In June 2017, Humanities Texas held a teacher professional development institute at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station titled "The Two World Wars." Jason C. Parker, associate professor of history at TAMU, presented the following lecture titled "The U.S. Rise to Power and Wilson's Decision for Entry into World War I." In his remarks, Dr. Parker discusses America's ascent to a global superpower on the eve of World War I and Woodrow Wilson's eventual decision to enter the war.

The U.S. Rise to Power and
Wilson's Decision for Entry into World War I

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals in so many ways, nonetheless agreed that the default setting for American foreign policy should be avoiding European problems. They used variations on the phrase "permanent alliances" or "entangling alliances" as things to be avoided. They wanted to put and keep as much distance as possible between themselves and Europe's corruption and wars. So what happens in the 1890s, and then especially around the dawn of World War I, that changes these calculations? What could be so powerful as to overturn over one hundred years of Washington and Jefferson setting the baseline rules?

The close of the nineteenth century is the era of high imperialism, sometimes called modern imperialism or industrial imperialism. This is when empire reaches its absolute apogee. Empires date back to the Pharaohs, but this is the moment when it takes over the entire blessed map of earth. This is the moment when the United States makes the fateful choice to "keep up with the Joneses." This is when the United States abandons the inheritances that it had [from Washington and Jefferson], its instincts towards how to deal with the world, and goes in a different direction—one much more engaged, much more internationalist, much more active, and reflective of a desire to shape that world.

The Panic of 1893 and the End of the American Frontier

There are both internal and external reasons for the American surge. The first point to keep in mind is the Panic of 1893, which aside from the Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in American history. The economy essentially freezes up: 20 percent unemployment, armies of millions of unemployed riding the rails looking for work, strikes, unrest in the cities, and a generalized fear that industrialization—which at the time was fairly new, let us keep in mind—might be going wrong. Maybe, people worried, it had hit a kind of critical mass and, instead of producing a chain-reaction steady-state of prosperity, would produce an explosion blowing up the society that had given it birth.

Against that background, arrives the map that accompanied the 1890 census, which, in and of itself, is not that interesting. What is interesting is what historian Fredrick Jackson Turner made of it. In one of the most influential ideas in all of American historical literature, though as much disputed as agreed to, Turner saw that map and thought "Eureka! This is big!" The map suggests there was no longer a recognizable frontier line. Turner thought this was potentially a crisis because in his view the frontier is what made Americans Americans. The frontier gave rise to and sustained American democracy because it's the one thing that every American generation going back to Jamestown had in common. From Jamestown and the Pilgrims all the way to the 1890s, Americans had the experience of rebuilding society on the frontier as American settlement pushed West. For Turner, then, this is a crisis moment. What now? It marked the end of what he called "the first chapter of American history," and no one knew what the second chapter would look like. All this, let us recall, was against the backdrop of the worst economic depression the country had yet known.

The Scramble for Africa

This brings us to one of the major external factors driving the American decision to depart from its ideological heritage of anti-colonialism. Remember, a nation born in revolt against an empire has to do a lot of mental acrobatics in order to get to the point where it, itself, has a formal empire. The external bit can best be summed up as "keeping up with the Joneses." What is sometimes called "the scramble for empire" or "the scramble for Africa" closed the nineteenth century and showed that, apparently, if you wanted to be a legitimate power, this is what you had to do. If you are American in the mid-1890s, and you are watching Europe colonize Africa, and you're watching the depression continue to sink your economy, and you're listening to Frederick Jackson Turner saying the first chapter of American history is closing and no one knows what's next, your reaction is going to be a more profane version of "Oh, snap!" This is potentially bad, bad news. For God's sake, the Belgians—the Belgians!—have a huge colony three times the size of Texas in central Africa. If you're in the United States taking in all these factors, and you're wondering how the industrial economy might be revived, one of the things you hope for is to find resources and markets abroad. The great untapped remaining ones were in Asia. So, you, like all your European counterparts, think of that as the possible salvation to an otherwise fragile and endangered Western economy.

