The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad

By Walter Lafeber | Go to book overview

10
Victors without Peace
(1917-1920)

WILSON'S APPROACH TO WAR AND PEACE

President Wilson, as he informed Congress in his war message of April 2, 1917, intended to smash the "autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their [the autocrats'] will, not by the will of the people." He emphasized, "We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship." 1

It seemed an odd way to go to war—that is, to express "friendship" for the people Americans were about to kill in large numbers. The words, nevertheless, fit Wilson's approach to the conflict. He believed that once the kaiser and other "autocrats" were destroyed, the "people" of Germany (and elsewhere) would create happier, democratic governments. Thus, he urged Americans to fight "to make the world safe for democracy." Once the "autocrats" disappeared, the mass of people would want to be democratic. Then, as he phrased it in his January 22, 1917, speech, the world could be rebuilt on "American principles."

There was idealism here, certainly, but also realism. Indeed, Wilson has become the most influential architect of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy in part because he so eloquently clothed the bleak skeleton of U.S. self-interest in the attractive garb of idealism. Nothing,

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