The United States presents a fascinating study of the various reasons a nation chooses, or feels forced to go to war. In the early days of the nation, war with foreign powers was seen as too entangling to enter into lightly. Attempts to circumvent armed retaliation for foreign oppression resulted in embargoes which hurt the U.S. more than it did those at whom the embargoes were aimed. Military retaliations seldom achieved the sought after goals, although they did establish the clear message that the young nation would not tolerate foreign oppression. International conflict was costly regardless of the strategy, but by the late 1800s a new reality was emerging within the power brokers of the nation. War, while costly in men and machine, could also provide an economic boost to a nation struggling with recession. This reality would become even more pronounced in the 1900s as the machine began to dominate warfare and a race to beat others in the field of war technology intensified. War had become a profitable business even as the world became terrified of the horrible human destruction modern war created. By the mid-1900s, war technology began to threaten the very existence of mankind even while the development of the technology made many powerful and wealthy.
Interestingly, in the early decades of the 1900s men like Woodrow Wilson were well aware of how devastating war could be on the humanity. Having been born in Virginia in the decade prior to the Civil War, Wilson’s earliest memories would have been of war, deprivation, and human suffering. He would have spent his youth seeing war veterans and hearing their stories. He went to school where he studied history and politics, subjects that would have exposed him to the many wars fought over power and possession. He earned a doctorate and would be the first U.S. president to have a PhD. The study of history and politics would have influenced his aversion to going to war, but his belief that the United States could influence others in a positive way would justify his support of intervention and eventually international war. Like many other intellectuals and politicians, his desire to spread the ideologies of democracy and capitalism, in other words, to help others become more like his beloved nation, blinded him to the fact that others might not wish to emulate the United States. As president, he was well on the way to becoming remembered for his military interventions and suppression of revolution before World War I thrust him into the role of international mediator.
Having come to age during the years when the United States attempted to heal from the wounds of war, and having seen firsthand the difficulties created in a society when harsh, punitive treatment was dealt to the defeated, it is not surprising that Wilson would wish to avoid repeating such mistakes when negotiating peace in Europe. It is also not surprising that Wilson would want to find a way to avoid future war. In the end, war is costly and a desire to recoup one’s own expenses at the further detriment of the defeated is hard to suppress. Furthermore, notions of international cooperation can, for many, seem to weaken a nation rather than propel it to greatness. Peace is virtuous, but war promotes power and economic vitality, especially if the war never touches the homeland.
For Further Reading
Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.