America’s World War I Déjà Vu

President Donald Trump’s “America First” platform echoes the isolationism that followed the war 100 years ago. That didn’t end well.

U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Darrell Carver of the 6th Marine Regiment walks among the graves of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on May 27. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Darrell Carver of the 6th Marine Regiment walks among the graves of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on May 27. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Though he probably didn’t know it, U.S. President Donald Trump was channeling Henry Cabot Lodge when he flew to Paris on Friday to join in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I but elected to skip French President Emmanuel Macron’s main event—his “Peace Forum” promoting global cooperation.

A century ago, Lodge was the de facto Senate majority leader who had supported America’s entry into World War I, but in the years immediately afterward prodded America back into isolationism. As the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Lodge led the fight to vote down President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, denouncing it as a “mongrel” creation (though Wilson was to blame as well, having stubbornly rejected any compromise). Lodge’s campaign was the start of a broad U.S. withdrawal from the world, culminating in trade protectionism under the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, all of which exacerbated the Great Depression and the fascist spiral into World War II that followed.

“We have torn up Wilsonism by the roots,” Lodge declared happily after the dying Wilson, paralyzed by a stroke, was replaced by an isolationist Republican president, Warren G. Harding, who never brought up the League again. 

Trump, joined by his fiercely unilateralist national security advisor, John Bolton, appears eager to follow a path today that is unsettlingly similar to what occurred a century ago. “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump said at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

“Globalism” wasn’t a word people used in 1918, but Lodge no doubt would have applauded the sentiment.

And bit by bit, Trump has sought to detach the United States from the world in a very Lodge-ian way. In less than two years in office, Trump has withdrawn from several multilateral pacts, including the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate agreement; announced his withdrawal from the most significant nuclear arms control accord in four decades, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; begun a multifront trade war with China and U.S. allies; and declared his hostility to NATO, the G-7, the European Community, and the World Trade Organization.

Macron’s Paris Peace Forum, in contrast, carries echoes of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that set the stage for the League of Nations. According to its website, the forum is intended to reinforce the lessons of the last century and the dangers of nationalism. It plans “to convene all those among states and civil society that still believe that collective action, multilateralism and the good stewardship of common public goods are our best chance to address common challenges and maintain peace.”

Perhaps no program could be more distasteful to Trump and Bolton. Like Lodge, who declared that the League of Nations (in particular, its Article X) would force the United States to be pulled into the conflicts of other nations, Trump and Bolton are passionate sovereigntists who reject being tied down by international organizations.

“I have loved but one flag,” Lodge said, “and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.” A century later Trump declared in the same spirit: “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”

Trump indicated in August that he was going to Paris mainly out of pique, as a rebuke to local Washington, D.C., officials who resisted a commemorative military parade he wanted to hold on his own, saying it was too expensive. “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it. I will instead … go to the Paris parade,” the president tweeted.

Asked why Trump isn’t attending the Peace Forum, a White House spokesperson told Foreign Policy, “It is simply a scheduling conflict. The President is going to be participating in a Veterans Day ceremony that is taking place at the same time.”

Trump will instead visit Suresnes American Cemetery, where the bodies of U.S. soldiers are buried.

It is unclear how much of the international system Trump can tear down in the next two years—or the coming six if he wins another term in 2020. It’s taken a long time to build this system up, and most of the dozens of world leaders convening in Paris this weekend support it.

But as the leader of the nation that mainly created this system—the nation that finally realized, after U.S. isolationism in the interwar years helped lead to World War II, that multilateral cooperation was needed—Trump could probably do a lot to destroy it.

The president has shown before that he’s unconcerned about unpleasant echoes from the past or long-ago historical memory. As Susan Eisenhower, a scholar and the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, notes, Lodge’s efforts ultimately yielded the pre-World War II isolationist movement known as the America Firsters. “Even Trump’s campaign slogan is the same,” she said. And both movements were tinged with anti-Semitism.

True, as the Lodge analogue shows, there have always been a lot of Americans who agree with Trump’s distaste for the encumbrances of an international system. The president is tapping into an old nativist tradition when, for example, he attacks other NATO members for not carrying their weight militarily in the alliance (even former U.S. President Barack Obama called them “free riders”).

Wilson himself was aware that when he asked Congress to declare war on April 2, 1917 to “make the world safe for democracy,” he risked offending American sovereigntists. Harking back to the warnings of the Founding Fathers against too many entanglements abroad, Wilson sought to reassure the U.S. Senate in an earlier speech, “There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power.”

But the failure of the League of Nations and other efforts at international governance were followed by the most horrendous war in history, one that left an estimated 60 million dead. Wilson had warned of this outcome, as did John Maynard Keynes. And so did prescient generals such as Fox Conner, who was mentor to both a young Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall.

According to Susan Eisenhower, her grandfather recalled:  

“Again and again General Conner said to me, ’We cannot escape another great war. When we go into that war it will be in company with allies. … We must insist on individual and single responsibility—leaders will have to learn how to overcome nationalistic considerations…’”

The horrors of World War II gave way to an effort to overcome America’s nativist, nationalistic impulses—indeed to fundamentally remake the world in America’s image so world war wouldn’t happen again. President Franklin Roosevelt, who as the vice presidential candidate in 1920 had stumped for the League, proclaimed a concept as idealistic as Wilson’s: the Four Freedoms. He and his successor, Harry Truman, created more geopolitically astute, workable structures than the League of Nations to secure them.

The U.N., with its Security Council designed around Roosevelt’s Four Policemen concept—which ultimately became the “Permanent Five,” with the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China each given a veto power to prevent the world body from unduly constraining their sovereignty—was a conscious effort to correct Wilson’s mistakes with the League. “We will not accept a world, like the post-war world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow,” Roosevelt said.  

Even Republican presidents such as Eisenhower came to support the mission of the United Nations, Ike’s granddaughter said. Eisenhower delivered his famous atoms for peace speech to the General Assembly in late 1953, calling for global cooperation in promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. And when he named his first U.N. ambassador, who did he choose? Lodges son, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

Seventy years on, the U.N. has had mixed results, but it has proved crucial to bringing other countries over to U.S. goals through dozens of Security Council resolutions that have isolated rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea. The Roosevelt and Truman administration also imposed a global system of regulated open markets at Bretton Woods, a conscious corrective to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

All these lessons about international cooperation are at risk of being unlearned now, especially as the memories of the 20th century appear to fade, some scholars say. The stark lines of the world order were set down by a deeply traumatized generation and passionately enforced and sustained by the generations that followed. But now, encouraged by a leader of the free world who doesn’t seem bothered by the broad reawakening of virulent nationalism, those lines appear to be wavering.

“For 70 years, the United States has been the leader of a coalition of liberal democratic states that together built the most extraordinary and successful international order in world history,” said John Ikenberry, one of the foremost scholars of the global system and the author of the forthcoming Bending the Arc of History, a study of 200 years of liberal internationalism.

This has been in most areas a win-win for the United States, said Ikenberry—a vast tradeoff in which, until now, much of the rest of the world has come to accept U.S. dominance in return for reassurances that it would be a largely benign overseer of the global system. Washington “has tied itself to its allies and partners, signaling restraint and commitment as the world’s leading power—and in return its allies and partners have pledged their support to the United States, accommodated themselves to American leadership and interests.”

How much longer can that arrangement last? Said Ikenberry: “America without its postwar order would be a lonely and less powerful great power.”

As Fox Conner noted nearly a century ago: You don’t want to go it alone. For now, Donald Trump appears to want just that.


Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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