Entry into the First World War revealed the entanglement of interest and idealism that has long characterized American politics and thought. Yet, apart from fears about the disruption of international commerce, few Americans regarded the outbreak of another war in the Balkans as a matter demanding serious attention or concern. Still fewer could have predicted that by 1917 American troops would have crossed the Atlantic to fight and die on French soil. This extraordinary transformation of public opinion and foreign policy signaled an equally remarkable change in attitude, as both the American people and their leaders abandoned the familiar effort to dominate the Western Hemisphere and set out instead to save the world.

Trade and salvation seem irreconcilable opposites. But for American thinkers and policymakers they had been inextricably linked since at least the end of the nineteenth century. Americans had been expansionist even before the birth of the Republic, chaffing, for example, at the British prohibition against settlement west of the Appalachians. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as the population of the United States grew and moved westward, the American government continually acquired new land: the Northwest Territory, the Louisiana Territory, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and, after the Civil War, Alaska. It was, many Americans agreed, the “manifest destiny” of the United States to become a continental empire.

During the late nineteenth century, with little remaining potential for territorial growth, Americans began to look overseas. By the 1870s, more than two decades before Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier, expansion had come to involve the acquisition of lands separate from the United States. The economic crisis of the 1890s made an imperialist foreign policy an even more attractive expedient. The Panic of 1893 and the depression that followed brought the rapid failure of hundreds of banks and thousands of businesses, leaving four million Americans unemployed. The ominous prospects of labor violence, social chaos, and political revolution cast a pall over the United States, threatening the future of the country. Republicans and Democrats agreed that they had to undertake some drastic measures not only to relieve the present emergency but also to prevent its recurrence.

To many American thinkers, businessmen, and politicians, overseas expansion seemed a sensible response. Proposals to implement such a foreign policy received bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The basis of this ideological consensus rested on two assumptions. First, merchants, industrialists, and farmers complained that domestic markets were inadequate to absorb all that they produced. They had a point. In large measure, the American economy was the victim of its breathtaking success. During the 1880s and 1890s, the United States had become the leading agricultural and industrial nation in the world. But domestic consumption did not and could not keep pace with that level of productivity. As a consequence, foreign trade became an ever more vital component of American prosperity. In 1870, for instance, the value of American exports totaled $392 million. Twenty years later, by 1890, the aggregate value was $857 million and by 1900 it had surpassed $1.4 billion. In 1897, Theodore C. Search, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, encapsulated the prevailing outlook when he wrote that “many of our manufacturers have outgrown or are outgrowing their home markets and the expansion of our foreign trade is our only promise of relief.”[1] The hope to sustain American prosperity, many economists and businessmen resolved, would be determined by the ability of the government to secure access to overseas markets.

Their pleas enjoyed a hospitable reception among various diplomats and politicians. John A. Kasson, a Republican congressman from Iowa who also served in a number of diplomatic posts throughout his illustrious career, had warned readers of the North American Review as early as 1881 that “we are rapidly utilizing the whole of our continental territory. We must turn our eyes abroad, or they will soon look inward in discontent.”[2] “Today,” added Albert J. Beveridge, the future Republican senator from Indiana, in 1898, “we are raising more than we can consume. Today, we are making more than we can use. Therefore, we must find new markets for our produce. . . . While we did not need the territory taken during the past century at the time it was acquired, we do need what we have taken in 1898, and we need it now.”[3]

The second foundation of the emerging ideological consensus about the need for an imperialist foreign policy rested on political and social considerations. Just as Frederick Jackson Turner had attributed the preservation of democracy to a continuous westward advance, so, too, did American politicians and businessmen assert that overseas expansion would suppress civil unrest, forestall revolution, promote social order, and restore economic prosperity. For many Americans the issue was simple: either acquire territory and markets abroad or confront economic hardship and political upheaval at home. American prosperity, security, and democracy rested on overseas expansion. The United States could not survive as a free and wealthy nation without extending its borders and augmenting the territory and the markets under its control.

Scholars and statesmen developed a philosophical justification for American imperialism from the theories of Charles Darwin. Their argument is familiar. They contended that nations and peoples, like species, competed to exist and that only the fittest among them could, or deserved to, survive. For strong nations and peoples to dominate the weak was thus in full accord with the laws of nature. Even Darwin himself, who had rejected the application of his ideas to society, was not immune from the allure of American preeminence. In the Descent of Man, he wrote:

There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and have there succeeded best.[4]

Inspired by such sentiments, the popular American writer John Fiske was perhaps the first to predict that the English-speaking peoples would eventually rule the world, assuming power everywhere “a well-established civilization” did not exist.[5] The process by which white Americans had subjugated the native populations of their own continent was destined to repeat itself again and again in other parts of the world.

