War in American history is a subject which is highly emotional and quite serious. War affects all classes and both sexes. It is, possibly, the most debated subject in history. Studies of America’s participation in the three wars between 1898 and 1945 suggest that the United States assumed massive world responsibilities in those years. The transformation from a colonial status to the assumption of world leader was difficult, and historians have varying interpretations on the subject.
This essay, and the unit it represents, will attempt to bring some understanding of the causes and effects of those wars. More importantly, it will focus on war itself. Students in this country often have no idea what war is. It is a vague idea, something happening in some other part of the world, or something their fathers or grandfathers fought in when they were young. Within the scope of this unit, students will gain more insight into this country’s relationships with other nations and will come to respect the tremendous and, seemingly, impossible job of keeping peace. That responsibility dramatically changed America’s outlook on world affairs—our foreign policy—in the late 19th century.
Prior to 1890, the United States followed a policy of isolationism in regard to world affairs. The advice of George Washington in his Farewell Address to “avoid entangling alliances” became the basis for U.S. isolationism and neutrality, a policy which allowed this country to handle the tremendous internal problems facing the growing, fast-changing America of the 19th century. Becoming bigger—Manifest Destiny expanded the American borders to Oregon, the Pacific and further into Mexico—and stronger—rapid industrialization made the U.S. a great power—new interests and ideas began to affect our policies. Social Darwinists emphasized the importance of strength and growth, while missionaries preached responsibilities to our “little brown brothers.” Spurred by economic interests, people sought new markets for their products, while others extolled the riches of various islands. No matter what their interest, everyone agreed that the supremacy of the U.S., whether it was economic, racial or naval, would be a factor in world peace. John Fiske, Josiah Strong, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Albert J. Beveridge were some of the most vocal of the imperialists (those favoring overseas expansion).
The debate over imperialism in the United States marked the beginning of a controversy over the role of the U.S. in international affairs that would trouble Americans for at least another 50 years. A sharp division existed between those favoring imperialism and those who did not. Pleading for the preservation of the Farewell Address, Carl Schurz maintained that America’s mission was to cultivate its own garden, and to set the example for the world. He warned that the U.S. would lose its racial and religious purity if it acquired an overseas empire. Other anti-imperialists, including William Jennings Bryan, Grover Cleveland and William Lloyd Garrison asked Americans to think about the effects of the transformation from the United States of America to the United States of America and Asia.
The first major break in American foreign policy occurred in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. Historians have disagreed on the causes of this war. Some claimed that economic interests forced government intervention in Cuba, others cited public opinion as responsible for the action, while some credited American morality behind the decision to end a war that neither side could win.
In Cuba, a revolution for independence from Spanish rule had been going on since 1895. Partly as a result of a massive propaganda campaign in the American press, public sentiment was on the side of the rebels. Stories published in William R. Hearst’s
and Joseph Pulitzer’s
, which were in the midst of a circulation war, vividly described the terrible treatment of the
—Cubans held in concentration camps. American opinion of the Spanish was low anyway because many Americans still thought of Spain as the land of the Inquisition. A stolen letter written by the Spanish Minister (Enrique Dupuy de Lome), describing President McKinley in less than complimentary terms, was published in early 1898. Not long afterward the U.S. battleship
was blown up in the Havana harbor with a loss of 250 American lives. Although no evidence to this day explains what caused the explosion, the drawings and stories in the newspapers implicated the Spanish.
Both public and Congressional pressure began to mount for intervention in Cuba. President McKinley urgently pleaded with the Queen Regent of Spain to end reconcentration, to proclaim an armistice, and to guarantee the end of fighting in Cuba. Faced with a decision as to whether Spain could stand losing a war with the U.S. or handle a revolution at home, the Queen agreed to McKinley’s first two demands, but would not guarantee an end to all fighting. On April 11th, McKinley asked Congress for war powers which Congress agreed to on April 19th. Quickly, Congress also passed the Teller Amendment, disclaiming any U.S. intention of taking territory in Cuba.
