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Woodrow Wilson, Democracy, and Neutrality

Updated on May 26, 2016
President Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, near the end of his second term, and incidentally, his life.
President Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, near the end of his second term, and incidentally, his life.

Woodrow Wilson is one of our better known presidents, our collective memory often grouping him with other famous wartime presidents, such as Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. Ask a high school student about Woodrow Wilson and they will probably state his proclamation of his Fourteen Points (most of which the Allied Powers promptly ignored), or his steadfast devotion to democracy. However, his idealism sometimes caused his actions to clash with his words.

Foreign Policy with Mexico: Relations going South

When Wilson assumed the esteemed office, Mexico had endured a coup, a political assassination, and instability. In 1910, Francisco Madero overthrew long-standing dictator Porfirio Diaz. However, by 1913 Madero himself was unseated by General Victoriano Huerta, who received support from the current U.S. ambassador and promised cooperation with American business. The relationship between Mexico and the U.S. turned sour when Huerta’s forces assassinated Madero, right around when Wilson took over Taft’s position as president.

General Villa, whom Wilson favored until a recognition of Carranza as Mexico's leader caused all trust to be lost.
General Villa, whom Wilson favored until a recognition of Carranza as Mexico's leader caused all trust to be lost.

Wilson believed in an idealistic version of democracy, and refused to recognize the Mexican government as legitimate, instead supporting rebel generals Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Thanks to American intervention, Carranza was able to take over as leader, but promptly ignored Wilson’s advice in forming the new administration. However, Wilson did recognize the general as the de facto, if not official, leader of Mexico. This recognition soured Villa’s view of America, and giving up hopes of leading Mexico, he killed eighteen Americans on a train and another seventeen Americans when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

While Carranza refused to pursue Villa for want of funds and willpower, Wilson ordered troops to track down Villa, invading Mexico with an arsenal of weaponry and armored cars. General Pershing, who led the expedition, advised that Wilson order the occupation of all of northern Mexico. The “Pershing invasion”, as well as this diplomatic advice, caused Villa to become a cult hero in some regions and almost caused America and Mexico to fall into war again, as Carranza drew the line at letting U.S. soldiers invade Mexican territory.

The mess of forceful decision-making that had a significant hand in destabilizing the Mexican government was eventually laid to rest in an international commission, which called for a settlement. However, relations had soured, and this was likely the reason Germany reached out to Mexico in the Zimmerman Telegraph.

The Zimmerman Telegram, a German proposal to Mexico to help Mexico gain back land lost in the Mexican-American war if it helped Germany if America entered the war.
The Zimmerman Telegram, a German proposal to Mexico to help Mexico gain back land lost in the Mexican-American war if it helped Germany if America entered the war.
Colonel House, an unofficial adviser to Wilson.
Colonel House, an unofficial adviser to Wilson.

Wilson: “Neutral in Fact as well as Name”

In the summer of 1914, all hell broke loose when Serbian terrorists shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The webs of alliances these countries had made, as well as their seeming eagerness to try out new weaponry on each other, caused five massive empires to go to war with one another, and eventually drew in other countries to the sounds of chaos and destruction.

Wilson refused to enter the war, and preached to the American public neutrality, particularly for the Central Powers and especially for Germany and the German people.

However, Wilson and his cabinet were did not practice what they preached; on the contrary, nearly all of them were heavily sympathetic toward the British side. While Britain set up a War Zone with submerged mines in the water, Wilson publicly condemned the use of submarines in Germany’s war zone and called for strict accountability for their actions. Both nations violated international law, but the United States only acknowledged Germany for doing so, despite Britain’s methods being arguably worse (as submarines were operated by man and therefor could distinguish between belligerents and neutral country’s ships, while mines could not discriminate between the two). Britain also made a habit of raising neutral flags in Germany’s war zone, another method of deceit.

Many of Wilson’s advisers were overly sympathetic to the British cause. The U.S. ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, was often criticized for his pro-British stance, and has been accused of helping Britain write responses to American messages that defended British policies and encouraged support from the United States.

Wilson himself recklessly ignored advice from wary Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to warn the American public against traveling on British ships for the duration of the war. In fact, while Wilson never made such a statement, the Imperial German Embassy issued statements in 50 American newspapers, reminding Americans that “a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies. . . vessels flying the flag of Great Britain . . . are liable to destruction.” Despite this warning, many Americans were killed by German submarines as they continued to patronize British owned ships. The best known ship is the RMS Lusitania, which was a British ocean liner that was sunk by German submarines and killed 1,191 passengers, 128 of whom were Americans.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, the United States issued a warning to Germany, which responded that they sunk a belligerent ship that was carrying war munitions, and that British merchant ships were also ignoring international law. This event, however, definitely shifted America’s already weak ‘neutral’ stance to a far more pro-British one. William Jennings Bryan resigned from Secretary of State soon after this, leaving no more truly neutral persons left to influence the President’s diplomacy.

America’s finances were also heavily entangled in the war. Investors, such as J.P. Morgan, invested heavy loans to Britain’s war effort, to the point where an Allied victory was in America’s best interest.

Wilson and his advisers were likely Anglophiles because of what they believed Britain to stand for - democracy. Granted, the United States, Britain, and other European powers set up imperialist systems around the globe that contradicted democratic ideals, but Wilson perceived the constitutional monarchy of Britain as inherently less despotic than Germany’s more autocratic government. Also lucky for him was the Russian revolution under way; at the time of Wilson’s plea to Congress to declare war, Russia had put in place somewhat of a democracy with a parliament. Without this, Wilson likely would not have been able to argue that this war was now a fight for democracy, as he would have been siding with an absolutist autocratic system. The first Russian Revolution, and the Pro-British stances of the White House most definitely played a part in America’s involvement in WWI.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 13 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Good hub. Learned a lot. Keep up the good work. Shared everywhere.

    • ScarlaBlack profile image

      ScarlaBlack 13 months ago from Georgia

      Thank you very much! I'm glad you learned something new; I know I was very surprised when I learned this.

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