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An ungainly word, it has proven tenacious. Since the early Cold War, “Wilsonianism” has been employed by historians and analysts of US foreign policy to denote two historically related but ideologically and operationally distinct approaches to world politics. One is the foreign policy of the term’s eponym, President Woodrow Wilson, during and after World War I—in particular his efforts to engage the United States and other powerful nations in the cooperative maintenance of order and peace through a League of Nations. The other is the tendency of later administrations and political elites to deem an assertive, interventionist, and frequently unilateralist foreign policy necessary to advance national interests and preserve domestic institutions. Both versions of Wilsonianism have exerted massive impacts on US and international politics and culture. Yet both remain difficult to assess or even define. As historical phenomena they are frequently conflated; as philosophical labels they are ideologically freighted. Perhaps the only consensus is that the term implies the US government’s active rather than passive role in the international order.

It is nevertheless important to distinguish Wilson’s “Wilsonianism” from certain doctrines and practices later attributed to him or traced to his influence. The major reasons are two. First, misconceptions surrounding the aims and outcomes of Wilson’s international policies continue to distort historical interpretation in multiple fields, including American political, cultural, and diplomatic history and the history of international relations. Second, these distortions encourage the conflation of Wilsonian internationalism with subsequent yet distinct developments in American foreign policy. The confused result promotes ideological over historical readings of the nation’s past, which in turn constrain critical and creative thinking about its present and future as a world power.

Keywords: pragmatism, global governance, international relations, Woodrow Wilson, World War I, internationalism, League of Nations, New Republic, William James, Walter Lippmann, Treaty of Versailles

Wilson’s Wilsonianism: Intellectual Origins

“Wilsonianism” is not a word Wilson or his contemporaries would have recognized. “Wilsonism” was the term used by detractors to describe the president’s wartime diplomacy and peacemaking. Supporters preferred “internationalism.” These groups disagreed about much of the substance and most of the implications of Wilson’s program but largely agreed on at least one of its elements—abandonment of absolute national sovereignty and acceptance of international authority in matters concerning war, peace, and justice among states. If “Wilsonianism” is to denote a distinctive posture of American foreign policy, this radical multilateralism must be recognized as essential to it.

Wilson himself denied that absolute national sovereignty was anything but an abstract ideal. His understanding of states and societies in dynamic interdependence stemmed partly from his theological ideas and more directly from his academic study of domestic institutions. Both encouraged an intellectual commitment to deliberation and experimentation in politics that was deeply congruent with—and at junctures shaped by—certain epistemological and ethical currents that found their quintessential expression in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and the many reformers, social critics, and public intellectuals inspired by James’s ideas. The result, for Wilson, was a description of international relations and a prescription for their improvement that abjured any conception of the state—including the United States—as a radically independent actor responsible to itself alone.

Covenant Theology, the Organic State, and Self-Government

The common view of Wilson as a rigidly moralistic theocrat is mistaken. Confident in God’s ultimate direction of events, he was also keenly aware of history’s ironies and humanity’s ultimate ignorance of God’s ends and means. Yet Wilson’s fatalism left no more room for apathy than for certainty. His father, a Presbyterian minister, taught him to view life through the prism of God’s covenant with humanity, which demanded service to others and vigilance over oneself. Perfection was always the goal, but never achieved. This fallibilist lens led Wilson to view all of life as a series of interlocking covenants demanding both fidelity and flexibility. In short, Wilson’s was not a dogmatic faith. It was a backdrop throwing events and choices into relief, a reminder that each day’s challenges make unique demands on the moral imagination.

Wilson’s writings as a student and scholar of history and political science (he remains the only US president to hold a PhD) reflect a complementary view of politics, which he considered a secular attempt to reconcile the perennial ideal of order with the universal experience of change. In his first book, Congressional Government (1885), Wilson described the US Constitution as a “root, not a perfect vine”; in his second, The State (1889), he argued that governments of modern industrial societies must expand their “ministrant” functions to provide citizens time, energy, education, and opportunity to participate in adapting institutions to their needs.1 At century’s turn Wilson grew frustrated with the Democratic Party’s populist wing, leading some to portray him as a late and opportunistic convert to interventionist government. But even in these years Wilson consistently endorsed a constitutional theory allowing the state maximum flexibility to adapt to social change. As he argued in his last academic work, Constitutional Government (1908), the task of the 20th century was to “bring the active and planning will of the government into accord with the prevailing popular thought and need.”2

Wilson’s political theory amalgamated ideas drawn from the American Founders, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Walter Bagehot. Yet his synthesis of their insights yielded a functionalist, evolutionary outlook exceeding all of them in progressive character and democratic scope. In Wilson’s view, the ideal state would acknowledge its organic nature and accommodate the specific character and changing needs of its subjects, for no stable state could arise through mere imposition of norms upon a people. “Government is merely the executive organ of society,” Wilson explained, “the organ through which its habit acts, through which its will becomes operative, through which it adapts itself to its environment and works out for itself a more effective life.”3

This organic account of the state was not a call for subjects to sit back and let political nature take its course. Rather, the reciprocal influence of history, habits, and institutions informed Wilson’s civic ideal of the state: in its highest form, a complex of adaptive formations that simultaneously foster and depend upon a culture of self-government. As the social-political organism grows in complexity, Wilson argued, new problems arise, needing new solutions, along with new ideals inspiring new goals and encountering new obstacles. In the healthiest polities such solutions and goals are informed by a cultural commitment to both individual freedom and the common good, for only “the habit and the spirit of civic duty” can sustain institutions combining the flexibility and stability that a plural, protean society demands.4

Through this civic commitment to private and public flourishing, the Wilsonian polity develops the capacity for self-government, which inheres not in the state but in the people. In its essential form, Wilsonian self-government comprises both the right and the habit of deliberative decision-making in public affairs. “Self-government is not a mere form of institutions,” Wilson declared. “It is a form of character. It follows upon the long discipline which gives a people self-possession, self-mastery, the habit of order and peace and common counsel.”5

Christian Socialism, the New Psychology, and Pragmatist Progressivism

Two features of Wilson’s training at Johns Hopkins University likely encouraged these interventionist, experimental, and deliberative inclinations. One was the mentorship of economist Richard T. Ely, whose mix of Christian socialism and hardheaded empiricism infused Wilson’s earliest efforts to outline a normative theory of the modern democratic state. The charge of modern democracies, Wilson wrote in 1885, was to propagate “the supreme and peaceful rule of counsel,” drawing humanity toward “kinship with God” by affirming “reason over passion.” This divine commission demanded more than proselytizing zeal, however; to share “the benefits of political cooperation” required that their mechanisms be “found by experiment, as everything else has been found out in politics.” After reading Ely’s Labor Movement in America (1886), Wilson adopted his teacher’s interest in non-revolutionary socialism as a source of experimental methods for reviving the “rule of counsel” in Gilded Age society. Democrats should not reject such methods a priori, he explained in 1887, for “in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same,” resting together “upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny.”6

A second factor illuminating the trajectory of Wilson’s thought is his interest in modern philosophy, specifically the “new psychology” introduced to Hopkins by G. Stanley Hall. Hall had studied at Harvard under William James, drawn to James’s search for an account of mental life more coherent with biological evolution than the dualistic schemes of the Cartesian and Kantian traditions, yet friendlier to free will than alternatives postulating a universe governed entirely by material laws, on the one hand, or an absolute mind on the other.7 It was during Hall’s Harvard years (1876–1881) that James laid foundations for what he later popularized as “pragmatism.” Human minds, James concluded, are not passive but act upon interests—many linked to survival, but many subjective and idiosyncratic. The knowledge we acquire and the truths we discern are never complete or certain but reflect a course of experience profoundly shaped by our interests and daily modified by events. Thus we believe in ideas that work for us, so long as they successfully predict the consequences of our actions in a fluid universe. More controversially, James argued that we also often believe in ideas not yet thoroughly tested in experience, and do so justifiably if (1) belief alone can spur the actions likely to confirm or disconfirm them and (2) confirmation would yield some desired consequence. James urged us to cultivate and discipline this natural experimentalism, adopting a skeptical attitude toward abstraction and tradition, a tolerant attitude toward diversity and novelty, and an existential attitude toward the power, limits, and uncertain outcomes of our freely exercised will.8

Eventually Hall and James would diverge on several metaphysical implications of functionalist psychology. In his early years at Hopkins, however, Hall emphasized those aspects of his thought most hospitable to James’s belief in free will, moral responsibility, and the potential of science to affirm and serve them.9 During that period Wilson took Hall’s year-long course in philosophy and education, deeming his instructor “one of the most interesting and suggestive” of men he encountered at the “Varsity.”10 Meanwhile Hall was so struck by the consonance of Wilson’s constitutional analysis with his own functionalist, historicist account of human psychology that he twice asked Wilson to assist with his undergraduate course in logic and psychology. Wilson declined, citing ignorance, but grew close enough to Hall to consider (albeit briefly) completing his studies under the philosopher’s direction.11

Exactly which (if any) of James’s works Wilson read for Hall or at his suggestion is unclear. Years later, however, James’s arguments for the practical necessity of subjective ideals and the intersubjective deliberation of their merits directly penetrated Wilson’s consciousness. Sometime before 1905 Wilson read James’s essay “The Will to Believe,” possibly anticipating or responding to their encounter at Princeton’s 1896 sesquicentennial, where James received an honorary degree and Wilson gave the keynote. By 1905 Wilson was mounting a novel (for him) defense of faith against scientism that echoed James’s central argument: (1) Our ideals prompt efforts to realize them; (2) these efforts produce consequences, including the responses and judgments of others, that either advance the ideal in question or do not; and (3) this experimental process is initiated solely by our antecedent belief in the ideal’s possibility. Significantly, Wilson paraphrased this argument in a talk entitled “The Profit of Belief” and explained humans’ faith-driven power to shape their personal and social realities in terms of their “wills to believe.”12