The war in Cuba was a relatively easy one for the Americans; the fighting lasted no more than three months. The real turning point in the war came in May 1898, taking place 7,000 miles away from Cuba. On orders from Theodore Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Commodore George Dewey, sailed to the Philippines to destroy the nine ships of the Spanish fleet anchored in Manila. When Dewey succeeded, an imperialist movement flowered in the U.S. This was the beginning of the United States transformation from being the leading champion of colonial people to becoming a colonial power, as the U.S. took from Spain two of the largest overseas territories—the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Hawaii was annexed at the same time.
In 1900 when President McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt introduced new energy into U.S. foreign policy. His handling of the Panama Canal, the Alaska-Canada boundary dispute, and the issuance of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (establishing the U.S. as the policeman in the Western Hemisphere) were the only imperialist steps he took. Other than his peace efforts at the Portsmouth Conference to settle the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and his efforts to settle the Moroccan crisis between the French and the Germans in the same year, Roosevelt did not pursue a very active imperialist policy.
Imperialism was not the normal behavior of Americans, and although it seemed like the right cause to support in 1898, once people’s emotions were satisfied, they were willing to return to the old policy of isolationism. It seems that the global responsibilities were too great. A pattern emerged during the Spanish-American War which would be repeated in the next international crisis facing the U.S. The U.S. would begin as an isolationist nation. The American sense of morality would lead to involvement. Finally, when appetites were satisfied, the retreat to isolationism followed.
The next crisis came seventeen years later when the British passenger ship,
, was sunk by a German U-boat. The Allies (England, France and Russia) were fighting the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey) in a conflict which most European leaders thought in 1914 would be a quick war of six to eight weeks. The initial response of the U.S. to World War I was neutrality. This was partly due to President Woodrow Wilson’s faith that the U.S. could play the part of an impartial mediator. A close examination of Woodrow Wilson’s thoughts and actions during World War I explains why the U.S. first tried to stay out of the conflict and why that gradually changed.
Wilson’s political thinking was based on three ideas. The first was that peace could be achieved through exemplary behavior and diplomacy, a principle he inherited from a strong Presbyterian training. Next, Wilson believed in democracy as the most humane and Christian form of government. Finally, he believed that the American people had a peculiar mission to carry out: to serve mankind by promoting world peace.
His high idealism, accompanied by his ability to learn from mistakes, made Wilson one of the ablest diplomats of his day. Not always sufficiently realistic, Wilson believed that all leaders were good men with high moral standards, and sometimes underestimated the lust for power of some of his contemporaries. Several times Wilson applied national policies to international situations only to find that his solutions were not practical. Overall, his genuine concern for world peace inspired him to become a major influence in the peace settlement following World War I.
Evidence of Wilson’s quest for peace can be found in his first Presidential term when treaties were signed with over thirty countries establishing a forerunner of the League of Nations. His warning to the Japanese in 1915 to uphold the Open Door Policy in China (a policy which respected the political and territorial integrity of China), and his restraint in dealing with the Huerta regime in Mexico in 1913 (which had come to power illegally and was demanding recognition), were further proofs of Wilson’s quest for peace.
His effort for peace was best revealed in his working to keep the U.S. not only out of World War I, but to keep the U.S. neutral in fact as well as in name. Although complete impartiality was impossible, Wilson began the first stage of American neutrality, August 1914ÐAugust 15, by banning loans and the sale of naval parts to all belligerent governments.
The second stage of neutrality, August 1915ÐApril 1916, was not as damaging to the Allies since the British dominated the seas and thus contained the vitally important North Atlantic trade. It was during this stage that Wilson laid the groundwork for peace with two diplomatic decisions. The first, known as the House-Gray Memorandum, negotiated by Wilson’s top advisor, Colonel House, and the British Foreign Secretary, Grey, stated Wilson’s readiness to attend a conference to end the war. It warned that the U.S. might join the Allies if the Germans refused to negotiate or to accept reasonable peace terms. Secondly, the insistence on “strict accountability” of Germany for American life and property represented Wilson’s ultimate warning that the U.S. would take action if forced to.
The third and final stage of American neutrality, May 1916ÐFebruary 1917, was devoted to Wilson’s efforts to reach a definitive understanding on all phases of German submarine warfare against American shipping. Wilson’s patience was severely strained when the British refused to accept the House-Gray Amendment saying that the time was not ripe for a peace conference. German overtures for peace were just that in light of the German High Command’s decision in January 1917 to use unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson’s response was one of “watchful waiting” at first, and then changed to armed neutrality.
