How Presidents Sell War: Part 3

Roosevelt, Wilson, and World War I

Part 1
Part 2

Theodore Roosevelt

All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. . . . Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may . . . ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and . . . force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power. Roosevelt Corollary, 1904

American success in the Spanish-American War revealed what could be accomplished through interventionism: positioning, influence, prestige. Those benefits attracted President Theodore Roosevelt.

With those gains in mind, the President drafted his Roosevelt Corollary, an addendum to the Monroe Doctrine and a message to Europe. Eighty years earlier, President Monroe decreed that the US would protect the sovereignty of Western Hemispheric neighbors, but Roosevelt upgraded the defensive language to more eager posturing. The U.S. wouldn’t merely defend the Americas against European encroachment, but it would also actively intervene to stabilize the hemisphere, even without clear European presence.

With President Roosevelt’s interventionist shift came a need to justify this new foreign policy to a nation of American isolationists. He had to sell it. The language he used was a master class in Part 2‘s three themes.[1]

The main purpose of the corollary spoke to Theme 1. An unstable Western Hemisphere was bad for American interests. Many Latin American countries drowned in debt and careened toward insolvency, lawlessness, and worse — the dreaded failed state. The countries to which they owed money included America, and a stable country had a better opportunity to make amends. The debtors also owed money to European countries, and American presence in the debtor nations would deter Europeans returning to force debt collection and potentially recapture lost colonies. European encroachment would threaten American hegemony over the hemisphere.

Two themes remained. “All that this country wants,” the President assured, “is to see stability, order, and prosperity” in other countries. The US will intervene only if it sees “chronic wrongdoing”; therefore the US will monitor the stability of countries and intervene if it sees fit. Does it happily do so? No. According to its president, it is “reluctant.”

The noble, reluctant, patriarchal Roosevelt Corollary wished only that others could succeed politically and economically. It not only presupposed that the U.S. could identify the difference between civilized and uncivilized, but that it is, in fact, a civilized, good nation. America also does not relish the role of interventionist, but “Chronic wrongdoing . . . [may] force the United States, however reluctantly,” to take action. Roosevelt also freely admits to the potential “exercise of an international police power.”[2]

These ideas will be revisited by U.S. executives throughout the subsequent century. The United States advanced on an interventionist journey, much in thanks to the nation’s 26th president. The isolationism preached by its first, meanwhile, rapidly retreated. Wars were about to go global.

Woodrow Wilson

At first, the 28th president, our only with a PhD, couldn’t have appeared more different than the rough riding 26th.[3] When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt felt President Wilson was too slow entering. One reason for Wilson’s initial reluctance was simple: when presidential politics are involved, presidents are guided by their constituencies, not by hawkish predecessors.

In his 1916 re-election, Wilson promised his country that he would avoid entering the war, which had already taken millions of lives. Indeed, his primary campaign motto boasted, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Campaign leaflets, handbills, and newspaper advertisements vowed a peaceful second term.

Four months after winning re-election, President Wilson began that second term. One month after that, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

America Enters the Great War[4]

Wilson’s about-face epitomizes America’s steady reversal from Washington’s isolationism to modern interventionism. There was good reason for America’s entrance into World War I, but as evidenced by Wilson’s re-election, Americans clearly did not want to partake. Therefore, for Wilson to reverse course, he needed to convince Congress and their shared constituents that American entry was the right thing to do. He needed to sell it.

Many point to German U-boat torpedoes sinking the Lusitania as the impetus behind America’s entry into the war. However, nearly two years passed between the Lusitania, which met its demise in May of 1915, and the President’s appeal for war in April of 1917. In other words, a direct cause-and-effect is difficult to support. Instead, it was two subsequent developments that allowed Wilson to rally popular support.

In February of 1917, two months before Wilson addressed Congress, British code-breakers intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram — a proposed German alliance with Mexico if Mexico declared war on America.[5] Telegram in hand, Wilson could make the case that Germany was the aggressor.

