Between the Spanish-American war of 1898 and World War I, a progressive movement, in which Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were rival leaders, greatly extended the authority of the federal government in the nation’s domestic life, and also to some extent equipped it better to conduct foreign relations. Conscious that its economic growth had made the United States a great power, policymakers sought to expand the scope of its influence, but their ability to do so was limited by the difficulty of obtaining domestic support for actions involving significant costs. In practice, the extent to which the United States was able to affect the course of events beyond its borders varied in different regions. It established its hegemony over the Caribbean and Central America, and strengthened its political as well as economic links with the other countries in the western hemisphere. In East Asia, where it fought a brutal three-year war in the Philippines to suppress native resistance to its rule, the principal policy objective was to establish equal access for all foreign interests in China. But Washington found it difficult to uphold this Open Door principle in the face of challenges from Russia and Japan. With regard to Europe, the traditional posture of non-involvement in its great power politics was maintained, although Theodore Roosevelt and other leaders did come to see the relations of the European powers as affecting US interests, which they defined in a way that brought their perspective close to Britain’s. The establishment of peaceful methods of resolving international disputes was a goal of successive administrations, but the arbitration treaties that were negotiated won Senate approval only with reservations that severely limited their scope and authority.
John A. Thompson
Ross A. Kennedy
World War I profoundly affected the United States. It led to an expansion of America’s permanent military establishment, a foreign policy focused on reforming world politics, and American preeminence in international finance. In domestic affairs, America’s involvement in the war exacerbated class, racial, and ethnic conflict. It also heightened both the ethos of voluntarism in progressive ideology and the progressive desire to step up state intervention in the economy and society. These dual impulses had a coercive thrust that sometimes advanced progressive goals of a more equal, democratic society and sometimes repressed any perceived threat to a unified war effort. Ultimately the combination of progressive and repressive coercion undermined support for the Democratic Party, shifting the nation’s politics in a conservative direction as it entered the 1920s.
Justus D. Doenecke
For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements. Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy. If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.
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.
Theodore Roosevelt played a seminal role in the rise of the United States to Great Power status at the turn of the 20th century and in debates about World War I and the League of Nations. Prior to entering the White House, TR was a leading proponent of a more ambitious foreign policy. As the 26th president he promoted US predominance in the Western Hemisphere, engaged in Great Power diplomacy, and oversaw expansion of the navy. He also laid the foundations for modern presidential statecraft with forceful advocacy of specific policy goals, a close relationship with the press, and an intense engagement with public opinion. After leaving Washington, he was among the most ardent critics of president Woodrow Wilson’s policies and helped to build support for the Allies and for preparing to enter what would become the “Great War,” or World War I. At the time of his death, he was a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Scholarly and public surveys frequently rank Roosevelt among the most successful presidents, especially in the realm of foreign policy. His influence can be observed in successors as diverse as Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Yet historians have also scrutinized his views on race, gender, imperialism, and violence, many of which appear outdated or problematic from an early-21st-century perspective. Also troubling was Roosevelt’s demonization of antiwar activists during World War I and his sometimes heavy-handed attempts to promote loyalty among citizens of German or Irish descent.
Although the League of Nations was the first permanent organization established with the purpose of maintaining international peace, it built on the work of a series of 19th-century intergovernmental institutions. The destructiveness of World War I led American and British statesmen to champion a league as a means of maintaining postwar global order. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson followed his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, in advocating American membership of an international peace league, although Wilson’s vision for reforming global affairs was more radical. In Britain, public opinion had begun to coalesce in favor of a league from the outset of the war, though David Lloyd George and many of his Cabinet colleagues were initially skeptical of its benefits. However, Lloyd George was determined to establish an alliance with the United States and warmed to the league idea when Jan Christian Smuts presented a blueprint for an organization that served that end. The creation of the League was a predominantly British and American affair. Yet Wilson was unable to convince Americans to commit themselves to membership in the new organization. The Franco-British-dominated League enjoyed some early successes. Its high point was reached when Europe was infused with the “Spirit of Locarno” in the mid-1920s and the United States played an economically crucial, if politically constrained, role in advancing Continental peace. This tenuous basis for international order collapsed as a result of the economic chaos of the early 1930s, as the League proved incapable of containing the ambitions of revisionist powers in Europe and Asia. Despite its ultimate limitations as a peacekeeping body, recent scholarship has emphasized the League’s relative successes in stabilizing new states, safeguarding minorities, managing the evolution of colonies into notionally sovereign states, and policing transnational trafficking; in doing so, it paved the way for the creation of the United Nations.