The End of Isolation

Americans had always kept aloof from Europe’s affairs, in the hope that Europe would stay out of theirs. Woodrow Wilson declared: no more.

American troops join a parade of Allied soldiers past the alliance's headquarters in Vladivostok, Russia. (National Archives)

If President Wilson, when he addressed the League to Enforce Peace, at Washington (May 27, 1916), had been content to make an academic speech in favor of the processes of arbitration and mediation, we should have listened with a fatigued and languid attention. Persuasive and cultured orators have exhausted that theme in all the languages of civilization. Rousseau was more eloquent and Kant more acute. On the merits of the question Mr. Wilson said nothing new; there is nothing new to say. He made a new fact by shattering once and for all the tradition of American isolation. Since Washington warned his countrymen against “entangling alliances,” and President Monroe formulated his Doctrine, the principle that the United States must hold aloof from the politics of the Old World has reigned as an unquestioned dogma. It was more than a preference and an instinct. It was the condition on which Americans hoped to purchase the immunity of their own continent from the ambitions of European dynasties …

From this aloofness, a policy not merely of self-interest and calculation, but of sentiment and morals, Mr. Wilson is prepared to step down. He has offered, not merely his services to assist Europe to form a League of Peace, but the power of the United States to back the authority of such a league. His speech was a deliberate and explicit pledge that, if a league is formed among the nations to conduct their common affairs by conference, conciliation, and arbitration, the United States will take her place in the League, and use her economic and military resources against any power which makes war without submitting its cause to one of these processes. He has boldly adopted the idea of using “coercion” in “the service of the common order, common justice, and common peace.” It was a declaration, in words that consciously echoed the old Stoic maxim, that nothing which concerns humanity can be foreign to any civilized people. “What affects mankind is inevitably our affair.” It means that henceforward to be neutral when wrong and aggression are suffered by any nation is a dereliction of duty …

The new fact in the world’s history is that for the first time a great power with a formidable navy, a population from which vast armies might be raised, and an economic and financial strength which might alone be decisive in any future conflict, is prepared to stake its own peace, not merely to guarantee its own interests, or to further the partisan aims of its allies, but to make an end in the world of the possibility of prosperous aggression.

Originally titled "The United States and the League of Peace"