Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America's Entry into World War I available in Paperback
Doenecke reappraises the public and private diplomacy of President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisors and explores in great depth the response of Congress to the war. He also investigates the debates that raged in the popular media and among citizen groups that sprang up across the country as the U.S. economy was threatened by European blockades and as Americans died on ships sunk by German U-boats.
The decision to engage in battle ultimately belonged to Wilson, but as Doenecke demonstrates, Wilson's choice was not made in isolation. Nothing Less Than War provides a comprehensive examination of America's internal political climate and its changing international role during the seminal period of 19141917.
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Nothing Less Than WarA New History of America's Entry into World War I
By Justus D. Doenecke
THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKYCopyright © 2011 The University Press of Kentucky
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSetting the Stage
"We are walking on quicksand," wrote Woodrow Wilson to a cousin in September 1915. For over a year the president had sought to steer a neutral course during a conflict first known as the Great War, then as World War I. Costing 30 million casualties and 8 million dead, the event was sufficiently cataclysmic for diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan to designate it "the great seminal conflict of this century." During the past few months, one major power had confiscated huge amounts of American goods being shipped to Imperial Germany. Another leading belligerent had sunk the world's largest ocean liner, in the process killing well over one hundred U.S. citizens.
That autumn the situation showed itself increasingly precarious. On one side of the massive struggle were the Central Powers, in August 1914 an alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary but soon extending to the Ottoman Empire and close to a year later to Bulgaria. On the other side were the Allies, also known as the Entente, a coalition of Britain, France, and Russia. Japan joined the Allies in late August 1914, Italy in May 1915, and Rumania in August 1916. At the time Wilson voiced his apprehension, the French were about to begin a futile offensive between Rheims and the Argonne forest, the Italians were in the midst of a series of inconclusive battles on the Isonzo River, and the Russians had just lost all of Poland, Lithuania, and Courland, a duchy located in western Latvia.
During the entire period of American neutrality, Wilson's term "quicksand" was a most apt one. To the chief executive the conflict appeared as if it would never end. Possibilities of American ensnarement seemed most real, particularly given the crises created by Germany's submarine warfare against merchant and passenger ships.
The United States remained the world's strongest neutral power from August 1914, when the conflict erupted, until April 1917, when it entered the struggle. During this time, Americans fiercely debated every facet of administration policy, ranging from how best to sustain traditional commercial rights to providing the most effective means of maintaining the country's security.
Obviously Wilson was American's foremost policymaker. Before he became chief executive in 1913, he had held various professorships and had served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey. His voluminous writings concentrated on American history and government, not on European diplomacy and global rivalries, though he demonstrated genuine familiarity with Western political institutions. A major work, The State (1889), traced the evolution of governmental forms from classical antiquity to contemporary western Europe. At Princeton he had taught courses in international law. After 1902, when he was chosen to lead the university, he occasionally wrote essays on government and politics but henceforth engaged in little serious reading.
Years before he entered the White House, he developed distinctive views of America's role in the world community. Although critical of his nation's actions in the Mexican war ("ruthless aggrandizement") and the Hawaiian revolution of 1893 ("mischievous work"), he perceived the Spanish-American War as rooted in "an impulse of humane indignation and pity." In general, the United States had been founded to serve humanity, bringing "liberty to mankind." By sheer moral example, America could offer such virtues as self-government, "enlightened systems of law," and "a temperate justice" to a backward world. Conversely, if the nation acted irresponsibly abroad, it would compromise its democratic values. In his first Fourth of July address as president, he remarked: "America has lifted high the light which will shine unto all generations and guide the feet of mankind to the goal of justice and liberty and peace."
In fulfilling the American mission, Wilson's religion played a crucial function. The son, grandson, and nephew of Presbyterian ministers, in 1905 he defined his nation's "mighty task" as making "the United States a mighty Christian Nation," a country that would in turn "Christianize the world." Care should be taken, however, in describing Wilson's supposed messianism. Admittedly, much of his self-assurance was grounded in the belief that he could serve as a chosen instrument of an omniscient deity, but he also thought every individual, not he alone, could assume such responsibilities. Both individuals and nations lay subject to a divine moral law that they could not transgress without peril. He even perceived God's will in his personal defeats.
In 1904 the future president spoke of sharing America's global calling with the British Empire: "The Anglo-Saxon people have undertaken to reconstruct the affairs of the world, and it would be a shame upon them to withdraw their hand." Wilson harbored strong English ties. His mother was born in the British Isles, as were both paternal grandparents. He greatly admired English culture and institutions, esteeming the practices of Parliament and revering such figures as Edmund Burke, William E. Gladstone, and political theorist Walter Bagehot. In 1900 he praised Secretary of State John Hay for confirming "our happy alliance of sentiment and purpose with Great Britain." Before assuming the presidency, he had visited the British Isles several times, particularly enjoying long walks in the Lake District, but had crossed the Channel only once to visit the Continent.
