Robert Lansing and American Neutrality, 1914-1917

By Daniel M. Smith | Go to book overview

IT IS STRANGE, indeed, that no adequate study has been made of the career of Robert Lansing, who, as counselor and as secretary of state, played so significant a role in the formulation of policy from 1914 to 1920. Of this major participant in the crucial events of America's neutrality and belligerency only one account has been written and that, by Julius W. Pratt in 1929, is hardly more than a sketch. To fill this gap in the literature of America's intervention in World War I the present work was undertaken.

A number of eminent scholars have touched upon Lansing in monographs dealing with the period of American neutrality. The most remarkable aspect of these accounts is the wide divergence in the interpretations of Lansing's contributions. One group has dismissed the secretary as a mere legal clerk who simply affixed his signature and the department's seal to decisions made by President Woodrow Wilson. The president and his peripatetic advisor, Colonel Edward Mandell House, have emerged as the real policy makers. Samuel Flagg Bemis, one of the leading writers in the field of American diplomacy, has epitomized this view when he pithily described Lansing as a "political funambulator, walking the unsteady tightwire of neutrality to the end, leaving the decisions to others."

Other historians have maintained that the secretary was by no means an errand boy for Wilson and House but that he served, rather, as an important figure in the policy-making process. There is still a third group of writers who have ascribed to Lansing a decisive influence on the formulation of American policy. Even within these latter two groups there is a difference of opinion. Edwin M. Borchard has characterized Lansing as one who "seems to have fumbled nearly every legal issue." Charles Callan Tansill has criticized the secretary savagely for having been a tool of the financial and industrial interests. Richard W. Van Alstyne, on the other hand, has portrayed Lansing as a far-sighted statesman whose conduct was impelled by the loftiest motives.

These divergencies might be attributed to a number of factors. Those writers who have assigned an inconsequential role to Lansing were probably conditioned by their views of Lansing's very modest and reticent personality vis-à-vis the more dynamic Wilson and House, and by the lack of pertinent historical materials. As more private collections and diplomatic documents became available, it was no longer possible to dismiss Lansing as of little or no consequence. However, though

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