Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART TWO
Making War and Making Peace: 1914-1919

World War I forced an old problem upon the American nation in a new and difficult form. The problem was America's proper relation to the rest of the world. What made the issue more complex and acute than ever before was the scope and savagery of the war, which occurred against a background of the expansion of American international economic contacts and the modernization of weaponry and communications. In an incredibly short and eventful five years, 1914-1919, decisions were reached as to how to comprehend new challenges in foreign affairs, and how to meet them. These decisions decisively shaped the future. They could not be revoked after 1920, despite sentiment in that direction. The essence of these American decisions was simple: it was to intervene abroad with military, economic, and diplomatic power on a continuous basis and to whatever degree required by vital American interests. The distinctive timing, shape, and justification for the new involvement owed much to the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, who happened to be President during the period when foreign policy questions were most insistent. Long after he was dead and his opponents thought they had discredited his work, the active world role for America had become permanent.

Historians have for fifty years probed for the causes of this shift toward the hazardous, costly American role of world participant. In the 1920s and 1930s the involvement seemed a mistake; and scholars located the source of the error in the strategically placed influence of a few bankers and munitions manufacturers, and in the runaway idealism and messianic self-conception of Woodrow Wilson. But a new interpretation of the Wilson period emerged after World War II. Scholars who approved of the American leadership of world anti-fascism ( 1941-1945) and anti-communism ( 1945- ) were sure to find deeper and weighter reasons for an active role during World War I than the economic greed of a group of bankers or the peculiarities of Wilson's Presbyterian conscience. One need only consult the work of the leading scholars of that period, such as Arthur Link ( 1954; 1957), George Kennan ( 1950), Robert Osgood ( 1953), Hans Morgenthau ( 1950), Edward Buehrig ( 1956), or Ernest May ( 1959) (reprinted below), to find those deeper reasons. American involvement in European affairs was made inevitable by developments beyond the control of any individual -- chiefly, by the shrinking of the globe at the hands of modern technology, and by the geographical and cultural bonds between Great Britain and the United States. The President who ordered our participation in World War I need not be explained as a headlong idealist, these scholars thought. Realistic considerations counseled the course he

-55-

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