Woodrow Wilson’s Four Mistakes in the Early Years of World War I

tags: World War I, Woodrow Wilson

This is part one of a three-part series distilling the thesis of Richard Striner’s new book, Woodrow Wilson and World War One: A Burden Too Great to Bear, published by Rowman & Littlefield in April 2014.  Mr. Striner is a professor of history at Washington College. His other books include Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.  

Wilson addressing the U.S. Congress, April 8, 1913

The case can be made that Woodrow Wilson made some profound mistakes when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. He made four particularly bad mistakes, and he admitted to one of them later: he refused to listen to people like Theodore Roosevelt who argued at the time that the United States should build up its military power to be ready for future contingencies.

The second mistake was understandable and pardonable in its early phases: he envisioned himself as a peace-maker who could end the war through mediation. He offered his services to the belligerents during the first month of the war. This was of course a noble gesture, but the casualties in the first few months of the war —— hundreds of thousands dead by the end of 1914 —— would make the prospect for peace in the years that followed an empty hope. As the fortunes of war veered back and forth, the leaders of the side that was losing would naturally be receptive to the idea of a cease-fire through which they could contain their losses. But the leaders of the side that was winning would of course be motivated to press their advantage, redeeming all the sacrifice and death through total victory. More than one observer in the war years regarded the leaders of the allied and central powers as akin to so many Macbeths, “in blood stept in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Even the most gifted of political strategists would probably have found it impossible during these years to bring the leaders of both sides to the peace table.

But Wilson clung stubbornly to the illusion that he could end the war through a single magnificent gesture. And that illusion was abetted by the man who during most of the war years served as Wilson’s closest confidante —— and, appallingly, who served at times his sole adviser on issues of war and foreign policy —— Col. Edward M. House. House was a flatterer who reveled in the thrill of making history behind the scenes. At times he was capable of giving shrewd advice, but he also worsened some of Wilson’s worst delusions. On September 18, 1914, he told Wilson that “the world expects you to play the big part in this tragedy, and so indeed you will, for God has given you the power to see things as they are.”

The third mistake that Wilson made in the first year of the war was his failure to engage in bipartisan consultations on issues of war and peace. Wilson’s own party was profoundly anti-interventionist during these years. As a consequence, contingency planning for the possible use of force would have been enhanced by quiet behind-the-scenes consultations with Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. But instead of cultivating such men, Wilson antagonized them.

All through 1915 —— the year of the Lusitania sinking when the Germans commenced their submarine campaign against allied shipping —— Wilson was motivated first and last by his hope of acting as a mediator. In a speech in Indianapolis, Wilson asked the following rhetorical question: “Do you not think it likely that the world will some time turn to America and say: ‘You were right, and we were wrong. You kept your heads when we lost ours; you tried to keep the scale from tipping, but we threw the whole weight of arms in one side of the scale. Now, in your self-possession, in your coolness, in your strength, may we not turn to you for counsel and assistance?’”

But even as Wilson strove to maintain impeccable neutrality, he was complicit in American policies that “tipped the scale” of the wartime power balance. For American firms began selling weapons and munitions, and only one of the two sides could purchase the arms. The German high seas fleet was bottled up in the North Sea, unable to escort German freighters across the Atlantic. But the British Royal Navy was supreme in the Atlantic sea lanes —— except for the fact that the Germans were able to send their submarines hunting for British freighters. To reduce the risk of interruptions to the wartime shipping, the British started to ship arms and weapons in the holds of passenger liners like the Lusitania. And the Germans knew it. American civilians were travelling on these liners.

Wilson had a number of options for confronting this oceanic peril. One was the option of banning the sale of arms and munitions to nations at war —— the sort of thing that the isolationist Neutrality Act of 1935 was crafted to achieve a generation later. A bill introduced by Rep. Richard Bartholdt proposed to ban the sale of arms and munitions, but Wilson opposed it. Another option was proposed by Wilson’s first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan: warning Americans not to travel on British passenger vessels or advising them that they did so at their own risk. Wilson opposed this policy as well. And this, it could be argued, was his fourth major mistake.

