The Wilson Administration
During his presidency (1913–1921), Woodrow Wilson passed a Progressive Democratic legislative agenda and played a major role in World War I.
Summarize Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Democratic agenda and his involvement in World War I
- In 1913, Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, which created the Federal Reserve System of banking. He also passed antitrust legislation (including the Clayton Antitrust Act), lowered tariffs, and created a federal income tax.
- In 1916, Wilson won the support of unions with the Adamson Act, which imposed an eight-hour workday in the railroad industry and prevented a strike from shutting down the nation’s railways.
- In foreign affairs, Wilson saw his role as an international peacekeeper, unsuccessfully attempting to mediate peace in the European conflict from 1914 to 1916.
- Wilson’s view of the international system, which came to be called ” Wilsonianism,” posits an idealistic view of the world and calls for the United States to fight for democracy around the globe.
- Wilson guided a policy of “acquiescing” to the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British government, thereby expressing sympathy for Zionism—the cause of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine—without joining Britain in actively supporting it.
- League of Nations: An international organization founded as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the World War I. Proposed by Wilson, its goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation, diplomacy, and improving global quality of life. The United States never joined the League of Nations, despite Wilson’s key role in its creation.
- Treaty of Versailles: One of the peace treaties that brought an end to World War I. Signed on June 28, 1919, it ended hostilities between Germany and the Allied powers exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
- Fourteen Points: A set of goals laid out in a speech by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The address was intended to assure the country that the Great War was being fought for a moral cause and for postwar peace in Europe.
Wilson’s First Term (1913–1917): Economic Issues
Woodrow Wilson spent much of his first-term persuading a Democratic Congress to pass Progressive economic reforms, including the Federal Reserve Act, the Underwood Tariff, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Adamson Act. Some argue that the efforts of few presidents have equaled those of Wilson and that his legislative agenda remained unmatched until the New Deal.
In late 1913, Wilson secured passage of the Federal Reserve Act, an Act of Congress that created the Federal Reserve System, the central banking system of the United States, and granted it the legal authority to issue currency. To create the Federal Reserve System, Wilson had to negotiate a compromise between conservative Republicans (led by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich), and the powerful left wing of the Democratic Party (led by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan). Wilson’s plan passed in December 1913, and the new system began operations in 1915. A complex business-government partnership that to this day dominates the financial world, the Federal Reserve System played a major role in financing the Allied and American war efforts during the two world wars.
Another landmark of his first term was Wilson’s effective mobilization of public opinion behind tariff changes, beginning in 1913 with passage of the Revenue Act (better known as the “Underwood Tariff”) in which revenue lost by lower tariffs was replaced by a new federal income tax. Wilson also pursued a new approach to encouraging competition through the Federal Trade Commission. He led the creation of the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, outlawing business practices such as price discrimination and price fixing, as well as expanding previous antitrust laws by holding individual corporate officers responsible if their companies violated the laws. More importantly, the act set clear guidelines for corporations that had previously benefited from legal uncertainties.
In 1916, under threat of a national railroad strike, Wilson approved the Adamson Act. This prevented a strike by increasing wages and cutting working hours of railroad employees. It also helped Wilson gain union support for his reelection, and notably, for his agenda that later served as a basis for the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Wilson’s Second Term (1917–1921): Policies of War
Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916, and his second term beginning in 1917 focused—domestically and in foreign policy—on issues related to World War I. Prior to his reelection, Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to mediate peace between the belligerent European powers. He based his campaign around the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” but U.S. neutrality was challenged in early 1917 when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping, including against American vessels despite repeated strong warnings, and tried to enlist Mexico as an ally. In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war.
Wilson focused on wartime diplomacy and financial considerations, leaving the details of battle primarily in the hands of the army. On the home front in 1917, he began the first U.S. draft since the American Civil War, borrowed billions of dollars in funding through the newly established Federal Reserve Bank and Liberty Bonds, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union cooperation, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took control of the railroads, and suppressed antiwar movements.
In the late stages of the conflict, Wilson personally oversaw negotiations with Germany, including the armistice. In 1918, he issued his Fourteen Points, an international relations blueprint intended to avoid another war. He attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to help create the League of Nations and shape the Treaty of Versailles, giving special attention to establishing new nations from the remains of defunct empires.
