President Wilson ponders a role for the US
Special to The Great War Project
(10 August) On this day, precisely one century ago, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, buries his wife Ellen, who died of kidney disease four days earlier.
His personal grief makes it hard for him to concentrate on the widening war in Europe.
But the crisis in Europe allows the American president little time for personal grief. On this very day, the US Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, appeals to Wilson to adopt a policy of strict neutrality. Specifically, that the US government would not approve “any loan to a belligerent nation.”
If the United States establishes this policy effectively, Bryan argues, it would hasten the end of hostilities.
That is exactly Wilson’s goal. But getting there presents many obstacles too high to overcome.
Wilson is described as stunned by the events in Europe.
“He walked the lonely corridors of the White House,” writes one historian, “not knowing where to turn or what to do to halt the descent into the inferno.”
But Wilson had been warned. In the spring of 1914, he sends his most trusted adviser to Europe. Colonel Edward House meets with political leaders in London and Berlin.
There are whiffs of war, and Wilson wants to know how strong they are.
House discovers they are very strong. He shares his thoughts with Wilson in a letter dated 29 May.
“The situation is extraordinary. It is jingoism run stark mad,” House writes. “There is too much hatred, too many jealousies.”
This is not a widely held view in late May of 1914, either in Europe or in America. But House sees it, and he has an idea how to stop it. A peace effort, led by Wilson, to short-circuit what seems to House an inevitable march to a terrible war.
“Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding,” writes House, “there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it.”
Nor in the end can President Wilson. By the time he buries his wife this day a century ago, the war is spreading, and Wilson is struggling to determine what the United States must do.
The American people do not favor entering the war. At the White House Wilson tells reporters: “It is not the traditional policy of the United States to take part in political affairs outside the Western Hemisphere.”
But Wilson’s notions of US neutrality are different from Bryan’s, and they will have unforeseen consequences, ultimately driving the US to enter the war.