Gamble – Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson and the Gospel of Service
Palm Beach Atlantic College
Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson
and the Gospel of Service
Paper presented to
The Philadelphia Society, April 21, 2001
Augustine’s City of
God identifies pride and humility as the founding principles of the City of
Man and the City of God.
Leaving no mystery as to the identity of the current embodiment of the
arrogant City of Man, Augustine quotes two significant lines from Virgil’s Aeneid.
The famous passage from Virgil’s epic concerns Rome’s perfection of
the “imperial arts” and its boast of its unique, divinely appointed mission
to “beat down the proud.”
Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil reinforces Rome’s
historical mission. Father Jupiter
himself had appointed Rome to found a universal, everlasting kingdom of peace,
justice, and righteousness, leading history to its final destination, a new Age
of Saturn in which the temple of war would be shut and law and order prevail
throughout the inhabited world.
In The City of God, however, Augustine seeks to undermine these
pretensions. Humbling the proud is
God’s prerogative, not Rome’s. It
is a mission that Rome has falsely “claimed as its own.”
Such grandiose aspirations made Rome nothing less than an impostor City
of God, a sham Eternal City, appropriating to itself the mission that belongs
exclusively to Christ’s kingdom, whose founder is not Aeneas but God himself.
To invest imperial Rome with the love and honor and worship due to God
alone is, in Augustine’s profound theological analysis, nothing less than
Rome, of course, has not
been the only nation to succumb to the idolatry of empire, nor is the idea of
national mission unique to its successor empires in the West.
Civilizations from the ancient world to the modern, whether European or
Asian or American, Christian and non-Christian alike, have possessed a
conviction of divine calling and destiny. Variations
on this impulse have been evident in cultures as diverse as Confucian China,
Hellenistic Greece, Augustan Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Romanov Russia, Victorian
Britain, and Wilsonian America. America’s
own idea of mission is an amalgam of Roman, Puritan, Enlightenment, Romantic
nationalist, social gospel, and modern imperialist elements, and the precise
sources of its images, symbols, metaphors, and vocabulary are therefore often
difficult to untangle. Moreover, it
has been shaped not only by its own historical experience, theological roots,
and political ideology, but also by the expectations of outsiders, like the
radicals of the French and English Enlightenment who projected their hopes for
universal redemption onto the emerging United States in the 1770s and 1780s.
To the mind of Richard Price, for example, the American Revolution ranked
second only to the incarnation of Christ and was perhaps “the most important
step in the progressive course of human improvement.”
America has wrestled throughout its history with a particularly robust
and complex sense of divine appointment and of “Manifest Destiny.”
From the holy community of New England Puritanism, to the exceptionalism
of the Founders, to the outward-directed millennial fervor of Abolitionists
during the Civil War, the American redemptive myth has been woven together out
of many strands. This habit of mind
has been examined by intellectual, literary, and diplomatic historians who have
traced an ongoing self-consciousness among Americans of being an Adam in a
“New Eden” or a covenantal people in a “New Israel.”
Combining Puritan, Enlightenment, and Romantic thought, persistent themes
of renewal and redemption, of covenantal duty, of deliverance from Europe and
the past, of America as the embodiment of an “idea” more than as a place or
a political community, have filled American literature and political discourse
from Colonial times to the present.
Woodrow Wilson inherited but also helped transform the American ideal of
mission and Manifest Destiny. He
was transfixed by the notion of a national mission, and variations on this theme
dominate his speeches. His sense of
divine calling has generally been attributed to his Puritan and Calvinist
upbringing, rich sources indeed for the idea of a chosen people and a national
But his speeches are also filled with ideas and language much
closer to Revolutionary France, to nineteenth-century Romantic nationalism, and
to the contemporary social gospel’s fusion of the spheres of church and state
and the realms of the City of God and City of Man.
There is in Wilson’s vision of destiny as much of Guiseppe
Mazzini’s millennial kingdom of world “association” as there is of John
Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.” Indeed,
while making his way to the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Wilson
stopped in Genoa, Italy, to pay tribute to the Italian nationalist and champion
of world “association.” Inspired
by the sight of a monument to Mazzini, Wilson remarked that he felt that he was
“taking some small part in accomplishing the realization of the ideals to
which his life and thought were devoted.”
When the mayor presented Wilson with a bound set of Mazzini’s works, he
acknowledged that he had “already derived guidance from the principles which
Mazzini so eloquently expressed.”
