Reading Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson to write a review of it for another magazine has brought to mind a couple of striking developments in the evolution of the U.S. presidency. Woodrow Wilson has been much maligned as an unrealistic idealist who was supposedly afflicted by naïveté in seeking a League of Nations and proposing open international negotiations, reductions of armaments, and the supremacy of impartially administered international law. Certainly, the shambles of hypocrisy and corruption of the United Nations incites some thoughts of this kind. But Wilson was undoubtedly correct that the American public would not sustain controversial foreign-policy initiatives, especially recourses to force, if they did not think they were morally compatible with the espoused ideals and ambitions of the country. And it is not reprehensible to require that going to war be morally justified. The dubious circumstances of the provocation of the Mexican War, which added a million square miles to the country — more than it started with or gained with the Louisiana Purchase — and led to the restoration of slavery in Texas, where it had been abolished by the Mexicans, would not be so easily sold to the country in the more searching and exigent media age we have known at least since World War II.
Prior to the 20th century, American foreign policy consisted of establishing the country, responding to British outrages on the high seas with the War of 1812, proclaiming the Monroe Doctrine of restricting foreign influence in the Americas (although for 40 years it was enforced by the British and not the Americans), and asserting hemispheric prerogatives against the Mexicans and the Spanish. Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Navy and sent it around the world (after painting it white), built the Panama Canal (after seizing and inventing the country of Panama), and spoke of “carrying a big stick.” But Theodore Roosevelt was largely a warmonger. He had wanted to go to war with Britain over the nonsensical dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela about the border between Venezuela and British Guyana in the mid 1890s. He thought a war would be good for Americans, to toughen them up; that it would be a salutary experience for American coastal cities to be bombarded by the Royal Navy, to shake Americans out of their softness and complacency; and that it would furnish an excuse for the seizure of Canada. This would be the perfect sequel to the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War, and the acquisition of Alaska; and would be a development Canadians would welcome, because of the ambiguity of their condition as citizens of a country that was at that time not entirely autonomous of the British. (Roosevelt had never been in Canada, knew nothing about it, and didn’t realize that Canadians retained, in foreign-policy terms, a subordinate position to Britain only in order to ensure that they had a British military guarantee against American annexationist tendencies, of which TR was so illustrative.)
This episode isn’t in Berg’s life of Wilson, but TR’s desire to plunge into World War I is, and his opposition to any form of international organization except the authority conferred by military and economic force was always in contrast with Wilson’s view.
Wilson rendered a great service in establishing the requirement that has, to some appreciable extent, been followed or, at the least, has received some lip service since: that American foreign policy must not only serve the national interest but not be unconscionable by traditionally espoused American humanitarian standards, in concept or in execution. More important, he was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace and with the elevation of international law to a serious level of international deference and enforcement. Of course, it didn’t work, Wilson was a tragedy, and his presidency ended in disaster, failure, and premature incapacitation; but his achievement was durable, even if it required the horrors of World War II and the atrocities of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and some other countries to sell aspects of the Wilsonian message to Americans and many other peoples.