One hundred years ago today, on April 6, 2017, the United States entered World War I. It was a difficult decision on the part of President Woodrow Wilson, but one that he believed held the potential to change the entire future of human civilization and to turn away from its bloody, destructive past.

Since 1914, the war had been brutal, with a level of destruction that shocked even jaded observers, and the United States remained on the sidelines, vowing repeatedly that it had no reason to take part in the conflagration.

Now, however, it was at last going to fight.

The Progressive Movement in the early 20th century

The U.S. entry into World War I is often regarded as the end of what was called the Progressive Movement — the years since 1901 that had seen great reform-minded activism embraced by the national government.

In this interpretation, America joining the war amounted to nothing less than the betrayal of all progressive impulses and an abject surrender to the type of uncivilized militarism many progressives bitterly opposed and for which they blamed the war in the first place. Wilson, campaigning for reelection in 1916 and desperately wanting progressive support, acquiesced in allowing “He kept us out of war” to be one of his campaign slogans.

But in fact, the American entry into the war was the apotheosis of progressivism — the high-water mark of its crusading zeal — not a betrayal of its central tenets. America joining the war was clothed in progressive rhetoric with the goal being nothing less than ending war forever as a blight on humanity.

President Wilson had repeatedly hoped the belligerents would accept mediation, particularly during 1916, the “Year of the Offensives,” in which Germany and Britain bled each other dry on the fields of the Somme and Verdun. But they did not.

As historian Arthur S. Link notes, the British and the French even made it clear that they would regard any attempt by Wilson to mediate as a hostile act. The President grew furious with such refusals and became convinced that no participant in the war cared anything whatever for real peace: all they cared about was winning, regardless of the cost.

Any peace that could possibly come from these barbarous participants would be short and meaningless, only setting the stage for future conflict. With all the self-righteousness he could muster, Wilson convinced himself that only he could bring peace to Europe.

Progressivism at home

The progressive mentality in the United States approached social and political problems not as conditions to be managed but as things a modern, rational government could fix once and for all. Whether it was dismal, unsanitary conditions in the nation’s meatpacking plants, rapacious corporations that destroyed free competition, or the chaos of a decentralized financial system that allowed millionaires to dictate banking policy, such challenges for America demanded creative and authoritative measures. 

No longer were local ameliorative efforts to be endorsed; it was the national government that would bring about definitive permanent solutions. And now, under Wilson’s leadership, it would take on the most destructive and persistent problem that mankind had ever faced.

Progressivism overseas

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” he told the Senate in January, 1917, adding that the United States had “no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion.” This would be a type of war the world had never seen. True, it was Englishman H.G. Wells and not President Wilson who initially described the war as “a war for peace,” one that “shall stop this sort of thing forever.” But it summed up the president’s understanding.

For Wilson, this was no betrayal of progressivism. This would be its culmination.

European recalcitrance regarding peace led Wilson to the odd insistence that America participate in the war not as an ally of the British and the French, but as an “associated power.” The distinction was largely lost on London and Paris, which cared little for such semantics provided that once they arrived, American soldiers would shoot at the Germans.

But for Wilson, the difference was crucial: America was not fighting for the same discredited goals for which other nations were fighting. America was fighting to end war permanently. The centerpiece of his vision was the creation after the war of a worldwide organization that would ensure peace, rationally and fairly. The League of Nations would be the Federal Reserve System on an international scale. America was fighting to end war permanently.

As American participation in the war ultimately showed (and as more recent presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama have learned), when a crusading determination to remake the world seizes the government, policy failure, disappointment, and disillusionment are often the results. Woodrow Wilson’s approach to World War One ultimately stands as a continual reminder of the need for a realistic understanding of what politics can achieve.

For more content on related issues, be sure to check out our video below on Progressivism and the New Deal.

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