Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America's Neutrality, 1914-1917

By Lengel, Edward G. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America's Neutrality, 1914-1917


Lengel, Edward G., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America's Neutrality, 1914-1917 * Robert W. Tucker * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007 * xviii, 246 pp. * $39.50

Reviewed by Edward G. Lengel, professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (2008).

Few presidents have been dogged by stereotype and cliché more than Woodrow Wilson. His policies during the First World War and its aftermath have alternately inspired and infuriated historians, usually in keeping with their politics. Tucker (professor emeritus of American diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University) provides a refreshingly objective reassessment of Wilson and his approach to foreign policy. Focusing on the years before American intervention in the war, Tucker argues that the president's single-minded attachment to his conception of the law of neutrality, combined with his belief in the conflict's essential amorality, underpinned almost the entirety of his approach to international diplomacy. Wilson's sense of internationalism, moreover, depended on the establishment of a new global order in which war had become a thing of the past.

Wilson's conception of neutrality, Tucker argues, can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who had regarded it as integral to the maintenance of national honor, prestige, and even independence. For both presidents, neutrality did not equate with isolationism. Instead, it depended on the assertion of neutral rights - especially the rights of maritime trade - even at the risk of war. In times of peace, this distinction did not matter much; in times of global war, in 1812 as in 1914, assertive neutrality would become almost impossible to maintain without abandoning the isolationism that most Americans cherished. The result, in both instances, was war.

Wilson's efforts to maintain and assert neutrality would be complicated by two major factors: America's growing economic might and the president's messianic sense of his country's role as an international beacon of freedom. …

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