"A Splendid Little War"

Put all these factors into the hopper and then introduce the moment of opportunity: the Spanish-American War. In both Cuba and the Philippines, there are local rebels who have been fighting this battle since before the Americans got there. The Americans, somewhat opportunistically, warily eyed by the Cubans and the Filipinos, inserted themselves into the fighting and became a decisive factor in destroying Spanish power. It is sometimes described as a comic opera because of the mismatch between the military forces, the utter chaos in the American military deployments, and, eventually, the chaos of the post-battle-with-Spain portion into the battle-with-the-Filipinos portion. Historian George Herring says that we must not think of it as a comic opera because it is "less a case of the U.S. coming upon greatness almost inadvertently than of the U.S. pursuing its destiny deliberately and purposefully." In what Assistant Secretary of State John Hay called "a splendid little war," the outcome is what interests us. It's not the combat in the Philippines or in Cuba. The world was watching what America was going to do with the Philippines once the fighting was over . . . because it relates to that question of what America's role in the world should be as the age of empires was reaching its peak.

To Colonize or Not To Colonize

The Treaty of Paris, whose negotiations began in the fall of 1898 and concluded in December of that year, launched a major roiling debate in the United States that lasted basically through the Election of 1900 about America's role in the world. After the Treaty of Paris had been submitted to the Senate and before it had been voted on, and before the Filipino insurrection had begun in earnest in the winter of 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem called "The White Man's Burden." Kipling was speaking for many when he said, essentially, that the "civilized" nations had to show the "uncivilized" nations how it's done, based on the blessings their civilization had received and generated. They have to share order, science, technology, law, these kinds of things, with these colonized populations (whether they want them or not). It's thorny and off-putting to our ears, but it was respectable mainstream opinion at the time.

In addition, that "keeping up with the Joneses" bit is not a small consideration. Figures like Henry Cabot Lodge felt very strongly that this was simply what had to be done to be a great power, and the U.S. had that destiny. Even if you took out of the equation the disappearance of the frontier and the Panic of 1893, you still want to keep up with the Joneses. You don't want to come in behind the Belgians, for God's sake, and this is just how it was done in this day and age.

This was not, however, the only side of the argument. Writer William James was so outraged by the Spanish-American War, he simply couldn't understand how his country could "puke up its ancient soul in five minutes without a second thought." It's a great line. Mark Twain, of course, has got some great ones, too. Twain begins the war as a lukewarm imperialist, but, once he begins, in his words, "to see that we have not intended to free but to subjugate the people in the Philippines. We're there to conquer, not to redeem," Twain becomes one of the leading voices against it. The anti-imperial strain is strong and has, for what it's worth, the Constitution behind it because there isn't really a provision for taking territory that's not eventually going to become a state.

The way that this debate roils American politics and colors America's sense of engagement with the wider world is one of the more notable parts of the period. In the end, Cuba becomes an informal colony, Puerto Rico becomes an actual colony, the Philippines become an actual colony, and the Treaty of Paris barely passes the Senate but does commit the United States to an empire like the others, even if much smaller.

America's New Sphere of Influence

After the Spanish-American War, the United States was indisputably one of the great powers of the world. The U.S. rising to this level of power—one of the curiosities of this era—arguably has much less to do with the acquisition of a formal empire and more to do with the long-time-in-coming correction of the national and world economies. New gold discoveries in South Africa and elsewhere juiced up the world economy, essentially cured the Panic of 1893, and, by the turn of the century, helped to make the United States into the world's leading manufacturing nation from basically a standing start just a few decades earlier. That's much more crucial to the story of America's rise to power in these years, although it is connected to that search for markets, resources, and trade. The United States' rise was noticed by contemporaries at the time. Right after the Spanish-American War, one European diplomat marveled that—and I'm paraphrasing—"The United States achieved, essentially, in four months at almost no cost, what it took a lot of us centuries to build in our overseas holdings."

Aside from a larger presence in Asian trade, the place where we see the greater American role most is in the Caribbean "sphere of influence." Building the Panama Canal is obviously one of the major markers, and, along with the Roosevelt Corollary, serves as a kind of pivot-point between a previous incarnation of American thinking about the wider world and the one we associate more with modern U.S. history. The Roosevelt Corollary asserted a police power on behalf of the United States. It was a declaration both to the nations of Europe that Washington was on the proverbial police beat in the neighborhood and to the nations of the Caribbean that they better act right. America would make sure the bills get paid and the peace gets kept. Roosevelt's Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine gave the United States "carte blanche" to take on a much more active role in regional affairs. . . . The Roosevelt Corollary is not just assertive on the American side. It is also, in an important sense, defensive, given the realities of the time. It was a way to try to keep the hemisphere "quarantine" in place.

Woodrow Wilson's Foreign Policy

Wilson looms over the history of American foreign policy like basically no other president. Washington and Jefferson have a strong claim because of the default setting they bequeathed, but Wilson is the one who, for better and for worse, really revolutionized not just America's role with the world but also the way of thinking about international relations.

