During the 1976 vice presidential debate between Senators Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, and Democrat Walter Mondale of Minnesota, Dole outraged Democrats when he said: “All the wars of the 20th century have been Democrat (sic) wars.” That remark came barely 18 months after the fall of Saigon and may have reminded the nation that the Vietnam War, like Korea and both world wars, began with Democrats in the White House and in the majority in Congress. Dole, born in 1923, began his congressional career in 1961, when Republicans were still boasting of their ability to keep America out of wars, rather than their readiness to start one. Today few in either party show any noticeable appreciation of the wise counsel of our first and greatest President in his Farewell Address:
Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice?
’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.
Historians may debate just when our nation began to ignore Washington’s sage advice, but we were clearly creating some long-term entanglements with several parts of the “foreign world” in 1898, when America went to war with Spain over Cuba and, in the process, captured Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt — the “progressive” Republican beloved by today’s neoconservatives — was a hero of that “splendid little war” and was vice president when the assassination of McKinley propelled the popular Rough Rider into the White House. Though he seldom walked softly, he often waved the “big stick” at nations standing in the way of American ambition. When the Senate of Colombia in 1903 unanimously rejected the terms of a treaty granting the United States rights to build a canal in Panama, Roosevelt announced “the blackmailers of Bogota” would not be permitted to “permanently bar one of the future highways of civilization.” When Panamanians staged an uprising against the Colombian government, U.S. forces seized the Panama railroad and prevented the landing of Colombian troops within 50 miles. Roosevelt quickly recognized the new Republic of Panama and concluded a treaty, giving Panama $10 million and $250,000 a year for the Canal Zone.*
Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, the “Mr. Republican” of his era, took mild exception to Roosevelt’s intervention in Panama in his 1951 book, A Foreign Policy for Americans. “I do not believe history will defend as lawful the action of President Theodore Roosevelt in seizing Panama,” Taft wrote. “On the other hand, that action was certainly not the making of war.” Taft’s father, William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as President, was less restrained in describing his predecessor’s zeal for military adventure. Theodore Roosevelt, said the elder Taft, was “obsessed with his love of war and the glory of it…. He would think it a real injury to mankind if we would not have a war.” Roosevelt himself, in a speech to students at the Naval War College in 1897, said: “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.”
But as war raged through Europe in 1914, the American people were determined to remain apart from “the toils of European Ambition” and the wars that sprang endlessly from them. American neutrality, however, was sorely tested, as England’s blockade of Germany was designed, in the words of Lord Admiral Winston Churchill, to “starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.” U.S. ships were intercepted even when bound for neutral nations with land access to Germany. President Woodrow Wilson protested to no avail. Yet he continued to insist on the right of Americans to continue shipping goods to England and to travel on British ships, despite the danger of attack by German U-boats.
Thus, Americans in 1915 went unheeding onto the Lusitania, a British ship secretly loaded with munitions of war and bound for the British Isles. The German Embassy in Washington had filed a complaint with our government, and a warning that ships entering the war zone were subject to destruction appeared in the New York Times and other American newspapers on the day the ship sailed. Yet the German attack on the Lusitania and the death of 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans, contributed to rising anti-German sentiment and brought America closer to war.
A desperate Germany’s later policy of unrestricted submarine warfare moved the United States still closer to the brink of war. The final push came with the discovery of a telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmerman to his ambassador in Mexico, proposing a German-Mexican alliance if the U.S. entered the war that would help Mexico recover “her lost territories in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.” On April 2, 1917, barely five months after winning reelection on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
Yet during the period of American “neutrality,” billions in cash and credit from the United States had fueled the Allies’ war efforts, and U.S. banks had a strong interest in assuring that the Allies would emerge victorious and able to demand reparations from their defeated foes. Between 1915 and April 1917, loans from U.S. banks to Germany totaled $27 million, while Britain and its allies received loans of $2.3 billion in the same period. John Pierpont Morgan, Jr.’s inherited fortune of $13 million doubled during the war, as he became the purchasing agent for the British. Morgan also was head of the United States Steel Corporation, the leading company in an industry whose profits during the war averaged $20 million a year.†
Not surprisingly, America’s munitions manufacturers profited handsomely during the war.