From then on, Wilson’s political theory exhibited striking affinities with the arguments of John Dewey, Jane Addams, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other contemporaries translating James’s pragmatism into political action. Echoing these pragmatist progressives, Wilson argued in 1908 that individual liberty implied and depended upon “common counsel,” the deliberative process that defined liberty’s terms and protected its practice. In the process he affirmed the basic premise of pragmatist ethics—the contingency of values. “The ideals of liberty cannot be fixed from generation to generation,” Wilson wrote; “liberty” implied the community’s freedom to redefine the concept as circumstances changed. In a similarly Jamesian vein, Wilson couched the imperative to scrutinize and adapt the laws, policies, and institutions that embodied social values in simultaneously naturalist and voluntarist terms. “Living Constitutions,” he explained, “must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.” To grow and thrive, polities must abandon laissez-faire and embrace democratic experimentation on grounds that human actions shape human constructs and conscious, collaborative action might shape them more effectively.13

Nascent Internationalism

Wilson’s pragmatist-progressive theory of politics sits awkwardly beside his pre-presidential writings on foreign affairs, which most scholars read as frank apologies for imperialism. When the United States in 1899 emerged from war with Spain asserting its authority over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, Wilson affirmed Americans’ duty to train their peoples in “efficiency”—the habits of self-mastery that enabled self-government—before bestowing American-style democracy and granting independence.14 One reason was his organic theory of political development, which proscribed the abrupt transplantation of living institutions to foreign soils. Another was the streak of cultural chauvinism revealed in Wilson’s 1902 History of the American People, which evinced confidence in both the advanced political development of Anglo-Saxons and the privileges it entailed.15

But if Wilson’s assessment of international society in his day was hierarchical, his ideal of international society was not. Yet neither did it resemble the particularistic vision of “self-determining” polities historically linked to his name. Rather, Wilson’s was a modified Kantian vision of self-governing polities striving for mutual understanding and negotiating the terms of their common life. In the mid-1890s Wilson explained that “the mind of man, whatever his race, whatever his religion,” recognized “fundamental, vital principles of right” that furnished a feasible basis for positive international law. Crucially, he did not describe those principles as explicit precepts in a fixed ethical code but spoke instead of a “universal conscience,” like that Kant perceived in the ability of culture-bound individuals to conceptualize humankind in toto.16 International order depended on the degree to which this “moral sense” of shared humanity could be embodied in “a community among states,” for like the laws of free nations, international law must proceed “from those upon whom it is enforced.” Pluralistic in origins and purpose, a perfected world order would protect and serve the interests of “independent states,” but on the model of individuals in civil society—i.e., “states responsible for their actions.”17

At this point Wilson diverged from Kant, whose belief in the moral personhood of states and incorrigible independence of national cultures precluded a “world republic,” limiting his vision to “a federation” focused on averting war.18 By contrast, Wilson thought that in the course of ordering and maintaining relations conducive to peace, the international community might develop patterns of interaction analogous to the self-governing habits of its healthiest members—perhaps eventually generating a supranational democratic body. As early as 1887 Wilson discerned a “tendency” toward “confederation” in the world: the integration, “first, of parts of empires like the British, and finally of great states themselves.” Rather than a völkisch rise of expansionist ethnic nation-states, this was a movement “towards the American type—of governments joined with governments for the pursuit of common purposes, in honorary equality and honorable subordination.”19

In the wake of the Spanish war Wilson hoped to see this movement advanced by an American nation whose citizens had accepted both the fact of human interdependence and the need to accommodate it. For Wilson the prizes of empire were not economic or geopolitical but epistemological and moral. Overseas expansion would force the nation to “experiment” in the application of its democratic principles, potentially enhancing the “efficiency” of its native institutions while helping others build their own. United in the causes of domestic and international progress, Americans would learn that personal freedom and responsibility entail social freedom and responsibility, “the duty to lift other men.”20

In the context of his government’s brutal suppression of insurrection in the Philippines, Wilson’s statements evince willful ignorance rather than cosmopolitan foresight. A truly cosmopolitan interest in the lives and cultures funding America’s “experiments” in self-government would have revealed the hypocrisy of such encomia to progress before their utterance. Even so, the philosophy of world politics that Wilson developed in the decade after 1898 was, in its essentials, genuinely cosmopolitan. As he argued in 1907, technology, enterprise, and cultural exchange made splendid isolation impossible. “Peace itself becomes a matter of conference and international combination,” he wrote. “Cooperation is the law of all action in the modern world.”21 That philosophy, extensively refined through painful efforts to put it into practice, would ultimately be embodied in the League of Nations Covenant.

Wilson’s Wilsonianism: Political Origins and Consequences

Unlike most new entrants into politics, Wilson arrived with sophisticated theories of leadership and governance. Voracious reading of Burke, Gladstone, and other master orators of British history imparted to Wilson a distinct conception of democratic leadership and its task. That task was to prepare the “major thought of the nation” for whatever changes its growth and health demanded, while respecting the centripetal force of tradition and accounting for practical constraints; it was, in essence, an exercise in “interpretation.”22 Such artful leadership required a system of governance that fostered its emergence and disciplined its practice, ends best served through a deliberative legislative process conducted by highly organized and publicly accountable parties. In Congressional Government Wilson lauded Britain’s parliamentary system, in which the executive was drawn from the legislature’s ranks and could be deposed any time. Under that system, unified party action was the only means of realizing legislative goals, and open debate in Parliament was the primary means of forging unity. Such debate prompted compromise, publicized the lawmaking process, and encouraged the pursuit of genuine legislative programs reconciling multiple interests through complementary measures.23

By the time Wilson reached the Oval Office these ideas were well tested. In what proved a prelude to his political career, Wilson devoted his presidency of Princeton University to transforming the rather parochial university into a more rigorous and cosmopolitan institution fit for training citizens in the habits of self-government. Wilson’s successes (and later disappointments) at Princeton brought him the political career he had dreamed of as a young man—one beginning, remarkably, with the New Jersey governorship. Again Wilson sought to translate theory into practice and again enjoyed marked success. Every major policy he pursued as governor was aimed at advancing self-government wherever he found it impeded. Within ninety days of his inauguration, bills on electoral reform, corrupt practices, utility regulation, and worker compensation were enacted under his initiative. Though failing to maintain the same hot pace in subsequent sessions, Wilson developed a national reputation as both an articulate exponent and a powerful executor of progressive reform.24 The US presidency proved his reward.

The New Freedom at Home and Abroad

The 1912 US presidential election was a watershed moment in the nation’s political development, and also in Wilson’s. Late in the campaign Wilson had a pivotal encounter with the pragmatist-progressive tradition his thinking had long paralleled. Struggling to articulate the practical distinction between his “common-counsel” brand of progressivism and that of his chief rival, Theodore Roosevelt, he recruited William James’s old acquaintance, lawyer and reformer Louis Brandeis, to help. Brandeis shared James’s ideal of a society regulated by the collective inquiry, informed experiments, and critical reflection of its members, rather than by a government of benevolent experts as Brandeis and Wilson accused Roosevelt of endorsing. The major “New Freedom” initiatives that Brandeis helped Wilson formulate in the latter’s first term—tariff reform, corporate regulation, and democratization of credit through the Federal Reserve—were imperfect but unmistakable efforts to translate pragmatist political ethics into actual policies, capable of addressing immediate needs, adapting to future change, and securing effective rather than abstract freedoms by combining expert administration with popular accountability and empowerment.25 Achieving these programs, Wilson extended their logic further, backing a redistributive income tax, agricultural credits, and eight-hour days for federal workers; vetoing nationally homogenizing immigration restrictions; and eventually supporting a national women’s suffrage amendment.

Tragically omitted from the list of struggling Americans to earn Wilson’s sympathy were African Americans. Wilson did not accept the white-supremacist argument that blacks were innately inferior. He did, however, exhibit prejudice against blacks and sometimes acted upon it shamefully—as when he acquiesced in schemes for segregating federal offices.26 Yet most striking was how little interest Wilson took in any aspect of America’s race problem. When race riots or a wave of lynchings forced him to consider the injustice and terror facing black Americans, he was genuinely troubled. But as with most white Americans at the time, such consideration and concern on Wilson’s part was deplorably rare.27

Wilson’s early diplomacy exhibited similar inconsistencies. Take the Philippines. Over a decade after the US invasion, Wilson doubted that the Filipinos were as yet equipped for self-government. Nevertheless, he sought to accelerate their education, instructing the territorial governor to give Filipinos majorities in both houses of the Philippine legislature, honor their decisions, and seek their counsel in determining when to grant full independence. Still, Wilson assumed that Americans would ultimately determine when the islands’ people and institutions were in condition to manage independence, without considering that such a condition might differ from Filipinos’ own ideal political image and thus never be achieved.

Wilson’s early Latin American policy was similarly motivated but more disastrously prosecuted. Wilson insisted that the United States must stop treating its sister republics as political subordinates and economic raiding grounds and pledged to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a paternal to a fraternal policy of cooperation and collective security. The Mexican civil war revealed the extent to which prejudice could obstruct this internationalist vision. Shocked by the murderous dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta and convinced that Mexicans would welcome American assistance in establishing a constitutional democracy to replace it, Wilson capitalized on a diplomatic gaffe to land troops in Veracruz and wrest its large store of arms from Huerta’s forces. Mexicans on all sides of the civil conflict decried such arrogant meddling, and Wilson was traumatized by the deaths of US marines and local resisters.

From that point forward Wilson’s Mexican policy shifted drastically. He realized that the Mexicans were not political children wanting a teacher, and spent the rest of his presidency resisting domestic pressure to intervene in the Mexican civil war. Even when revolutionary violence spilled across the border, killing Americans and threatening his presidency, Wilson refused to send forces after the murderous Pancho Villa before consulting with Venustiano Carranza, then leader of the conflict’s most powerful faction. Indeed, Wilson privately noted that the democratic “failures” prompting Mexico’s descent into chaos were analogous to America’s own, stemming from the depredations of an “educated, privileged, and propertied class, who are, as with us, owning and running everything.”28

Wilson’s equation of Mexico’s failed state and largely non-white population with his own country’s institutions and people reveals his growing conviction that self-government must often precede self-mastery—a conviction that would inform his quest for a League of Nations despite the international community’s previous failures to master its worst inclinations. Unfortunately, in the rest of the Caribbean basin Wilson never got his policy aligned with his ideals. Haiti is the worst example of a pattern in which Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic can be placed: problems Wilson inherited from his predecessors but exacerbated through ignorance and negligence. In 1911, as Haiti slid into a series of coups and political assassinations, the Taft administration had backed efforts by several private investors to protect the interests of American corporations in Haiti and curtail the outsize influence of its German community. In 1915 events reached a gruesome climax with the murder and public dismemberment of Haiti’s president following a mass execution of political prisoners. With war raging in Europe and rumors swirling of German plans to make Haiti its base of operations for the western hemisphere, Wilson dispatched troops on humanitarian and security grounds.

