Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson; drawing by David Levine

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.”1 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 capitalism.

Viewed from this perspective, Wilson emerges as a pivotal figure in the counterattack mounted by Western capitalism. He realized that capitalism had to devise a strategy that would meet the devastating criticism of the individualistic nineteenth-century market place society that was already current when he was a professor at Princeton, and at the same time sustain the imperial expansion of the West throughout the world. All the books under review contribute to our comprehension of how he approached the problem, of his role in creating a spell of psychological urgency to meet and master the challenge, and of his program for victory.

The long debate about Wilson’s shift from the individualistic, anti-trust, competitive market place approach of his New Freedom campaign of 1912 to the corporate outlook of the New Nationalism during and after the campaign of 1916 offers a classic example of how historians can recognize a crucial part of the story and then lose the issue by isolating it outside the pattern of long-term development. Thus Professor Arthur S. Link, in his book The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson, concludes that political expediency explains the change: Wilson compromised his true views—the views that led him to create the Federal Trade Commission and to sponsor more than ninety antitrust prosecutions—to win re-election in 1916. Professor Melvin I. Urofsky in his book on Wilson and big steel agrees that politics was a contributing factor, but prefers to emphasize the pressure on Wilson to abandon “irrelevant” ideas when faced with the responsibility of dealing with the existing corporate system and the necessity of working with the corporations after the outbreak of World War I.2

As a few other scholars have seen, Wilson’s own writings suggest a different interpretation. The key to the contrast in interpretation involves the nature of Calvinism, and Wilson’s reading of that philosophy. Link views Wilson as “a Calvinist and a Presbyterian”; indeed, “the prime embodiment, the apogee, of Calvinistic tradition among all statesmen of the modern epoch” (a rather casual judgment from one who lived through the years of John Foster Dulles).3 But I think Link is wrong in viewing Calvinism per se, as well as Wilson’s understanding of Calvinism, as leading to an individualistic outlook. Calvin was corporate to the core, and Wilson himself recognized that (no doubt with assistance from Edmund Burke) long before Link dates the transformation. Link acknowledges that Wilson began to abandon intense individualism sometime about 1906-1909, but that admission seriously undercuts his argument that the political necessities of the campaign of 1916 explain the change.4


The point is underscored when we read Wilson in the volumes of his papers, which Mr. Link has been editing over the years. Wilson writes in 1885 that “homogenity of race and community of thought and purpose” are essential: vital to acting “as an organic body.”5 That not only echoes Calvin, but sounds very much like Richard T. Ely, the Johns Hopkins economist and advocate of “Christian socialism” with whom Wilson was studying during those years.6 Even Link admits that Wilson’s The State (1889) contains “a heavy attack against individualism, laissez faire, and Social Darwinism.” “Above all,” Wilson insists, “order is absolutely indispensable to progress of any sort.” Keenly aware of the crisis confronting America at the end of the nineteenth century, he still omits from his contemporary essays any mention of Coxey’s Army, the group of jobless men who marched on Washington following the Panic of 1893, or of the Pullman Strike in 1894, which resulted in the jailing of Eugene V. Debs.7

Instead, he tells us that “properly organized democracy is the best government of the few. This is the meaning of representative government.” Spinning along that line of logic toward the Pentagon Papers, he adds that “no democracy can live without a leisured class capable of thinking on the problems of government.” Thus the most capable and responsible among us (including Thomas Woodrow Wilson, of course) “must find or make, somewhere in our system, a group of men to lead.” Not least among the problems to be dealt with arises from the unhappy fact that democracy is “sometimes mistaken for a basis for socialism.” The true and good leader realizes, of course, that “political democracy is one thing, economic democracy another.” The need for strong and wise guidance from above is apparent: “Revolutions always put things back, and sensible reforms are postponed.”8

So we return to the problem of Wilson’s rhetorical switch during the campaign of 1916. I would suggest that Link is correct if we move his judgment involving expediency back to the year 1912. That gives us a Wilson understandably nervous about moving from New Jersey to the national arena, influenced by the intellectual and psychic pressure from Louis D. Brandeis, and therefore by Brandeis’s views on the virtues of economic competition, and shrewd-as-hell in his own right as a politician who very badly wanted to be President. That means he lacked full confidence in his own perceptive analysis of the imperatives of Western capitalism while being confident of his reading of the body politic. Perhaps encouraging moral and sophisticated competition by American business would rejuvenate the political economy; but in any event such encouragement offered the best strategy for winning the race against William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Expediency in 1913 rather than in 1916.

Or, more exactly, domestic expediency in 1912 and foreign policy expediency in 1916. As for Wilson the diplomatist, Link tells us that he was uninterested in foreign policy and unprepared to conduct foreign affairs. That becomes more than a bit of an exaggeration after one reads Wilson’s histories and essays written prior to 1912. Never mind. Wilson learned quickly and soon “acted like a divine right monarch in the conduct of foreign relations.” Of course, all that power to push American expansion in keeping with the traditional Open Door Policy was “not for the oppressive exploitation of underdeveloped areas, but for the slow and steady improvement of mankind through the spread of a reformed and socially responsible democratic capitalism.”9 There we have a judgment that is literally correct and yet almost irrelevant. The explanation of that paradox lies in the phrase “oppressive exploitation.” For to discuss Wilson’s foreign policy around the question of whether or not he was a narrow economic man is to pose a false issue.

