National Self-Determination: Woodrow Wilson and his Legacy

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Ultimately, the Senate opted not to ratify the Versailles Treaty nor, consequently, to allow U. While it remained economically and commercially engaged in Europe for the next twenty years, the United States actively avoided new political and strategic commitments there. It is impossible to understand the rise of the United States to superpower status in the second half of the twentieth century without understanding how American policy makers grappled with the complex diplomatic issues they confronted during and just after World War I.


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Similarly, we cannot explain the ways the United States responded to these issues without examining President Wilson and his legacy. We know that Wilson's postwar objectives, based on his Fourteen Points, were to be predicated on international law, collective security, national self-determination, open markets, and American political and moral leadership. At the same time, Wilson tried to dissuade the allies from establishing a punitive settlement against Germany that would retard postwar economic recovery and poison the political atmosphere in Europe.

But what drove Wilson to seek such a settlement? What were the philosophical bases of "Wilsonianism"? How did the twenty-eighth president try to meet the challenges posed by his European allies, by revolutionary ferment in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and by a Congress anxious to return the United States to its traditional isolation from overseas political embroilments?

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Finally, what was Wilsonianism's legacy for the international system and for American foreign policy in the decades to come? These are the questions at the heart of any serious study of America's role in the world following the Great War, and historians have debated them hotly for generations.

Wilson's efforts to shape the postwar settlement and to play the leading role at the Versailles conference were immediately controversial. In both the United States and Europe, the president faced vocal opposition and second-guessing. Some of the earliest and most influential critics of Wilson's diplomacy were Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Secretary of State Robert Lansing, individuals closely associated with the making of his foreign policy. As participants and close observers of the Versailles peace conference, both men mixed close analysis and a considerable amount of political axe-grinding in their appraisal of the immediate postwar scene.

Lodge, who led the fight in the Senate to defeat the Versailles Treaty, reiterated the conservative case against the settlement in The Senate and the League of Nations While Lodge was not convinced that the peace agreement treated Germany too harshly, he did fear that the Versailles Treaty and membership in the League of Nations would commit the United States to burdensome overseas obligations.

Lansing echoed Lodge's criticism in The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative and took Wilson to task for sacrificing allied strategic and economic interests for the sake of popular self-determination in Eastern and Central Europe. Meanwhile, the eminent British economist John Maynard Keynes attacked the peace settlement from a different direction, arguing that the harsh terms meted out to Germany sewed the seeds of future conflict.

By depriving Germany of territory and imposing on it an onerous reparations regime, he wrote, the allies guaranteed that Europe would suffer future political instability and economic hardship. These ideas formed the core of his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace , one of the most influential treatises of the early interwar period. What ideas and assumptions shaped Woodrow Wilson's political philosophy and how did these beliefs shape the president's conduct of the First World War and American foreign policy in the immediate postwar era?

Wilson was clearly a political visionary, and his views were informed by his devout Presbyterianism, his experiences in the Progressive political movement, and his education in the social sciences. Did that utopian vision for the international system actually make American diplomacy more effective? Did it endanger important U. Many critics of the president came to believe that "Wilsonianism" impeded the United States' ability to look after itself in the world.

For example, the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, in his brief but very influential volume American Diplomacy, harshly criticized Wilson's excessive "legalism" and "moralism" -- traits, he charged, that blinded American statesmen to the realities of power politics by which the international system operated. Kennan placed Wilson squarely in the camp of the foreign policy "idealists" who, he believed, had wrested control of American foreign policy from political "realists. Kennan's critique of Wilson neatly encapsulated the most important argument among foreign policymakers and scholars of his day and applied it to the diplomacy of the Versailles era.

By doing so, Kennan showed that American Cold War diplomacy derived in many ways from the legacy of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy.

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Kennan's characterization of Wilson as an "idealist" established the terms of debate on the man and his philosophy for years to come. But was "idealism" all that motivated Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy?

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One of the keys to understanding Wilson is to appreciate the complexity of the motives behind his policies. Economic self-interest, strategic calculation, and more traditional political "realism" all tempered the president's moralism. William Appleman Williams, in his influential book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy , argues that Wilson's policies were motivated largely by economics; these policies, in turn, perpetuated the "Open Door" strategy articulated at the beginning of the century to secure markets and resources for America overseas.