The Reverend Josiah Strong offered a similar vision. In Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, Strong declared that the Anglo-Saxon people, and especially their American variant, were ordained of God to spread civil liberty and pure Christianity (by which Strong meant Protestantism), across the globe. A “great missionary race,” the Anglo-Saxons were destined not only to transform, but also to elevate, humanity. Strong insisted that it is “to the English and American peoples that we must look for the evangelization of the world.” As the “most efficient ministers to its progress,” the Anglo-Saxon, Strong concluded, “is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper.”[6] If Americans were, in fact, the modern counterpart to the Israelites, if they were the new chosen people of God, then why should they not govern in an effort to improve the lives and fortunes of the disadvantaged peoples and nations of the earth?

John W. Burgess, who founded the School of Political Science at Columbia University, gave his scholarly endorsement to this brand of imperialism when he asserted in Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law that the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic peoples were possessed of a unique political genius. Having constructed the finest political institutions in history, it was their inherent right and their solemn duty to lift up their backward, ignorant, and downtrodden counterparts, even if those inferior peoples did not wish to receive such assistance. Only appearing to soften the merciless character of Social Darwinism, Burgess concluded that “there is no human right to the status of barbarism:”

The civilized states have a claim upon the uncivilized populations, as well as a duty toward them, and that claim is that they shall become civilized; and if they cannot accomplish their own civilization, then must they submit to the power that can do it for them.

The inhabitants of a “civilized state” may, with an untroubled conscience, resort to force if the “barbaric populations” resist the imposition of order. If all other efforts miscarry, the architects of civilization may, as a final remedy, “clear the territory of their presence and make it the abode of civilized man.” Subjugating the “barbaric populations,” violated “no rights . . . which are not petty and trifling in comparison with its transcendent right and duty to establish political and legal order everywhere.”[7] Finally, Albert Beveridge only echoed prevailing opinion when he assured his fellow senators that:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish a system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.[8]

Not only did this speech, along with the many others that Beveridge delivered before and after his election to the Senate, validate expansion and annexation. It also went a long way toward confirming the belief that United States was geographically and spiritually predestined, first, to govern, and then, to save the world from its intractable brutishness and recurrent folly.


When the system of international law that regulated world trade and protected neutral rights began to break down under the exigencies of war, it thrust Americans into a crisis that they had not encountered for more than a century. Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of American neutrality, which he proclaimed on August 4, 1914, not only signified the American refusal to take sides in the conflict, but also implied the wish to maintain commercial relations with all belligerents.[9] In the end, at least for the brief period of a year, American trade with Europe did expand, and continued unimpeded. Americans profited from the war, no matter how much they may have detested it and no matter how much they opposed American entry into it.

But the violation of neutral rights and the interference with American overseas trade and travel finally drew the United States into the conflict. To warring nations it had early become clear that the ability to prevent supplies from reaching the enemy was at least as important to determining the outcome as were actions on the battlefield. The sea lanes of the North Atlantic constituted a second front, and there the submarine was a crucial weapon. To the irritation of American officials, the Royal Navy blockaded German ports. Although in the years before the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II had authorized the construction of a large and magnificent battle fleet, the Germans, still unable to compete with British naval supremacy, developed the submarine to redress the tactical imbalance. Depending on stealth and surprise, the submarine obliterated the nineteenth-century traditions of naval warfare whereby captains announced their intentions to fire on another vessel and provided for the welfare of the crew. The submarine, by contrast, was akin to a sea monster, striking from the depths without warning or mercy. It was a gruesome beast of prey against which ships had no defense. Many Americans, including President Wilson, equated submarine warfare with a new expression of barbarism, which they were quick to condemn.

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine, U-20, sunk the British passenger steamship Lusitania, killing 1,198 persons, among whom were 128 Americans. Celebrated as the most modern and luxurious vessel in the Atlantic service of the Cunard line, the Lusitania was also an “auxiliary cruiser” for the Royal Navy. The British government had subsidized its construction and equipped it with concealed guns. Its cargo comprised American weapons and ammunition, details that the American people did not know at the time.

The sinking of the Lusitania did not immediately bring the United States into the war, but it did shift the debate about American involvement from the defense of neutral rights in wartime to a defense of the freedom of American citizens to travel anywhere in the world they choose to go.[10] The first was a question of international law; the second was an emotional issue that soon obscured all legal considerations. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan continued to insist on the distinction, and urged President Wilson to deliver a temperate response, especially since on May 1 the German consulate in New York had published newspaper advertisements warning readers about the danger of taking passage on Lusitania. Animated by public indignation and his own sense of outrage, Wilson refused, demanding that the Germans pledge never again to endanger American citizens or to violate American rights.

