There’s an argument, and I’ve mentioned it before, that says the Great War’s most world-historically significant effect was the USA’s transformation from isolationist on the geopolitical sidelines to world policeman. It’s only an argument – events in the Middle East, Russia and either side of the Rhine would have to come into the debate – but given that the US has been the world’s preeminent military, economic and cultural power ever since, it’s not a bad one.
The full story of why and how Uncle Sam became the Great Satan is a long, complex and fascinating tranche of history that has no business here – but we can try for a snapshot of the environment in which the modern, globally responsible USA was born. That’s my excuse for a look at President Wilson’s surprise appointment, on 6 March 1916, of confirmed pacifist Newton Baker as Secretary of State for War.
Pacifism in high office was hardly new in the USA. Refusal to get involved in foreign wars was one of the nation’s fundamental founding principles, and was still taken very seriously by the American public and political establishment at the start of the twentieth century. But the nation’s rapid economic growth had by then convinced a growing minority, generally but not always allied to businesses with big trade plans, that the principle was outdated, a denial of the USA’s manifest economic destiny and ripe for the breaking.
It had already been broken for self-interested purposes, amid heated and controversial public debate, when the US invaded the Philippines in 1898, and the same desire to protect and expand overseas markets (along with a clear-eyed recognition that war was pretty good for business at home) lay behind an influential lobby for direct involvement once European war erupted in 1914.
At that point the ‘interventionist’ lobby stood no chance. Public opinion was solidly pacifist, as were Wilson and his allies on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which enjoyed a comfortable majority in Congress – but during the next eighteen months the situation changed.
For one thing the Central Powers lost the propaganda war hands down. German diplomatic clumsiness, the expedient killing of civilians (especially American civilians) by German submarines and a series of economic sabotage attempts by German agents were all manna from Heaven to a largely anti-German US press, much of it in the same hands as those who, if not necessarily in favour of war per se, were doing stupendously well of trading with the Entente powers. Long before the end of 1915 the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were accepted in the US as to blame for the war and as dangerous representatives of the old, imperialist ways the nation had been founded to oppose.
Alongside business acumen and sentiment, both important elements in the US political psyche, national strategic interest eroded pacifism at the top as the War progressed. Supplying wartime Entente needs, a bias forced by Britain’s naval blockade of trade with the Central Powers, had created a massive economic boom in the US. This helped Americans feel good about the Entente and, crucially, increased the country’s stake in the wider world. With so much more in the way overseas markets and bases to protect in future, the US now needed a say in how the post-War world looked. Wilson and his administration couldn’t fail to see that only participation in the War would guarantee influence at the peace table.
Wilson – a natural pacifist, representing a party that stood for pacifism against the perceived economic imperialism of the Republicans – responded to the changing tide reluctantly and cautiously. In September 1915 he announced his support for ‘limited preparedness’ for the possibility of war, and December’s National Defense Act permitted limited expansion of the US Army, Navy and merchant marine, but these half-measures failed to satisfy either side of a polarising debate.
Republicans, led by the redoubtably interventionist Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded much greater increases in US military spending, while the liberal wing of the Democrats – the main source of Wilson’s personal support – maintained the absolute commitment to peace reflected in the party’s official line. To add spice to the president’s discomfort, some of his own administration wanted much faster military expansion than planned in the legislation, and Secretary of War Lindley Garrison resigned over the issue in February 1916.
This was an election year in the US, so Wilson needed the support of liberals for his personal campaign as much as he needed their cooperation in Congress. Expected to appoint a military specialist as Garrison’s replacement, he chose Cleveland mayor Newton Baker, a long-time supporter who had twice turned down the job of Secretary for the Interior since 1912. A pacifist with impeccable liberal credentials, Baker’s pragmatic personality was acceptable to many Republicans and he was completely free of any prior connection to military matters. Usefully, because the US War Department still administered the Philippines, he was also a very capable lawyer.
Baker proved a quick study and an adroit choice. Almost his first duty in office was to order a punitive expedition into troubled Mexico, and he went on to supervise a steady, balanced build-up of US military resources during the next year of peace. Best of all from Wilson’s perspective, he took the blame. While Baker and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, another diehard liberal pacifist given military responsibility, bore the brunt of criticism from both sides, Wilson could get on with running his re-election campaign.
Narrowly re-elected in November on the party’s official slogan – ‘He Has Kept Us Out Of The War’ – and with Democrats guaranteed continued control of Congress until elections in early 1917, Wilson pursued the only possible alternative to entering the War – peace. He issued a ‘Peace Note’ to the belligerent nations in December 1916, in a largely ignored attempt to achieve what he called ‘peace without victory’, and was still pushing that line publicly as late as January 1917, by which time Berlin’s all-in gamble on unrestricted submarine warfare and a crescendo of popular hostility to Germany had made US intervention all but inevitable.
We’ll get to that big moment when it arrives, but for now my point is that a hundred years ago, when President Wilson put a pacifist in charge of war, the USA’s future as a major player on the world stage was still a matter of considerable doubt. A year later it wasn’t, and now we all have MTV.