Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

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

to an accurate perception of the meaning of events, or does it merely carry them through a series of contemporary stresses, producing with every new generation a new and different distortion of a past we can no longer understand on its own terms?


4.
Ernest R. May: The Last Crisis

In the passage below, taken from the final chapter of his The World War and American Isolation: 1914-1917 ( 1959), Ernest R. May summarizes Wilson's options in the last days prior to his decision to enter the war and evaluates American diplomacy in the neutrality period. Earlier in the book, May had discussed all the crucial events and issues that have occupied scholars -- the alleged anti-neutrality of Wilson and his circle; the wisdom of Wilson's approach to the submarine issue; the decisions on loans, passenger travel, and munitions sales; and the President's efforts to mediate a settlement. At many points, May's account appears to support the criticisms of earlier writers: that Wilson was biased in favor of the Allies, and that he was unreasonable in his opposition to even minor modifications of traditional neutral rights. Yet the book's conclusion places May squarely among Wilson's defenders. There were, May thinks, no good choices available to any American President after unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed in February (a decision which May thinks Germany need not have made in such an uncompromising form). Further, Wilson's decision to intervene was based on realistic assumptions that May finds compelling. Wilson did not fight to save American investments, nor, though he later spoke of honor and neutral rights, was he moved by meaningless abstractions. He fought because any other course would damage American "prestige" and hence impair her "influence" (a word he uses three times in an important passage on p. 427), presumably her influence to defend her own vital interests in the future. If Wilson did not define those vital interests in concrete terms, any realist would concede that the pivot of a rational diplomacy is a determination to maintain the national power. In this sense Wilson was intervening on realistic grounds, which statesmen like Metternich, Bismarck, and even TR (if it had not been for his partisanship) would surely have appreciated. An additional practical consideration that May finds in Wilson's thinking was the realization that he could best defend American interests if he occupied a belligerent's place at the peace table, rather than remaining an ineffective and distant neutral.

Thus Wilson's perception of the dilemma of his nation in the spring of 1917 seems quite astute to May, and he sees no better options than the one Wilson finally chose. Indeed, on reflecting over the entire line of Wilson's diplomacy, May acknowledges that others ( Bryan or House) might have acted differently, but he does not believe that anyone could have acted more wisely in the circumstances of the day.

The view that Wilson's diplomacy should be appraised favorably, given

From Ernest R. May, The World War and American Isolation, 1914- 1917, pp. 426-437. Copyright, © 1959 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of the Harvard University Press.

-57-

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