He acknowledged the “extraordinary circumstances of the present war,” in particular the measures adopted by “adversaries in seeking to cut Germany off from all commerce.” But Wilson reminded German statesmen that the United States had “already taken occasion to inform the Imperial German Government that it cannot admit the adoption of such measures or such a warning of danger to operate as in any degree an abbreviation of the rights of American shipmasters or of American citizens bound on lawful errands as passengers on merchant ships of belligerent nationality.” He vowed to “hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for any infringement of those rights, intentional or incidental.” The government of the United States, Wilson made clear, “does not understand the Imperial German Government to question those rights.” The German government, Wilson, insisted, must accept as a matter of course “the rule that the lives of non-combatants, whether they be of neutral citizenship or citizens of one of the nations at war, can not [sic] lawfully or rightfully be put in jeopardy . . . .” Wilson advised the Germans that they could not “expect the Government of the United States to omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.”[11]

Shortly after conveying Wilson’s message to James W. Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany, Bryan resigned in protest.

Yet, Wilson himself was not prepared to undertake military action in retaliation for the sinking of the Lusitania. He demanded instead a formal apology from the German government and reparations paid to the families of the American victims. But in a speech delivered at the Philadelphia Convention Hall on May 10, 1915, three days after the incident, Wilson told his audience that:

America must have a consciousness different from the consciousness of every other nation in the world. . . . The example of America must be a special example. The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.[12]

Theodore Roosevelt privately voiced his repugnance at Wilson’s diplomatic caution and apparent lack of moral courage. In a letter to Oscar King Davis dated June 23, 1915, Roosevelt complained that:

Wilson and Bryan have quarreled over what seems to me an entirely insignificant point, that is, as to the percentage of water they shall put into a policy of mere milk and water. Both of them are agreed that this is what the policy shall consist of. I am pretty well disgusted with our government and with the way our people acquiesce in and support it. I suppose, however, in a democracy like ours the people will always do well or ill largely in proportion to their leadership. If Lincoln had acted after the firing on Sumter in the way that Wilson did about the sinking of the Lusitania, in one month the North would have been saying they were so glad he kept them out of war and that they were too proud to fight and that at all hazards fratricidal war must be averted.[13]

At the very least, Roosevelt thought the attack on the Lusitania warranted immediate military retaliation, if it did not, in fact, compel the United States to enter the conflict. For nearly two years, the debate continued, until the United States at last declared war against Germany and its allies on April 6, 1917.


The international condemnation that followed the sinking of the Lusitania, especially the pressure that the government of the United States brought to bear, prompted the German High Command to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare between September 1915 and January 1917. Expecting to win the war in less than a year, the German government had not adequately prepared for a long struggle. On January 9, 1917, the Kaiser met with his most influential military and political advisors, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, General Erich Ludendorff, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, chief of the navy general staff, and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, to determine whether to reinstate the policy. By that time, the stalemate in Europe had achieved little save mutual destruction. In addition, the British blockade was exacting a dreadful toll on the German people.

The conference took place against the background of food shortages, rising prices, stagnating wages, and social turmoil. The price of food in Germany had risen 130 percent during the first year of war; by 1916, the increase was 600 percent. Wages did not keep pace. Men employed in war industries received a 78 percent boost in wages, while male workers in industries unrelated to wartime production earned only a 52 percent increase.[14] Women were paid substantially less. In October, 1915, the first food riots erupted in Berlin. On December 3, 1915, the New York Times reported that the previous day troops had fired into a crowd that was protesting the shortages, killing 200 persons. In a story published on May 11, 1916, the International Edition of the New York Herald Tribune observed that since February food riots in Berlin and other German cities had become an almost daily occurrence. On May 1, for example, starving residents of Berlin had broken into storage facilities and commercial warehouses in search of food, causing damages that amounted to 1.2 million marks.[15]

Cold, rainy weather during 1916, along with a scarcity of fertilizer and labor, intensified the suffering of the German people. Potatoes, meat, and dairy products became virtually unobtainable. The average diet of adult Germans consisted of a little bread and sausage, and a weekly ration of three pounds of potatoes and one egg. Many Germans replaced coffee with ground tree bark, and wore shoes made of wood and paper. During the “turnip winter” of 1916-1917, turnips became the staple food on which growing numbers depended for their survival. The average daily caloric intake for adults, which had been 3,400 calories before the war, now fell to 1,200.[16]In the meantime, contemporary estimates suggest that 80,000 German children died of starvation in 1916 alone.[17]

At their meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm, Admiral von Holtzendorff and General Ludendorff agreed that the only way to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion was to end the ruinous British blockade, and the only way to end the blockade was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Bethmann-Hollweg objected. He was convinced that such an action would bring the United States into the war. Holtzendorff reassured the Kaiser, giving his word “as an officer that not one American will land on the Continent.”[18] Ludendorff concurred. Two weeks earlier he had written to Bethmann-Hollweg that the German “military position does not allow us to postpone” resumption of the submarine campaign.[19] Not only was submarine warfare legally and morally defensible, it was also, Ludendorff argued, the most apposite remedy to an otherwise intractable problem.