Wilson himself said it would be an irony of fate if his presidency ended up being defined by international affairs because he was much more focused on domestic issues, and, indeed, in the 1912 presidential race that elected him, foreign policy was an afterthought. By that time there was the first wave of, in the long view, great third-world revolutions—Mexico, China, and Russia—that would destabilize the world during his presidency.

But it's really World War I that challenges his diplomacy in very fundamental ways. The challenge for Wilson and his team when war broke out in 1914 was to maintain the traditional U.S. stance, which was neutrality. Going all the way back to the founding, with a little bit of a fumble during the Napoleonic Wars, the thinking was: no permanent alliances, no European entanglements.

"Thank God for the Atlantic Ocean!"

News of the slaughter on the Western front made neutrality seem all the wiser. I ask my students to imagine themselves reading of events like the Siege of Verdun or the offensive at the Somme from a local newspaper in Corpus Christi or what-have-you. Because this was an age of yellow journalism, there were lurid descriptions of death and destruction and the stench of the bodies and the artillery smoke and so forth. I ask my students to put themselves in the mind of being an office clerk, or a teacher, or a nurse, reading this at their breakfast table in Corpus Christi in 1916. This news in 1916 has been going on for almost two years, and it's always the same. Only the scale changes. And I ask them, "What is your reaction to this news?"

The reaction is: "Thank God for the Atlantic Ocean! This is what's keeping us from getting sucked into all that madness." Even those who perceived an American stake in the war had a difficult time getting the American population at large to sign on. The traditional stance of neutrality seemed the best way to protect American interests and lives from getting sucked into the charnel house of the Western front trenches. The European conflict was just so incomprehensibly awful that joining that fight seemed absolute folly.

"Neutrality in fact, as well as in word, as well as in deed."

There were, beyond this, good domestic political reasons to stay out. The American population, then as now, contained significant numbers of German and Irish Americans, who had their own reasons for either siding with Germany or hating the British. Wilson had to keep in mind those sorts of loyalties. They are not dispositive, but they are also not nothing. This complicated the domestic politics of any pro-war stance, which Wilson was still very far from himself: "Neutrality in fact, as well as in word, as well as in deed," was his phrase.

In addition, in his own party and on the progressive left, there was an identifiable peace movement with roots going back ten or fifteen years. You can find evidence of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Wilson himself embracing various aspects of what was sometimes called the Arbitration Movement. It takes the form of the peace movement once the war takes shape in 1914 and makes the strong case not only for American neutrality but also for a stronger American role in helping to settle the conflict and international structures to prevent future such conflicts. Here we see the first prototypes of what will later become the Fourteen Points.

Alas for Wilson, alas for the United States, neutrality was essentially impossible given the realities of the time. American trade strongly favored the Allies, and the naval realities of British blockade versus German U-boats made it impossible to keep up the façade of neutrality, as much as Wilson and his cabinet would try.

After the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex in, respectively, 1915 and 1916, Wilson confronted Germany about their submarines. He and many at the time deemed these machines unprecedented and barbaric—they were essentially the World War I equivalent of the Second World War's murder-bombing of civilians to break the will of the population. Wilson was able to persuade the Germans to back down from unrestricted submarine warfare.

American trade with the Allies was much greater than with the Central Powers. The Central Powers complained mightily that the U.S. was favoring the British by acknowledging the blockade—by not protesting the blockade the way that they protested submarine warfare—but to no avail. This does support the notion of American neutrality being a kind of de facto support for the Allies. By the middle of 1916, American bankers are loaning the Allies about ten million dollars a day, and the Allies are consuming about twelve to fifteen million dollars a day of American goods. The Allies are borrowing American money to buy American goods to keep the war effort going, and there's simply nothing comparable on the German side of the ledger.

The overarching belief that winds all this together is Wilson's conviction that clean hands are the only way to have credibility at the peace table. If America is going to be the mediator of a peace, she must not have taken a side. Germans already think Wilson's taken a side, but Wilson says, and believes, "Without clean hands, the belligerents will not trust us to arbitrate the peace."

Seeking Peace without Victory

Heading into his reelection, Wilson had to strike a balance between keeping happy the peace movement in his own party as well as those like Teddy Roosevelt who wanted greater military preparedness. Wilson's reelection phrase, "He kept us out of war," nonetheless got him only a very narrow victory. It was a near thing. After it was secured, Wilson tried once last time—a third time—to negotiate peace secretly in Europe. He sent Colonel House to try and bring the Europeans to terms, to no avail.

