I have several essays from my college years sitting around gathering dust. Instead of trashing them, I am editing them and putting them online. The following is one such essay. I wrote this one for a U.S. History class.
The mindset of the people has always shaped foreign policy. It is particularly the case for democratic governments like the United States. In democratic governments, people make decisions by voting. Public opinion shapes our government, more so when we elect weaker leaders.
Several factors shaped American mentality in the early twentieth century. There were racial tensions, religious conflicts, and pacifist movements. The women’s suffrage movement was in full swing. All these shaped public opinions and influenced the decisions of our leaders.
Before World War I, people thought that a balance of power between countries could prevent war in the future. There was a feeling that war had somehow gone out of style and that civilized society no longer needed war to settle differences. With so many powerful and sophisticated countries, how could Europe ever revert to the barbarism of unrestricted warfare?
World War I arrived as an assassination in Austria set off an irreversible chain of events. One declaration of war had entangled all of Europe into war. The world then learned that a balance of power only works when there are more than two sides.
Twentieth-century foreign policy in the United States began with imperialism. By the turn of the century, the United States had completed its westward expansion. It had expanded to the Pacific coast. There were no more frontiers to occupy unless we wanted to risk attacking Canada or Mexico. The American frontier had only fed imperialist desire to take more land and resources. So we took to the seas.
Under President McKinley, the United States picked a fight with Spain. Spain was already weak. We took advantage by building a presence in the Philippines, Guam, and Cuba. The Spanish-American War raised questions about what role the United States should play in the world. Should we model ourselves after the British Empire and colonize the world? Or should we condemn colonization as immoral and concentrate on domestic issues?
One argument for imperialism was that the United States needed to become a naval power. At the time, having a strong navy was crucial to becoming a world power. To have a powerful and far-reaching navy, the United States needed colonies to serve as ports for refueling.
I believe that colonizing countries for ports were unnecessary and immoral. Colonization only happened because the American mindset at the time was that non-Caucasian peoples were inferior. Countries do not need to own a port to use it. It only makes it more convenient to own something rather than borrow it. Instead of colonizing a country, the United States could have formed alliances with them to allow access to resources. It might be human nature that a country takes something for nothing when given a chance, but that does not make it right.
United States imperialism continued through the aggressive administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt came to power at a time when the United States had already demonstrated itself to be a world power. It was Roosevelt who began the notion of the United States being a sort of “world police.”
He supported a revolution in Panama to make room for the Panama Canal. His Roosevelt Corollary gave the United States the job of enforcing laws in the Americas. He even won a Nobel Prize for mediating the war between Russia and Japan. It was a different kind of imperialism. Roosevelt’s imperialism was of power and not land.
After Roosevelt came William Taft, who left no notable foreign policy legacy. Taft was president during the calm before the storm of World War I. It was Woodrow Wilson who picked up the foreign policy where Roosevelt left off.
Woodrow Wilson’s first demonstration of foreign policy was his intervention in the Mexican Revolution. He refused to recognize Victoriano Huerta as the President of Mexico, even when it served American business interests to do so. Here was another example of the United States flaunting its power over weaker countries.
One can argue that it was beneficial to national security to keep bordering countries weak. One can also claim that we were promoting democracy for the good of Mexico. But people never want to have a foreign country dictating what they can do. Instead of trying to force Mexico into submission, Wilson should have recognized Huerta as a leader and then kept armed watch over Mexico. By intervening with armed troops in Mexico, Wilson only made more unprovoked enemies.
The outbreak of World War I in Europe interrupted Wilson’s intervention in Mexico. Wilson had ignored the war earlier, but now German U-boats were sinking American ships. Wilson finally declared war when it appeared that the Germans would win the war and divert their attention to conquering the United States.
Although the United States lost over three hundred thousand citizens to World War I casualties, the war was relatively short. It was a victory because the United States ended the German threat and profited from selling munitions to the Allied forces. It was after the war when Wilson’s foreign diplomacy became prominent.
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points at the Versailles peace conference. Wilson had many ideas about how to create lasting world peace, but they proved too idealistic to be effective. President Wilson’s crowning achievement was the League of Nations, which set the foundation for the modern United Nations. The League of Nations failed to prevent World War II.
The most important aspect of World War I was its consequences. The war was so grisly and depleting that most Americans became xenophobic and isolationist afterward. The war shocked America so much that later presidents made efforts to disarm the world, restrict immigration, and even outlaw war itself.
Despite President Wilson’s warnings, Germany was severely punished and humiliated after the war. That coupled with the Great Depression of the 1930’s allowed many strong, aggressive leaders to come to power. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Tojo, and Franklin Roosevelt all gained influence in the years following World War I.
Another result of World War I was the issue of war debts. The United States emerged from World War I as the most powerful country in the world. We had profited from the war for a long time before entering at the end. The Allied forces paid dearly with both men and money. At the end of the war, the Allies owed the United States vast sums of money that they weren’t rushing to pay back.
The Allies argued that they had already paid with both men and money, so the United States should absolve them of debt. Many American investors had loaned the money to European interests during the war effort. It would have benefited American businesses if the United States forced Europe to pay back its debts.
I think that it was right for the United States to absolve Europe of its debts. Loans are in reality much like investments. The lender must assume the responsibility of deciding whether the borrower will be able to repay the debts. In the case of World War I, it would have ruined the Allies economically to force them to repay all their war debts. The United States had already gotten rich from the tragedy of war. It would have been greedy to ask for more.
All the issues presented here led to or affected World War II. World War II was the product of the mistakes and unresolved issues of World War I. The decisions made by leaders during the World War I era may have been the most important foreign policy decisions of the twentieth century.