Bethmann-Hollweg repeated and then quickly withdrew his objections. He subsequently wrote that:

I declared myself to be incompetent to criticize the judgment of the military experts who insisted that the war could not be won on land alone. In view of these facts and of the declared readiness of Headquarters to risk war with the United States, I could not advise His Majesty to do other than to accept the opinion of his military advisors.[20]

The Germans intended to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, with the hope of ending the war in six months. Ludendorff calculated that if the Americans did enter the war, they would, at the earliest, not be ready for combat until the middle of 1918. By then, Germany would have brought Great Britain to its knees and forced the capitulation of France and Russia. The war would be over. His strategy would never permit American troops, whom he knew might bring a critical advantage to the Allies, to become a factor.

Ludendorff ought to have been right, but he was not. Although German submarines wreaked havoc with Allied shipping, sinking more than 3,297,000 tons of supplies between February and May, 1917, it never brought the anticipated relief to German civilians or severely hampered the British war effort.[21] Conditions in Britain worsened, but the British never suffered the level of deprivation and misery that the Germans endured as a matter of course. Moreover, the Americans mobilized more quickly, if no more efficiently, than the German High Command had expected. Arguably the greatest German diplomatic blunder of the war was the mismanagement of relations with the United States during the first three months of 1917. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare set in motion a series of unforced errors that had disastrous consequences for Germany.


At the center of the controversy was Arthur Zimmermann, the German deputy foreign minister. A man of immense charm, Zimmermann was popular with all who knew him. Neither was he inexperienced, self-serving, or foolish. But he was also one of those men who believe that they know everything about subjects of which they are almost completely ignorant. Years before the war, upon returning to Germany from the Far East, Zimmerman had crossed the United States by train. He spent a few days in San Francisco and a few more in New York. Ever after, he considered himself an expert on the American mentality. Many Germans—too many as it turned out—who had never been to the United States accepted without question his observations and pronouncements. At the same time, German officials were also too willing to ignore the reports of their own ambassador to the United States, the capable and intelligent Count Johann von Bernstorff, who offered a more reliable assessment of American opinion. Unlike Zimmermann, Count von Bernstorff had spent eight years in the United States. He understood that, whatever their misgivings about involvement in the war, whatever their internal disagreements, the Americans were not a people with whom to trifle.

In the few weeks between the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and the public disclosure of the decision, Zimmermann searched for ways to exploit the circumstance to the benefit of Germany. He devised an elaborate and improbable scheme to lure Mexico and Japan into an alliance, while at the same time entangling the United States in a war on the North American continent that would prevent the Americans from entering the European conflict. He put his plan in motion by sending a message to the German ambassador in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckard:




Zimmermann originally intended to have the proposal delivered to the German ambassador by hand via a submarine preparing to make a voyage across the Atlantic. But when, at the last minute, the voyage was canceled, he used a British-owned transatlantic telegraph line that President Wilson had made available to Germany to communicate peace proposals. Like everyone else in the German, to say nothing of the American, government, Zimmermann did not know that British naval intelligence had long since deciphered the German encryption system and was intercepting and decoding virtually every transatlantic message sent from Berlin. The British knew the contents of Zimmermann’s telegram almost as soon as the German ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff, did.

When he read the communiqué, the chief of British naval intelligence, Admiral William Reginald Hall, understood that Zimmermann had bestowed upon the Allies a propaganda weapon of incalculable value. He also knew that he had a problem. How could the British inform the Americans of Zimmermann’s proposal without also revealing that they had broken the German diplomatic code? Admiral Hall locked the message in a safe and kept it secret even from members of his own government. There it remained for five weeks, a diplomatic bomb waiting for the right moment to be detonated.

President Wilson was not only unaware of the Zimmermann Telegram but also of the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare when he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress on January 22, 1917. The French and British were furious with Wilson’s call for “a peace without victory,” but Ambassador von Bernstorff implored the German government to take advantage of Wilson’s overture by delaying the restart of submarine warfare long enough to confer with Wilson about a peace settlement. Even if the effort failed, von Bernstorff advised that German willingness to cooperate could only make a favorable impression on the American people. German political leaders ignored this prudent recommendation. They informed von Bernstorff that it was too late to change their plans, since the first submarines had already put to sea and could not be recalled.