Wilson’s brand of internationalism infused with morality, guided by his deep Presbyterian faith, came to be known as “Wilsonianism.” This brand of foreign policy calls for the United States to engage in world affairs by pushing and sometimes fighting for democracy, and remains a contentious position to this day. For his sponsorship of the League of Nations, Wilson received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize; the Senate, however, rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the United States never joined the League. In 1920, Republicans won in a landslide victory mainly by denouncing Wilson’s policies.
Wilson and Latin America
Woodrow Wilson continued the U.S. policy of intervening in the affairs of Latin American nations, including Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
Summarize Woodrow Wilson’s policy in Latin America, including the Ypiranga Incident, the border clashes between the United States and Mexico, and the anti-Hispanic and corporate-driven motivations for intervening in the Mexican Revolution
- Between 1914 and 1918, the United States intervened in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
- The Byran-Chamorro Treaty of 1914 authorized the United States to use military force to stabilize the Nicaraguan government and gave America control over Nicaraguan foreign debt. American troops occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. Wilson also ordered the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, working with wealthy Dominican landowners to brutally suppress peasant resistance.
- The American decision to intervene in the Mexican Revolution stemmed from anti-Hispanic U.S. sentiments and the vast amount of American business investments in the Mexican economy. Although Wilson did not declare war on Mexico, in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid in New Mexico, in 1916, Wilson sent U.S. forces under the control of General John Pershing across the Mexican border to capture Villa.
- Zimmermann Telegram: A 1917 diplomatic proposal from Germany to Mexico to make war against the United States. Intercepted and decoded by British intelligence, the telegram outraged the American public and helped generate support for the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April of 1917.
- Banana Wars: A series of occupations, police actions, and interventions involving the United States in Central America and the Caribbean. Beginning in 1898, the United States conducted military operations and occupations in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. This period ended with the withdrawal of troops from Haiti and the initiation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1934.
- John J. Pershing: A general officer in the U.S. Army who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Pershing is the only person to be promoted in his own lifetime to the highest army rank ever held: General of the Armies.
- gavilleros: Dispossessed peasants who formed armed bands to wage a guerrilla war against occupation by U.S. military forces.
- Francisco “Pancho” Villa: José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (June 5, 1878–July 20, 1923); one of the most prominent Mexican Revolutionary generals who led raids into American territory.
In principle, Woodrow Wilson wanted to avoid the aggressive stance Theodore Roosevelt had taken toward Latin America. He negotiated a treaty with Colombia in which the United States apologized for its role in the Panama Revolution of 1903–1904. Wilson, however, did not shrink from intervention on behalf of American values, saying in 1913, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Between 1914 and 1918, the United States intervened in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama.
Economic concerns primarily drove these conflicts, known as “Banana Wars” due to the connections between interventions and American commercial interests in the region. The United States also advanced its political interests and sphere of influence, including control of the American-built Panama Canal, which was critically important to global trade and naval power.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic
American troops occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934, forcing the Haitian legislature to choose a presidential candidate selected by Wilson.
In the Dominican Republic, Wilson ordered an American military occupation shortly after the resignation of President Juan Isidro Jimenes Pereyra in 1916. The U.S. military worked in concert with wealthy Dominican landowners to suppress the Gavilleros, a guerrilla force notorious for its brutality toward resisters, fighting the occupation that lasted until 1924.
Nicaragua and the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty
From 1912 to 1925, the United States had amicable relations with the Nicaraguan government due to friendly Conservative Party presidents such as Diego Manuel Chamorro. In exchange for political concessions, the United States provided the necessary military strength to ensure the Nicaraguan government internal stability. This led to the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, signed on August 5, 1914, during the Taft administration, with formal ratification on June 19, 1916, during Wilson’s presidency.
The treaty was named after the principal negotiators, U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and then-General Emiliano Chamorro representing the Nicaraguan government. Under the terms of the treaty, America acquired the rights to any canal built in Nicaragua in perpetuity, a renewable 99-year option to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca, and a renewable 99-year lease to the Great and Little Corn Islands in the Caribbean. Nicaragua subsequently received $3 million and ceded control of Nicaraguan foreign debt to the United States. This arrangement lasted until the two countries abolished the treaty and its provisions on July 14, 1970.
