Though Thomas Knock draws no explicit comparisons between Woodrow Wilson’s plans for a post- Great War world and the policies George Bush tried to fashion for a post-Cold War world, his use of the term “New World Order” in the title of his book is clearly meant to steer the reader to think in parallel terms: a frame of mind that could easily be carried into the new age of Bill Clinton.

Knock, an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, is an admirer of “the enduring relevancy of [Woodrow Wilson’s] vision.” This is unexpected, since Knock clearly writes from the far left of the political spectrum. But unlike other leftists—such as Arno Meyer, William Appleman Williams, Lloyd Gardner, and N. Gordon Lewis—Knock does not interpret Wilson’s support of the League of Nations as a strategy to unite the Great Powers in a reactionary alliance against world revolution, or as a personal bid to steal the world stage from Lenin. Knock correctly points out that at the time, “Lenin was . . . a comparatively obscure politician at the head of a very shaky government.” Had more people in the West been able to foresee what the Soviet Union would turn into, there would have been more support for Winston Churchill’s desire to strangle communism in its crib. But Churchill is not even mentioned by Knock, who has a talent for writing history from the perspective of those who lived it. Knock’s aim is not to discredit Wilson, but to recapture his spirit for radicals who still believe in progress and enlightenment. The value of his book is that he also reminds those on the right of the origins of many currently fashionable ideas—a refresher course that is much needed.

Knock’s diplomatic history of World War I and the Versailles peace settlement amounts to a relatively small portion of the book, whose primary focus is on the development of Wilson’s ideas about the proper organization of the world. Knock stresses the President’s influence on such American groups as the Women’s Peace Party, the American Union Against Militarism, and the Socialist Party; on the Union of Democratic Control in England; and on individuals like Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Norman Angell, Bertrand Russell, Oswald Garrison Villard, and John Reed.

Wilson had always been an anti-imperialist: during the Mexican Revolution, he clipped Reed’s columns and circulated them. In Mexico and Latin America, Wilson favored revolutionary idealism over concrete American interests, believing the region’s problems stemmed from dependence on foreign investors, including Americans. He therefore supported rebels who planned to seize those assets. He intervened at Veracruz in 1916 to block a shipment of weapons going to the counterrevolutionary Mexican government; he apologized and paid compensation to Columbia for the taking of Panama to build the canal. He criticized the Monroe Doctrine because, while checking European aggression, it failed to restrain the United States. He told a group of Mexican newspaper editors that his proposed Pan-American Pact was “an arrangement by which you would be protected from us.” When the AUAM’s Amos Pinehot asserted that great economic power made America a great threat to the world, Wilson agreed, “unless some check was placed upon it by some international arrangement” like a league of nations.

For Wilson, “the reactionary opponents of domestic reform and the advocates of militarism, imperialism and balance-of-power politics were born of the same womb,” says Knock. In contrast. Knock argues, “Feminists, liberals, pacifists, socialists and social reformers of varying kinds, in the main, filled the ranks of the progressive internationalists. Their leaders included many of the era’s authentic heroes and heroines,” all of whom, as Knock shows, enjoyed easy access to Wilson’s White House.

A conformity of outlook was displayed in plans drawn up by leftist groups on both sides of the Atlantic at the onset of the Great War. The basic demands were always the same and were consolidated into Wilson’s Fourteen Points: disarmament; free trade; equality of nations based on self-determination; democratic governments committed to social justice; and a league of nations that would mediate disputes and perhaps punish aggression. The first two were thought to be the most important, on the assumption that arms races and commercial rivalry were the main causes of war: if the military-industrial complex could be eliminated, opposition to the rest of the program would vanish. Behind this idea lay the notion that it is only reactionary elements, not “the people,” who have dangerous interests. Under democracy, there would be only peace and “world community.”

A commitment to that belief is what separated the “progressive” from the “conservative” internationalists. Men like Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Leonard Wood, William Taft, and Elihu Root formed the League to Enforce Peace. But, says Knock, “almost all of them had been ardent imperialists and champions of Anglo-American entente since the 1890’s,” while “the LEP did not concern itself much with the economic causes of the war, with disarmament or self-determination, and certainly not with democratic control of foreign policy.” What the LEP envisioned was something like traditional alliances formed to maintain a particular peace settlement, only more formal. They were mainly legalists, concerned with stability rather than social change. And “they remained committed nationalists and resisted any diminution of American sovereignty or military strength.”

Senator Lodge turned against the league idea and led the fight against Wilson’s impossible dream. Yet, “Lodge’s arguments were not based on isolationist sentiments,” Knock believes; instead. Lodge wanted “a unilateralist approach . . . which countenanced few of the restrictions on American freedom of action that Wilson’s . . . league seemed to entail.” In short, Lodge wanted the United States to be able to act in its own interest, and Wilson did not.

The LEP settlement would have been imposed by the victorious Allies on the defeated Central Powers. This Wilson wanted to avoid, favoring instead a “peace without victory” negotiated between equals of their own free accord. The aims of the Allies were no better than those of the Central Powers, Wilson thought; neither war nor peace should be based on national advantage. Wilson had long hoped for a stalemate that he could mediate as a neutral. When U-boat attacks on American ships and German plots in Mexico turned American opinion in favor of war, Wilson was at pains to explain that the United States was not fighting for its own honor or security, hi his famous “world safe for democracy” speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, asking for a declaration of war, he said, “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.” The sacrifices included over 112,000 American dead, and more than twice as many wounded. A modest price compared to what the other combatants had to pay, but a stiff one for nothing in return.

The legacy of this attitude continues today, as the same politicians, academics, and journalists who opposed any use of force to defend American and Allied security during the Cold War—let alone to punish attacks on American property overseas or defend critical resources like oil—are now clamoring for armed intervention in Bosnia. The very fact that Bosnia (and places like Somalia) are of no strategic value to the United States is what makes them so attractive to liberals, if not to those who have to risk their lives or pay the bills. Teddy Roosevelt accused Wilson of being “a man who is too proud to fight” for his own country, a charge that could also be leveled at a certain former antiwar activist and draft-dodger should he choose to place more American troops at the disposal of the United Nations or to engage in other Wilsonian adventures.


[To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, by Thomas J. Knock (New York: Oxford University Press) 381 pp., $30.00]