Woodrow Wilson had no choice but to send America to war in 1917, though he did so in hopes that he could perhaps prevent all such wars in the world’s future.
After the hotly-contested election of 1916, Woodrow Wilson’s second term was set to begin, but he suddenly found himself with no recourse but to go against his own campaign slogan – “He kept us out of the war.”
The Germans had begun unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, targeting American boats even as the nation attempted to remain neutral. In addition, a telegram intercepted by the British revealed that Germany was attempting to recruit Mexico as an ally. With that frightening prospect in mind, America entered the war, and Woodrow Wilson’s entire second term was defined.
Far Reaching Strategy
Wilson did not proclaim himself a great military commander, and left most of the decisions up to his appointed general, John Pershing.
The President’s mind, instead, was occupied by the “bigger picture.” He devised a famous series of “fourteen points” which would help to end the war and to make sure that it was indeed, “the war to end all wars.” He wanted the victory in Europe to pave the way for worldwide peace, centered around a League of Nations (the forerunner to the modern U.N.) which might peacefully resolve all such disputes.
At home, Wilson followed in the footsteps of John Adams and Abraham Lincoln before him by attempting to quell dissent among Americans who were opposed to the war, passing laws which prevented sedition against the war or the government, arresting people for speaking even privately against the government, and banned the mailing of any anti-war propaganda (these laws are summed up in the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Espionage Act of 1917).
The beginning of 1918 saw Wilson’s famous revelation of his Fourteen Points to the world, and 1919 saw him travel to Europe (the first American President ever to do so while in office) in order to negotiate the Treaty of Versaille (which ended the war), while attempting to promote and plan his League of Nations.
As a result of this work for peace after the war, Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 and did successfully create his leage.
The league would have to function without America, however, as the republican controlled senate refused to authorize it. The argument against it revolved around a hesitancy to give up Congress’ Constitutionally defended right to declare war. By granting some of their authority to a foreign body, the United States would effectively be offering up a piece of its sovereignty, which many viewed as unacceptable.
With that decision, Wilson’s grand scheme to unite the world in peace became one of his great failures in office. He came to believe that without joining the league, America had gone to war under false pretenses.
In addition, the end of the war saw the war-time economic surge suddenly grind to a halt, the administration having failed to plan for American demobilization. Veterans came home, bankruptcy arose, strikes broke out, and the economy began to crumble.
Furthermore, the sudden decline of Wilson’s administration was exacerbated by his health problems, culminating in a stroke in October of 1919 which he successfully hid from the public, for the most part, until his death five years later.
Obviously incapable and unwilling to run for reelection in 1920, Wilson gave up the office to his successor, Warren G. Harding and retired to a home, with his second wife, Edith (whom he had married in 1914 after the death of his first wife) in Washington D.C. He died their only four years later.
The legacy of Woodrow Wilson is certainly mixed, and remains one of great debate among historians, some of whom view his progressive policies as being immensely successful, while others accuse him of contributing to attempting to expand governmental power while being in favor of giving up national sovereignty.
This is one of those things that history will continue to judge as more time passes.