The Mexican Revolution and U.S. Intervention
The United States intervened in Mexico throughout the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) to protect American national security and economic interests.
The Mexican Revolution was a major armed struggle that began in 1910 with an uprising led by Francisco I. Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz and lasted until approximately 1920. Over time, the revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multisided civil war, with an end coming into sight only after the Mexican Constitution was drafted in 1917.
The relationship between Mexico and the United States at this time was turbulent. For economic and political reasons, the American government generally supported those who occupied Mexican seats of power, legitimately or not. Prior to Wilson’s inauguration, the U.S. military settled for threatening action against Mexico if the lives and property of Americans living in the country were endangered. President William Howard Taft amassed troops on the border, but did not allow them to intervene in the Mexican Revolution, a decision opposed by Congress.
There were two primary linked motives for intervention. There was a pervasive anti-Hispanic ideology that justified U.S. military imposition of order on the Mexican “chaos.” This was fueled by pressure from American corporations who feared Mexican political restructuring would jeopardize their business interests.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, United States citizens and corporations owned about 27 percent of Mexican territory. By 1910, U.S. investment in Mexican land, railroads, mines, factories, and other ventures had further increased. The revolution hurt the Mexican economy and pushed Wilson to intervene in order to protect American interests.
Ypiranga Intervention and the Tampico Affair
The first time the United States sent troops into Mexico during the revolution was in response to the 1914 Ypiranga Incident. When U.S. intelligence agents discovered that the German merchant ship Ypiranga was carrying illegal arms to Mexican President Huerta, Wilson ordered troops to the port of Veracruz to prevent the ship from docking, leading to a skirmish with Huerta’s troops. Yet the Ypiranga managed to dock at another port, infuriating Wilson.
Additionally, Mexican officials in the port of Tampico, Tamaulipas, arrested a group of U.S. sailors on April 9, 1914, including at least one taken from his ship, and thus from U.S. territory. After failed talks, the U.S. Navy bombarded Veracruz and occupied the port for seven months. Some argue that Wilson’s true motivation was to overthrow Huerta, whom he refused to recognize as Mexico’s leader. The Tampico Affair further destabilized his regime and encouraged the rebels. U.S. troops eventually left Mexican soil, but the incident worsened already tense relations.
Pancho Villa and Border Clashes
An increasing number of U.S.-Mexico border incidents early in 1916 culminated in an invasion of American territory on March 8, 1916, by Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his band of 500 to 1,000 men, who burned army barracks and robbed stores in Columbus, New Mexico. U.S. forces repulsed the attack, but 14 soldiers and 10 civilians were killed, and Villa became the personification of mindless Mexican violence and banditry.
In response, President Wilson sent forces commanded by General John J. Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa. Pershing’s campaign consisted primarily of dozens of skirmishes with small bands of insurgents and Mexican Army units. Despite Pershing’s efforts, Villa was deeply entrenched in the mountains of northern Mexico and knew the terrain too well to be captured. Pershing was forced to abandon the mission and return to the United States. Troops were withdrawn from Mexico by February 1917, but not before virtually the entire U.S. regular army became involved, with most of the National Guard federalized and concentrated on the border before the end of the affair.
These events further damaged an already strained relationship and caused anti-American sentiment in Mexico to grow stronger, with minor clashes continuing along the border from 1917 to 1919. Although the Zimmermann Telegram affair of January 1917 did not lead to a direct U.S. intervention, it also exacerbated tensions between the United States and Mexico. War would probably have been declared between the two nations if not for the critical situation in Europe.
The European Crisis
Conflict began when a Serb nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke; war quickly spread across Europe and affected the world.
Describe the provocation of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and the resulting alliances that formed throughout Europe
- After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary delivered an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia in hopes of sparking a conflict. When Serbia refused the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war.
- The hostilities between Austria-Hungary and Serbia divided Europe into fighting alliances known as the ” Central Powers ” (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy) and the “Allies” (France, Britain, and Russia). These alliances were based on treaties (some secret), and shifted over the course of the war.
- Russia came to the aid of the Serbs (until the Bolshevik Revolution at home ended Russia’s involvement), and Germany allied with Austria-Hungary. Italy joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary after the war began but later changed sides.