He was committed to upholding every single neutral right that the United States and its citizens possessed. If international law permitted the sale of arms, then Americans had to make vigorous use of that right. If international law permitted American civilians to travel the seas unmolested, that right must be exercised as well to the fullest extent possible. Wilson’s attitude was so rigid that Bryan resigned as secretary of state. Wilson replaced him with Robert Lansing, a state department official whom Wilson promoted. But Wilson had no respect for Lansing, and he continued to use House as his paramount adviser.

Why was Wilson’s attitude in these matters so legalistic? Because —— far-fetched though the proposition might appear —— he had convinced himself that to have any hope of ending the war through mediation, the United States had to prove itself impeccably neutral, and the only way to prove this was to insist upon every single jot and tittle of neutral rights under international law. He wrote to Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador to Great Britain, as follows: “If we are to remain neutral and to afford Europe the legitimate assistance possible in such circumstances, the course we have been pursuing is the absolutely necessary course.” And the course he had been pursuing, he explained, was to do “everything that it is possible to do to define and defend neutral rights.”

And so instead of pulling the United States out of harm’s way —— instead of preventing American policy from being held hostage by heedless citizens who chose to put themselves in peril —— Wilson warned the Germans he would hold them to “strict accountability.” But how did he mean to enforce this threat? Realizing by summer 1915 that his previous opposition to preparedness had stripped him of leverage, he instructed his secretary of the navy and his secretary of war to draft preparedness legislation.

This was a wise thing to do under the circumstances, and Wilson —— in one of his better moments —— admitted in a speaking tour that he made on behalf of his preparedness program in January 1916 that his previous opposition to preparedness had been a mistake. But the task of pushing this legislation through Congress proved arduous because of opposition from Wilson’s own party. The politics of election year 1916, when Democratic speakers touted the claim that their party and its leader had “kept us out of war” made the task even harder. By the time the legislation went into effect in the autumn of 1916, only half a year of peace remained for the United States. Wilson’s delay in preparedness planning would rob him of critical leverage with the allies on the issue of war aims in 1917 and 1918. The lead time necessary for mobilization was considerable. And he would not be able to deliver the troops when the British and French needed them.

In the meantime, Wilson continued to promote himself as a mediator. In the winter of 1915-1916, he and House had pursued a strategy of demanding that both sides declare themselves ready for peace talks at the risk that America would help the enemies of whichever side refused first. House enthused in a message to Wilson that “a great opportunity is yours, my friend, the greatest perhaps that has ever come to any man.”

This initiative led to an early but meaningless agreement with the British foreign minister —— meaningless because events overtook it right away and the process led nowhere. Various details of these negotiations were botched to an extent that prompted Wilson scholar Arthur S. Link to describe the results as demonstrating “the immaturity and inherent confusion of the President’s policies.”

Repeatedly in 1916 he spoke about the providential role that he and the American people were destined to play in world history. “What Europe is beginning to realize,” he claimed in one speech, “is that we are saving ourselves for something greater that is to come. We are saving ourselves in order that we may unite in that final league of nations . . . which must, in the providence of God, come into the world.”

Wilson’s intense Christian piety —— he was the son of a Presbyterian minister —— was not unusual in his own time or (for that matter) in our own. But Wilson’s piety was perhaps quite unusual in its millennial expectations. More and more, as America was drawn into the maelstrom of war, Wilson expressed his belief that the providence of God was about to usher in the great peace foretold in Isaiah, and with divine providence guiding events in this way, there was little need for presidential strategy. God would make it all happen in the end.

And so it was that Wilson proceeded to ignore —— or throw away —— a long series of opportunities when strategic thinking and contingency planning might have given him a real opportunity to shape the flow of events, and especially so when it came to the war aims of the allies. It was beautiful ideals expressed in beautiful words that would turn the tide of war, Wilson thought.

He was pre-positioning the American people for a colossal and catastrophic let-down.

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