On January 31, 1917, pursuant to instructions he had received from his government, Count von Bernstorff informed the American Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, that the Germans were preparing to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. He conveyed his personal regrets to Lansing and departed. As soon as he returned to the German embassy, he began to make preparations to leave the United States. Four days later, on February 3, the United States government severed diplomatic relations with Germany; von Bernstorff boarded a ship for home. He told reporters that “I am finished with politics for the rest of my life.”[23]

For three weeks, the situation remained unchanged. Some Republican leaders in the House and the Senate, along with former President Theodore Roosevelt, clamored for war. Midwestern and western Progressives, on the contrary, such as Senators Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and William E. Borah of Idaho, and the governor of California, Hiram Johnson, continued to oppose American involvement. Wilson remained silent. Meanwhile, the ports along the east coast faced gridlock. Owners were afraid to order their ships to sea. The rail lines leading to the ports began to back up as well. Farmers and workers, manufactures and labor leaders, all began to complain as costs rose and commerce ground to a halt. Perishable cargos began to spoil. Jobs and companies were in jeopardy. No one was making any money. Americans looked to the president for a solution. Was it possible, critics wondered, that even the submarine menace would not persuade Wilson to go to war?

Then, on February 23, 1917, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, at last shared the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram with the American government. Pretending that the British had found a copy of the telegram on a German ship that the Royal Navy had intercepted, Balfour gave a copy of the memorandum to Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador, who, in turn, forwarded it to Secretary of State Lansing. Long an advocate of war against Germany, Lansing was delighted to present it to Wilson. The president was furious, but Lansing persuaded him to keep his knowledge of the telegram a secret for the time being, revealing the contents only when they would have the maximum impact.

Three days later, on February 26, Wilson again addressed a joint session of Congress. This time he requested congressional approval for arming American merchant vessels and deploying naval personnel to operate the guns. The House of Representatives approved the request by an overwhelming majority. In the Senate, the anti-war, isolationist LaFollette organized a filibuster to prevent a vote. Members of the pro-war faction in the Senate were outraged. They called LaFollette and his allies traitors. They labeled Wilson a coward.

To break the deadlock, late on February 28 Wilson authorized Lansing to release the Zimmermann Telegram to American newspapers. By the next morning, it had made banner headlines from coast to coast. Americans were stunned. The story had only one apparent flaw: it was too preposterous to be believed. Opponents of the war denounced it as a fraud, which the British government had perpetuated to entice the United States into the conflict. Many Americans found it easier to believe that the Zimmermann Telegram was a British fabrication than it was for them to conclude that the German government was capable of such treachery and deceit. After days of dispute and recrimination, Arthur Zimmerman again came to the rescue of the Allied Powers. When reporters questioned him (he was unique among officials of the German government in his willingness to talk to the press) Zimmermann asserted that of course the telegram was authentic and of course he had sent it. He had not intended the proposal to become operative unless and until the United States declared war on Germany, which the Americans had not done. What happened next, Zimmermann explained, depended entirely on the American response.

On March 7, 1917, President Wilson went into seclusion, refusing to confer with anyone. On March 12, still unable to break the Senate filibuster, he issued an executive order arming American merchant vessels. Again he retired. While Wilson deliberated, German submarines sank three more American merchantmen in a single day, March 18, 1917. On March 20, Wilson’s cabinet unanimously endorsed a declaration of war, which Wilson presented to Congress on April 2. Congress obliged, voting 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representative to sanction war against Germany. The United States formally entered the war as a combatant on April 17, 1917.[24]

Wilson’s appeal for a negotiated settlement, a “peace without victory,” forged among equals only made sense as long as the United States stayed out of the war. He had originally hoped that, as the leader of a disinterested nation, he could mediate a resolution to the crisis. Once the United States entered the war, such neutrality was no longer possible. Then Wilson had to mobilize the American people for victory.


Reluctant to intervene in Europe, Wilson had delayed as long as possible before committing American troops. “It is a fearful thing,” he told Congress, “to lead this great peaceful people into war, in the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to hang in the balance.”[25] He described his obligations as commander-in-chief as “distressing” and “oppressive.” Wilson also feared the consequences that entry into war would have for the future of his domestic program. “Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war,” he told the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels.[26] Other Progressives shared his apprehension. Jane Addams proclaimed that military preparation and involvement would distract from reform efforts at home and “will set back progress for a generation.”[27] Entry into the war, it seemed, threatened disaster for the Progressive movement.

