HIS122: United States History II
Dr. Noah Cincinnati
Unit 2 Primary Sources: The Rise and Fall of U.S. Internationalism
Background: By the dawn of the twentieth century, imperialism had shaped how
nations competed against one another and exploited vulnerable nations and colonies
for the better part of 150 years. But as industrialization, global commerce, and
technological innovation accelerated, there emerged a new generation of political
theorists and policymakers who embraced “internationalism.” As these theorists saw
it, modernity—that is, the notion of living in a new found modern state of existence—
demanded an evolution in how nations operated and interacted with one another.
Through a shared commitment to national self-determination, international laws and
associations, and the potential creation of international governing bodies,
internationalists hoped to build a new world system to discard imperial rivalries,
economic protectionism, and the threat of industrialized warfare. For these reformers,
their vision of the Earth was one of a “community of nations,” cooperating to solve
shared problems that transcended national borders. For U.S. internationalists, such as
President Woodrow Wilson, there was an unfettered optimism that the destiny of the
U.S. was to lead in the building of this new international system.
The outbreak of World War I posed a direct challenge to internationalism, but
also potentially its greatest opportunity. On the one hand, the war appeared the logical
and destructive culmination of global imperialism. But for internationalists on both
sides of the Atlantic, the war engendered a hope that out of its ashes, their new
international system could be born. By 1917, Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Congress
would lead the United States into this war, intervening in a European war for the first
time in the history of the nation. The following sources reveal the divisive politics of
U.S. war entry and internationalism, highlighting had different factions of Americans
either embraced, criticized, or outright rejected the new system that Wilson and his
like-minded allies sought to build. Ultimately, the end of the war fueled a pervasive
disillusionment with and rejection of U.S. internationalism. As nationalists—driven by
their own desire to reassert national sovereignty and wall off the U.S. from the world—
came back to power, the United States would embark on two-decade project to retreat
from world affairs. This retreat would not only include the U.S. surrendering any
potential global leadership, but it also included a growing American desire to
effectively end immigration to the United States. As nationalists argued to the
American people, the United States’ destiny was not to lead the world, but insulate
itself from it.
1. Bertha Von Suttner, “Nobel Peace Prize Lecture,” (1905).
The Austrian-born Bertha Von Suttner emerged as a moral force by the late nineteenth
century when she published a profoundly anti-militarism novel Lay Down Your Arms
(1889). Her experiences living among the religious and ethnically plural societies of
Central Europe and the frequent outbreak of war on the continent shaped her view that
human conflict was
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