Ambivalent Internationalists

George Washington had warned against “entangling alliances,” and part of the Monroe Doctrine declared that the United States would stay out of European affairs. Yet the State Department, under President Wilson’s direction, became deeply involved in European  affairs prior to U.S. entry into World War I.

As in 1812, rights of neutral shipping became a vital issue and a subject of U.S. negotiations with both sides in the conflict. The sinking of the Lusitania by Germany in 1915 nearly brought the United States into the war. Also in 1915, the United States authorized loans to the Allies and in 1917, following intense negotiations with both sides, entered the war on the Allied side.

The British SS Lusitania, which left New York harbor en route to England in May 1915, never completed the trip. Its sinking by a German submarine off the British Isles, with 128 Americans among the 1,200 killed, created a crisis during which Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned rather than face the risk of war. Intense diplomatic activity was required to prevent U.S. entry into World War I immediately after the incident.

The British SS Lusitania, which left New York harbor en route to England in May 1915, never completed the trip. Its sinking by a German submarine off the British Isles, with 128 Americans among the 1,200 killed, created a crisis during which Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned rather than face the risk of war. Intense diplomatic activity was required to prevent U.S. entry into World War I immediately after the incident.

The war caused the State Department to tighten security measures, expanding the use of telegraphic codes and ciphers and introducing the classification labels “confidential” and “secret.”


Colonel Edward House, a White House adviser to President Wilson, exercised some of the authority of the secretary of state during Wilson’s administration, directing much of U.S. diplomacy during World War I and the postwar period. In this he set an example followed by Harry Hopkins in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, Henry Kissinger in Nixon’s and Ford’s presidencies and Zbigniew Brzezinski in Carter’s. Wilson and House, and to a lesser extent Secretary of State Robert Lansing, steered the country toward an active role in international peace efforts. They helped create the League of Nations, though the United States failed to join it following the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles that established it.


Nevertheless, U.S. diplomacy at the peace conference in Versailles helped shape the post-World War I world. Subsequently, U.S. policy stressed disarmament, and U.S. diplomacy initiated more than 20 disarmament conferences in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the most notable was the Washington Naval Conference, opened by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes in 1921.


Despite strong isolationist sentiment, the era between the world wars saw enormous expansion of U.S. involvement in world affairs—especially in economic matters—under Secretaries of State Frank B. Kellogg and Cordell Hull.

The payment of Allied war debt and German reparations were the subjects of lengthy negotiations throughout the l920s and early 1930s. The Dawes Plan (1924) and the Young Plan (1929) ameliorated crises for awhile, but reparations and war debts of Allies were repaid in the end, only to the extent of U.S. loans to these countries, except for Finland, which paid in full.

 

U.S. troops arrive in Vladivostok, August 1918. Colonel Styer, Admiral Knight, and an unnamed Czech general meet a U.S. ambassador.

U.S. troops arrive in Vladivostok, August 1918. Colonel Styer, Admiral Knight, and an unnamed Czech general meet a U.S. ambassador.

The United States sent troops and ships to protect U.S. lives and property during the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, as it had during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In 1928 it negotiated most-favored-nation trading status with China. That treaty recognized the Nationalist government with which the United States developed close ties.

After Germany signed the Armistice ending World War I in November 1918, Wilson journeyed to Europe, first for a tour of the Allied capitals, and then for six months of peace treaty negotiations in Versailles, near Paris.

After Germany signed the Armistice ending World War I in November 1918, Wilson journeyed to Europe, first for a tour of the Allied capitals, and then for six months of peace treaty negotiations in Versailles, near Paris.

U.S. diplomacy, facilitated by Ambassador Dwight Morrow, carried out sensitive negotiations with Mexico regarding oil rights, within the framework of the Bucareli Agreement of 1923.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow (center) introduces his friend, Reuben Clark (left), to Mexico’s President Ortiz Rubio (right) during a Fourth of July celebration.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow (center) introduces his friend, Reuben Clark (left), to Mexico’s President Ortiz Rubio (right) during a Fourth of July celebration.

Secretary Hull was chiefly responsible for the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, which gave the executive branch broad authority, until then reserved by Congress, to make limited, reciprocal changes in tariffs and other trade restrictions. As a consequence of the Act, between 1934 and 1951 the average tariff on all dutiable imports fell from 46.7 percent to 12.5 percent and on all imports, including those which entered free, from 18.4 percent to 5.6 percent.

The first third of the twentieth century saw frequent U.S. intervention abroad. The United States sent troops to Russia from 1918 until 1920, following the establishment of the Bolshevik regime, which it refused to recognize until 1933. The United States also intervened at various times with armed forces to collect debts, insure stability, and/or protect U.S. property and lives in Cuba, Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua.
A cartoon illustrated the spirit of isolationism that swept over the United States after the end of World War I, which led to a reassessment of immigration policy. Among other considerations, many Americans feared immigrants would facilitate the spread of Bolshevism from Europe. In the 1920s, after decades of almost unlimited immigration, the United States began to restrict the flow to its shores.

A cartoon illustrated the spirit of isolationism that swept over the United States after the end of World War I, which led to a reassessment of immigration policy. Among other considerations, many Americans feared immigrants would facilitate the spread of Bolshevism from Europe. In the 1920s, after decades of almost unlimited immigration, the United States began to restrict the flow to its shores.

Alvey A. Adee (1842-1924)

Alvey A. Adee (1842-1924)

Alvey A. Adee dedicated his life to serving the U.S. government in the Department of State. He began his diplomatic career as a private secretary at the Legation in Spain in 1869. He became a clerk in the department in 1876 and chief of the Diplomatic Bureau two years later. Adee was appointed third assistant secretary of state in 1882, second assistant secretary of state in 1 886, and first assistant secretary of state just before his death in 1924.

Adee approved or drafted almost all outgoing State Department correspondence. He was a stickler for correct style and usage. In times of crisis, he would sleep on a cot in his office. Deaf, reclusive, and unmarried, his whole life centered around the operations of the department, advising presidents and secretaries of both parties and briefing diplomatic and consular officers. A longtime resident of Washington is said to have remarked as Adee bicycled past him, “There goes our State Department now.”

James Gillespie Blaine, 1889-1892

James G. Blaine
Secretary of State
1889-1892

John Watson Foster, 1892-1893

John Watson Foster
Secretary of State
1892-1893

Walter Quintin Gresham, 1893-1895

Walter Gresham
Secretary of State
1893-1895

Richard Olney, 1895-1897

Richard Olney
Secretary of State
1895-1897

John Sherman, 1897-1898

John Sherman
Secretary of State
1897-1898

William Rufus Day, 1898

William Rufus Day
Secretary of State
1898

John Hay, 1898-1905

John Hay
Secretary of State
1898-1905

Elihu Root, 1905-1909

Elihu Root
Secretary of State
1905-1909

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