Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy

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.

Guiding Questions

What was Wilson's foreign policy, and how did it differ from previous American foreign policy?

How did the Wilson administration respond to revolution and civil unrest in Latin America?

After almost three years of neutrality, was the decision to intervene in World War I justified?

Were Wilson's Fourteen Points realized in the Versailles Treaty?

Learning Objectives

Discuss how the academic career and Progressivism of Wilson shaped his ideas about foreign policy

Identify four major points of "Wilsonianism": spreading democracy, open markets, an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States

Explain what was both traditional and new about Wilsonianism

Identify American economic and strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere

Explain how the U.S attempted to safeguard American economic interests and promote democratic reforms in Latin America during Wilson's presidency

Discuss how Wilson's actions reflected his foreign policy principles

Explain why many Latin Americans resented or resisted U.S. actions

Explain why the United States adopted a policy of neutrality after the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914

Identify challenges to American neutrality

Explain why Wilson decided to request a declaration of war

Discuss the ways in which Wilson wanted to use victory in the war to fundamentally change international relations and to promote the spread of democracy

Discuss how the Fourteen Points, especially the League of Nations, demonstrated Wilsonian principles

Summarize the aims of the other Allied powers at the Paris Peace Conference

Identify which of the Fourteen Points became part of the Versailles Treaty