Americans have long held the belief that they are exceptional and have a providential destiny to be a “city upon a hill” as a beacon for democracy for the world.
Unlike the French revolutionaries who believed that they were bound to destroy monarchy and feudalism everywhere, the American revolutionaries laid down the principle of being an example for the world instead of imposing the belief on other countries.
In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams probably expressed this idea best during a Fourth of July address when he asserted the principle of American foreign policy that:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
While the Spanish-American War raised a debate over the nature of American expansionism and foundational principles, the reversal of the course of American diplomatic history found its fullest expression in the progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
Progressives such as President Wilson embraced the idea that a perfect world could be achieved with the spread of democracy and adoption of a greater international outlook instead of national interests for world peace. As president, Wilson believed that America had a responsibility to spread democracy around the world by destroying monarchy and enlightening people in self-government.
When World War I broke out in August 1914 after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilson declared American neutrality and asked a diverse nation of immigrants to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.”
American neutrality was tested in many different ways. Many first-generation American immigrants from different countries still had strong attachments and feelings toward their nation of origin. Americans also sent arms and loans to the Allies (primarily Great Britain, France, and Russia) that undermined claims of U.S. neutrality. Despite the sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat (submarine) in May 1915 that killed 1,200 including 128 Americans, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned because he thought the U.S. should protest the British blockade of Germany as much as German actions in the Atlantic.
Throughout 1915 and 1916, German U-boats sank several more American vessels, though Germany apologized and promised no more incidents against merchant vessels of neutrals. By late 1916, however, more than two years of trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front had led to millions of deaths, and the belligerents sought for ways to break the stalemate.
On February 1, 1917, the German high command decided to launch a policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare in which all shipping was subject to attack. The hope was to knock Great Britain out of the war and attain victory before the United States could enter the war and make a difference.
Simultaneously, Germany curiously sent a secret diplomatic message to Mexico offering territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for entering the war against the United States. British intelligence intercepted this foolhardy Zimmerman Telegram and shared it with the Wilson administration. Americans were predictably outraged when news of the telegram became public.
On April 2, President Wilson delivered a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war. He focused on what he labeled the barbaric and cruel inhumanity of attacking neutral ships and killing innocents on the high seas. He spoke of American freedom of the seas and neutral rights but primarily painted a stark moral picture of why the United States should go to war with the German Empire which had violated “the most sacred rights of our Nation.”
Wilson took an expansive view of the purposes of American foreign policy that reshaped American exceptionalism. He had a progressive vision of remaking the world by using the war to spread democratic principles and end autocratic regimes. In short, he thought, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
Wilson argued that the United States had a duty as “one of the champions of the rights of mankind.” It would not merely defeat Germany but free its people. Americans were entering the war “to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life.”
Wilson believed that the United States had larger purposes than merely defending its national interests. It was now responsible for world peace and the freedom of all. “Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.”
At the end of the war and during the Versailles conference, Wilson further articulated this vision of a new world with his Fourteen Points and proposal for a League of Nations to prevent future wars and ensure a lasting world peace.
Wilson’s vision failed to come to come to fruition. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles because it was committed to defending American national sovereign power over declaring war. The great powers were more dedicated to their national interests rather than world peace. Moreover, the next twenty years saw the spread of totalitarian, communist, and fascist regimes rather than progressive democracies. Finally, World War II shattered his vision of remaking the world.
Wilson’s ideals were not immediately adopted, but in the long run helped to reshape American foreign policy. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw increasing Wilsonian appeals by American presidents and policymakers to go to war to spread democracy throughout the world.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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