Other Progressives were more optimistic. For them, the war presented unique opportunities to remake American society. Mobilization would require extensive government intervention into the economy. Among the casualties of war, the Progressives were eager to count their old nemesis: individualism. “War necessitates organization, system, routine, and discipline,” intoned the journalist Frederick Lewis Allen. “We shall have to give up much of our economic freedom. . . . We shall have to lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step.” The philosopher John Dewey saw in war inestimable “social possibilities” sure to constrain “the individualistic tradition,” to afford “an immense object lesson as to the absence of democracy in most important phases of our national life,” and to instruct Americans in “the supremacy of public need over private possessions.”[28] In time, even many Progressives who had initially doubted the wisdom of American entry into the war came to ignore the grim realities of a conflict that had been raging in Europe for three years and chose instead to focus on the social, political, and economic benefits that they convinced themselves the war would bring. To the dismay of Randolph Bourne, there had emerged “a peculiar congeniality” between the Progressives and the war. “It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other. One wonders what scope they would have had for their intelligence without it.”[29] What scope, indeed? For there was nothing at all “peculiar” about the Progressives’ embrace of war.

American entry into the First World War marked the logical culmination of Progressive thought. Wilson acknowledged as much in his war message to Congress, evoking the special mission of the United States to redeem the world:

We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free people as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.[30]

By 1917, Americans had believed for nearly three hundred years that they were the chosen people of God because their forebears had escaped Europe and evaded the dynastic and national conflicts that inflamed European political life. Isolation had long sustained the American resolve to break away from European tyranny, to step out of history, and to undergo a rebirth of freedom. The prevailing assumption then was that the Old World was beyond redemption, and that any association with it could only contaminate the New.

Reviewing the history of the United States, Frederick Jackson Turner had argued that its distinctive character arose not from the European past but from unconquered nature, the boundless wilderness, and the expansive frontier. “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization,” Turner maintained in “The Significance of the Frontier,” the memorable address that he delivered before the American Historical Society on July 12, 1893.[31] From the frontier, Turner thought, the United States had derived the most important attributes that characterized the first century of its existence, independence, freedom, democracy, unity, and individualism, as well as those that defined the American character, strength, practicality, exuberance, confidence, and determination. The West, he affirmed, embodied:

that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom, these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.[32]

The settlement of the West had been the central drama of early American history. At the confluence of savagery and civilization, the frontier generated a constant renewal, a perpetual renaissance that continually invigorated American life. Indebted to the West for their sense of national identity, the American people could reassure themselves that the nation of which they were so proud was uniquely their own and not the bartered legacy of the Old World. “Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World,” Turner concluded, “America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them.” The frontier provided “a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.”[33] As long as the frontier existed, America would never succumb to the lassitude, decadence, and corruption that had engulfed Europe.

Then, 400 years after Columbus set foot in the New World, Turner and his fellow Americans had to concede that the frontier was closed, and that with its passing their dream of re-establishing Eden in the United States was finished. But they might yet salvage that dream if they could discover or create an alternative to the frontier. In war Americans found their surrogate. War would become the new frontier, reawakening democracy and forging from trials of blood and fire a new peaceable kingdom.

The turn to war reversed the logic of isolation. Hereafter, Americans, however reluctant they may have been to do so, had no choice but to engage with the rest of the world. The United States must become an international force, if only to combat the institutions and practices that bred conflict and oppression. Permanent separation between the Old World and the New was impossible. As a requirement of their participation, Americans had also to purify the world before they could allow themselves to enter it. Whether Americans went forth in search of markets or on a quest to spread democracy, their unique virtue imposed on them the responsibility to bring Asia, Africa, and finally Europe out of the darkness that had for so long shrouded their existence.

Fired by a religious zeal, the Progressives had set out to cleanse American society and government of vice and depravity. Like many of his fellow Progressives, Wilson believed it was now incumbent upon the United States to save the rest of the world, if only from itself. Even before the war, the old order of Europe, which consisted of destructive economic, political, and military competition, secret alliances, and autocratic governments, had been discredited. It now had to be replaced. “Europe is still governed by the same reactionary forces as of old,” Wilson observed. “I say to you the old order is dead. . . . and that the new order, which shall have its foundation on human liberty and human rights shall prevail.”[34] At this revolutionary moment in history, Wilson was confident that America would fulfill its providential destiny not only to rescue but also to redeem Europe, liberating the continent from the “reactionary forces” that had so recently propelled it toward disaster.

The First World War provided an opportunity, as extraordinary as it was unexpected, to fulfill the Progressives’ messianic vision. “The supreme moral factor in the world’s progress,” William Jennings Bryan had declared in 1900, the American Republic would solve the problems of civilization and hasten the coming of universal brotherhood, giving “light and inspiration to those who sit in darkness.” It was as if Bryan had divined the Progressive ideal of the American future when he beheld “a republic standing erect while empires all around are bowed beneath the weight of their own armaments—a republic whose flag is loved while other flags are only feared.”[35] Mere economic and political considerations were no part of Bryan’s thinking, from whence arose his disagreements with Wilson. Bryan’s vision was animated not by the pursuit of American interests but by the application of Christian altruism, of which he believed the United States to be the sole exemplar.