Once the Zimmermann note was published in March 1917 revealing Germany’s attempt to bring Mexico into the war on their side and German U-boats sunk three American ships, the combination of events led Wilson and most Americans to advocate war. Once again it was the violation of moral principles which brought the U.S. into a war. In March 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare “war to keep the world safe for democracy.” He called it a war to end all wars. His war message made it clear that America’s intervention in World War I was not just to punish Germany, but to play a leading part in the world drama.
Interpretations on the causes of American intervention in World War I have changed since then. Historians first cited the influence of British propagandists and American industrialists on Wilson’s harsh views toward submarine warfare. Others claimed that Americans were convinced that what happened in Europe vitally concerned them. Only recently, scholars such as Arthur Link have suggested that Wilson’s fear of German victory, a victory which would mean the domination and conquest of countries and which would bring an end to all Wilson’s dreams of peace, caused him to support the war effort against Germany. According to Link, the combined weights of public and official opinion facilitated what Wilson thought was necessary and right do to. Wilson’s insistence on the use of the term “associated” power rather than allied power to describe America’s position in the war supports this idea.
The war itself and America’s role in ending it demonstrated the underestimation by the European nations of America’s ability to mobilize. Certainly, none of the European countries took the U.S. seriously into account as a world leader in 1914. Wilson’s efforts to bring about liberal peace earned him and the U.S. that respect.
Heavy demands by both the British and the French prevented Wilson from achieving the perfect peace settlement. In reviewing the war aims of all countries involved, it was highly unrealistic to think that anyone could have arrived at a settlement which would have pleased all.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 failed to entirely fulfill the liberal peace program as originally suggested in Wilson’s 14 points. The treaty was not a peace among equals and the terms were harsh on Germany. Given the terrible statistics of human lives lost in the war, the peace seemed the best one possible to Wilson. He felt that the League would iron out all other difficulties.
The Treaty of Versailles did not win the support of the majority of Americans. Opposition to the League of Nations and Covenant was based on many facts. Wilson’s decision not to appoint any influential Republicans to the peace delegation made the ratification vote a matter of partisanship, with the powerful Henry Cabot Lodge leading the opposition. The fact that Wilson headed the delegation by being the first President to go abroad, threatened many Republican Congressman who saw the Covenant as the project of a Democratic President. His decision not to consult the Senate at all in the peace efforts further antagonized Congress. German-Americans were angered about the treaty which was so severe on Germany. The press was alienated by Wilson’s acceptance of secret sessions. Finally, a group of 14 Republican Senators led by Robert La Follette, the Irreconcilables, were stubbornly opposed to any arrangement which might demand America’s participation in future international disputes.
Certainly, Wilson’s recognition that in the future America would have no choice about becoming involved placed him ahead of his time. He knew from experience the necessity of a world organization for peace.
The debate over the League and the Covenant was long and bitter. Wilson’s speaking tour across country in defense of the treaty nearly cost him his life. A collapse suffered upon return from the tour left him incapacitated for two months—two very important months during which Senator Lodge along with the Irreconcilables gained strength in their efforts to block ratification. Wilson’s own stubbornness in refusing to urge Democrats in Congress to vote for the League even with the Lodge reservations, contributed to the defeat of the treaty and rejection of U.S. participation in the League of Nations. The defeat of the treaty signaled America’s retreat from responsibility, and its retreat to isolationism. The familiar pattern emerged: from isolationism, a nation’s sense of morality led to war, once emotions were satisfied, the nation retreated to isolationism. America’s immaturity or sheer negligence would cost dearly.
The third episode of American internationalism in the first half of the twentieth century involved America’s participation in World War II. Although the United States tried everything possible short of war to help the Allies win, the realization that America had no choice but to go to war became disastrously clear by December of 1941. The American President at the time was Franklin D. Roosevelt. A review of his background reveals that few could rival him in his world experience. Well-traveled, well-educated and well-versed in the ideas of Alfred T. Mahan, one of the early imperialists who advocated naval supremacy, F.D.R. grew up under the influences of Theodore Roosevelt’s insistence that America should become a world power. As a Senator, then Governor of New York, F.D.R. gained knowledge that prepared him for his later Presidential domestic problems. Probably his most important skills and ideas were gained in his position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt’s foreign policy was a combination of Mahan and Wilson. Opposed to isolationism, F.D.R. signaled his faith in internationalism by naming Cordell Hull, an old Wilsonian, as Secretary of State. Roosevelt, much like Wilson, mistrusted the professionals of the State Department, and so conducted much of his foreign policy through personal agents and emissaries. Imaginative and bold at times, he not only showed insight into world situations, but also had the capacity to compromise when necessary. His personableness in the fireside chats earned him the trust and support of the American people.
