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The Great War
Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Timeline Maps & Battles The Shaping of the 21st Century Historians
Historians OverviewDavid Kennedy

Woodrow Wilson - A Calculated Risk
David Kennedy
"Woodrow Wilson, ever since the war began in 1914, was running his own calculated risk.

"He gambled that he could maintain the right to trade with the belligerent powers – Britain, in particular – trade which was profitable. He gambled that he could continue that trade without actually running the risk of war.

"The Germans repeatedly provoked the United States by sinking ships that cost American lives and American cargoes. The Lusitania, May of 1915, is probably the most famous episode of that kind of provocation, but Wilson nevertheless, down to early 1917, was able to secure the economic right to trade with belligerents without provoking the Germans to the point of open warfare.

"Merchant ships began to go down in March of 1917.

U.S. Capitol Building
"In 1917 (early 1917), the Germans essentially called Woodrow Wilson's bluff. He had been trying for two-and-a-half years to maintain the rights of neutral trade with Great Britain. The Germans decidedly did not want that to go on and finally in January of 1917, they simply said: 'We will not permit it any further. We will sink all American ships headed for the British Isles.' And indeed, they began to sink ships. Wilson clearly had no choice but to conclude that this was such a gross affront to American national honor, and to all objectives of his diplomacy for the preceding two-and-a-half years, that he had no choice but to ask the Congress for declaration of war.

"Wilson was a man of peace, a man of high principles, and a rather shrewd and calculating politician.

"A person who had very skillfully kept his country neutral for two-and-a-half years, since August 1914. He had walked a very delicate line of diplomacy to maintain neutral trading rights with Britain while not provoking Germany to open warfare. He was genuinely reluctant to go to war.

"He had no reason to believe that his own people would unite behind him if he took the country to war. Even after the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917 – when there were open and belligerent provocations to the United States through the sinking of American ships – even then, Wilson hesitated for another two months before he finally went before the Congress and asked for a declaration of war. So he was a man of peace who relied a lot on his diplomatic skill to keep the country neutral but profitable until 1917, when eventually his bluff was called.

"He [Wilson] had a very acute sense of his own limitations as a politician.

"Wilson had the professorial manner. He was very cerebral in character. He often contrasted himself unfavorably to his great rival Theodore Roosevelt. He said: 'Roosevelt was a person of flesh and blood. The public sees him as a living, breathing, sweating human being, where they see me only as an abstraction.' A skilled diplomatist to be sure, but as a politician, someone who existed at a certain removed, a certain distance, from the hurly-burly and the hugger-mugger of American life."

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