Like the British, Wilson believed in overseas expansion. He was the first prominent scholar to endorse the thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, a personal friend, who argued that the frontier had forged American nationalism and democracy. The closing of the nation's hinterland, Wilson wrote at the turn of the century, necessitated venturing into new territory: "Our interests must march forward, altruists though we are; other nations must see to it they stand off, and do not seek to stay us." Convinced that the nation must retain its gains of the Spanish-American War, he expressed thanks that America, not Germany or Russia, had acquired the Philippines, even alleging that his country represented "the light of day" and the two rivals "the night of darkness." By 1913, however, during a major crisis with Mexico, he pledged that "the United States will never again seek an additional foot of territory by conquest."
Economic penetration supplemented territorial growth. Wilson championed a form of what later was called "globalization," seeking a world economy based on low tariffs, prohibition of monopolies, extensive financial investments overseas, and an Open Door—equal access to foreign commerce. As the American manufacturer insisted on "having the world as a market," Wilson noted in 1907, "the doors of nations which are closed against him must be battered down." Nevertheless, he focused far more on his nation's moral responsibility abroad than on lucrative trade. Conversely, Wilson was indifferent to military and naval strategy, hostile to power politics, and impervious to the part force played in international relations.
Just before he assumed the presidency, Wilson told an old friend: "It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters." Though he sought an anti-imperialistic foreign policy and attacked the "dollar diplomacy" of his predecessor, William Howard Taft, his 1913 inaugural address made no reference to overseas matters. Certainly until World War I broke out, the president's priorities lay at home. He concentrated on his domestic program, which was called the "New Freedom" and which consisted of tariff reduction, regulation of business, and reorganization of the banking system. If in December 1915 he hoped that the European war would permit the nation to engage in the "peaceful conquest of the world," he did not find exports crucial to America's prosperity.
In many ways, Wilson was one of the most gifted chief executives in American history, achieving an impressive string of legislative successes. A superb party leader who staunchly believed in a strong presidency, Wilson exercised almost matchless control over Congress. He studied bills carefully, conferred continually with legislators, and was unafraid to use the patronage whip against recalcitrant Democrats. Using his superior intelligence to assimilate material quickly, he soon reached the heart of any problem. He was an excellent public speaker, though at times his eloquence could backfire, as when he spoke of being "too proud to fight" or making the world "safe for democracy."
Just as important, Wilson possessed an uncanny ability to articulate the fears and aspirations of his people. "No other public figure of the time," writes historian Robert W. Tucker, "mirrored the nation's mood; none voiced the nation's hopes and fears as did the president." Yet one must be careful. His brother-in-law Stockton Axson noted that the president lacked "faith in the supreme wisdom of the people." Rather, he believed "in the capacity of the people to be led right by those whom they elect and constitute their leaders." When the public was uncertain or deeply divided, Wilson could exercise a decisive influence.
On crucial matters of foreign policy, Wilson often made major decisions alone. In his Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), he discerned the presidential initiative in foreign affairs as unlimited; the chief executive possessed "virtually the power to control them absolutely." Although acknowledging that the president could not conclude a treaty without senatorial consent, he believed that the chief executive could dominate every step of the diplomatic process. In keeping with this outlook, Wilson examined diplomatic documents, wrote dispatches on his own typewriter, and frequently acted without the State Department's knowledge. At times he kept his secretaries of state ignorant of important negotiations. The department's staff equaled the size of a second-rate power, the chief executive making meager use of its scant resources and preferring backdoor contacts to formal channels. As historian Patrick Devlin writes, "The President might almost have been running a parish with the help of his wife and a curate and a portable typewriter."
Similarly, Wilson sought to insulate himself from journalists. As early as December 1914, he stopped reading press accounts of the war, seeking "to hold excitement at arm's length." Believing that opponents controlled many of the nation's newspapers and magazines, he read relatively few, relying instead on letters, telegrams, petitions, and meetings with congressional leaders. A month before, the president told his closest adviser, Edward Mandell House, that he had no qualms about lying to the press concerning foreign policy matters. From July 1915, as the Lusitania crisis unfolded, until late in 1916, he did not hold a single press conference.
In regard to foreign affairs, Wilson tended to listen to those who either agreed with him or who showed strong admiration. He confided in his two wives and trusted House to an extraordinary degree, although "the colonel" always approached him with deference. Wilson was far from facetious when he told a Princeton critic that he felt sorry for those who differed with him—"Because I know they are wrong." From the time he was a university president, Wilson could view opposition as an attack on his very person. Admittedly, he at times exercised caution, consulting Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and, on the eve of entering the war, his cabinet. He met with prominent peace leaders, including acknowledged Socialists, though he was out of sympathy with their immediate agendas.
