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The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24


Robert E. Hannigan


Haney Foundation Series

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

Hardcover. xii+354 p. ISBN 978-0812248593. $69.95


Reviewed by Michael Carew

Baruch College, City University of New York



The body of literature of President Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s tortured struggle with World War I has epitomized the apparent conflict between the “idealists” and the “realists” in the formulation of American foreign policy. As with the real conflict between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton at the end of the 18th century over the role of a weak state-centered government or a strong central government in the United States, Wilson’s struggle has come to define the historiography of America and the Great War. Wilson, a professional academic from a deeply religious southern family wished to avoid any American involvement in the European struggle of 1914-1918. He saw himself, and his sympathetic biographers see him, as an apostle of peace, devoted to the conflicted goals of avoiding involvement, yet offering the belligerents a pathway to a peace settlement. After almost three years of avoiding American entry, in the spring of 1917 he was reluctantly maneuvered into asking Congress for a declaration of War against the Central Powers as an “Associate” of the Allies.

While largely uninterested in the American military participation in the war, Wilson sought from the beginning a role for himself as the head of the postwar Peace Conference at which the reformation of Europe could be achieved, and a permanent structure to assure future peace could be created. When an armistice was arranged in November 1918, Wilson promptly left Washington to assume his role at the coming Peace Conference. The other heads of government at the Conference, Georges Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Great Britain and Vittorio Orlando of Italy, quickly realized that Wilson’s ultimate priority a permanent peace structure could be used to extract the concessions they required of Wilson. There ensued over the first five months of 1919 at the Versailles Peace conference a series of barters, bargains, accommodations, accords, and compromises that converted the ideal of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” into a Carthaginian peace to be imposed on Germany, all for the sake of the League of Nations Covenant. Wilson returned to the United States to obtain the required consent of the American Senate. For a variety of political realities Wilson failed, suffered a severe debility and ended his presidency as an invalid.

Robert Hannigan of Suffolk University, who has written a prior survey of American foreign policy, presents the struggle of Wilson within the traditional interpretation of the “idealist” school. Hannigan’s sources are primarily his prior work, Wilson’s papers and those of his special emissary “Colonel” Edward House. In something of a departure, he identifies Wilson’s policies within the “…long term goals of American policymakers,” which he finally identifies and discusses on page 254 of his 295-page narrative. These goals include, “Reconstruction and stabilization of the international order”, as well as Domination of the western hemisphere; Retention of the “Open Door” in China; A Europe where…unwelcome reconfiguration of power would not take place. These goals may be perceived in retrospect, but they were hardly evident at the time. Further, he does not address the continued conflict between Wilson-House and the State Department and his three Secretaries of State. Finally, he avoids any critique of Wilson’s mishandling of the press, the Republican opposition and the European powers. Professor Hannigan extends his narrative to the succeeding Harding and Coolidge Administration to demonstrate the positive impact of Wilson’s formulations on the “…long term goals.”

An appreciation of Wilson’s failure can best be taken in the reaction of the American electorate to any international involvement in efforts to develop mutual security in Europe and the Far East in the decades after Wilson. It is an accepted historical reality that the United States withdrew into sullen isolationism in the years after Wilson, a direct result of his failure. The League of Nations was hobbled at its birth out of Wilson’s feckless disregards of the political realities evident even to his most devoted supporters. That retreat into “America First” required the careful rebuilding of American foreign and defense policies, twenty years later in the years before World War II. It was the conscious appreciation of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman of Wilson’s failure, and the need to mobilize the American electorate and its political arena that permitted the successes of the United States, in its post-World War II foreign policy.


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