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Reluctant Wilson enters US into war.

By Bruce G. Kauffmann

This week (April 2) in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, more in sorrow than in anger, asked Congress for a declaration of war against the central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, thereby turning a European war into World War I. Perhaps no president in history was more reluctant to go to war than was Wilson.

His reluctance was not because of America's traditional isolationism, although Wilson had taken advantage of that sentiment in his 1916 reelection campaign, using "He Kept Us Out of War'' as his slogan.

In truth, Wilson was no isolationist. Rather he was a crusader and progressive reformer, both domestically and internationally, which is why he desperately wanted to keep America out of the war. Domestically, Wilson knew that if America was at war, Americans would ignore his ideas for reforming government -- of which he had plenty -- both because funding the war, not domestic programs, would be the priority, and because the nation's attention would be on military battles, not social or economic ones.

As for internationally, Wilson's goal was not isolationism but neutrality, which Wilson believed would make America the "honest broker,'' allowing it to play a major role in mediating an end to the war, and in shaping a better postwar world. Wilson was tired of Europe's "politics as usual,'' believing (not unreasonably) that the secret treaties, backroom deals and undemocratic political arrangements brokered by the major European powers had caused the war. Wilson, the consummate idealist, wanted to teach Europe that it must replace the status quo with "standards of righteousness and humanity.''

American neutrality, alas, proved impossible. Although, as a nonbelligerent, the United States tried to maintain cordial relations with both the Central powers and the Allied powers -- Great Britain, France and Russia -- as the war progressed America increasingly sided with the latter. Trade with them increased, while declining with the Central powers, and soon America was lending money to the Allied powers to pay for the goods it was selling them.

Eventually the Central powers noticed this disparity, and Germany decided that sinking American ships bound for Britain and France was its only option. In February 1917, Germany began attacking American merchant ships in the Atlantic, killing increasing numbers of Americans, and by April Wilson had no choice but ask Congress to declare war.

The irony of which was, America's military and financial contribution to the Allied victory in WWI gave Wilson far more influence in shaping the postwar world than neutrality would have. And, a double irony, his idealistic solutions for the postwar world were so hated by the other Allied powers that the resulting postwar Versailles Treaty was a terribly flawed compromise that planted the seeds of World War II.

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 29, 2015
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