For several years, Colonel House remained Wilson's sole intimate adviser. A man of considerable means, he was the son of an Englishman who had made his fortune in the Lone Star State when it still belonged to Mexico. An adviser to several Texas governors, House became an honorary colonel in the Texas militia in 1892, a reward for organizing the successful reelection campaign of James Hogg. During the 1912 presidential race, he became so close to Wilson that by election time he could have chosen any cabinet position he desired. The colonel demurred, in part because of his fragile constitution, but he spoke of seeking "a roving commission," particularly in matters of foreign policy. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, and ambassador to Britain Walter Hines Page received their appointments in large part through House's intervention.
Often operating from his apartment in Manhattan, House appeared so self-effacing that he was called "the Texas Sphinx." He exhibited a sense of confidentiality and sympathy to all he encountered, while playing the role of "operator" in a way that left Wilson untainted. Behind this diffident demeanor lay shameless flattery, a burning ambition, an overreaching ego, and a penchant for intrigue. The colonel was so skillful in this regard that Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States, never detected House's strong pro-Allied bias, maintaining in his memoirs that the colonel had always been genuinely neutral.
If one believes House's account of the president's sentiments, the colonel served as the chief executive's "second personality," his "independent self." "His thoughts and mine are one," Wilson supposedly said, adding: "If I were in his place I would do just as he suggested." Historian Robert W. Tucker describes the confidant as a combination of chief of staff, national security adviser, and chief diplomatic agent. Given House's length of service and the importance of his missions, he may well have been the most important informal executive agent in American history. In the winter of 1915–16, when Wilson sent House to Europe, he bestowed unique diplomatic authority on the colonel.
Yet there is danger of exaggerating House's influence. By spring 1915, the colonel ceased being the president's closest intimate; he was replaced by Edith Bolling Galt, who soon became Wilson's wife. That summer Galt, who harbored misgivings about House, conveyed to Wilson a vague suspicion of the colonel's character. The president responded that House was "capable of utter self-forgetfulness and loyalty and devotion. And he is wise. He can give prudent and far-seeing counsel." Wilson did share her view that intellectually House was "not a great man." His mind was "not of the first class. He is a counselor, not a statesman."
From the outset of the war, the president's confidant favored an Allied victory but not one that would allow Russia to gain additional territory. By the summer of 1915, House had decided that American entry into the war was inevitable, though he subsequently questioned this judgment. As time passed, the colonel increasingly played a perilous and destructive role, undermining Wilson at crucial junctures while displaying a false fealty. A son of Wilson's secretary of the navy remarked: "He was an intimate man even when he was cutting a throat." In negotiating with British and French leaders in February 1916, the colonel ignored Wilson's instructions to avoid discussing concrete peace terms, seeking to transform what Wilson envisioned as a mediation bid into a commitment to enter the war. He naively assumed that European leaders were anxious for American diplomatic intervention, ignoring their explicit denials that negotiation was then possible. Not until the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, however, when House appeared to undercut Wilson's liberal agenda, did the president abruptly sever personal relations.
Upon becoming president, Wilson chose William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state. "The Great Commoner" had served as Democratic standard-bearer in three presidential elections. His influence among the party rank and file, particularly in the South and the West, was second to Wilson's alone; as a man he was even more beloved. Although not responsible for Wilson's nomination in the Baltimore convention of 1912, he played a major supporting role. The president was originally reluctant to make the appointment, having little respect for the Nebraskan's judgment, fearing possible conflict over party matters, and knowing that his choice was ignorant concerning foreign affairs. Wilson ultimately selected Bryan as a reward for party service and as a means of retaining allegiance of a man who, if alienated, could be a troublesome opponent. Besides, the chief executive anticipated few international crises that he could not personally handle.
Excerpted from Nothing Less Than War by Justus D. Doenecke Copyright © 2011 by The University Press of Kentucky. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Setting the Stage 1
2 The Earliest Debates: August 1914-March 1915 19
3 In Peril on the Sea: February-August 1915 58
4 Toward the Arabic Crisis: January-August 1915 93
5 Frustrating Times: August 1915-March 1916 122
6 Tensions with Germany and Britain: January-September 1916 155
7 Preparedness Debates and the Presidential Election: March-November 1916 188
8 To End a Conflict: October 1916-January 1917 217
9 The Break with Germany: January-March 1917 250
10 And the War Came: March-April 1917 278
11 Conclusion 300
Bibliographic Essay 349