And so in January he set out the terms himself. He laid out to Congress—with a slightly more finished version of what will a year later be the Fourteen Points—the outlines of war and peace. The U.S. was still not in the war, but it sought "peace without victory." Much of the rest of the later language of the Fourteen Points—"community of power," "equity of nations," "disarmament," "free seas," "self-government," "a covenant of international organization,"—are all floated in his January 1917 speech, which to European ears is bizarrely, surreally disconnected from the bloodshed of the trenches.

Germany Rolls the Dice

Germany decides that the time has come instead to roll the dice. In January 1917, they alert the Americans that they are going to resume unrestricted warfare. At the time of the Lusitania and the Sussex sinkings, there were about two dozen German U-boats in operation in the Atlantic. By now, the Germans have more than a hundred. Their gamble is to starve Britain out of the war before America can build, equip, train, and place an army on the battlefield. They're gambling that expanding American military forces from the roughly one hundred thousand they then numbered to the million-plus size needed for this kind of war would take nine to twelve months. The American troops just don't exist, so Germany chose to roll the dice, try to break the blockade, and try to starve the British into submission using the U-boat wolfpack before the Americans could get to the frontlines.

Unrestricted warfare began but, by itself, was not enough to tip the balance. The Zimmermann Telegram's impact is sometimes overstated, but it does especially resonate in Texas because it involves Germany proposing to Mexico that, if they'll join the fight against the United States, Germany will help them get back the territories they lost in the Mexican-American War, which, let us remember, is within a lifetime of this conflict. . . . In Wilson's view, Germany is already putting themselves outside the bounds of civilized behavior with this submarine thing, and now the Zimmermann Telegram is evidence of German chicanery and strengthens the belief that Germany can't be trusted.

Wilson Declares War

Wilson concludes that the only answer is war. On April 2, he asks Congress for a declaration of war. Wilson says we're at war with the German regime, not with the German people, and we're doing this on behalf not of American interests but universal interests, mankind's interests, things like an international community of peace, a community of power, self-determination, and all the rest. That is going to take fuller flower with the Fourteen Points in January 1918.

The final bit of the puzzle comes the next month, after the wildly successful vote in Congress for the declaration of war, when Congress passes the Selective Service Act. This brought back some bad memories of the Civil War, when the draft didn't work out so well—recall the 1863 draft riots in New York City—but much to the relief of most concerned, ten million Americans signed up for the draft. By the time the war was over, twenty-four million had signed up.

Finally, it is worth noting that Germany's gamble almost worked. It was a very near thing [for the U.S.] to get those forces trained and in place and in position to make a difference on the battlefield. But when they did, it was only a matter of a few more months before the Germans sued for peace.

Jason C. Parker has taught at Texas A&M University for ten years. He has also taught at West Virginia University and the Universidad de San Andres in Buenos Aires. He earned his PhD at the University of Florida in 2002. He is the author of Hearts, Minds, Voices: U.S. Cold War Public Diplomacy and the Formation of the Third World; Brother’s Keeper: The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937–1962, which won the SHAFR Bernath Book Prize; and articles in the Journal of American History, Diplomatic History, and elsewhere. His next project is a comparative study of postwar federations.

Jason C. Parker, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, delivers a lecture on America's rise to a global superpower and the decision to enter the war at Humanities Texas's "The Two World Wars" teacher institute in College Station.
An illustration of the New York Stock Exchange on the morning of May 5, 1893. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 18, 1893.
Rand, McNally & Co.'s map of the United States showing, in six degrees the density of population, 1890. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
"In the Rubber Coils." British political cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne depicts King Leopold II of Belgium as a snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector. Punch Magazine, November 28, 1906.
Formation of Black soldiers, after Spanish-American War, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Portrait of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley, 1907. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Black, Chinese, and white laborers in a gold mine in South Africa Repository, ca. 1890-1930. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
President Theodore Roosevelt sitting at the controls of an excavating machine on the Panama Canal, 1906.
Portrait of Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1900-1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Painting by Henri Georges Jacques Chartier of French infantry recapturing Fort Douaumont on October 24, 1916.
U.S. infantry & machine gun men assigned in trenches. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
German U-boats at Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein. Februaru 17, 1914.
The Lusitania, ca. 1908-1914. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Woodrow Wilson before Congress, ca. 1913-1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The original Zimmermann telegram in German code.
Young men registering for military constription in New York City on June 5, 1917, the first national registration day associated with the Selective Service Act of 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Men of U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.