United States Foreign Policy during the World War I Era

Foreign policy has always been shaped by the mindset of the people. This is especially evident in democratic governments such as the United States, where major decisions are not made at the whim of a single dictator or monarch. Our government is one that is based on public opinion, more so when we elect weaker leaders.

Several factors shaped American mentality in the early twentieth century. There were racial tensions, religious conflicts, pacifist notions, and a fear of the "New Woman". All of these shaped public opinion in some way and indirectly influenced the decisions of our leaders.

Before the outbreak of World War I, there was the idea of a balance of power and collective security that could prevent any future wars from occurring. There was a feeling that war had somehow gone out of style and that civilized society no longer needed war to settle differences. With so many powerful and highly sophisticated countries in Europe, how could Europe ever revert back to the barbarism of unrestricted warfare?

World War I came swiftly and almost silently as an assassination in Austria set off an irreversible chain of events. One declaration of war had entangled all of Europe into war. The world quickly learned that a balance of power only works when there are more than two sides.

Twentieth century foreign policy in the United States began with imperialism. By the turn of the century, the United States had completed its westward expansion and ran into the Pacific coast. There were no more frontiers to occupy, unless we wanted to risk attacking Canada or Mexico. The American frontier had only fed imperialist desire to take more land and resources, so we took to the seas.

Under President McKinley the United States picked a fight with Spain, who was already weak, and the war resulted in American presence in the Philippines, Guam, and Cuba. The Spanish-American war raised questions as to what role the United States should play in the world. Should we model ourselves after the British Empire and attempt to colonize and civilize the world? Or should we condemn colonization as immoral and concentrate on domestic issues?

One major argument for imperialism was that the United States needed to become a naval power in order to become a world power. In order to have a powerful and far-reaching navy, colonies were needed to serve as ports for refueling.

I believe that colonizing countries for ports was unnecessary and immoral. Colonization only happened because the American mindset at the time was that non-Caucasian peoples were inferior in both culture and technology. Countries do not need to own a port to use it. It only makes it more convenient to own something rather than borrow it. Instead of colonizing a country, the United States could have formed friendships or alliances with them to allow access to resources. It might be human nature that a country takes something for nothing when given the chance, but that does not make it right.

United States imperialism continued through the aggressive administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt came into power at a time when the United States had already demonstrated itself to be a world power. It was Roosevelt who began the notion of the United States being a sort of "world police".

He supported a revolution in Panama in order to make room for the Panama Canal. His Roosevelt Corollary gave the United States the job of enforcing foreign laws in the Americas. He even won a Nobel Prize for mediating the war between Russia and Japan. This was a different kind of imperialism. Roosevelt's imperialism was of power and not land.

After Roosevelt came William Taft, who left no notable foreign policy legacy. Taft held the presidency during the calm before the storm of World War I. It was Woodrow Wilson who picked up foreign policy where Roosevelt left off.

Woodrow Wilson's first demonstration of foreign policy was his intervention in the Mexican Revolution when he refused to recognize Victoriano Huerta as the President of Mexico, even when it served American business interests to do so. Here was another example of the United States flaunting its power over weaker countries.

It can be argued that it was beneficial to national security to keep bordering countries weak, or even that we were promoting democracy for the good of Mexico, but people never want to have a weak puppet of a foreign country as a leader. Instead of trying to force Mexico into submission, Wilson should have recognized Huerta as a leader and then kept armed watch over Mexico. By intervening with armed forces in Mexico, Wilson only made more unprovoked enemies.

Wilson's intervention with Mexico was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Wilson had ignored the war earlier, but now German U-boats were sinking American ships. When it appeared that the Germans would win the war and divert their attention to conquering the United States, Wilson finally declared war.

World War I for the United States was relatively short, though over three hundred thousand American lives were lost. Overall it was a victory because Germany was defeated and the United States profited greatly from selling munitions to the Allied forces. It was after the war when Wilson's foreign diplomacy became very prominent.

After Germany was defeated in World War I, Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points at the Versailles peace conference. Wilson had many ideas about how to create a lasting world peace, but they proved too idealistic to be effective. President Wilson's crowning achievement was the League of Nations, which set the foundation for the modern United Nations, but failed to prevent World War II.

The most important aspect of World War I was its consequences. The war was so grisly and depleting that most Americans became xenophobic and isolationist afterwards. The war shocked America so greatly that later presidents made efforts to disarm the world, severely restrict immigration, and even outlaw war itself.

Despite President Wilson's warnings, Germany was severely punished and humiliated after the war. That coupled with the Great Depression of the 1930's allowed many strong aggressive leaders to come to power. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Tojo, and Franklin Roosevelt all gained influence in the years following World War I.

The final important result of World War I that I will discuss here was the issue of war debts. The United States emerged from World War I as the most powerful country in the world, mostly because we profited from the war for a long time before entering at the end. The Allied forces paid dearly in both men and money. At the end of the war the Allies owed the United States huge sums of money that they weren't rushing to pay back.

The Allies argued that they had already paid in both men and money, so the United States should absolve them of debt. Many American investors had loaned the money to European interests during the war effort, so it would have benefited American businesses if Europe were forced to pay back its debts.

I think that it was right for the United States to absolve Europe of its debts. Loans are in reality very similar to investments. The lender must assume the responsibility of deciding whether the borrower will be able to repay the debts. In the case of World War I, it would have ruined the Allies economically if they were forced to repay all of their war debts. The United States had already gotten rich from the tragedy of war, and asking for any more would have simply been greed.

All of the issues presented here eventually led to or impacted World War II. World War II was in a large part the product of the mistakes and unresolved issues of World War I. From this perspective, the decisions made by leaders during the World War I era may have been the most important foreign policy decisions of the twentieth century.

Written by Steve Alvesteffer, http://stormshock.com