Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World, 1913-1921

By Arthur S. Link | Go to book overview

Chapter Six

WOODROW WILSON AND
COLLECTIVE SECURITY

HERBERT G. NICHOLAS

There are in the history of political ideas certain terms which owe their wide employment, not to their effectiveness in clarifying an issue, but rather to their success in embracing its inherent contradictions, evoking a seeming coherence while in fact preserving the elements of contrariety that have invested it with its peculiar intractability. In the history of the United States, "popular sovereignty" was such a term; in the history of the western world between the wars, "collective security" was another. It is, incidentally, interesting to note that the term was slow in gaining acceptance; the earliest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1934, appropriately by Winston Churchill. 1 Yet if the verbal coinage, with its fusion of the ideas of joint action and mutual protection, had to wait until the 1930s, the concept was an indispensable part of western thinking about international relations from at least 1918 onward. In promoting the concept to this central position in the arguments of diplomats, politicians, journalists, and, eventually, voters, no one was more potent than Woodrow Wilson. He may not have fathered it, but, once he adopted it, he made it strikingly his own.

In exploring the fascinating history of Wilson's relationship with this concept, it is necessary to make the historian's effort of recreating the intellectual climate in which this relationship developed. As it happens, it all fell within my lifetime, yet it belongs to a world which has as nearly vanished as the Middle Ages. In this context, the phrase "prewar" means "pre-1914," when the international system, or lack of

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