The results were tragic. American troops and administrators brought Jim Crow attitudes and practices to the island and frequently treated local resisters with a violence recalling the dehumanizing logic of slavery and the Indian wars. Wilson was at a loss. He had regretfully concluded that imposing “constitutional government” on Haiti’s frauds and criminals was the only way to give its people a chance to govern themselves. Yet the imbroglio at Veracruz had taught him that legitimacy was essential to crisis intervention and legitimacy depended on popular sentiment. Ultimately, Wilson’s decisions to stay the interventionist course in Haiti—and indeed, the Caribbean generally—were due to a series of particular dangers and crises more than any coherent agenda. Mostly, however, Wilson was not making decisions in the Caribbean; increasingly consumed with Europe’s crisis, he let the State Department handle hemispheric affairs with almost no oversight on his part. Through such negligence he stumbled into situations that contradicted his ideals and left him, in his circumscribed view, with no escape.29

Eventually Wilson devised an escape: an international organization that could assume responsibility for political and humanitarian crises and work to eradicate their causes. If structured so that action followed deliberation among diverse parties sharing common interests, such an organization could operate with greater legitimacy than lone states, defuse crises more effectively, and in time reduce their frequency. This was the idea behind the Pan-American League that Wilson’s administration pursued through most of his first term and the germ of the League of Nations as he conceived it.

Active Neutrality

Like most Americans, Wilson was shocked by the outbreak of war in Europe. That shock, more than anything else, sparked his interest in the potential reconstruction of international politics. Other factors, however, shaped his vision for that reconstruction. One was his domestic political philosophy, the logic of which (however frequently he ignored it) was constant expansion of the deliberative sphere. A second factor inflecting Wilson’s vision was the diversity and intensity of internationalist impulses that seized Americans from 1914 on. These impulses had prewar and transnational roots. Still, Wilson adopted his main ideas about international organization from groups and individuals in the United States after the war began.

Three approaches were most important to Wilson’s developing vision. The first was that of the League to Enforce Peace (LEP), the largest and most visible group lobbying for US participation in a postwar organization. Its official platform proposed a “league of nations” pledged to compel member states to arbitrate disputes before resorting to hostilities. Any member making war without attempting arbitration would suffer economic and military sanctions.30

Wilson first announced his support for a postwar peacekeeping body at an LEP conference in May 1916. The choice of venue was designed primarily to gain public support for Wilson’s rather different postwar vision, which again reflected the ideas of self-conscious pragmatists. Jane Addams was an important influence. As the most prominent pacifist among James’s sympathizers, she was active in lobbies to maintain neutrality and resist military preparedness. Wilson took the other side in the preparedness debate but admired the proposals for a postwar peace organization presented by Addams’s Woman’s Peace Party (WPP). The WPP envisioned an egalitarian, deliberative, constructive body that did not just enforce international law but worked to eradicate the causes of its infraction. Wilson welcomed this alternative to the LEP’s legalistic, reactive program, which included no constructive function and only required quarreling states to participate in arbitration, not to abide by its results. Still, Wilson found the WPP’s opposition to preparedness naïve, especially as successive crises threatened to drag America into war.31

Such crises multiplied as Wilson’s initial desire to maintain American neutrality proved nearly impossible to achieve. Wilson and most of his cabinet were naturally sympathetic to the Allies, although Wilson himself held for most of the war that a draw offered the best prospects for international reform. Indeed, as the Allies increasingly relied on the Royal Navy’s blockade of the Central Powers, Wilson’s patience with Britain’s highhanded disregard for American neutral rights nearly ran out on several occasions. Each time, however, the German high command squandered its diplomatic advantage. In rebuffing Wilson’s various offers of mediation, the Germans were less tactful (though at times more honest) than the British. Meanwhile, the mechanics of the blockade encouraged American trade with Britain and the consequent escalation of German submarine warfare, resulting in high-profile sinkings and American civilian deaths. Wilson would not, and politically could not, place the taking of lives on the same plane as Britain’s affronts to property and passage; nor could he credibly object to German depredations while renouncing his government’s right and potential to respond with force. Neutrality was proving a difficult art that many Americans came to consider a pretense.

Other pragmatists were quicker than Wilson to grasp the neutrality dilemma. W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann put strict neutrality and unconditional pacifism to the pragmatist test and found both wanting. Du Bois, who considered racism more deeply embedded in Germany’s foreign policy than in the Allies’, saw German defeat as a step toward dismantling racist institutions worldwide.32 Meanwhile, in the pages of The New Republic, Croly, Lippmann, and Dewey argued that war’s dislocations presented a chance to reform the whole of international society through deliberative institutions that could keep peace without smothering change. Like Wilson, they considered the LEP’s sterile legalism as naïve as the WPP’s strict anti-militarism. They advocated a hybrid alternative: an armed league, committed to collective security and active pursuit of shared “ideals,” with legal and practical authority to supervise the foreign policy of its members as well as accommodate “organic alteration in the world’s structure.” Lippmann in particular articulated what became the crux of Wilson’s Wilsonianism: the sanctity of deliberative discourse among nations. Lippmann urged Wilson—and the world—to define the “aggressor” as the nation that refuses “international inquiry” into disputes or “pursues its quarrel after the world has decided against it.” Because such collective decisions must be enforced for the deliberative process to remain effective, Lippmann declared it paramount that all nations bind themselves to cooperate in punishing such aggression.33

These ideas reached Wilson (a regular reader of The New Republic) through multiple channels. By the spring of 1916 Croly and Lippmann were meeting and corresponding frequently with Wilson’s closest advisors and at times with Wilson personally. In late December 1916 Wilson found a phrase on the journal’s front page that captured his larger postwar vision: “Peace without Victory.” Invoking that phrase in January 1917, he urged nations to reject the “balance of power” for “a community of power,” promoting “common participation in a common benefit” and upholding the principle of government by consent.34 Around the same time Wilson read Lippmann’s book The Stakes of Diplomacy (1915), which identified absolutist understandings of national sovereignty as the root cause of competitive nationalism.35 Unsurprisingly, when Wilson called for war against Germany in April, The New Republic hailed his assertion that the world, as he put it, “must be made safe for democracy”—with the help of an America working as “but one of the champions of the rights of mankind” (emphasis added). Even Du Bois, disgusted by Wilson’s dismal record on race, viewed the war as a global fight for the freedom sought at home by African Americans, whom he urged to “close ranks” and help “inaugurate the United States of the World.”36

War, Revolution, and Peace

The war was not universally popular, of course. Many Americans were especially appalled by its home-front effects, including government censorship and anti-German, anti-radical, and anti-black vigilantism. Meanwhile, a vocal minority was disturbed by the apparent transformation of Wilson’s ultimate war aim, from “peace without victory” to thorough destruction of Central European “autocracy.” In fact, Wilson had little trouble reconciling the two, especially with the aid of Lippmann’s pragmatist analysis. When Pope Benedict XV called for a mediated peace in August 1917, Lippmann outlined Wilson’s reply: a practical and meaningful peace without victory would not be achieved by stalemate but by laying foundations for a secure and just world order—one expunging the threat of militarist autocracies like Germany’s current government, without creating a vacuum for other empires to fill. Hence America’s interest in defeating, dismantling, and discrediting the Kaiser’s regime, and hence its duty to spearhead the creation of a League of Nations.37

As 1918 unfolded, events seemed to vindicate Wilson’s foreign policy. His January Fourteen Points address challenged the Allied empires to accept colonial reform, open diplomacy, self-government, and international cooperation through a League of Nations as the bases of settlement. The address was timed to respond to bolshevist Russia’s impending exit from the war, which demanded an inspiring and clarifying vision of the future endangered both by Lenin’s revolutionary nationalism and the Allies’ cynical imperialism. Over several months the Fourteen Points program gained powerful traction over world public opinion, including in Germany. In November, German representatives signed an armistice based on its terms, as interpreted in a memo by Lippmann—who, eleven months before, had drafted most of the points for Wilson’s original address.38

Wilson’s popularity surged with the Armistice, but his leadership had begun to decline. Crucially, he failed to clarify his peace program to the American people. Most came to associate it with “self-determination,” a term Wilson rarely used, and nearly always as a synonym of “self-government”: a people’s active role in managing their public affairs. Yet hosts of interpreters took Wilson to advocate the ethno-nationalist self-determination popularized by Lenin. This was ironic: Wilson’s intention at the Paris Peace Conference was not to reorganize the world into ethnic polities but into self-governing polities directed and united by “common counsel.” In some cases Wilson thought political independence for long-persecuted ethno-cultural groups was necessary; in others, notably but not exclusively in the Global South, Allied resistance and Wilson’s own prejudices made full self-government a distant goal. Yet all arrangements, in Wilson’s mind, were subject to future revision by a League whose function was to help international society adapt to changing circumstances—and to correct the inevitable mistakes and injustices of the settlement.39

The record of negotiations at Paris documents Wilson’s efforts to equip the League for such work, efforts yielding important successes.40 First, Wilson consistently pushed for majority decision-making in both the League Council and Assembly, against British and especially French officials committed to unanimity (and thus national vetoes over international initiatives). Second, after Senate nationalists forced him to secure a clause explicitly identifying unanimity as the League’s general voting rule, Wilson promoted and helped achieve exceptions to that rule in Articles 5, 11, and 15. Together these permitted any League member to initiate investigations of situations “dangerous to the peace of the world” and excluded interested parties—even Council members—from voting on final recommendations.

