Woodrow Wilson’s China Policy, 1913-1917
The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson and Other Essays
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volumes V-XI
Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era
Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson with Mexico, 1910-1917
The growing awareness that the interventions in Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Vietnam were not accidents, mistakes, blunders, or aberrations has not produced much serious discussion of the process whereby such action became the American Way of dealing with the restless natives of the empire. It is not enough to say that the United States has been sending the marines ever since Thomas Jefferson dispatched them to North Africa in 1801 to clear the way for American commerce. Or to reiterate that the price of freedom is eternal intervention. The issue involves two complex and interrelated developments. One is the gradual confluence of various economic, ideological, and political arguments for expansion into an integrated and dynamic theory of empire. The other is the gathering of psychological momentum behind the propensity to use force in dealing with challenges that appear to threaten the integrity of the empire.
Neither of those elements can be fully understood until the Cold War is decapitalized and viewed as a confrontation that occurs throughout our history instead of one that began in 1944 or 1945. It is helpful, but not helpful enough, to push the date back to 1917, when Thomas Woodrow Wilson squared off against Lenin. Wilson played a major role in integrating all aspects of American imperial expansion, but his first major clashes came with the Chinese in 1913 and the Mexican revolutionaries—not the Bolsheviks. His response to the Kuomintang’s rising against the Chinese president and militarist Yüan Shih-kai and his sustained meddling and intervention in Mexico tell us a great deal about the true nature of the cold war, though we have been slow to comprehend the evidence.
Mr. Tien-yi Li’s book on Wilson’s China policy shows that Wilson backed Yüan in spite of his undemocratic rule because he wanted a China able and willing to function within the framework of the Open Door Policy. The Kuomintang appeared as a threat to what Wilson had earlier defined as America’s duty to open and transform China by imposing “the standards of the West.” As for the Mexicans, they were mounting a noncommunist revolution that said no to orthodox Western capitalism, no to Western (and particularly Anglo-Saxon) parliamentary politics, and no to Western individualism.
Those revolutions help us to realize that the cold war actually began with the triumph of laissez-faire capitalism over the more organic political economy of mercantilism, and can be dated by the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. So defined, the cold war is a major historical phenomenon to be understood as an ongoing confrontation between modern Western capitalism and its domestic and international critics. The antagonism has been visceral and persistent, has involved organic conservatives as well as socialist and communist radicals, and has often flared into violence. The main reason we have mistaken the postwar duels with Russia and China for the real cold war is because they were the first nations to be successfully organized by the critics of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.