Armed with these principles, Wilson moved America away from thinking of
itself as simply a “New Eden” or a “New Israel” toward the Romantic,
Progressive, social-gospel ideal of America as the “Christ-Nation.”
To understand what difference this might make, it is important to
distinguish between mission on the one hand as simply a nation’s perception of
itself as superior to others and as having been singled out by destiny, or
history, or God for special blessing, and mission on the other hand an
outward-directed, salvific crusade, that leads a nation to conceive of itself as
“the instrument for the redemption of the world.”
In the first case, mission can actually look more to the past than to the
future; it can be conservative, guided by a sense of duty to preserve principles
and institutions, a conviction of being the guardian of a tradition.
It can also be outwardly benign toward its neighbors (although
domestically, of course, minority opinion or others on the “losing side” of
a nation’s history can suffer terribly).
Such a nation may even boast of national glory, and destiny, and
progress, and still not be willing to crusade to extend its mission beyond its
borders. Both the United States in
its first century as a nation (despite Manifest Destiny) and the Russian empire
for much of its history fit into this first category.
America was generally content to remain true to the wisdom of the
Founders and to pursue a non-ideological, non-interventionist foreign policy to
suit this conception of its place in the world, while Russia believed that it
had been called to preserve intact for the future the Roman and Christian legacy
of the Byzantine East
and the triple bequest of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Mother Russia.
It is possible for the second, outward-directed manifestation of mission
also to be restrained and benign under certain circumstance, namely, if a nation
believes it achieves its redemptive mission through example alone.
But more typically an “expansive” mission is predatory, universalist,
and even revolutionary. It fulfills
its mission by active engagement, by intervention, by outright conquest, or by
the forced spread of its ideology and institutions.
Historian Edward McNall Burns was correct to warn nearly
fifty years ago that “if a people already feel that they have been endowed by
God or by nature with talents surpassing those of their neighbors, they will
almost inevitably conclude that it is their destiny to redeem or to dominate
their inferior brethren.”
To be sure, such national hubris (or racism) can lead to an aggressive
foreign policy. But the key word in
Burns’s comment is
interventionist foreign policy is not the inevitable result of a nation’s
self-consciousness as a “New Eden” or “New Israel”; the habit of
interventionism does, however, follow necessarily from a nation’s
consciousness of being the messianic “Christ-Nation” anointed for world
From the Founding through the nineteenth century, the American people
wrestled with these two notions of mission, between the “New Eden” and the
“New Israel,” some would say, but really between both of these and the
As Burns summarized this tension in the American soul:
On the one hand, they have considered
themselves a peculiar people, separated by thousands of miles from the homeland
of their fathers, and hating the wicked and irrational ways of Europe.
In accordance with this line of thinking, the Old World has been
synonymous with oppression, tyranny, and crafty and cynical diplomacy.
On the other hand, Americans have conceived of their Republic as the
handmaid of Destiny, as a chosen nation with a mission to guide and instruct and
even to rule “savage and servile” peoples.
To accomplish such a mission it would be necessary for America to express
her sympathy with the victims of repression, to intervene to assist them, and
even to overthrow autocratic and militaristic regimes that stood as obstacles to
the spread of liberty and civilization.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the decision had largely been made
in favor of America as the “Christ-Nation.”
Imperialists like Josiah Strong, Albert J. Beveridge, Alfred Thayer
Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others combined themes of racial
superiority, civilizational duty, and social “uplift” into an
extraordinarily dynamic vision of national destiny.
Beveridge expected nothing less than “the regeneration of the world”
through American expansion.
Indeed, by the 1890s, according to historian Walter McDougall, the
world-redemptive mission of America had clearly triumphed over the older ideal
of American exceptionalism and neutrality.
As historian Anders Stephanson similarly concluded, Wilson’s intention
“to push the world along by means of regenerative
intervention” won out, at least for the time being, over American
separatism and non-interventionism.
It is this crusading mission that carried the U. S. into war in 1917.
On any topic in his public addresses, Wilson was remarkably consistent in
his use of themes, vocabulary, and metaphors, a sign either of a well-developed
rhetorical strategy or of a mind given easily to clichÈs and comfortable verbal
ruts. Because of this consistency
it is possible to trace the pattern and development of his ideas across the
eight years of his presidency. Words
like “service” and “selfishness” ñ key words in the Progressive
dictionary ñ appear frequently in his speeches, as do images of the theater
(play, stage, drama, actors), a gnostic fascination with the combat between
spirit and matter and with metaphors of light and dark, assembled with odds and
ends from the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress,
and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. Much
of this language and its intensity were not unique to Wilson, of course.
