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'We Saved the World'

WWI and America's Rise as a Superpower

America's rise to superpower status began with its 1917 entry into World War I. President Woodrow Wilson had grand visions for the peace that followed, but failed. The battle he started in the US between idealists and realists continues to this day.

Bettmann/ Corbis
By Hans Hoyng
Friday, 1/24/2014   04:56 PM

"Sarajevo, 21st-century version." This is how political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, refers to what is currently brewing off the Chinese coast, where the territorial claims of several nations overlap.

The analogy to the period prior to the outbreak of World War I is striking. China, "the Germany of (that) time," as American historian Robert Kagan puts it, is the emergent world power still seeking to define its role within the global community. At the same time, China is staking its claim to natural resources, intimidating its neighbors and developing massive naval power to secure its trade routes.

In taking these steps, China could easily become a rival to another world power, the United States of America, which would assume the role once played by Great Britain in this historical comparison. Just as the United Kingdom did at the time, the United States is now building alliances with its rival's neighbors. And leaders in Beijing have responded to such attempts to encircle their country with a similar sense of outrage as that displayed by the German Reich.

The current crisis in the East China Sea illustrates once again that there are still lessons to be learned from World War I a century after it began and, upon closer inspection, that politicians on both sides are trying to avoid making the same mistakes. But the current crisis in East Asia diverges from the situation leading up to World War I in one important respect: There is currently no country able to assume the role once played by the United States, which, with its late entry into the war, decided its outcome and eventually outpaced both its winners and losers.

The US's entry into the war in 1917 marked the beginning of its path to becoming a world power. In fact, according to historian Herfried Münkler, this was precisely the goal of some politicians in Washington. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, a son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson, was already forging plans to replace the pound sterling with the dollar as the foremost international reserve currency.

The Nerve Center of the World

But his father-in-law, a lawyer and political scientist, and America's only president to enter politics after serving as the president of a university, had no such prosaic intentions. Wilson, the descendent of Scottish Presbyterians and a staunch idealist, and yet down-to-earth and in many respects, such as his racism, a son of the South, wanted to save the world and end war once and for all.

He failed, of course, with peace lasting only 20 years after World War I. Nevertheless, American politicians today justify military intervention with the same arguments Wilson used to convince the country to put an end to its isolation and intervene in Europe.

But Wilson managed to draw America's attention back to Europe. For the next century, the old continent was more or less at the center of American policy. Only today -- under a president who, like Wilson, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has a penchant for idealism and stirring speeches -- is Europe apparently sinking into the background once again as Washington responds to the allure of dynamic Asia.

Back then, though, Europe was the nerve center of the world. By the end of 1916, the war had claimed the lives of millions of soldiers, and the warring parties seemed incapable of bringing it to an end. Wilson no other option than to enter the conflict. On Jan. 22, 1917, he explained his ideas about peace to the US Senate. It was the duty of the United States, he said, to help build a structure for permanent peace.

Wilson argued that goal of the war had to be the establishment of "community power" and not a "balance of power," and to achieve "organized common peace" instead of "organized rivalries." In other words, only a "peace without victory" could bring the war in Europe to an end.

In his speech, Wilson staked out his position within the fundamental conflict that characterized American foreign policy at the time. On the one side were the "realists," who believed that America's most important task was to balance the interests of different countries to achieve the most stable equilibrium possible.

Light into the Darkness

The other side consisted of idealists; it was an approach which would later be named after Wilson himself. "Wilsonian foreign policy" is premised on the notion, established in the Puritan days of the founding fathers, that the United States should emulate the Biblical city on the hill, a role model for all other nations. The country has a mission to fulfill: that of bringing light into the darkness of bondage and dependency.

Wilson managed to win over a majority in Congress with his fiery speech. Senator Ben Tillman described it as "the most startling and noblest utterance that has fallen from human lips since the Declaration of Independence." The New York Times called it a "moral transformation" of American policy.

The Germans, who had not been opposed to the idea of peace talks until then, responded nine days later with the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare. When his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, brought him the news, Wilson's face became pale, and he said: "This means war."

Wilson was inaugurated into his second term on March 5, 1917. The man who had not mentioned foreign policy at all in his inaugural address four years earlier now had only one subject on his mind: war. "We are provincials no longer," he assured his listeners, noting that the struggle for Europe had made the Americans "citizens of the world." Finally, less than a month later, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. America, he said, was fighting to liberate the peoples of the world, including the Germans. And then he uttered a sentence that US presidents have used again and again to justify military intervention -- no one more clearly and with less credibility than George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion. "The world must be made safe for democracy," Wilson said.

After the Bolsheviks had overthrown the czarist regime in Russia, Wilson spoke of a war between democracy and the forces of absolutism. German historian Karl Dietrich Erdmann characterized 1917 as an "epochal year in world history." Washington's entry into the war and the October Revolution in Russia, Erdmann argues, ensured that Europe had lost its role as the principal player in world history.

But Wilson was surprised by the positive reception his speech received. "My message today was a message of death for our young men," he told his loyal secretary, Tumulty. "How strange it seems to applaud that." Then the president laid his head on the table and "sobbed as if he was a child," Tumulty reported.

Hearts and Minds

The German general staff had appraised American military strength as being somewhere "between Belgium and Portugal." It wasn't incorrect, but it failed to account for the speed with which the rising industrial power could unleash additional forces. Wilson initially mobilized the navy to counter the threat from German submarines. He was also able to confiscate 97 German and Austrian ships in US ports, which were then used to transport 40,000 soldiers to Europe. About two million more "doughboys" would follow by the fall of 1918.

Wilson made New York financier Bernard Baruch one of his top advisers. Baruch and his associates, recruited from the top ranks of industry, completed their tasks with breathtaking speed. The nominal economic output of the United States doubled between 1914 and 1918. German Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg saw Baruch as the real victor over Germany.

Wilson also fought for the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. To spread the "gospel of Americanism" to the last corners of the earth, the president set up what amounted to a globally active propaganda agency, the Committee for Public Information (CPI), headed by journalist George Creel. Two decades later, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was impressed by Creel's book, "How We Advertised America."

The Espionage Act of 1917 was less harmless. Only last year, it was dug up to justify the government's rigid position against disagreeable whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The law gave the government far more powers than merely the ability to take foreign agents out of circulation. It gave the government the discretion to determine whether criticism of the war could be treated as high treason. Together with a later amendment, the Espionage Act of 1917 was a comprehensive attack on freedom of speech.

And Wilson, who had always supported liberal causes in domestic policy, took a ruthless approach to dissidents. Some 1,500 Americans were convicted of holding views that diverged from the government's war policy, including Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. Wilson, the son of a minister, was extremely adept at hating. As David Lloyd George, Britain's wartime prime minister, would later say: "Wilson loved mankind but didn't like people."

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