Woodrow Wilson's Presidency Questions and Answers

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How was the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson different than those of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?  How was it similar?

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Michael Corsi, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the defining characteristics of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was the moral stance he took on American intervention in global affairs. He and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, believed that it was the religious imperative of the United States to advance democracy and moral progress in the world. This high sense of purpose influenced Wilson’s response to growing unrest in Mexico and the Caribbean. Following the 1910 revolt in Mexico, which ousted the former military dictator Porfirio Diaz, General Victoriano Huerta assumed power in the country. Wilson refused to acknowledge the new Mexican government, as he believed that it had come about illegally. He famously asserted that:

“We hold… that just government rests upon the consent of the governed.”

This statement implied that, because Huerta had assumed power illegitimately, his power was not derived from the consent of the Mexican people, and therefore should not be recognized internationally. In a period when the life or death of fledgling Latin American governments depended on American support and recognition, Wilson extended the idea that immorality was not a suitable precedent for power.

In the Caribbean, Wilson took a stance against maintaining troops in countries that American businesses had heavy investments in. This had been the policy of his predecessor, William Howard Taft, and Wilson could not always follow through with his convictions (for example, he maintained the presence of marines in Nicaragua). Unlike Taft, who favored the protection of American overseas business interests at all costs, Wilson believed in protecting American workers by devoting money and energy in developing the domestic economy. Unfortunately (for Wilson), continuing unrest in the Latin American countries of the Caribbean necessitated the deployment of more US troops. In 1915, Wilson dispatched troops to Haiti, and then in 1916 to the Dominican Republic. For Wilson, the moral imperative of maintaining democratic government in Latin America outweighed his commitment to noninterventionism, which likened his policy somewhat to that of Taft.

Finally, Wilson’s foreign policy differed in spirit, but was similar in practice, to the imperialist stance taken by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt pushed strongly for the permanent acquisition of the Philippines in 1900, and he also helped broker peace between the Russians and Japanese after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Roosevelt believed that the United States, as an emerging industrial global power, should take a strong stance in international affairs, a point of view that differed from Wilson’s more timid approach to imperialism. Still, in practice, Taft, Wilson, and Roosevelt all interfered in the affairs of Pacific and Caribbean countries extensively.

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The main difference between Wilson's foreign policy and those of his two predecessors was that Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan tried to formulate a policy they called "moral diplomacy." This was meant to be different from the "dollar" diplomacy of William Howard Taft and the "big stick" diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson and Bryan, who had been fervent opponents of annexing the Philippines, promised that the United States would eventually grant them independence. He also refused to recognize the government of Victoriano Huerta, which had risen to power through a military coup in Mexico. Huerta was favored by many American businessmen with interests in Mexico, and recognizing him would have been the essence of "dollar" diplomacy. But Wilson refused to do so, which contributed to a civil war in Mexico.

Somewhat paradoxically, Wilson's inconsistent "moral" stance on diplomacy led to frequent military interventions in Latin America. American forces invaded Haiti and Mexico in attempts to protect American interests and ostensibly to promote democracy. This is the main similarity between the policies of these three presidents: all three men advocated an active role for the United States in Latin America and the world at large, and when push came to shove, all three were willing to use the military to achieve it.

Wilson's neutral stance when World War I broke out was a departure from the aggressive Roosevelt's approach. Roosevelt derided Wilson as a coward for refusing to join the war when it broke out, and when he had still failed to do so by 1917, the former President referred to him as "that lily-livered skunk in the White House." Eventually, of course, Wilson guided the nation into war, and when he did, he attempted to elevate the conflict to a higher moral plane, as would be consistent with his approach to diplomacy. This, along with a desire for the United States to play an increased role in world affairs, was the motive behind his "Fourteen Points." Whether or not Wilson's foreign policy was consistent with his moral pretensions, his attempts to base foreign policy on a set of democratic values was different by degree from his predecessors.

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The foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson was more similar than different to the foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft. The main difference was that Wilson’s foreign policy ideas were more idealistic than both Roosevelt’s and Taft’s ideas. Wilson didn’t believe in imperialism, and he wanted to stop Dollar Diplomacy. He thought these concepts were morally wrong. Wilson had very idealist goals for the United States upon entering World War I. He wanted to make this the last war ever and to make the world safer for democratic governments. Both Roosevelt and Taft strongly encouraged imperialism and the concepts surrounding Dollar Diplomacy.

The similarities can be seen in the events with which they were involved. While Roosevelt was president, we encouraged a revolt in Panama, sent our navy around the world to show our power, and intervened in the Dominican Republic. While Taft was president, we invested in countries, and when that investment was jeopardized by political instability, we sent in our military to protect the investment. This was done in Nicaragua. While Wilson was president, we intervened in affairs in Mexico when revolts broke out and new leaders assumed office. We tried to remove unfriendly leaders. This led to attacks by Pancho Villa. Wilson then sent in the army to try to capture him. We never caught him, and when World War I began, we had more important issues to face. Thus, Wilson’s foreign policy was more similar than different than Roosevelt’s and Taft’s foreign policy actions.

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