American foreign policy continues to resonate with the issues involved in the entry of the United States into World War I-unilateralism versus foreign alliances, the responsibilities of power, the influence of the military-industrial complex on foreign policy, the use of force to accomplish idealistic goals. Understanding the choices the Wilson administration made and their consequences provides insight into international affairs in the years since the end of the Great War and beyond.
In this curriculum unit, students reconsider the events leading to U.S. entry into World War I through the lens of archival documents.
Note: This unit may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a prequel to the complementary EDSITEment curriculum unit The Debate in the United States Over the League of Nations. It may also be taught in conjunction with the EDSITEment curriculum units African Americans Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Divisions and African American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?.
Woodrow Wilson numbers among the most influential Presidents in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Elected in 1913 as a Progressive reformer, the former college professor and governor of New Jersey expected to devote his time and talents to fulfilling an ambitious domestic reform agenda. Foreign policy, Wilson assumed, would be a secondary concern. As he remarked, "[i]t would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."
That irony was soon realized. In 1913, Wilson repudiated his predecessors' Dollar Diplomacy. (Dollar Diplomacy called for the U.S. government to promote stability, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to yield investment opportunities for American companies, with the hope that the development would also result in prosperity for the affected nations.) Certainly Wilson supported private American investment in Latin America and elsewhere, but the promotion of democracy was a higher priority. In 1914, disturbed by the violence of Mexico's revolution (and the arrest of U.S. sailors in Tampico), Wilson sent American troops across the border. The next year, he dispatched Marines to Haiti.
The international event that most preoccupied the President was, of course, World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Wilson declared neutrality for the United States and urged Americans to remain impartial as well. Neutrality, however, quickly proved difficult. Just as American attempts to sell goods to France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars had incurred the wrath of those battling Great Powers, so, too, did this wartime trade result in violations of U.S. neutrality. The British Navy seized goods bound for German ports; German submarine attacks on Allied ships resulted in American deaths. In April 1917, with German provocations growing worse, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers.
Wilson's actions were not merely reactive, however—far from it. After taking office, Wilson quickly evolved an ambitious foreign policy. Although he drew upon several durable traditions in U.S. foreign relations, most notably an abiding faith in the superiority of democracy, Wilson's foreign policy was unique in its own right. Among other points, "Wilsonianism" advocated the spreading of democracy, the opening of global markets, the creation of an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States. The dispatch of troops to Mexico and Haiti reflected these goals, but it was through entry into World War I that Wilsonianism reached its high point. "The world must be made safe for democracy," declared the President, and, once the war was won, he hoped to achieve this aim through a just and fair peace treaty and the formation of the League of Nations.
In this curriculum unit, students will study the formation, application, and outcomes-successes and failures alike-of Wilson's foreign policy. Students will subsequently appreciate the profound legacy of Wilsonianism in U.S. foreign relations as they continue their study of modern U.S. history.
First, review each lesson plan. Second, find and bookmark the recommended links and materials from each lesson's EDSITEment reviewed websites. Third, download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies, as needed, for student viewing. (As an alternative, excerpted versions of the documents are included on the Text Document.) Fourth, download the Text Document for this lesson, provided here as a PDF, which includes questions for students to answer. Finally, print and copy the handouts you will use in class.
To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit the Learning Page from the Library of Congress.
In particular, students may find the Mindwalk activity useful in preparing to work with primary sources.
At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice document analysis.
In the years after World War I Americans quickly reached the conclusion that their country's participation in that war had been a disastrous mistake, one which should never be repeated again. During the 1920s and 1930s, therefore, they pursued a number of strategies aimed at preventing war.
At first the major players in this effort were American peace societies, many of which were part of larger international movements. Their agenda called for large-scale disarmament and an international treaty to abolish war. Their efforts bore fruit, as 1922 saw the signing of a major agreement among the great powers to reduce their numbers of battleships. Six years later most of the world's nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which the signatories pledged never again to go to war with one another.
However, events in the early- to mid-1930s led many Americans to believe that such agreements were insufficient. After all, they did not deter Japan from occupying Manchuria in 1931, nor four years later did they stop the German government from authorizing a huge new arms buildup, or Italy from invading Ethiopia. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the Neutrality Acts, a series of laws banning arms sales and loans to countries at war, in the hope that this would remove any potential reason that the United States might have for entering a European conflict.
When in 1939 war did break out between Germany on the one hand, and Britain and France on the other, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dutifully invoked the Neutrality Acts. However, he believed that this was a fundamentally different war from World War I. Germany, he believed (and most Americans agreed with him) was in this case a clear aggressor. Roosevelt therefore sought to provide assistance for the Allies, while still keeping the United States out of the war. He began by asking Congress to amend the neutrality laws to allow arms sales to the Allies. Later on, after German forces overran France, the president asked Congress for a massive program of direct military aid to Great Britain—an initiative that Roosevelt dubbed "Lend-Lease." In both cases the legislature agreed to FDR's proposals, but only after intense debate.
The question of how involved the United States should become in the European war deeply divided the country. On the one hand, Roosevelt and the so-called "internationalists" claimed that a program of aid to Great Britain and other countries fighting against Germany would make actual U.S. participation in the war unnecessary. On the other side stood those who were called "isolationists," who believed that the president's policies were making it increasingly likely that the country would end up in another disastrous foreign war. This debate was still raging when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At this point it was clear that, like it or not, the United States would be a full participant in the Second World War.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.