This remarkably democratic scheme was far from perfect, of course, and the same holds for the peace in general. Critics decried the heavy reparations imposed on Germany, the transfer of German colonies as mandates to other powers, and the continuance of British rule over Ireland and India, among other evils. Still, it was Wilson’s failure to correct those who conflated the actual settlement with less deliberative and politically integrative alternatives that caused the public disappointment most historians emphasize. As Wilson hammered out the final details of the peace in Paris, an increasing number of critics portrayed Article 10 of the covenant—guaranteeing the territorial integrity of signatories against aggression—as binding American forces to quash ethnic-nationalist aspirations to statehood worldwide. Once returned from Paris, Wilson undertook a grueling speaking tour, explaining that the Covenant did not make Americans the foot soldiers of European empires but did demand a credible moral commitment to resist unilateral force as a mechanism of change. Meanwhile Senate opponents, led by Foreign Relations Chairman and Republican majority leader Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded as the price of membership a series of reservations explicitly limiting American obligations to participate in such resistance.

In the midst of his tour, on October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive paralytic stroke. A healthy Wilson might eventually have accepted qualified membership, hoping (in accord with his long-time political philosophy) that the relationship would evolve with the League itself. After his stroke, however, Wilson proved incapable of the pragmatism that had served him in the past. Before the final Senate vote in March 1920, he ignored the inclinations of most Senate Democrats and ordered them to reject membership on the Republicans’ compromise terms. Many defied him, and a handful more could have secured America’s place in the League.

Wilsonianism and Popular Internationalism

The fact that a majority of US senators supported League membership does not tell us what such membership would have accomplished. Yet there is strong evidence that League membership appealed to enough Americans not only to stay on the books but to have influenced the course of US and international politics in key respects.

The press offers some clues—especially the Republican press. In early 1919 several Republican papers came out in support of the League, reflecting the general trend among independent and Democratic organs. During the election of 1920, Republican editors were as likely to explain away GOP candidate Warren G. Harding’s equivocations on the League as they were to endorse its rejection. Indeed, Republican editors of major papers from New York to Denver insisted that Harding’s opinion on the League did not matter: he would be compelled by public opinion to accept membership—not in the vague “association of nations” he kept promising, but in the League as it existed. As one put it, to vote for Harding was to vote against Wilson’s form of “personal government,” not against the League.41

The Republican press had reason to apologize for Harding’s equivocations. It is hard to find any major interest group that did not support membership in the League, or at least accept it as the logical outcome of a war explicitly fought to establish such an organization. America’s religious bodies overwhelmingly supported Wilson’s agenda. Most prominent was the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America—a conglomeration of thirty organizations representing 150,000 congregations and 30 million Americans of Baptist, Congregational, Methodist-Episcopal, Presbyterian, Reformed, and other persuasions.42 The Council and its largest constituent bodies promoted the League as a means to extend the operation of Christ’s golden rule across the earth, the mails with hundreds of thousands of pamphlets, and created a thousand local committees that claimed to have spoken to 10 million Americans about the League.43

Nor was League support a distinctively Protestant phenomenon. The National Catholic War Council was founded to unite the nation’s Catholic organizations behind Wilson’s program.44 America’s major Jewish organizations agreed. In 1919 the conventions of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Union of Hebrew Congregations, and B’Nai B’rith all voiced support for Wilson’s vision, and the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods joined the League to Enforce Peace in lobbying the president and Senate to find a compromise on membership before the whole League project was lost.45

The Sisters of the Temple were typical of most female voluntary organizations. Prior to the first Senate vote the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association resolved in support of League membership at its fiftieth-anniversary convention. In January 1920, dismayed at the Senate’s initial failure to ratify, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Women, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union joined twenty-three other national bodies to present a manifesto to Wilson and the Senate demanding swift ratification of the Covenant.46

Perhaps reflecting women’s large-scale involvement, leaders of America’s major relief and social-work organizations also supported League membership. In January 1919 and again in March, leaders of the American Red Cross War Council described the ARC’s mission, and that of Red Cross societies worldwide, as part of the larger mission embodied in the League. At that point the Red Cross claimed over 30 million adult and junior members—around one in four Americans.47 Meanwhile, the YMCA pursued a League-friendly program of veteran education, while the National Conference of Social Workers joined the women’s organizations listed above in demanding ratification of the Covenant.48

Perhaps more significant than the support of religious, women’s, and relief organizations for League membership is the support of most major economic interest groups. At its June 1919 convention the American Federation of Labor overwhelmingly approved a resolution supporting immediate ratification of the Versailles Treaty, and thus the League Covenant: of 32,000 delegates, 93 percent voted in favor. The AFL unions were more divided by the time of their June 1920 convention, but a pro-League, no-reservations platform again won the day.49

Most agricultural organizations were also pro-League. In March 1919 five of the largest farmers’ organizations pledged support for Wilson’s League program over that of Senate reservationists; in May, a group of 193 organizations representing an overwhelming majority of the nation’s 12 million farmers endorsed US entry into the League; and in June, the Agricultural Press of the United States found that 62 of 66 leading farm journals supported the League.50

Like farmers, major commercial and financial interests viewed League membership as vital to global political stability and reducing price volatility, and thus an economic priority for the world’s largest creditor nation. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States distributed pro-League literature in several US cities.51 Leaders in the banking industry also lent support to the pro-League cause. After ratification failed a second time in March 1920, the American Bankers Association strongly endorsed League membership and sent a delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris to cooperate with the international business community to bring it about.52

In fact, significant pockets of support for US League membership cropped up in several places likely to surprise historians trained to associate the League’s defeat with popular conservatism, including the militaristic American Rights League and several large state chapters of the American Legion. Indeed, in the heat of the 1920 presidential campaign, the Legion’s national head gave a powerful endorsement of League membership, calling for the creation of an international veterans’ organization, under League auspices, to secure veterans’ benefits and unite war’s firsthand witnesses in the cooperative pursuit of “world peace.”53

None of this is to deny that many held deep misgivings about the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, or to argue that the postwar program Wilson helped construct was either entirely consistent or assured of success. Even before it failed the Senate, Wilson’s League plan had been altered by the pressures of peacemaking at home and abroad and fell far short of what he and other pragmatist progressives envisioned. Most famously, Croly and Lippmann denounced the Treaty whose cornerstone they had helped to fashion.

They were in the minority, however. A poll of nearly 140,000 US college students, taken after the first Senate vote, found 90 percent favoring League membership, among whom only a fifth preferred binding reservations.54 The New Republic lost thousands of readers after denouncing League membership.55 Nor did other pragmatists think Croly and Lippmann very pragmatic. Addams thought Wilson had made an important start toward genuine internationalism and, while disappointed in many League features, was “eager to see what would happen when ‘the United States came in!’ ” Du Bois considered the mandate system a promising preliminary step toward securing political and social rights for natives of colonized lands. He was not alone among African American leaders in this opinion: in August 1919 William Monroe Trotter’s Equal Rights League testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of US-supervised mandates in Africa. For Du Bois, Trotter, and perhaps many other black Americans, League membership and responsibilities promised domestic change. As Du Bois argued, the League would bring the plight of African Americans to the attention of an officially interested and empowered international body, permitting crimes ignored by “the choked conscience of America” to be addressed by “the organized Public Opinion of the World.”56

Wilsonianism After Wilson

Historical neglect of this groundswell of pro-League sentiment fits a larger pattern. The United States’ failure to join the League had consequences that came to cloud historical memory of Wilson, the war, and the League itself. The disillusionment of particularly articulate liberals abetted the efforts of nationalist Republican leaders to halt all momentum toward membership. The absence of the United States, in turn, handicapped the League in specific and highly damaging ways that prevented any practical trial of its original design and set it up for failure. Meanwhile, the evisceration of the League as a mechanism for international reform channeled anticolonial sentiment into movements for ethnic national self-determination that came to be identified with Wilson and—given his ineradicable connection to the League idea—with a supposedly paradoxical politics of integration and fragmentation.

The result was the emergence of distorted accounts and, later, dubious revivals of Wilsonianism, and eventually the near-total eclipse of Wilson’s most important idea: that global peace, order, and justice required subordination of states and other global actors to an international deliberative process.

Persistence, Resistance, and Change in the 1920s

Public support for US League membership persisted long after its second (and final) defeat in the Senate. Due largely to Wilson’s role in that defeat, however, Democrats lost control of the issue, and in the 1920 election a postwar recession gave the electoral advantage to a Republican Party with several pro-League leaders. Republican candidate Harding consistently promised to bring the United States into an “association of nations” incorporating the best of what had been accomplished at Paris; naturally, many interpreted this to mean some version of Lodge’s reservationist League. Peace groups and several large voluntary organizations continued to lobby for US League membership, while others focused on world court membership or disarmament and free-trade agreements with League members—initiatives viewed as opening wedges toward membership or, at the least, de facto participation in the League.57

By the mid-1920s, however, it was clear that the Republican leadership was dominated by nationalists viewing all such Wilsonian gestures as stall tactics. Some, like Lodge, could not conceive of handing Democrats the prize of League membership—a prize for which they had sacrificed power and that might return it to them. Meanwhile, increasing US cooperation in non-political League activities, returning prosperity, and reviving cultural exchange with Europe all combined to sap urgency from the cause of US membership.

Throughout this period the majority of American political scientists, international lawyers, and historians continued to view Wilson’s original project as essentially valuable and salvageable.58 That consensus was ultimately overturned by a revisionist challenge that continues to shape the study and practice of US foreign policy. Indeed, in its mature form this “interwar-revisionist” analysis contained the seeds of the two most dominant interpretations of the Wilson era today: the realist and the “Cold War-revisionist” analyses (to be discussed in due course).59

The release of official documents in the early 1920s enabled British and French critics to dissect their governments’ prewar policies and establish their roles in provoking the war. These damning works prompted several American writers to pose an uncomfortable set of questions. If the United States had not fought solely on the side of good, why had it fought at all? And might it in fact have been fighting on the side of evil?60

The war’s unfinished economic business reinforced this suspicion. From the day the Versailles Treaty was signed, its assignation of total war guilt to Germany, and the consequent reparations demanded by Britain and France, convinced several highly quotable liberals—including Lippmann, Oswald Garrison Villard, H. L. Mencken, Harold Stearns, and British economist John Maynard Keynes—that Wilson had been the tool of foreign imperialists and their American financiers. As the decade progressed, the Allies’ simultaneous insistence on receiving their reparations and resistance to paying their debts amplified the argument that American intervention on their behalf was a mistake. This deeper disillusion with American intervention, extending beyond its consequences to its causes, soon led to disillusion with its ostensible aim—namely, international organization.