In keeping with the Progressive outlook, Wilson, by contrast, did not clearly distinguish between interest and idealism. Although he did not wish for the United States to play the role of a villain in the conflict, he did recognize the necessity of reaffirming the interests of the United States. Bryan’s successor, Robert Lansing, clarified what was at stake when he wrote on January 9, 1916:

It is my opinion that the military oligarchy which rules Germany is a bitter enemy of democracy in every form; that, if that oligarchy triumphs over the liberal governments of Great Britain and France, it will then turn upon us as its next obstacle to imperial rule.[36]

No circumstance and no nation must ever be permitted to impede American freedom. Any persistent challenge to the welfare of the United States must always be met with the resolute defense of American interests and American power, which, according to Progressives such as Wilson and Lansing, were the adjuncts to American morality and American innocence.

This assertion of virtue through violence helped to reconcile Progressives to taking up arms in 1917. They had thought of war as an affliction that more properly belonged to the dark, archaic, barbarous, and reactionary past, an occupation, driven by greed and hatred, which had nothing to do with the enlightened civilization flourishing in the United States—a civilization, they insisted, that had itself originated in revolution and not in war. There is evidence that the outbreak of war in 1914 brought an inner satisfaction to some Americans, who allowed themselves to think that Europeans had gotten what they deserved. By 1917, respectable opinion in the United States had changed so dramatically to enable, indeed to require, Congress to declare war. Americans were, of course, motivated by concerns about national security. But they also believed the time had come to teach Europeans a lesson. Americans must instruct Europeans on the necessity of elevating decent rather than venial men to power. American troops crossed the Atlantic to rescue Europe by educating Europeans in the methods and principles of democratic government.

Writing in 1916 to convince Wilson that the American people would not long tolerate neutrality “while the world is bleeding to death,” Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador to the Court of St. James and an early advocate of intervention, went a long way toward defining not only the Progressive war aims but also toward articulating the Progressive world view. He advised the president that:

We should do for Europe on a large scale essentially what we did for Cuba on a small scale and thereby usher in a new era in human history . . . . The United States would stand, as no other nation has ever stood in the world—predominant and unselfish—on the highest ideals ever reached in human government. It is a vision as splendid as the Holy Grael.[37]

Perhaps in the heady excitement of the moment, perhaps in his eagerness to promote American entry into the war, Page had forgotten that the Grail remained forever beyond the reach of men, all of whom, except for Sir Galahad, were unworthy even to look upon it. The quest to obtain the Grail had brought only misery, desolation, and ruin. Tragedy lay in the passion to acquire it, wisdom in knowing to let it go.

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[1] Quoted in William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, 1972), 35.

[2] John A. Kasson, “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881,” North American Review CCCI (December 1881), 533.

[3] Albert J. Beveridge, “March of the Flag” (September 16, 1898) in The Meaning of the Times and Other Speeches (Indianapolis, IN., 1908), 52.

[4] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, (facsimile of the 1871 edition, Princeton, NJ, 1981), Vol. I, Part I, 179.

[5] John Fiske, “Our Aryan Forefathers,” in Excursions of an Evolutionist (Boston, 1902), 82. See also Elsa Nettles, Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America (Lexington, KY, 1988), 54.

[6] Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York, 1885), 160-61.

[7] John W. Burgess, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law, Vol. I: Sovereignty and Liberty (Boston, 1893), 46.

[8] Beveridge, “Our Philippine Policy,” in The Meaning of the Times, 84.

[9] Woodrow Wilson, “Declaration of Neutrality,” in Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Selected Essays and Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, (New York, 1918), 44-46.

[10] The sinking of the Lusitania also occasioned a debate in the German government. By 1915, German submarines had sunk hundreds of thousands of tons of British cargo. But such an accomplishment proved to be of negligible value. At the height of this commercial warfare, submarines curtailed less than four percent of British shipping while their attacks incurred fiercely anti-German sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic. Growing ever more fearful of American intervention, the German foreign office tried to persuade the Kaiser and the General Staff that the efficacy of submarine warfare was worth neither the risk nor the cost. For the moment, most German political and military leaders disagreed, insisting on the continuation of the submarine campaign.

[11] Woodrow Wilson, “Sinking of the Lusitania: Despatch of Protest Through Secretary Bryan,” Hart, ed., 89-90.

