Exactly a century ago today, one American crusade ended and another began. The first was America’s intervention in Europe’s “Great War,” inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s grandiloquent call for America to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The second crusade, which began on Armistice Day — Nov. 11, 1918 — was Wilson’s effort to convert the defeat of Germany into a new international world order, shaped by a Wilson-inspired peacemaking institution, the League of Nations.

Once in place, Wilson believed, the league would ensure that the Great War really would prove to be what people hopefully called it: “the war to end all war.” (It’s a measure of Wilson’s tragedy that instead the struggle has gone down in history as the ‘First’ World War.)

America wasn’t always a crusader nation. We were never one — at least not beyond our borders — in the 19th century, save perhaps briefly at the very end with the 1898 Spanish-American War effort to liberate Cuba from Spain. Crusading passions have waxed and waned in more recent times.

“Crusade” is a loaded word these days. But there is no better term to capture the expansive moral vision Wilson pursued in war and peace. Even today, to characterize an American war effort as “Wilsonian” is to conjure up notions of a zealous idealistic mission — a crusade.

When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, President Wilson called upon the American people to be neutral in “thought, word and deed.” But what did neutrality mean? Did it mean trading goods and lending with no warring country, or with any and all warring countries? From its founding, the United States had positioned itself as the great neutral trading power, vis a vis an ever-warring Europe. Therefore, Wilson was in accord with America’s past when he continued trans-Atlantic trade.

Both England and Germany violated U.S. neutral rights. But German U-boats sank not just American goods, but American citizens. Eventually, the Germans’ unrestricted use of the U-boat led to Wilson’s decision for war.

But the meaning he gave his call for war had little to do with a defense of practical American interests, economic or otherwise, and much to do with upholding and spreading American ideals.

Wilson preached his crusade in his “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress in January 1918. Context here is important. A few months earlier, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had pulled off their Communist revolution in Russia. Once in control, they discovered and published previously secret treaties negotiated by tsarist Russia’s allies. One of them, the Sykes-Picot agreement, redrew the boundaries of the Middle East and paved the way for league-mandated British and French dominance of the region.

All of this was proof positive to Lenin and revolutionaries everywhere that the Great War was nothing more than an imperialistic grab for land and power.

Wilson, for his part, was mightily embarrassed. Not party to any secret treaty, the United States was simply an “associate power,” rather than a full-fledged ally. Nonetheless, we now stood revealed as a partner in a war that was something far less noble — something far grubbier — than a war to make the world free.

Wilson’s first response to the publication of these treaties was to, shall we say, engage in a form of misremembering: He wrongly claimed no knowledge of such agreements.

He then moved to claim the higher ground with his “Fourteen Points.” Lenin had offered the world his vision of a classless future; Wilson would counter with his own democratic ideal. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, was not optimistic: “God gave us the Ten Commandments, and we broke them,” he said.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points could be reduced to four themes: 1) no more secret treaties; 2) freedom of the seas and of trade;  3) self-determination for European peoples; 4) the League of Nations.

Facing defeat, hoping against hope, Germany sued for peace in the autumn of 1918 on the basis of this version of Wilsonian idealism.

The first American crusade was over on Armistice Day; the second American crusade was about to begin. If Wilson was mostly in the background during the first crusade, he was front and center at the second. Rather than remain at home and let American diplomats hammer out peace terms, he journeyed to Paris himself to shepherd his Fourteen Points into the peace treaty.

The result was disaster on many levels. The final Treaty of Versailles was anything but a triumph of Wilsonian idealism. Instead, it was a compromise that left Germany weakened but mostly intact — enraged but not destroyed. It thus prepared the way for Hitler and World War II.

Wilson knew that he had obtained far less than he had hoped for. But at least he had gotten his league. The league would right the wrongs of the treaty. Or so Wilson dreamed.

The league was the great concession Wilson had won in the final treaty. That, he presumed, would assure American membership in the league. Never did he imagine that the United States Senate would reject the treaty and his league. But it did — with 14 “reservations” attached by Wilson’s archenemy, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.

So much for the second American crusade of a century ago. So much for the two-part American crusade of the Great War — the war that proved to be a prelude to an even greater world war, rather than the war to end war.

Is there a lesson in any of this for Americans on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day? Perhaps it is this: American military might should be deployed primarily on the basis of American national interests, rather than primarily on the basis of American ideals. Wilson might well have made an interest-based case for war in 1917. But he didn’t.

Or he might have kept the United States out of the Great War. But he didn’t.

It can be tempting to regard expanding democracy through military action as serving American national interests. After all, a world dominated by genuine democracies would clearly be a more peaceful world. In addition, in our day as in Wilson’s, the American people are more likely to support warfare to advance American ideals, rather than merely national interests.

Still, crusades are a temptation that American leaders should resist — both in general, but especially in that part of the world where the original Crusades of long ago took place, the Middle East.

Democracy has bloomed in Israel. But it seems unlikely to bloom anywhere else in the Middle East — with or without more than a little help from the United States.

The track record of past American crusades is not encouraging, whether it’s the great Wilsonian crusade of a century ago or the more recent crusade to make Iraq safe for democracy.

Here a rueful note of irony intrudes. The very same Sykes-Picot agreement that helped trigger Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech indirectly gave the world the Iraq that became the intended beneficiary of a subsequent American crusade.

It’s not just that crusades tend to fail (just ask the original crusaders of yesteryear). The aftermath of failed crusades can lead to an unwise withdrawal from the world — exactly what America did in the 1920s and 1930 as the forces of tyranny and aggression gained strength in Europe and Asia.

Today, there is much talk of the potential virtues and potential difficulties of an “America first” foreign policy. America first. The term hearkens back to the shortsightedness and myopia of Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee of pre-Pearl Harbor days. Fair enough.

But once again, context is crucial. The American crusades that ended and began in November of 1918 prepared the way for an American retreat from the world that did not end until Dec. 7, 1941.

An America first foreign policy does not have to mean an isolationist foreign policy or a go-it-alone unilateralist foreign policy. It can — and should — mean placing American national interests first. At its best, such a foreign policy offers a middle way between America as crusader nation and an America that leads from behind.

 

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.