Initially, few revisionists made the leap to condemning the League. The most vociferous, Harry Elmer Barnes, sought originally to encourage cancellation of the reparations and war debts that impeded political cooperation.61 But Barnes and others soon were carried away by their cynicism and by their condescension toward Wilson. By the early 1930s, historian and former League supporter Charles Beard concluded that the Allies were as guilty as the Central Powers for the war; that the diplomatic conflict with Germany was provoked by American commercial interests seeking to profit from Europe’s distress; that Wilson’s naïve hypermoralism led him to view that conflict as a threat to American ideals and institutions; and thus that the decision to wage war against Germany served essentially to promote the narrow interests of economic elites. Now, continued pursuit of those interests had catalyzed a worldwide depression, and the vampires were calling for international cooperation to rejuvenate the system they fed upon. In this view, the League of Nations was not just useless, but dangerous—a ship on the edge of another violent maelstrom.62

Crisis and Transformation, 1933–1945

In fact America’s absence from the League had helped bring the dismal prophecies of its early detractors to pass. British and French cooperation in the League was premised on their engagement in a three-way security pact with the United States, designed to elicit French acquiescence in Germany’s political and economic rehabilitation. The US failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles negated this pact, leaving Britain seeking a stable and wealthy Germany to revive Europe’s economy and France seeking a prostrate and eunuch nation to guarantee the security of its borders. A second structural flaw created by American absence was the resulting inefficacy of League sanctions against aggressors. Should a major power face sanctions, whether economic or military, the United States would be in position to reap the benefits of all its trade, sustaining the aggressor and enhancing American power. The first of these problems exacerbated the economic and social crises in Germany that helped bring Hitler to power in 1933. The second encouraged the course of appeasement that culminated in World War II.

Before that time, however, the League’s failure to resolve crises in Manchuria, Ethiopia, and elsewhere encouraged many Americans to view the Old World as lost and neutrality as crucial to escaping its fate. In 1934 a devastating exposé (and subsequent Senate investigation) of the American munitions industry’s role in the war inflamed opinion against the “merchants of death” and further encouraged isolationist sentiment.63 With more and more Americans convinced that the war was a mistake, waged on behalf of profiteers, lost at the Palace of Versailles, and securing no vital interest of the United States, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936, enshrining the anti-Wilson, anti-League interpretation of the war in law. Barnes, Beard, Charles Callan Tansill, Walter Millis, and other revisionists explained what the acts were designed to avoid: a “Wilsonian” policy, guided by fuzzy and impractical ideals, captured by reactionary forces, advanced by demagoguery, tied to no definite object, and making no positive difference in world politics.64

When Japanese air forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Wilsonian remnant suddenly regained its voice in American public discourse. Throughout the 1930s prominent scholar-activists such as Quincy Wright, Clark Eichelberger, and James T. Shotwell had collaborated with organizations nationwide in lobbying Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pursue multilateralism and reject strict neutrality toward fascist aggression. After Pearl Harbor the popular image of Wilson was transformed, from clay-footed idol to unheeded prophet. From 1941, when the United States declared war on the Axis powers, to the end of 1943, when Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin first met together in Tehran, Iran, American postwar planning was directly shaped by Wilsonians recruited by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles.

During this period the State Department produced two blueprints for a collective-security organization that would likely have made Wilson proud. The first obligated all members to resolve disputes peacefully, if need be through the organization’s own mediating machinery. Failure to comply in this process or with its outcome would be interpreted as intent to violate international peace and automatically elicit any measures—diplomatic, economic, or military—necessary to maintain or restore it. The second blueprint retained these features while clearly establishing the authority of the organization’s general membership over regional organizations of states. To be sure, both plans catered to Roosevelt’s insistence on an outsized role for the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—the “Four Policemen” he thought would and should carry the weight of any world body’s responsibilities. Still, both also restricted the veto of the great powers, barring its use in cases of threats to peace and thus compelling deployment of national forces should two-thirds of the Executive Council, including three of the four permanent members, conclude upon it.65

The architecture ultimately agreed upon by the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain replaced this deliberative yet expedient system with one granting each permanent member of an ironically named “Security Council” an absolute veto over all substantive Council decisions, including application and enforcement of sanctions. It is tempting to assume that the veto was the price of great-power participation in any successor to the League. Indeed Stalin, and more tactfully Churchill, presented obstacles to a Wilsonian organization. But American anti-Wilsonians were equally responsible for the now-familiar constraints on the United Nations’ political and peace-keeping functions.

Roosevelt often seemed as skeptical as his counterparts toward an organization hinging on the Wilsonian principle of deliberation. When relations with the Soviets were warmest, he made no effort to establish its importance, assuming that the alignment of interests and coordination of action achieved among the great powers during wartime could be maintained informally during peacetime. Later he came to favor the veto, anxious to preserve total control over deployment of US forces. Meanwhile, the dominant attitude of Republican leaders in Congress had not changed much from the days of Lodge: prominent “internationalist” powerbrokers like Senator Arthur Vandenberg made support for US membership in a postwar organization contingent upon a veto. Hull, knowing Roosevelt’s inclinations and recalling the League’s defeat, arranged for congressional resolutions endorsing clear derogations of national sovereignty to be bottled up in committee, even as he tried to convince Roosevelt to accept a voting procedure permitting permanent Council members to refuse participation in enforcement actions without preventing them entirely.

But Roosevelt was committed to great-power unanimity—and thus unilateralism. Perhaps the dynamics of the US–Soviet relationship would have precluded any other course. Regardless, if a new American consensus on international engagement had indeed emerged to shape the future of US foreign policy, it was not a Wilsonian consensus. Nor were conditions favorable for a Wilsonian peace. After Roosevelt’s death his territorial concessions to Stalin—and the latter’s intention to keep them—raised the specter of a communist Europe among Americans, while American nuclear diplomacy—which included Westminster and excluded Moscow—confirmed Stalin’s fears of capitalist encirclement. From the moment the charter of the United Nations Organization was ratified in October 1945, its promising capacities in realms such as cultural diplomacy, world health, and disaster relief have been undermined by the competitive nationalism and political unilateralism it was intended to constrain.

The Un-Wilsonian Century Continued: From Cold War to the Present

And yet, for many commentators “Wilsonian” is the descriptor of choice for US foreign relations in the postwar era, and even during the 20th century as a whole. Certainly one can identify individual policies that were Wilsonian in spirit, and perhaps short periods in which the general thrust of policymaking was multilateralist. The Marshall Plan provided American aid to rebuild the economies and infrastructure of Europe without dictating the form of its political and social institutions, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offered at least a small club of democracies the assurance of military aid in the event of attack. Neither, however, combined political and security functions in a broadly representative body the way Wilson envisioned.

The Bretton Woods system of economic cooperation that the United States helped establish functioned well for decades after 1945, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank remain powerful. Still, these institutions resemble the UN in the privileges granted to the United States and other historic powers. Arguably more Wilsonian were Truman’s effort to circumvent Soviet obstruction of UN police action in Korea; Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in Latin America; Carter’s assertion of global human rights as a national and international security concern; and Clinton’s aborted effort to enlarge the Security Council.

But to create a balance sheet of diplomatic initiatives that Wilson would and would not have supported is a poor means to assess his place in historical memory. It is simpler—and more revealing—just to list some of the major postwar US policies to acquire the “Wilsonian” sobriquet: Truman’s militarization and globalization of communist containment; Eisenhower’s support of right-wing coups in the third world; Kennedy’s adventurism in Cuba; Johnson’s escalation of military involvement in southeast Asia; Reagan’s reprise of Eisenhower’s policies; George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq; all are routinely described as “Wilsonian,” yet none involved or credibly advanced the multilateral resolution of disputes or cooperative pursuit of international goals. Each may share other features—good, bad, and ugly—with several of Wilson’s policies, but unless every direct intervention by the United States in world affairs since 1776 is also to be labeled “Wilsonian,” it is hard to see how these later policies deserve the name.

This eclipse of Wilson by “Wilsonianism” is partly explained by two elaborations of interwar revisionism after 1945. On the one hand, so-called “realists” promoted the revisionist notion that intervention in World War I was naïve and purposeless. Increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a worldwide, open-ended conflict with communism, they constructed a narrative of American history in which idealism and moralism consistently trumped prudent calculations of national interest, drawing parallels between Wilson—the last president to mobilize the nation against a distant rather than immediate threat—and the Cold Warriors of the 1950s. On the other hand, a new band of “revisionist” historians adopted their predecessors’ argument that the ultimate drivers of intervention in 1917 were commercial. Also alarmed by the Cold War, including their government’s multiplying efforts to impose anticommmunist governments on postcolonial peoples, they constructed a narrative in which the quest for markets and resources consistently outweighed democratic scruples abroad and at home, a balance tipped further, in both cases, by racism.

Meanwhile, the full consequences of Wilson’s failure to distinguish his internationalist vision from the ethnic-nationalist ideology Lenin had preached were being felt throughout the Global South. Disillusion with the Peace of Paris had inflamed anticolonial nationalism in the provinces of Europe’s remaining empires. The half-built League of Nations was not the facilitator of negotiated reform and evolving autonomy that many African, Asian, and South-Asian activists had hoped, and revolutionary independence movements consequently gained momentum. As the French and British empires crumbled in the decades after 1945, a proliferation of purportedly ethnic yet empirically heterogeneous “self-determining” nation-states transformed the international order. The persistent conflation of Wilson’s politically integrative vision with these politically fissiparous developments reinforced both the realist narrative of Wilson the builder of fancy sandcastles and the revisionist narrative of Wilson the Trojan Horse of embattled empires.

Although hardly monolithic, these narratives grew dominant as more and more Americans came to see their government’s postwar interventionism as either aimless or misguided. In the writings of many historians the narratives merged. In the past twenty years a few have offered a counternarrative emphasizing Wilson’s central aim of a workable, adaptable, incrementally improvable structure for international cooperation. Yet despite critical acclaim, they seem barely to have dented the consensus on Wilson’s wrongness, the League’s hopelessness, and sovereignty’s ideological invulnerability. Certainly few US policymakers and even fewer of the hardheaded sorts who tend to monopolize their counsel give much thought to the potential, and potential benefits, of pushing the international order toward a configuration of “the American type—of governments joined with governments for the pursuit of common purposes, in honorary equality and honorable subordination” to the whole. In that sense Wilson’s Wilsonianism has been an utter failure and mostly forgotten.


