Wilson and the Problems
of Neutrality, 1914–1917
For Woodrow Wilson, who had a positive disinclination to play the game of power politics, events on the international stage intruded fatefully from 1914 to 1917. By the spring of 1915, the United States was the only great power not directly involved in the war then raging from Europe to the Far East. Wilson desired only to deal fairly with both sides, to avoid military involvement, and to bring the war to an end as rapidly as possible. Like Jefferson and Madison a century earlier, however, he soon discovered that neutrality has many perplexities and perils.
Wilson's responses to the challenges to America's peace and security raised by the death grapple of the opposing alliances is still often misunderstood, notwithstanding scores of books and articles. Historians and publicists have too often looked for culprits instead of facts. They have too often misunderstood the facts when they found them. They have too often written as if Wilson and his advisers made policies in a vacuum, independent of conflicting pressures. If we can see Wilson's policies during the period of neutrality in the light of his convictions and objectives, the events and pressures (both domestic and foreign) that constantly played upon him, and the options available to him, then we will see that his tasks in foreign policy at this most critical juncture in the twentieth century were neither simple nor easy.
The most significant pressures affecting Wilson's decisions throughout the period 1914 to 1917 were the attitudes and opinions