- France and Britain declared war in part because of German refusal to respect Belgium’s neutrality.
- July Crisis: A diplomatic boiling point among the major powers of Europe in the summer of 1914. Immediately after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a series of diplomatic maneuverings and failed talks led to an ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to Serbia and subsequently to war.
- Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (December 18, 1863–June 28, 1914) was an archduke and from 1889 until his death, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. His assassination in Sarajevo by Serb nationalists precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia. This caused the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy) and the Allies (Serbia, Russia, France, and Britain) to take sides against each other in what became World War I.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Europe was still a continent under the control of competing empires that maintained a balance of power through a series of fluctuating treaties known as the “Concert of Europe.” Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, these empires consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Italy in an association known as the “Triple Alliance”; Russia, France, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland made up the rival “Triple Entente.” At the time, the Ottoman Empire maintained separate power on the southeast edge of Europe in Turkey.
Assassination and Diplomatic Crisis
Austria-Hungary was a patchwork of several nationalities—including Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenians, Croats, and Serbs—ruled by the Habsburg dynasty, who were resented by many nationalists of the smaller countries within the empire. In the summer of 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was on a trip to the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia, the region of the empire bordering Serbia. It was here, on June 28, 1914, that Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student and member of the radical Young Bosnia group, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Ferdinand’s killing sparked a month of diplomatic maneuvering among Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain called the “July Crisis.” Hoping to crush Serb nationalism and end Serbian interference in Bosnia, Austria-Hungary delivered the “July Ultimatum,” a series of 10 intentionally unacceptable demands meant to provoke a war with Serbia. When Serbia agreed to only 8 of the 10 terms, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914.
In response to the declaration, several alliances—formed through treaties written in previous decades were invoked, and within weeks, the major powers were at war; via colonies, the conflict soon spread around the world. Russia pledged to aid its longtime Serb protégés, unwilling to give up influence among its fellow ethnic Slavic people in Austrian-Hungary’s southern Balkan region. (Russia would eventually withdraw from the war due to an internal uprising, the Bolshevik Revolution.)
Austria-Hungary appealed to Germany, whose Emperor Wilhelm II offered a “blank check” providing any support necessary to win the war. The German empire mobilized its troops on July 30, 1914, ready to apply the “Schlieffen Plan,” a quick, massive invasion of France meant to demolish its army. The plan, however, required German troops to pass through the neutral nation of Belgium on their way to northern France. When Belgium refused the passage, Germany violated Belgian neutrality by crossing its territory to attack the French forces that had mobilized to meet the invaders. Belgium appealed to the United Kingdom, and the British House of Commons threatened war unless Germany withdrew from Belgium. The Germans refused, and the United Kingdom joined the battle alongside France. Meanwhile, Germany also had turned its attention east by declaring war on Russia, bringing all of the major powers into play.
Thus, Europe was divided into two warring camps: the Allies, based on the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia; and the Central Powers, based on the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria Hungary, and Italy. As Austria-Hungary had initiated the offensive, Italy did not immediately enter the war. These alliances both reorganized—Italy later fought for the Allies—and expanded as more nations entered the conflict, either through treaties with neighboring powers such as Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, or due to their status as colonies of the various European powers.
The Election of 1916
Incumbent Democratic President Wilson narrowly defeated Republican Supreme Court Justice Hughes in the 1916 election.
Contrast the Democratic and Republican platforms in the election of 1916
- The presidential election of 1916 occurred at a time when most Americans, while supporting the Allied forces, wanted to remain neutral in the ongoing European conflict. Woodrow Wilson tapped into this sentiment with the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
- The Republican Party nominated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes, a moderate, was chosen for his appeal to both conservative and Progressive Republicans in the hope that he could heal the party’s 1912 split that had resulted in creation of the Progressive Party. The Progressives tried to launch a third-party presidential bid but collapsed when the party’s founder, Theodore Roosevelt, refused its nomination and threw his support behind Hughes.
- Hughes and the Republicans campaigned against Wilson’s pacifism, arguing for a program of greater mobilization and preparedness for the European war, while attacking Wilson’s intervention in the Mexican Civil War.