We need not scrub Wilson’s record of its many dark marks in order to distinguish him from the ersatz “Wilsonians” of later decades. Nor must we ignore Wilson’s blind spots to be challenged by his vision. To argue that Wilson’s “Wilsonianism” is distinct from Roosevelt’s, or Johnson’s, or George W. Bush’s is not to pretend that Wilson never played power politics or brought grief to foreign peoples. It is to say that he articulated a radically different world role for the United States—and pursued a more radically egalitarian agenda for international politics—than his predecessors and successors did. If “Wilsonianism” did not happen to contain Wilson’s name, it might be left to others, and another term found to describe his distinct contributions to internationalist thought and practice—preferably one that did not conflate these with his whole record as a statesman. It should probably be discarded entirely as too confused and confusing to be useful. But as stated at the outset, its hold on the political vocabulary is tenacious.

Still, for the concept of “Wilsonianism” to regain any analytical utility, the elements distinguishing it from all other varieties of US engagement with the world must be carefully identified and described, their context understood, and their consequences examined. Embracing global interdependence and acknowledging national fallibility, Wilson sought to foster habits of global governance through institutionalized processes of deliberative discourse and cooperative problem-solving. His conception of those processes was inspired by his progressive view of the American system’s actual and potential capacity to manage, through social inquiry and public experimentation, the tensions that characterize the democratic project. His hopes for those processes depended upon the clear commitment of all participants to accept their outcomes and imperatives.

Wilson personally failed to uphold that commitment in March 1920 and lost the League fight in the Senate. That outcome proves little but that Wilson was human and succumbed to deficits of health and character. It certainly does not prove that his vision should be revived. But nor does it prove that it could not or should not be. It simply illustrates Wilson’s insight that our cultural and political environments are molded by willful, fallible human beings and that dogmatic assumptions about the essential or necessary nature of those environments constrain action in the present more than they explain it in the past.

Discussion of the Literature

As aptly noted by historian John A. Thompson, “Wilsonianism” is and always has been “a conflicted concept.”66 The bulk of the literature on Wilson’s broad vision for international politics is elliptical, arranging itself around two distinct interpretive poles. The view of Wilson as a moralistic, self-righteous, wooly-headed naïf, deluding himself and the public with an impossible vision of global democracy that ignored the most basic political realities, has a venerable pedigree boasting such distinguished names as John Maynard Keynes, E. H. Carr, and Walter Lippmann.67 After 1945 several self-conscious “realists” extended Carr’s and Lippmann’s analyses to make Wilson the archetype of a misguided idealist tradition in American foreign policy, a simple but powerful heuristic that still shapes the political science literature.68 Only in recent decades have historians offered more balanced and historically substantiated critiques of Wilson’s foreign policy from a realist perspective. Even these, however, tend to read the past backward through the lens of the League’s failures, while declining either to outline clear criteria for identifying the “national interest” prospectively (rather than in hindsight) or to confront the possibility that both interests and options are constituted and constrained by societal values.69

The opposite (yet no more flattering) view of Wilson as a cynical imperialist has long been the most prevalent among historians. In the late 1950s and 1960s historians of the so-called “Wisconsin School” recast the history of American foreign policy—including during the Wilson administration—as the history of American economic imperialism, prompting others to interpret the major phase of Wilson’s foreign policy—from the Fourteen Points through the Paris peace negotiations—in an anti-bolshevist framework.70 As historians in subsequent decades turned increasingly to analytics of gender and race to explain the past, the view of Wilson as the tool of capitalists gave way to the view of Wilson as a chauvinistic ideologue asserting American mastery over underdeveloped, unmanly, non-white peoples. Today non-specialists overwhelmingly view nationalist and racist chauvinism as essential to Wilson’s vision for a new world order, and some erstwhile realists have wedded this left-liberal critique to their call for a foreign policy focused on immediate threats and interests rather than “nation building” abroad.71

Despite the dominance of these two schools, there have always been dissenters and outliers. Denna Frank Fleming, the pre-eminent student of US relations with the League of Nations between the world wars, and Arthur S. Link, Wilson biographer and editor of the 69-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson, stand out among early examples.72 In more recent decades diplomatic, intellectual, political, and international historians have discovered a Wilson whose thought and policies combined idealism and realism in pursuit of a world order that was both revolutionary and prudent, or at the very least useful in stretching the practical and conceptual limits to equitable political integration among states. The same scholars tend to blame historical contingencies and the human frailties of American statesmen, including Wilson, for the failure of his vision to materialize more fully. Most also find chauvinism and racism at play in Wilson’s interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean (and to a lesser extent the Philippines) while emphasizing the evolution of his views, motives, and policies during his presidency toward greater inclusivity and accountability in global affairs.73

Interpretations of Wilson’s legacy for US foreign policy also fall into two main groups: those emphasizing the dominance of a “Wilsonian” posture and those stressing its absence. The first group is a motley one. As noted above, the early realists and their successors, especially among students and critics of American “grand strategy” (defined by realist Barry Posen as “a nation-state’s theory about how to produce security for itself”) tend to portray Wilson as the father of an expansive, even comprehensive, yet undisciplined quest for American global influence.74 Other scholars have lamented such arrogant, on-our-terms internationalism—better termed “globalism”—for hampering the embrace of multilateral initiatives and acceptance of international restraints that Wilson advocated, while simultaneously implicating Wilson in the process; the eminent political scientist Stanley Hoffmann dubbed such ironic efforts to promote democracy the “Wilsonian syndrome.”75 Even careful historians more attuned to the integrative features of Wilson’s vision have conflated America’s complicity in a system of superpower dominance and obstruction of global governance after 1945 with a Wilsonian “triumph of internationalism” that marks the 20th century as “the Wilsonian Century.”76 After the fall of communism in Europe, major works identified the exportation of democratic institutions, by force if necessary, as the defining feature of Wilson’s foreign policy and of American grand strategy in the 20th century.77 Finally, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, writers of various political persuasions have portrayed Wilson as a prehistoric neoconservative, whose direct descendants include Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.78 For John A. Thompson such confusion reflects the ambiguous character both of Wilson’s Wilsonianism and its legacy in American foreign relations, involving on the one hand a commitment to a “comprehensive system of collective security,” including “regimes of all types,” and on the other a commitment to promoting democracy, self-determination, and human rights wherever they are threatened or suppressed.79

Far smaller and more homogeneous is the group of scholars portraying Wilson as an outlier, even unique, among the figures who have shaped American foreign policy. This group’s membership largely consists of scholars dissatisfied with the realist and left-liberal critiques of Wilson himself, and their alternative interpretations are unlikely to conjure images of other policymakers in the minds of readers. In their reading, Woodrow Wilson believed that the only way to prevent another world cataclysm was to recognize global interdependence and organize the international community around the principle of deliberative self-government. Wilson insisted that the United States commit itself to the collective formulation and execution of strategies for maintaining peace and promoting well-being worldwide, to create conditions under which domestic democracy could arise and thrive. He denied that American power could ultimately maintain national security; to the contrary, national security depended on collective security, which in turn depended on the inclusive, cooperative identification and pursuit of common international interests, not American moral or political dictates. Hence Wilson’s goal was the gradual development of a powerful deliberative body, with whatever degree of sovereignty over its members’ activities was demanded by peace and justice. Regardless of how compelling that goal was in Wilson’s day or after, goes this argument, no one else with power to pursue it has done so with any vigor.80

This is not to deny the continued influence of Wilson’s ideas and their consequences on the discourse surrounding American foreign policy. In the wake of the Iraq invasion, for instance, both liberal and conservative intellectuals proposed versions of a “community” or “league” of democracies to foster more prudent and publicly defensible responses to threats, abuses, and crises through established multilateral mechanisms.81 Still, such proposals serve mostly to highlight the persistence of historical narratives that constrict and distort the lessons of Wilson’s era. Everybody knows that Wilson had a vision for a League of Nations and that something called the League of Nations failed; consequently, most assume that the fates of both are inextricable and final. Thus the few modern conservatives to propose a league of democracies explicitly prioritize national sovereignty and independent foreign-policymaking above all collective imperatives, assuming that the alternative was tried, and failed, in the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile their liberal-institutionalist counterparts hesitate to discuss a universal, integrative, flexible system of global governance as a reasonable goal, however long-term, toward which work must begin, perhaps to avoid being tarred as “idealists.” G. John Ikenberry, perhaps the leading liberal-institutionalist analyst of international relations, is a case in point: although his own belief in the importance of multilateral institutions owes much to the brand of Wilsonianism that inspired millions during World War I, Ikenberry sees Wilson as a man ahead of his time, and our own, a prophet whose call for significant concessions of sovereignty to a “world democratic order” was—and remains—“a bridge too far.”82 Of all the disparate claims to be found in the vast literature on Wilson and his legacy, this last is perhaps the most representative.

Primary Sources

Along with the sources and works cited in the notes to the main essay and historiographical essay, the following should be among those consulted by students of Wilson and his legacy, both in history and in the literature on American foreign relations.

