for peace “the crusade for democracy” can be seen as genuine, particularly in the Fourteen Point program by Wilson in 1918. His demand for self-determination in many areas, open access to the seas, no more secret treaties and also a League of Nations to preserve world peace still show commitment to democracy. However it was public mood this time that rejected US involvement.
The high cost and number of casualties (109,00018 loses- a surprise for the time the US was at war) had caused a profound disillusionment. The Allies each had their own agenda for dealing with Germany (often in a very harsh way) and it was in this light that the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty and conducted its own peace treaty with Germany in July 1921. The US’s retreat into isolation and refusal to participate in the new League of Nations is a controversy that has been stated as proof of a shallow commitment to upholding democracy abroad. Historians such as Professor H.
Barnes have argued “that far from making the world safe for democracy, the World War succeeded in putting democracy in far greater jeopardy”19. Be that as it may, its refusal to sign the treaty initially can possibly be put down to its disagreements with the harshness of the terms and a wish by the people for the government to concentrate on domestic issues more.Although some historians like Feber argue that Wilson simply “eloquently clothes the bleak skeleton of U.S self-interest in the attractive garb of idealism”20 I would disagree.
There was a mixture of motives for going to war but all of them were fused with an ideological commitment to democracy and justice in the world. Indeed, Maldwyn Jones argues, “the US declared war on Germany not because American interest were threatened but because American sentiment was outraged”21. Many of the US leaders felt this way but that is also not denying the existence of other motives such as self and economic interest, national prestige and security issues. The actions of the US confirm these motives and show that the war was partly a crusade to make the world safe for democracy but also a crusade to make the world safe for America.