[12] Popularly known as the “Too Proud to Fight” speech, the speech appears under various formal titles: “Americanism and the Foreign Born” or, more commonly, “Citizens of Foreign Birth: Address to Naturalized Citizens at Convention Hall, Philadelphia.” I have used the contemporary text reprinted in Hart, ed., 88. See also, Hans Vought,“Division and Reunion: Woodrow Wilson, Immigration, and the Myth of American Unity,” Journal of American Ethnic History 13/ 3 (Spring, 1994), 24-50 and Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson & World War I, 1917-1921 (New York, 1985), 10.

[13] Theodore Roosevelt to Oscar King Davis, June 23, 1915, The Gilder Lehrman Collection, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

[14] For the inflation of German food prices, see Holgar H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria, 1914-1918, (London, 1997), 286; for the comparative stagnation of German wages, see David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (New York, 2004), 305.

[15] See New York Times, December 3, 1915, December 27, 1915, and January 18, 1916; The International Herald Tribune, May 11, 1916.

[16] See Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War, (New York, 1991), 314.

[17] See Richard Thoumin, The First World War (New York, 1964), 274.

[18] Quoted in Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (New York, 1994), 306.

[19] Quoted in Roger Parkinson, Tormented Warrior: Ludendorff and the Supreme Command (New York, 1979), 123.

[20] Quoted in Karl Tschuppik, Ludendorff: The Tragedy of a Military Mind (Boston, 1932), 87.

[21] See Stevenson, 264.

[22] Quoted in Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram (New York, 1966), 146.

[23] Quoted in Ibid., 149.

[24] Ferrell, 3.

[25] Woodrow Wilson, “War Message to Congress,” April 2, 1917, in Arthur Link, et al., eds., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ, 1983), Vol. 41, 519-29. See also, Ferrell, 1-3 and David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York, 1980), 10-14.

[26] Quoted in Merrill D. Peterson, The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker (Charlottesville, VA, 2007), 59.

[27] Quoted in Donald Richberg, Tents of the Mighty (Chicago, 1930), 96; see also Kennedy, 7, 20-22, 33-34.

[28] Frederick Lewis Allen, “The American Tradition and the War,” Nation 104 (April 26, 1917), 484-85; John Dewey, “What Are We Fighting For?,” Jo Ann Boydson, ed., John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1889-1924, Vol. 11: 1918-1919 (Carbondale, IL), 102, 103. Dewey’s essay was first published in Independent 94 (1918), 474, 480-83 and subsequently republished as “The Social Possibilities of War,” in Joseph Ratner, ed., Characters and Events: Popular Essays in Social and Political Philosophy by John Dewey (New York, 1929), Vol. II, 551-60; see also Sidney Kaplan, “Social Engineers as Saviors: Effects of World War I on Some American Liberals,” Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956), 347-69; Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, NY, 1991), 195-227, and Kennedy, 49-50.

[29] Randolph Bourne, “Twilight of the Idols,” in Untimely Papers, ed. by James Oppenheim (New York, 1919), 129. See also William E. Leuchtenberg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32, 2ndedition (Chicago, 1993), 36; Casey Nelson Blake, Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill, 1990), 157-80; Bruce Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne (Columbia, MO, 1998), 231-53.

[30] Link, et al., eds., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 41 (1983), 526-27. For a complete discussion of Wilson’s speech and American entry in to the First World War, see Ferrell, 1-12; Link, Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916-1917 (Princeton, NJ,1965), 419-31; John Milton Cooper Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA, 1983), 303-32; Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson, 3rded. (New York, 1978), Vol. II, 97-100.

[31] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” reprinted in Daniel J. Boorstin, ed., An American Primer (New York, 1985), 542-570. The quoted passage appears on p. 545. See also Richard Hofstader, “Turner and the Frontier Myth,” American Scholar 18 (1949), 433-43 and The Progressive Historians (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 47-164; Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987) and “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” American Historical Review 100 (June 1995), 697-716.

[32] Turner, “Significance of the Frontier,” 566.

[33] Ibid., 566-67.

[34] Quoted in John Lukacs, A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT, 2004), 225.

[35] William Jennings Bryan, “Imperialism,” August 8, 1900, in The Speeches of William Jennings Bryan, Vol. II (New York, 1908), 49.

[36] Robert Lansing, War Memoirs of Robert Lansing, (Indianapolis, IN., 1935), 208-209; see also Norman A. Graebner and Edward M. Bennett, The Versailles Treaty and its Legacy: The Failure of the Wilsonian Vision (New York, 2011), 24.

[37] Walter Hines Page to Woodrow Wilson, November 24, 1916, in Burton J. Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter Hines Page, Vol. II (Garden City, NY, 1924), 194.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of President Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in America’s official relations with Germany, February 3, 1917, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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