Manuscript Collections

Baker, Ray Stannard. Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

    House, Edward M. Diary and Papers. Stirling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.Find this resource:

      Inquiry Documents. American Commission to Negotiate Peace. Record Group 256. National Archives, College Park, MD.Find this resource:

        Lippmann, Walter. Papers. Stirling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.Find this resource:

          Lodge, Henry Cabot. Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.Find this resource:

            United States Congress, Senate. Record Group 46. National Archives, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

              Wilson, Woodrow. Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

                Woodrow Wilson Library. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

                  Documentary Collections and Contemporary Accounts

                  Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. 69 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966–1994.Find this resource:

                    Mantoux, Paul. The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24—June 28, 1919): Notes of the Official Interpreter. 2 vols. Arthur S. Link with Manfred F. Boemke, trans. and eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                      Miller, David Hunter. The Drafting of the Covenant. 2 vols. New York: Putnam’s, 1928.Find this resource:

                        Shotwell, James T. At the Paris Peace Conference. New York: Macmillan, 1937.Find this resource:

                          United States Congress. Congressional Record. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1873–.Find this resource:

                            United States, Department of State. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The Lansing Papers. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939–1940.Find this resource:

                              United States, Department of State. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The Paris Peace Conference, 1919. 13 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942–1947.Find this resource:

                                Further Reading

                                Historiographical Works

                                Kennedy, Ross A., ed. A Companion to Woodrow Wilson. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.Find this resource:

                                  Pedersen, Susan. “Back to the League of Nations.” American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (2007): 1091–1117.Find this resource:

                                    Biographies and Intellectual Biographies

                                    Baker, Ray Stannard. Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters. New York: Greenwood, 1968.Find this resource:

                                      Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

                                        Link, Arthur S. Wilson. 5 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947–1965.Find this resource:

                                          Mulder, John M. Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

                                            Thompson. John A. Woodrow Wilson: Profiles in Power. London: Pearson, 2002.Find this resource:

                                              Thorsen, Niels Aage. The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson, 1875–1910. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                                                Weinstein, Edwin M. Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

                                                  Monographs and Articles

                                                  Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonian Statecraft: Theory and Practice of Liberal Internationalism During World War I. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1991.Find this resource:

                                                    Birdsall, Paul. Versailles Twenty Years After. New York: Reynall & Hitchcock, 1941.Find this resource:

                                                      Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                        Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War. Revised and expanded ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                          Gilderhus, Mark T. Pan-American Visions: Woodrow Wilson in the Western Hemisphere, 1913–1921. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986.Find this resource:

                                                            Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

                                                              Ikenberry, G. John. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                                Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                                                                  Kennedy, Ross A. The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                                                    Kuehl, Warren F. Seeking World Order: The United States and International Organization to 1920. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969.Find this resource:

                                                                      Kuehl, Warren F., and Lynne Dunn. Keeping the Covenant: American Internationalists and the League of Nations, 1920–1939. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                                                        Layne, Christopher. The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                                                          Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1978.Find this resource:

                                                                            Manela, Erez. “A Man Ahead of His Time? Wilsonian Globalism and the Doctrine of Preemption.” International Journal 60, no. 4 (2005): 1115–1124.Find this resource:

                                                                              May, Ernest R. The World War and American Isolation, 1914–1917. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.Find this resource:

                                                                                Pedersen, Susan. The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Pestritto, Ronald J. Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Pomerance, Michla. “The United States and Self-Determination: Perspectives on the Wilsonian Conception.” American Journal of International Law 70 (1976): 1–27.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Rathbun, Brian C. Trust in International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics, and American Multilateralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Smith, Tony. Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Steiner, Zara. The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919–1933. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Tillman, Seth P. Anglo-American Relations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Tucker, Robert W. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Walters, F. P. A History of the League of Nations. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Yellin, Eric. Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:


                                                                                                    (1.) Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, 15th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901), 9; and Wilson, The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics, 15th ed. (1889; Boston: D.C. Heath, 1909), 613–615, 623–625, 631–632.

                                                                                                    (2.) Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908), 23.

                                                                                                    (3.) Wilson, The State, 575–576.

                                                                                                    (4.) Woodrow Wilson, “The Ideals of America” (1901), in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 vols., ed. Arthur S. Link et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966–1994), 12: 225–226.

                                                                                                    (5.) Wilson, Constitutional Government, 23.

                                                                                                    (6.) Woodrow Wilson, “The Modern Democratic State” (1885), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 5:90, 92; Wilson, “Socialism and Democracy” (1887), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson 5:561–562. Neither essay was published; for the circumstances of their drafting, see the editorial notes in Papers of Woodrow Wilson 5:54–58, 563.

                                                                                                    (7.) Dorothy Ross, G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 62–68.

                                                                                                    (8.) Trygve Throntveit, William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic (New York: Palgrave, 2014), esp. chaps. 1, 3–4.

                                                                                                    (9.) Ross, G. Stanley Hall, 75–77, 138–143.

                                                                                                    (10.) Woodrow Wilson to Ellen Louise Axson, November 13, 1884, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 3:430. See also Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 3:335n1.

                                                                                                    (11.) Woodrow Wilson to Ellen Louise Axson, June 3, 1884, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 3:205; Granville Stanley Hall to Woodrow Wilson, August 29, 1884, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 3:311; Woodrow Wilson to Ellen Louise Axson, October 28, 1884, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 3:382; and G. Stanley Hall, Life and Confessions of a Psychologist (New York: D. Appleton, 1923), 240.

                                                                                                    (12.) William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896), in William James, The Will to Believe; and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1897), 1–31; news report of Woodrow Wilson religious address in Trenton, NJ, April 17, 1905, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 16:63–64. Compare Wilson’s notes for a “Chapel Talk,” January 13, 1895, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 9:121, which the editors determined were the same Wilson used in 1905, yet contain none of the “Jamesian” features of the later address as delivered. James’s “Will to Believe” debuted in New World 5 (June 1896), 327–347, four months before the sesquicentennial; regarding James’s honorary degree, see Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 14:295, editorial note 3.

                                                                                                    (13.) Wilson, Constitutional Government, 4.

                                                                                                    (14.) E.g., Woodrow Wilson, “Democracy and Efficiency” (1901), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 12:7–8, 16, 19.

                                                                                                    (15.) Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People, 5 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902), 5:212.

                                                                                                    (16.) Andrew Clarke Imbrie, lecture notes on Woodrow Wilson, “International Law,” Wilson Collection, Box 59, Folder 5, Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University (hereafter Imbrie notes), Lecture 8 (April 3, 1894—original emphasis), Lecture 3 (March 13, 1894). Compare Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784) and Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), in Kant: Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 41–53, 93–130.

                                                                                                    (17.) Imbrie, Wilson Collection, Lecture 2 (March 6, 1894—original emphasis), and Lecture 4, March 19, 1894.

                                                                                                    (18.) Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace, 105.

                                                                                                    (19.) Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration” (1887), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 5:380.

                                                                                                    (20.) Woodrow Wilson, “Democracy and Efficiency,” 20 (quoted); Wilson, “Religion and Patriotism” (1902), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 12:476.

                                                                                                    (21.) Woodrow Wilson, “Education and Democracy,” May 4, 1907, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 17:134–136.

                                                                                                    (22.) See T. H. Vail Motter, ed., Leaders of Men by Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), esp. 41–42, 23–24.

                                                                                                    (23.) Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government, esp. 284; Wilson, “Committee or Cabinet Government?” (1884), in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 2:614–640.

                                                                                                    (24.) John Milton Cooper Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2009), chaps. 5–6; Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The Road to the White House (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), chaps. 2–3, 7–9.

                                                                                                    (25.) Trygve Throntveit, “Philosophical Pragmatism and the Constitutional Watershed of 1912,” Political Science Quarterly 128, no. 4 (2013–2014): 617–651; and Cooper, Woodrow Wilson, 253–254, 329–330, 345–346, 376–377, 412–415.

                                                                                                    (26.) The move to segregate federal offices was initiated by Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, with support from Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory, under the pretense that both races desired it. Wilson neither endorsed nor objected to the plan, though he defended his lieutenants’ efforts to segregate their offices throughout the summer and fall of 1913. Josephus Daniels diary, April 11, 1913, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 27:290–291; Woodrow Wilson to Oswald Garrison Villard, August 29, 1913, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 28:245–246; and William G. McAdoo to Villard, September 18, 1913, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 28:453–455.

                                                                                                    (27.) For expressions of Wilson’s pity for victimized blacks, on the one hand, and contentment to wait for an “opportunity” to act against injustice, on the other, see Woodrow Wilson to Joseph P. Tumulty, August 1, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 43:343; and Woodrow Wilson to Robert R. Moton June 18, 1918, and to George Creel, June 18, 1918, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 48:346.

                                                                                                    (28.) Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt, August 18, 1915, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 34:242

                                                                                                    (29.) A case ably made in Cooper, Woodrow Wilson, 245–248.

                                                                                                    (30.) League to Enforce Peace, The League to Enforce Peace: American Chapter (New York: League to Enforce Peace, 1915), 4.

                                                                                                    (31.) “Women Foes of War,” Washington Post, January 11, 1915; Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 6–7, 59; and Knock, To End All Wars, 55–56.

                                                                                                    (32.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “World War and the Color Line,” Crisis 9 (November 1914): 29; and Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” Atlantic Monthly 115 (May 1915): 707–714.

                                                                                                    (33.) “Security for Neutrals,” New Republic 1 (January 2, 1915), 7–8; “A League of Peace,” New Republic 2 (March 20, 1915), 168; Walter Lippmann, “Appeal to the President,” New Republic 2 (April 22, 1916): 303–305; and copy in the Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress, microfilm edition, reel 513. On p. 304 of his copy of “Appeal,” Wilson made two dark vertical lines in the margin next to the passage cited, his typical marker of interest.

                                                                                                    (34.) Woodrow Wilson, address to the Senate, January 22, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 40:533–539. For Wilson’s debt to The New Republic’s December 23 issue, see Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 40:446, editorial note 1; Wilson to Croly, January 25, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 41:13; and Wilson’s drafts before and after receiving a copy of the “Peace Without Victory” editorial from Colonel House sometime between January 5 and 11, Wilson Papers, reels 85, 479.

                                                                                                    (35.) Walter Lippmann, The Stakes of Diplomacy (New York: Macmillan, 1915), 212–217; Newton D. Baker to Lippmann, January 29, 1917, and Lippmann to Baker, January 31, 1917, Lippmann Papers, reel 2; and Wilson to Lippmann, February 3, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 41:113.

                                                                                                    (36.) Woodrow Wilson, address to a joint session of Congress, April 2, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 41:525; and W. E. B. Du Bois, “Close Ranks,” Crisis 16 (July 1918): 111.

                                                                                                    (37.) Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1917, Supplement 2: The World War, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1932), 1:162–164; Lippmann, “Memorandum for the Secretary of War,” n.d., in Baker to Woodrow Wilson, August 20, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 43:532–534; Woodrow Wilson to Baker, August 22, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 44:27; and Woodrow Wilson, draft reply to the pope, printed under Woodrow Wilson to House, August 23, 1917, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 33–36.

