Wilson’s arc from strident non-interventionism to a declaration of war begins with a phrase now laden with historical baggage: “America First.” Long before Trump used it to define his foreign policy, before even Charles Lindbergh made it the banner of his pre-World War II isolationism, Wilson made “America First” (along with the slogan “He kept us out of war”) a centerpiece of his 1916 campaign.
As Wilson saw it, “America First” initially provided the rationale for staying out of a deadly European war—and then, for entering it.
Wilson had consistently maintained a position of neutrality since the war’s outbreak. He did not even mention the spark that ignited World War I—the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—during his Fourth of July address of that year. One day before Austria declared war on Serbia, Wilson said in a press conference, “The United States has never attempted to interfere in European affairs.” And on August 19, two weeks after Germany, France, and Great Britain had entered the war, Wilson declared that “the United States must be … impartial in thought as well as in action.”
As a former professor, president of Princeton, president of the American Political Science Association, and fervent Presbyterian, Wilson felt obliged to explain why “America First” was not just his choice, but the right choice. His explanation and justification of this position during his reelection campaign deserves careful rereading today. In an April 1915 speech to the Associated Press at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Wilson told reporters:
Let us think of America before we think of Europe. … The basis of neutrality, gentlemen, is not indifference; it is not self-interest. The basis of neutrality is sympathy for mankind. … I am interested in neutrality because there is something so much greater to do than fight; there is a distinction waiting for this Nation that no nation has ever yet got. That is the distinction of absolute self-control and self-mastery. Whom do you admire most among your friends? The irritable man? The man out of whom you can get a ‘rise’ without trying? … Don’t you admire and don’t you fear, if you have to contest with him, the self-mastered man who watches you with calm eye and comes in only when you have carried the thing so far that you must be disposed of? That is the man you respect. ... Now, I covet for America this splendid courage of reserve moral force.
Wilson’s coveted self-mastery began to unwind in January 1917, when Germany, faced with a British blockade, announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, including the sinking of American merchant ships. In February, Wilson learned of the Zimmerman Telegram, a secret message from Germany to Mexico offering Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in return for joining the war effort against America.