Wilson’s Open Door to World War I

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Allen Ruff

DESPITE RHETORIC OF “liberty”, “freedom” and “democracy” and charges regarding German violations of America’s claimed neutrality, the United States entered World War I for basically the same imperial reasons as the other major belligerents. The war, at its base a German challenge to an older order dominated by British imperial power, threatened a global realignment and redistribution of spheres of influence and territorial and colonial spoils. In that sense, U.S. ruling circles certainly understood what was at stake and could not sit it out.

At its heart, World War I was an imperialist war — the result of escalating competition for the world’s resources, markets for goods and capital investment opportunities, access to raw materials and colonial possessions. U.S. involvement was certainly driven by capitalist imperatives of expansion, profit and accumulation.

At an ideological level its imperial aspirations as a capitalist power were guided by a complex of beliefs regarding its civilizing mission in the world, its “manifest destiny” as the “exceptionalist” purveyor of democracy and “progress” abroad.

Expansionist from the start but pre-occupied with the consolidation of power and a national market in North America, the United States was a relative newcomer in the global imperial scramble. It had declared the entire Western Hemisphere off limits to European powers under the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and upheld its right to intervene anywhere in Latin America to protect U.S. “interests.”

With its rapid victory over Spain in 1898, the United States not only grabbed Cuba and Puerto Rico, the centuries-long jewels of the Spanish Caribbean, but also took the Philippines, valuable in itself and as a stepping stone to the long-coveted China market. The “splendid little war” also carried the U.S. economy out of the crisis of the 1890s. Numerous interests — in heavy industrials, agriculture, and finance as well as politicians, elite intellectuals and opinion makers had come to understand that overseas expansion, investment and war were “good for business” and social stability.

In 1907, Woodrow Wilson told a Columbia University audience that “Con­cessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.”

During his 1912 presidential campaign he said: “Our domestic markets no longer suffice, we need foreign markets.” In a memo to his first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, he described his aim to provide “an open door to the world” for U.S. capital. In 1914 he said he supported “the righteous conquest of foreign markets.”

First articulated in 1899, following the German seizure of a “sphere on interest” at Shantung province, the U.S. right to an “Open Door,” not just to China but to markets across Asia and elsewhere became the prevailing principle of foreign policy for the coming century.

The World War challenged that “Open Door” since it threatened to rearrange the international order into closed spheres of interest detrimental to the U.S. quest for an “informal empire.” In that sense, the German imperial threat took precedence.

At various levels, U.S. claims of neutrality were a fiction from the very start, as the United States of course was very much an integral part of the Anglo-Atlantic world, bound together by history, culture, as well as deep business ties, finance and trade. British capital had been instrumental to US economic and industrial development. But there also was a flow going the other way.

In 1897, direct foreign investments from the United States, flowing primarily to Britain and France, amounted to $700 million. By 1914 the total was $3.5 billion. Just prior to the war, over 75% of U.S. trade was carried on with the belligerents. Half of all U.S. exports and a third of its imports were with Britain and its empire.

Within six months of the war’s start, Washington had become deeply involved with the Allied effort as war orders from France and Britain, paid for by loans and credits from New York and Washington, carried the country out of the deep recession of 1914.

Within ruling circles, economic support for the Allies came to be viewed as a way of assuring economic expansion and averting economic stagnation, recession or worse. J.P. Morgan & Company and other New York financial houses began lending money in such amounts that finance capital as a whole became entirely vested in a British victory.

Those opposing U.S. involvement in the “war to make the world safe for democracy” argued from the start that it was “a war for Wall Street;” “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” They knew the score.

January/February 2015, ATC 174