- Wilson narrowly won, becoming the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson to serve a second presidential term.
- Progressive Party: An American political party formed in 1912. Also known as the “Bull Moose Party,” it was the result of a split in the Republican Party between President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, President William Howard Taft.
- Woodrow Wilson: (Dec. 28, 1856–Feb. 3, 1924) An American academic and Democratic politician. He was president of Princeton University and the 34th governor of New Jersey before being elected the 28th president of the United States, serving two terms from 1913 to 1921.
- Charles E. Hughes: (Apr. 11, 1862–Aug. 27, 1948) An American professor, judge, and politician. He served as the 36th governor of New York, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. secretary of state, judge on the Permanent Court of International Justice, and the 11th chief justice of the United States. The Republican candidate in the 1916 U.S. presidential election, Hughes lost to Woodrow Wilson.
The U.S. presidential election of 1916, which pitted incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson against Republican Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, took place while Europe was embroiled in World War I. Public sentiment in America favored the British and French forces, known as the Allies, due to the harsh treatment of civilians by the German Army, which invaded and occupied parts of Belgium and northern France. Despite this sympathy for the Allies, most American voters wanted to remain neutral and avoid direct involvement in the conflict.
Conventions and Nominations
A major goal of the 1916 Republican National Convention in Chicago from June 7 to June 10 was to heal the bitter split within the party that occurred during the 1912 presidential campaign. Theodore Roosevelt had split from the GOP and formed his own group, the Progressive Party, which attracted most of the liberal Republicans. William Howard Taft, the incumbent president and Roosevelt’s successor, won the 1912 Republican nomination. The split with the Progressives, however, divided the Republican vote and gave a boost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who defeated Taft for the presidency in 1912.
Several candidates competed for the 1916 Republican nomination, but the party’s bosses wanted a moderate who would be acceptable to both conservative and liberal factions. They turned to Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Hughes, who had served on the court since 1910 and thus had the advantage of not having publicly spoken about political issues in six years. Hughes was the only Supreme Court justice to be nominated for president by a major political party and was joined on the ticket by former Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, who served under Roosevelt.
The 1916 Democratic National Convention was held in St. Louis from June 14 to June 16. Given Wilson’s enormous popularity within the party, he was overwhelmingly renominated. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall was also renominated with no opposition.
The Progressive Party renominated former President Theodore Roosevelt, but he turned down the nomination for both personal and political reasons. Roosevelt had developed a strong dislike for President Wilson, whom he believed was allowing Germany and other warring European nations to “bully” the United States. Convinced that running again on a third-party ticket would give the election to Wilson and the Democrats, he gave his support to the Republican Hughes.
After Roosevelt’s refusal to run, the Progressive Party quickly fell apart. Most of its members returned to the Republican Party, although a substantial minority supported Wilson for his efforts to keep the United States out of World War I.
The Democrats built their campaign around the slogan, “He Kept Us out of War,” playing on America’s desire for neutrality by highlighting Wilson’s attempts to broker peace between the European nations during his first term in office. Hughes insisted on downplaying the war issue, but still advocated a program of greater mobilization and preparedness. A Republican victory would likely mean war with the Central Powers, led by Germany, as well as with Mexico.
Wilson had successfully pressured the Germans to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare, making it difficult for Hughes to oppose Wilson’s peace platform. Hughes attacked Wilson for his support of various “pro-labor” laws, such as limiting the workday to eight hours, on the grounds that they were harmful to business interests. His criticisms gained little traction, however, especially among factory workers.
The result was exceptionally close and the outcome was in doubt for several days. The electoral vote was one of the closest in American history. With 266 votes needed to win, Wilson took 30 states for 277 electoral votes, while Hughes won 18 states and 254 electoral votes. Wilson’s peace position was likely critical in winning the western states; the key proved to be California, which Wilson won by only 3,800 votes out of nearly a million ballots cast. In the popular vote, Wilson’s lead was ultimately larger, but extremely narrow. Wilson’s popular vote margin of 3.1 percent remained the smallest attained by a victorious sitting president until 2004.
The total number of popular votes cast in 1916 exceeded that of 1912 by 3.5 million. The large total indicated the public’s heightened interest in the campaign, in part due to states’ extension of suffrage to women.