The following month, the people of the Russian Empire, the only major nation of the Allied Powers that wasn’t democratic, deposed Tsar Nicholas II. Meanwhile, in the opposing trenches crouched soldiers led by the German Kaiser, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, and the Ottoman Sultanate. The Great War had evolved into a symbolic duel: democracies against autocracies.

President Wilson was ready to make his case, and all three themes discussed in Part 2 could play a role. Theme 1 was easy; a German-Mexican alliance worked against the national interest. As for Themes 2 and 3, note these excerpts from Wilson’s address to Congress:

  • “[I have] a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves.”
  • “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
  • “It is a distressing and oppressive duty.”
  • “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war . . . civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy . . . for the rights and liberties . . . and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
  • “America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”

Themes 2 and 3 are all over the place! It’s a battle of good versus evil — the way of America’s “principles” against the way of oppressors — and the U.S. has “a distressing and oppressive duty.” America must fight not because it wants to, but because it has to. The country “can do no other.”

Congress and the American people followed their president. After victory in 1918, many wondered what role the U.S. would take in the peace process and post-war world. It had tipped the struggle in favor of the Allied Powers and escaped relatively unscathed while Europe nearly destroyed itself. How would America handle its stronger position?

Much to the chagrin of American isolationists who expected to vacate the global stage at war’s end, Wilson’s vision positioned the world’s affairs as America’s affairs. He felt so strongly about this interconnectedness that when it came time draw up treaties, he became the first incumbent president to cross the Atlantic.

He took this historic journey for an important reason: Theme 3 — the propagation of American ideals. These came in the form of his Fourteen Points. “The program of the world’s peace,” Wilson proclaimed, “is our program.” Offering idealistic (often called Wilsonian) post-war initiatives like free trade, open agreements, self-determination, and a considerable expanse of democracy across the world, Wilson’s Fourteen Points were saturated in American principles. Even in peace, the American President looked to spread our values, a sort of ideological interventionism.

In order to enforce the first 13 points and promote open dialogue between countries, the last and most cherished of his points proposed an “association of nations.” This body became the League of Nations, but Congress and its people wanted no part of such an interventionist commitment. Even with American triumph in World War I, the U.S. returned to the safe confines of isolationism. Evidenced by a series of “Neutrality Acts” in the 1930s, the American people once again wished to keep a buffer between themselves and the systemic problems of the European continent.

It would take another world war — and another Roosevelt — to convince them that the world’s business and America’s business are one in the same. Only then will U.S. foreign policy permanently shift into interventionism. Part 4 next.


[1]The themes: 1)The national interest is at stake; 2)The U.S. acts meritoriously but reluctantly; and 3) The U.S. must act in support of law, order, and/or American values.

[2]One could make the argument that a world without the Roosevelt Corollary is a world without Team America: World Police. Is that a world you want to live in? Me neither.

[3]Only four forgettable years of William Howard Taft filled the space between these two important presidents. Taft, of course, was really good at filling up space.

[4]The Great War, later known as World War I, engulfed most of the world from 1914 to 1918. It pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire (known as the Central Powers or Triple Alliance), along with minor countries and colonies around the world, against the United Kingdom, France, and, for most of the war, Russia (known as the Allied Powers or the Triple Entente), along with minor countries and colonies of their own. The conflict killed over ten million soldiers in addition to a few million civilians, while another 20 million were wounded. So bad was the Great War that it quickly earned another nickname: “The War to End All Wars.” History proved this optimistic nickname one hundred percent correct.

[5]Did American political cartoonists have German and Mexican stereotypes at the ready? You bet they did!


6 thoughts on “How Presidents Sell War: Part 3”

  1. Now you have me thinking about times the U.S. failed to fulfill its role as self-appointed Global Cop. Was it lack of salesmanship by the Executive? And times it tried to be a good cop and turned out to be a bad cop or just plain failed to bust the Baddy. Were these wars oversold or simply underdelivered?


    1. Those are good questions. It’s certainly a combination of factors. If I had to guess the broadest cause behind these “failures,” it would be America’s reluctance to over-commit (or just plain sufficiently commit) American resources to their policing.


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