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Father of Globalization

WOODROW WILSON By Louis Auchincloss; Lipper / Viking: 128 pp., $19.95

May 07, 2000|WILLIAM PFAFF | William Pfaff is the author of "The Wrath of Nations" and "Barbarian Sentiments," among other books. He is a syndicated columnist in Paris for the International Herald Tribune

William McKinley was the reluctant begetter of American global engagement when, under pressure from press and popular opinion, he made the explosion (undoubtedly accidental) of the battleship Maine in 1898 the occasion to conquer Cuba. Then, because it seemed logical, he took Spanish Puerto Rico, Wake Island and the Philippines, and for good measure Hawaii, which had nothing to do with Spain.

That romantic nationalist Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, was the cabinet officer who most enthusiastically promoted the war with Spain. Roosevelt believed the sea power theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who held that colonies were essential to the commercial power of a modern nation.

But Roosevelt also simply liked war, which he thought brought out the best in a nation. He would have preferred a war with Germany but, as he wrote to a friend, "I am not particular, and I'd even take Spain if nothing better offered."

He was an expansionist. As president, he invented Panama by appropriating a piece of Colombia in order to build the Atlantic-Pacific Canal. However, he did not confuse manifest destiny and the American nation's day in the sun with global uplift. He did not argue that the United States had some peculiar benediction to confer upon mankind. Imperialism was the work of civilizing the benighted races of the world, the white man's burden, incumbent on all the advanced nations, and the United States, he held, should not leave the British and French alone in this good work but should take up its share. That was the moral and "manly" thing to do.

His was a model of foreign policy that failed to outlive him. The campaign to suppress native Philippine resistance lasted until 1901, and the campaign against the insurrectionist Muslim Moros of Mindanao continued until a quarter of a million Americans and Filipinos had died. It became the Vietnam of its day. By 1916, the United States had pledged to give the Philippines back to the Filipinos.

Woodrow Wilson provided a second model for the United States as global power, although, elected in 1912, he began as a splendid isolationist, apologizing to Colombia for having stolen Panama, appointing the pacifist William Jennings Bryan his secretary of state and naming political hacks to ambassadorships. He was not a man for the strenuous life. He ate raw eggs and oatmeal for breakfast and took an automobile ride every afternoon.

The successes of his first term were creation of the Federal Reserve system, the Federal Trade Commission, antitrust legislation with tariff reform to reduce the power of the "trusts" and passage of the 16th Amendment, authorizing the income tax. He was a great domestic reformer.

His initial foreign policy concern was to cope with the consequences of revolution in Mexico. He ordered Veracruz occupied after some American sailors were arrested in Tampico. He sent a punitive expedition under Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing to chase the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa back into Mexico after his intrusion into the United States.

Wilson regarded the outbreak of World War I as a fit of madness among the Europeans. He sent his confidant and advisor, Col. (a courtesy title, bestowed by the state of Texas) Edward House, to search for a compromise settlement, although House, strongly pro-Allies but anticipating a German victory, worked on a plan that Germany would be expected to reject, provoking American intervention.

Wilson at the same time was saying, "There is such a thing as a man too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right." The latter proved to be untrue. In January 1917, he appealed for a "peace without victory," but after extension of the German submarine campaign, he went to war in April. He did so, he said, in order to fight a war to end wars, to make the world safe for democracy and to end "power politics," after which the United States would lead the way into a new international order in which war would be abolished.

When victory arrived and with it the opportunity to realize his vision, he said that America's role in the war had come about "by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. . . . It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way." He was confirmed in his faith by the response of the exhausted Europeans to his peace proposals. When he arrived in Paris to take part in the Versailles negotiations, the crowds greeted him with what one observer called "inhuman . . . superhuman" cheers.

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