Wilson was as much against the “oppressive exploitation” of foreigners as he was against the “oppressive exploitation” of American blacks, reds, and browns. With respect to both cases, however, the point is that he had decided that his way of development was the only permissible way to make progress. Dean G. Acheson was merely paraphrasing Wilson when he offered his explanation of American policy shortly after World War II: “We are willing to help people who believe the way we do, to continue to live the way they want to live.” Others could expect pressure to change their ways. Even those many Americans, as Link phrases it, who had to be guided “from provincialism toward world leadership and responsibilities.”10 Thanks to the lessons from Joe Tumulty, Wilson became in his own right a “great stage manager” with a “flair for public relations” and a magic touch in “the use of headlines.”11 Professor Blum’s book on Tumulty provides several such insights. Tumulty’s activities as a reformer in New Jersey, for example, no doubt influenced Wilson in adopting the New Freedom strategy for the election of 1912; and Tumulty fully understood both the intensity and scope of Wilson’s conception of the United States as the elected agent of global peace, proper government, and prosperity.


Wilson was much more, however, than an efficient missionary of proper development. He read Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to mean that America would find its next frontiers around the globe. He talked about the necessity of market expansion (and the role of government in that process) years before he entered the White House. And he combined those themes in the argument that all peoples must ultimately self-determine themselves in the American Way if America itself was to be secure and prosperous.12

There were exceptions, of course, as when forces trying to overthrow dictatorships and set up more democratic institutions threatened the stability so vital to American expansion. That was the case, as Professor Tien-yi Li notes, when the Kuomintang renewed its rebellion in southern China during 1913. Wilson not only backed Yüan Shih-kai’s repression, but offered no criticism when the Chinese leader first purged and then dissolved the parliament.13 As in later years, the larger purposes required intermediate expediencies that were justified by the noble objectives.

And, then as now, some men saw and spoke the dangers of such certainty about the righteousness and necessity of American expansion. Nor were they only or always radicals. The Mexican Revolution posed the problem in visceral terms by challenging American property and investments in the name of self-determination, economic development, and social welfare. Professor P. E. Haley’s book on the policies of Taft and Wilson in Mexico has much to teach about American imperial behavior. Taft and his Secretary of State Philander C. Knox were deeply concerned to avoid intervention. They concluded that force would not help the Americans in Mexico, and would probably lead to war.14 J. Reuben Clark of the State Department, an adviser of considerable insight, summarized the situation with beautiful clarity: “This Government would have on its hands what in reality would be a war of conquest of a people animated by the most intense hatred for the conquering race.”15

Powerful special interests generated great pressure for intervention. Professor Clifford Trow has made it clear in a recent article that Wilson resisted that narrow approach.16 The President’s problem, as Haley explains in his illuminating book, was to combine “sympathy for the revolutionaries and their cause and his desire to control Mexico’s destiny.”17 Wilson, as usual, pecked it out on his own little portable machine: “When properly directed, there is no people not fitted for self-development”; hence the proper American policy was one of “watching them narrowly and insisting that they shall take help when help is needed.”18 You know who decided when help was needed.

That led to intervention just as surely as pressure from corporations, and it was intervention designed to maintain American economic power in Mexico as part of the broad objective of ensuring “the slow and steady improvement of mankind through the spread of a reformed and socially responsible democratic capitalism.” Wilson used the Navy, the Army, and economic measures that denied food to countless Mexicans. In the short run he won, “blocking the consummation of revolutionary reform.”19 And later concessions were never so great as to subvert America’s economic expansion in Mexico. It was years before anyone except a few crackpots (on the right as well as the left) connected saving the world for “a reformed and socially responsible democratic capitalism” with the deterioration of life in these United States.

Yet in another sense the Mexicans were the first Cubans, the first Russians, even the first Vietnamese. “With uncommon daring and brilliance,” Haley concludes, “the Mexican revolutionaries refused to tolerate [Wilson’s] interference.”20 Lenin and the Bolsheviks consolidated and extended their challenge to America’s imperial ambitions. But Wilson had already formulated those ambitions as a coherent body of doctrine and related action. In his conclusions to his two-volume study Woodrow Wilson and World Politics published last year, Professor N. Gordon Levin, Jr., offered a fine summary. “The main outlines of recent American foreign policies were shaped decisively by the ideology and international program developed by the Wilson Administration.” Wilson sought to ensure the supremacy of the American Way, and that required him to contain the anti-imperialist forces “within the confines either of orderly liberal reform or of legitimitized liberal war.”21

On his way to the White House, Wilson the historian offered some useful advice on how to read the story. “Look into ancient times as if they were our own times, and into our own times as if they were not our own.”22 It is unfortunate that during subsequent years he seems to have mislaid that note he made in 1885 for a lecture on the study of history. It will be extremely dangerous if we do not act upon his insight and thereby recognize that more of the same outlook will beget more of the same consequences.

This Issue

December 2, 1971