Uniting the Western Hemisphere with his Good Neighbor Policy, F.D.R. demonstrated the reality of U.S. noninvolvement and inspired confidence in his diplomatic ability. His efforts to revive world trade led to the Reciprocal Trade Agreements with twenty-nine countries by 1946. Disarmament was not as easy an issue for Roosevelt. A basic contradiction existed in his foreign policy since the goals of international peace, world disarmament, conflicted with national isolationism, American neutrality. How could the U.S. cooperate in a worldwide system for disarmament when pursuing a policy of neutrality which meant reducing America’s international commitments?
At the same time that disarmament talks collapsed in Geneva in 1923Ð1933 a deterioration in Anglo-American relations was under way. This was mainly due to Neville Chamberlain’s mistrust of the U.S. naval buildup. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union suffered during this time when attempts were made to force Russia to settle her debts and not to interfere with the U.S. government.
Coinciding with the breakdown of relations with England and Russia was the Nye Commission’s attempt to organize isolationists in America. In a report issued in 1935, Nye blamed bankers and munitions-makers for U.S. involvement in World War I. The Nye colleagues wanted to make sure that the same groups would not force the U.S. into another war. Their demands led to a new U.S. neutrality policy.
The debate over U.S. neutrality was long and bitter. The invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935, and civil war in Spain in 1936 led to a change from complete embargo of arms to a “cash-and-carry” policy in 1937. Perhaps another signal of the failure of neutrality was F.D.R.’s refusal to recognize any state of war existing between China and Japan in 1937. No state of war meant no embargo.
It is interesting to note that while Roosevelt did not formally acknowledge hostilities between China and Japan, he used the incidents in China to alert Americans to the problem of isolationism. In a speech he described the “epidemic of world lawlessness” and advocated a “quarantine to protect the community against contagion.” In essence, Roosevelt suggested complete severance of all trade or financial relations and an end to diplomacy with the aggressors.
Prime Minister Chamberlain had his own ideas about aggressors in Europe. His appeasement policy was based on the premise that Hitler was a reasonable man. With Hitler’s move into the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria in 1938, the claiming of the Sudetenland in 1938, and finally the invasion of Poland in 1939, it was obvious that Hitler was anything but reasonable.
Once the German war machine started there seemed to be little possibility of stopping it. The success of the blitzkreig, the lighting-fast attack, in Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France had some affect on American public opinion.
A new Prime Minister in England opened the doors of better cooperation between England and the U.S. Winston Churchill inspired the English people in offering them nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” in waging the war alone against Germany. This promise and his appeal to the U.S. for any implements of war, won American sympathy. Roosevelt responded with more than sympathy. His “lend-lease” program, allowing him to lend, lease, sell, or dispose of American property to any country whose defense the President deemed necessary to the defense of the U.S., made America the “arsenal of democracy” in 1941.
Although most Americans in 1941 still remained undecided about war, many favored any action short of war to aid England. Hoping for the best while fearing the worst best describes the feeling of President Roosevelt and the American people up to this point. When the Nazis widened the war into Russia in June 1941 and further into the Atlantic, something had to be done. The Atlantic Charter represented the joint goals of F.D.R. and Churchill: to disarm the world after war, to allow self-determination of all peoples as to their choice of government, to allow equal access to trade of all countries, and to ban further territorial aggrandizement.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 left Americans no recourse. The long debate over American isolationism “must be abandoned,” Roosevelt told Americans. The U.S. must never again isolate itself from the rest of humanity.
The events and results of World War II will be left for further study with one exception. The responsibilities of world power and world leadership have not been easy for the U.S. since World War II. No one ever suspected it would be. It took fifty years and two world wars for Americans to recognize it. What happens in every corner of the world is of importance to America, like it or not!