                                                                                                    (38.) Woodrow Wilson, address to a joint session of Congress, January 8, 1918, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 45:534–539; Sidney Edward Mezes, David Hunter Miller, and Walter Lippmann, “The Present Situation: The War Aims and Peace Terms it Suggests,” December 22, 1917, printed under January 4, 1918, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 45:459–474; Lippmann and Frank I. Cobb, memorandum, printed under House to Wilson, October 29, 1918, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 51:495–504; Lippmann, Fourteen Points draft, with glosses, Lippmann Papers, reel 35; and Lippman, “The Reminiscences of Walter Lippmann,” Columbia University Oral History Collection, Part 2, no. 118, 15–17.

                                                                                                    (39.) Trygve Throntveit, “The Fable of the Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson and National Self-Determination,” Diplomatic History 35, no. 3 (June 2011): 445–481.

                                                                                                    (40.) The following paragraph is based on Cromwell A. Riches, The Unanimity Rule and the League of Nations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), chap. 1; and David Hunter Miller, The Drafting of the Covenant, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928).

                                                                                                    (41.) Literary Digest 60 (March 1, 1919): 11–13; and Current Opinion 69 (September 1920): 1–7.

                                                                                                    (42.) Federal Council Bulletin 2 (January 1919): 12–14; and Federal Council Bulletin 2 (March 1919): 42; Federal Council Bulletin 2 (June 1919): 94; New York Times, July 20, 1919; New Era Magazine 25 (July 1919), 371–372 (Presbyterian Church); The Biblical World 53 (November 1919), 594–617, esp. 609 (Northern Baptists); Journal of the Twenty-Eight Delegated Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church . . . 1920 (New York, n.d.), 145–198, esp. 193, 195, 197 (Methodist Episcopal). Frederick H. Lynch asserted that the Federal Council represented 33 million congregants in a letter to Wilson printed under January 25, 1919, in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 54:277.

                                                                                                    (43.) Annual Report of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, 1919 (New York: FCCCA, 1919), 116–121; and Federal Council Bulletin 2 (December 1919): 186.

                                                                                                    (44.) See Handbook of the National Catholic War Council (Washington, DC: NCWC, 1918), 1.

                                                                                                    (45.) CCAR Yearbook 29 (Cincinnati, OH: C. J. Krehbiel, 1919), 100; Proceedings of the Eleventh General Convention of the Constitution Grand Lodge, Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, 21–100, esp. 85, copy in Records of B’nai B’rith, District # 2, Ms Coll. 36, Box B-33, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH; Fifth and Sixth Annual Reports and Proceedings of the Third Biennial Meeting of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, Boston, 1919, 31, in Proceedings . . . 1913–1923 (n.p., 1923), copy in Women for Reform Judaism Records, Ms. Coll. 73, Box 1, American Jewish Archives.

                                                                                                    (46.) Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Jubilee Convention (New York: NWS, 1919), 249; and New-York Tribune, January 14, 1920, 1–2.

                                                                                                    (47.) Red Cross Bulletin 3 (January 13, 1919): 5; Red Cross Bulletin 3 (March 3, 1919), 8; and Red Cross Bulletin 3 (June 2, 1919): 1–2. ARC membership numbers are taken from the official reports printed in the March 3 and October 20, 1919, issues of the Bulletin.

                                                                                                    (48.) For the YMCA’s army camp activities, see James H. Beach (Associate Educational and Religious Director, YMCA National War Work Council) to Frank L. Weil, April 14, 1919, and April 22, 1919, Frank L. Weil Papers, Ms. Coll. 48, Box 2, Folder 1, American Jewish Archives.

                                                                                                    (49.) New-York Tribune, June 29, 1919; and New-York Tribune, June 20, 1920.

                                                                                                    (50.) New York Times, March 4, 1919; and New York Times, May 6, 1919; and New York Times, June 16, 1919.

                                                                                                    (51.) San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 1919; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 5, 1919; and New York Times, June 30, 1919.

                                                                                                    (52.) “Bankers Go to Paris,” New York Times, April 28, 1920.

                                                                                                    (53.) New-York Tribune, September 14, 1919; New-York Tribune, September 26, 1920; New-York Tribune, October 12, 1919; New York Times, January 11, 1920; and Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1919.

                                                                                                    (54.) Reported in Presbyterian Advance 20 (January 22, 1920): 5.

                                                                                                    (55.) David W. Levy, Herbert Croly of The New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 271–272.

                                                                                                    (56.) Addams, Peace and Bread, 189; W. E. B. Du Bois, “The League of Nations,” Crisis 18 (May 1919): 10–11. For Trotter and the Equal Rights League’s testimony, see Boston Daily Globe, August 29, 1919.

                                                                                                    (57.) See, e.g., the resolutions of the National League of Women Voters, 1922 annual convention, copy in Louise Leonard Wright Papers, Box 1, Folder 19, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

                                                                                                    (58.) See, e.g., Quincy Wright, Research in International Law Since the War: A Report to the International Relations Committee of the Social Science Research Council (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1930).

                                                                                                    (59.) The term “interwar” is highly problematic, restricting the meaning and importance of events from 1919 to 1939 to their role in the advent of World War II and thereby overdetermining the latter. Alas, like “Wilsonianism,” it is hard to escape, especially when seeking period modifiers for distinct phenomena sharing a name.

                                                                                                    (60.) Frederick Bausman, Let France Explain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1922); John Kenneth Turner, Shall It Be Again? (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1922); and Harry Elmer Barnes, “Assessing the Blame for the World War: A Revised Judgment Based on All the Available Documents,” Current History 20 (May 1924): 171–195.

                                                                                                    (61.) Harry Elmer Barnes, “The Revisionist Viewpoint Corroborated,” Christian Century 42 (November 26, 1925): 1478.

                                                                                                    (62.) Charles Beard, The Idea of National Interest (New York: Macmillan, 1934).

                                                                                                    (63.) H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Arms Industry (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1934). The Senate Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry, chaired by Gerald P. Nye (R-ND), was organized on April 12, 1934, and delivered its final report on February 24, 1936.

                                                                                                    (64.) E.g., Charles Beard, The Devil Theory of War (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1936). More sympathetic to Wilson, and blaming the capitalist system generally for the war, was C. Hartley Grattan, Preface to Chaos (New York: F. Dodge, 1936).

                                                                                                    (65.) The plans are reprinted in Ruth B. Russell, A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States, 1940–1945 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1958), 472–485, 526–534.

                                                                                                    (66.) John A. Thompson, “Wilsonianism: Dynamics of a Conflicted Concept,” International Affairs 86, no. 1 (2010): 27–48.

                                                                                                    (67.) John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919); E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1940); and Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943). See also Thomas A. Bailey, Wilson and the Peacemakers (New York: Macmillan, 1947).

                                                                                                    (68.) George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); Hans J. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy (New York: Knopf, 1951); Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953); Roland N. Stromberg, Collective Security and American Foreign Policy: From the League of Nations to NATO (New York: Praeger, 1963). A recent example equating “Wilsonianism” with the effort to export American political practices and achieve “liberal hegemony” is Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

                                                                                                    (69.) Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Ross A. Kennedy, The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009).

                                                                                                    (70.) See, e.g., William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: World, 1959); Carl P. Parrini, Heir to Empire: United States Economic Diplomacy, 1916–1923 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969). The subtlest argument that practical and ideological considerations of political economy shaped the basic contours of Wilson’s policymaking is N. Gordon Levin, Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America’s Response to War and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). Useful, but exaggerating the importance of antibolshevism to Wilson’s thinking, are Arno J. Mayer, Wilson vs. Lenin: Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917–1918 (Cleveland, OH: World, 1964); Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919 (New York: Knopf, 1967); and David S. Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

                                                                                                    (71.) Important works in which Wilson’s political aims are a relevant, harshly criticized, but not intensively researched factor include Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); Recently Ambrosius has attempted to marry such critiques with his longstanding realist analysis; see “Democracy, Peace, and World Order,” in Cooper, Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson.

                                                                                                    (72.) Denna Frank Fleming, The United States and the League of Nations, 1918–1920 (New York: Putnam’s, 1932); and Arthur S. Link, Wilson the Diplomatist: A Look at His Major Foreign Policies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957)

                                                                                                    (73.) See Frederick S. Calhoun, Power and Principle: Armed Intervention in Wilsonian Foreign Policy (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1986); Kendrick J. Clements, Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (Boston: Twayne, 1987); Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1992); John Milton Cooper Jr., Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001); Steven J. Bucklin, Realism and American Foreign Policy: Wilsonians and the Kennan-Morgenthau Thesis (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001); Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Trygve Throntveit, Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

                                                                                                    (74.) Posen, Restraint, 1. See also Ronald Steel, Pax Americana (New York: Penguin, 1967); John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), esp. 43, 53; and Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014).

                                                                                                    (75.) Stanley Hoffmann, Gulliver’s Troubles; Or, the Setting of American Foreign Policy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968). See also David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972).

                                                                                                    (76.) Robert Divine, Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America During World War II (New York: Atheneum, 1967); Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

                                                                                                    (77.) See especially Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); and G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

                                                                                                    (78.) Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (New York: Knopf, 2004); David M. Kennedy, “What ‘W’ owes to ‘WW’,” Atlantic Monthly, March, 2005, 36–40; Melvin P. Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 29, no. 3 (2005): 395–413; Tony Smith, A Pact with the Devil: Washington’s Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (New York: Routledge, 2007); and Joan Hoff, A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

                                                                                                    (79.) Thompson, “Wilsonianism,” 30.

                                                                                                    (80.) The strongest version of this interpretation is foreshadowed in Throntveit, “Fable of the Fourteen Points,” and argued in detail in Throntveit, Power Without Victory. See also Knock, To End All Wars; Thomas J. Knock, “‘Playing for a Hundred Years Hence’: Woodrow Wilson’s Internationalism and His Would-Be Heirs,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century, eds. G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 25–52; and Cooper, Woodrow Wilson. For a contrasting and atypical reading of Wilson’s vision as distinct from most 20th-century American statesmen but flawed in its rejection of traditional alliance politics, see Robert W. Tucker, “The Triumph of Wilsonianism?” World Policy Journal 10, no. 4 (1993/1994): 83–99.

                                                                                                    (81.) See, e.g., Ann-Marie Slaughter, The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World (New York: Basic Books, 2007); and Robert Kagan, the Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008).

                                                                                                    (82.) G. John Ikenberry, “Woodrow Wilson, the Bush Administration, and the Future of Liberal Internationalism,” in Ikenberry, Knock, Slaughter, and Smith, Crisis of American Foreign Policy, 1–24, esp. 15.