Rethinking Wilson, World War I, and Progressivism’s Martial Spirit

John E. Moser is right to remind us that the First World War fundamentally altered the relationship and expectations of the American people and their government. Progressives like John Dewey and W.E.B. Du Bois supported the war effort, engaging in a Faustian bargain that sought the social and economic benefits of total war, while hoping that the limited costs to democracy and the nation’s character would on balance, justify their hopes. Both men were proven wrong. As progressives have learned over the past one hundred years, the price of war far exceeds the imagined dividend to economic and racial justice. Du Bois, who called for African Americans to “close ranks” (The Crisis, July 1918) and support Wilson’s efforts, was rightly haunted by his support for the war. World War I began not only a “ratcheting” up of expected commitments of the federal government as Moser notes; it also intensified the power of the presidency, the national security state, and the abandonment of racial justice at home.

Moser is correct in arguing that the Great War did not change the form of American government. But democracy is defined as much by its character and values, as it is by its form. By engaging in the suppression of dissenting voices and arresting those presumed to be subversive over the course of the war, the Wilson administration departed from long-established republican values. While Wilson did not begin this practice, one as old as the Civil War – and indeed dating as far back to the administration of John Adams – World War I saw an expansion and intensification of this practice. The horrific national blemish of Japanese American interment during the Second World War was but the lamentable continuation of this tradition.

Du Bois understood that America’s intervention into the war was not simply about “making the world safe for democracy” as Wilson proposed. It was also a continuation of “the wild quest for Imperial expansion among colored races between Germany, England and France primarily, and Belgium, Italy, Russia and Austria-Hungary in lesser degree.” (The Crisis, November 1914) America was inserting itself into a conflict premised on the global structure of white supremacy. One cannot divorce the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa” from the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, as Hannah Arendt noted. (On Totalitarianism, 1951) That the purported democratic impulses that led America into World War I were soon followed by the humiliation of black soldiers, racial pogroms, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, is instructive.

The idea that “war is the health of the state” is simply incompatible with republicanism. It’s why all American wars have been couched in terms of democratic expansion or its protection. The invocation of the racial “other” has likewise been part of the rationalization for American intervention – and the First World War was no different. The demonization of Native Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Muslims, must be incorporated into any health assessment of American democracy. That progressives have been party to this history is indicative of its power as a durable feature of American life. Notably, for African Americans, proofs of loyalty during these wars were never enough. As Wilson told his physician Dr. Cary Grayson, “the American negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.”[1]

It was not only the fear of African Americans presenting an internal threat to national security that diminished the quality of American democracy and limited the reach of Wilson’s New Freedom agenda. In Franklin Roosevelt’s most important campaign speech in 1932, delivered at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, he grieved the interruption of progressivism’s march.

Had there been no World War, had Mr. Wilson been able to devote eight years to domestic instead of to international affairs, we might have had a wholly different situation at the present time. However, the then distant roar of European cannon, growing ever louder, forced him to abandon the study of this issue. The problem he saw so clearly is left with us as a legacy; and no one of us on either side of the political controversy can deny that it is a matter of grave concern to the government.

Of course, the problem Wilson saw was the rise of financial power and corporate combinations that threatened the fabric of American democracy. FDR saw himself as an heir to this problem. Nevertheless, he too chose to almost exclusively limit his New Deal programs to whites, while also ordering the relocation of tens of thousands of American citizens to concentration camps on the basis of their race. The project of making the world safe for democracy has proven to be contingent upon a racially exclusive definition of the term.

The shadows of Wilson and World War I remain with us. Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Riverside Church address opposing America’s war in Vietnam, was premised on a wholly new and deeply moral understanding of democracy – one that rejected racial hierarchy at home and around the world, for a more just economic system. As President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and antipoverty agenda were dashed, King came to know that “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

George W. Bush’s justification of the war in Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “War on Terror,” were but the latest in Wilsonian lines of reasoning that have become an embedded part of the American national political character. Imagining a new set of possibilities for social, economic, and racial justice – outside of the paradigm of war – is a task well worth undertaking. That we have not been able to sustain efforts towards a more equitable society ought not to deter us. A government strong enough to wage war can be empowered to marshal its forces in a different direction. As Pope Francis has recently argued, “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of a possibility of a ‘just war.’” That Woodrow Wilson and Wilsonianism are still seen as America’s moral vision to the rest of the world is an abiding legacy of the First World War. If World War I has taught us anything, it is that we must dissociate our democratic ideals from the martial spirit that continues to pervade in the United States. War may be the health of the state – but a state so oriented to war can never be a democratic one.


[1] Lloyd E. Ambrosius. Woodrow Wilson and American Internationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 111.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • John E. Moser notes the strong initial appeal that the First World War held for Progressives. Many of them believed that war showed how the federal government could and should undertake a general refashioning of society. Indeed it did; while the United States did not turn socialist, as some progressives hoped, the federal government did vastly expand in scope and authority. The Progressives’ ideal of the permanent war footing, in which all relevant resources are put under unified federal control to achieve one or more pressing social ends, has been with us ever since.

Response Essays

  • Justin Quinn Olmstead looks at a time when U.S. engagement with the world wasn’t a given, and when the world needed the United States a lot more than we needed it. That time was immediately after World War I. He characterizes World War I as “only the prelude” to a state of affairs that has been with us for decades now, namely, a constant war footing that was formerly unknown in American society.

  • Andrew Bacevich argues that World War I changed the ways that western powers justified imperialist foreign policy. Prior to the war, imperial powers offered a frankly white supremacist rationale for their actions, but that rationale rang hollow when Europe lay in ruins. Later empires would need other justifications, including the ideological ones offered by systems as divergent as Marxism-Leninism and liberal market democracy. Yet these ideological empires have proven unstable, and our uncertain future may only be settled by whatever it is that replaces them.

  • Saladin Ambar describes early progressives’ infatuation with war as “a Faustian bargain” that they eventually repudiated, driven substantially by the example of World War I. Not only did the war not bring economic empowerment, it also dashed the hopes of many who looked for it to bring racial justice. The state that the war created was simply not what progressives wanted it to be, whether before the war—or especially after.