National Self-Determination

Other historians have tried to reconcile the idealistic and pragmatic aspects of Wilsonianism. Had they succeeded in extricating the Habsburg monarchy from its alliance with Germany, the latter would have been outnumbered by its enemies and could not have defended itself. However, the right of peoples to self-determination militated against Vienna breaking away from Berlin since granting these rights would have spelled the end of the multinational empire. Following the death of Emperor Franz Joseph there was a real prospect of forging such a separate deal.

Only after this opportunity vanished and Russia left the Alliance in the wake of the Bolshevik takeover, did a path to proclaiming the right to self-determination open up—on the condition that the existence of the British and French colonial empires remained unquestioned. That is why it was clear from the start that rather than being a universally applicable principle of a new world order the right of peoples to self-determination was an instrument for breaking up the enemy coalition.

It was clear from the start that rather than being a universally applicable principle of a new world order the right of peoples to self-determination was an in- strument for breaking up the enemy coalition. However, Lenin dealt the greatest blow to the Allied Powers by deciding to publish its secret documents, thus depriving them of a chance to present themselves as credible fighters for the ideals of freedom and democracy.

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The Germans set out to form a number of nation states, from Finland through the Balkans, Poland, and Ukraine right up to the Caucasus, out of what was left of the former Russian Empire. The thinking in Berlin was that these states could supply supporting troops that might yet help Germany win the war. And although the newly established nations were vassal states dependent on the German Empire, by creating them the Germans made a greater contribution to realizing their political independence than did the Allied Powers. At the same time, because of their relative military weakness, they were unable to prevent the demand for the right to self-determination also being raised within their own colonial empires.

A case in point is South Tyrol, which for military and strategic reasons was annexed to Italy, although any referendum would have resulted in the region remaining a part of Austria. And last but not least, Adolf Hitler was able to use it as an argument for carving Sudetenland o from Czechoslovakia.

These negative examples are countered by the fact that the right to self-determination spelled the beginning of the end of European colonialism, from which European powers were no longer able to backtrack. Although this process did not begin until after World War II, the right proclaimed by Wilson could nevertheless be asserted by means of numerous cruel wars. However, the greatest problem that remains to this day is the fact that a number of these new states is made up of many different ethnic groups which could also, potentially, strive for independence. He must have assumed that in a world that would become more and more interconnected thanks to the idea of the free market, the right of people to self-determination would play a key role only for a limited period.

In focusing on bringing about a peaceful world order he failed to take into account the disruptive potential of the right of peoples to self-determination.

National Self-Determination

Such national self-determination—the principle that groups bound by common 1. William C. Link et al. Norris quoted in Congressional Record, 66th Cong.


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  • November 11, , —75; E. Diplomatic History, Vol. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. The passionate exponent of a pragmatic peace, negotiated through open, impartial inquiry, did play himself false in the eighteen months following the Fourteen Points address, but not by violating any dogmatically held principle of national self-determination. Rather, he violated his pragmatic principles by allowing millions worldwide to believe, as Carr did, that the postwar order he envisioned privileged the ethnic nation-state above all forms of political organization.

    Ever since, this popular misunderstanding has distorted the historiography of the Wilson era in ways that are rarely obvious, yet none- theless profound. Rather than the national right of self-determination, Wilson promoted the civil right of self- government, by which he meant participation, by all constituents of a polity, in determining its public affairs.

    Yet by repressing dissent and abandoning public dialogue during World War I and the peace process, Wilson squandered the chance to realize his vision. Among those Americans who understood his program, his failure, at home, to match democratic means to democratic ends eroded support for the incipient global government he championed.


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    • Among his wider audiences, his refusal to discuss publicly the details of the postwar settlement led to confusion, as his vision became linked with the various calls for national self-determination that had emerged to shape the international discourse over the war. John Milton Cooper, Jr.

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      Washington, DC, , 25— The Fable of the Fourteen Points : internationalist form—a refusal to compromise that kept America from joining the organization he went to war to help create. Subsequently, his radically internationalist vision was forgotten, and has been ignored by policymakers and historians ever since. Nevertheless, it has long been the habit of historians to present national self-determination as the vital principle animating his peace aims. In , for instance, Arthur S. Even Thomas J.