For 100 years, the Wilson Doctrine defined American foreign policy, whether applied affirmatively or, under Obama, negatively. Trump is changing all that.
When the Great War (now known as World War I) erupted in 1914, dragging Europe from the pinnacle of civilization into an abyss of mindless killing, President Woodrow Wilson was resolute: America would not enter into this foreign war.
Americans themselves had no desire to be drawn into the war, although the country quickly divided into camps supporting the two sides in the battle. Those supporting England, France, Belgium, and Russia (the Allies) only slightly outnumbered the huge German-American population that put its moral weight behind Germany, Austro-Hungary, and a few other central European nations (the Central Powers).
The socialists, led by Eugene Victor Debs and Jane Addams (of Hull House fame), were deeply committed to peace. They felt it was an obscene inversion of the arc of history for workers of the world to fight along nationalistic lines, rather than to band together against the worldwide evil of capitalism. Many who were not socialists, but saw no good in the European war, joined their peace movement.
Although the population was divided and Wilson clung to neutrality, as the years passed that neutrality had a remarkably Anglophile feel to it. The moment the war started, the British had cut the transatlantic cable tying America to the continent. This meant that Americans got the British view of the war and not the German. Of course, considering the carnage the Germans inflicted on both civilians and ancient buildings in Belgium and France on their thwarted march to Paris when the war began, it’s fair to say that, from the start, transatlantic cable or not, Americans who were not of German or Austrian origin were going to be hostile to the Central Powers.
Something else that made neutrality more honored in the breach than in practice was the fact that American ships could reach Britain, but not the continent. This created an economic boom for the Americans selling weapons and food to England — and, of course, it was a lifeline for Britain, which could never have lasted as long as it did without American supplies.
As the war progressed, and the money the British owed American manufacturers increased, Americans increasingly had a vested financial interest in a European victory. There would have been a serious depression in America had Britain lost the war.
The Germans were understandably concerned about the vast influx of weapons and supplies heading from America to England. In 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the HMS Lusitania, killing over a thousand passengers, including 128 Americans. Americans were outraged that the Germans had attacked a passenger ship and were disinterested in the fact that the ship was almost certainly carrying weapons to the British. As far as they were concerned, it was bad enough that the German’s were attacking American merchant marines with their newfangled submarines, without having them attack civilian vessels. The Germans, worried that the ship’s sinking would bring America into the war, promised to stop attacking American ships.
By 1916, though, the Germans concluded that the Americans, because they were arming England, were a de facto combatant in WWI. The Germans therefore announced that they were reversing course on their submarine moratorium and, henceforth, that all American ships approaching Britain were fair game.
Worse, in 1917, to Americans’ horror, the British, with the panache of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, produced the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, an internal German communication. Through it, the Americans learned that the Germans were proposing a military alliance with Mexico if the Americans entered the war. Even Wilson could no longer turn a blind eye to these provocations. He therefore went to Congress in April 1917 to make the case for war. This speech was to set the tone for American foreign policy for almost 100 years.
What Wilson realized as he wrote his speech was that, despite German attacks on American ships, America did not actually have any good reason to enter the war. Germany was an ocean away and, provided that the U.S. stayed out of the war, keeping Mexico neutral, Germany did not threaten America’s security or sovereignty. Moreover, if American retreated to true neutrality — that is, if she stopped trading with Britain — Germany would instantly leave her alone.
The one thing that Wilson could not admit was that, thanks to his turning a blind eye for three years to America’s ongoing trade with Britain, the reality was that America had every reason to go into war: As noted above, the U.S. needed a British victory to recoup all the credit it extended to Britain. But again, there was no way that Wilson would ever say that he was sending American boys to a charnel house for crass commercial reasons.
Faced with an unspeakable reason for entering the war, Wilson instead came up with a high-flown moral doctrine justifying America’s entry into the war. And so the Wilson doctrine was born (emphasis mine):