Beveridge could match or surpass anything Wilson put together, and
particular words and phrases like “international righteousness” were heard
as frequently from Teddy Roosevelt as from Wilson.
Wilson’s rhetoric is important not because of his originality as a
thinker but because of the way he combined themes, carried them consistently
through years of speech-making, and, above all, because of his position of
national leadership at a monumentally critical moment in American history.
He knew the power of language and obviously believed he could shape the
national consciousness through his rhetoric, helping to determine the way
Americans understood themselves, their enemies, and the meaning of world events.
While Wilson occasional used the actual terms “mission” and
“Manifest Destiny” in reference to America’s duty,
especially in reference to global democracy, he most commonly spoke of
America’s “service” to the world. “Service”
could easily appear half a dozen times in just a few paragraphs of one of
Wilson’s speeches. He could
infuse the most mundane topics with transcendent significance.
In a single speech on the tariff in 1913, for example, Wilson managed in
the space of a few paragraphs to mention “common service,” “great
service,” and “service to the utmost.”
This kind of repetition held true before, during, and after the war.
His ideal of service often advocated government ministering domestically
to the needs of its people, but even then he tied the ideal to the needs of an
abstract “humanity.” In his
First Inaugural (March 4, 1913) ñ one of his more lucid speeches ñ he
referred eloquently to the need for government to be “put at the service of
humanity” to achieve social justice.
But more often, and more significantly for the role of the United States
in world affairs, the constant appeal to the gospel of “service” was a way
of imagining America as a friend drawing up alongside helpless peoples and
ministering to their needs ñ an international Good Samaritan with all the
world for a neighbor.
Wilson’s expansive vision of world service was evident in his speeches
long before the United States entered the Great War in 1917 and well before most
Americans knew where Sarajevo was on the map or who the heir to the Austrian
throne could possibly be. At a
memorial service in May 1914 for U.S. marines killed in military action at
Veracruz, the President explained in a speech brimming with the language of
“duty” and “service” and “self-sacrifice,” that Americans “have
gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find out the way.
We do not want to fight the Mexicans.
We want to serve the Mexicans if we can. . . .”
Wilson envisioned the United States as a “friend” coming to aid its
neighbor in time of need, and reassured his audience that “a war of service is
a thing in which it is a proud thing to die.”
The next month he told a crowd assembled for the unveiling of the
Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that he envisioned a pure,
united nation, willing to “stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of
mankind in the future and to show the paths of freedom to all the world.”
The American flag itself, he said a few days later, stands for “the
right of one nation to serve the other nations of the world.”
It was an easy step from this manifestation of the ideal of service to
military intervention in the name of that benevolent service; indeed, it soon
became clear that for Wilson, service was the handiest explanation for war and
Once war came to Europe in the summer of 1914, Wilson continued to look
forward to the day of America’s opportunity for world service and the
realization of America’s destiny, even while he professed neutrality.
The sincerity of Wilson’s neutrality has been questioned in light of
the United States’ heavy financial, material, and diplomatic aid to Britain
and France from 1914 onward, but even in his promises of neutrality Wilson
talked expectantly of a special kind of American intervention.
While pledging official U.S. neutrality in August 1914 (and asking the
American people to remain “impartial in thought as well as in action”),
Wilson presented the image of a nation holding itself not aloof, but in reserve,
“as a friend” ready to help; in the meantime America had to keep “itself
fit and free to do what is honest and disinterested and truly serviceable for
the peace of the world.”
Similarly, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s renomination in 1916,
he reminded his enthusiastic audience that the United States was neutral not so
much on behalf of its own safety but in order to “seek to serve mankind by
reserving our strength and our resources” for the recovery of peace once the
war was over. And in this
same speech, the candidate who would soon be campaigning on the slogan “He
Kept Us Out of War” warned that continued neutrality was impossible when the
peace of the world was at stake.
“We are to play a leading part in the world drama whether
we wish it or not,” he concluded.
For Wilson, even neutrality had to be defined in terms of American
mission; neutrality could not be defined in such a way as to deny America its
role on the world stage.
Wilson made the impossibility of the nation refraining from service even
clearer in his speeches as he moved America toward intervention early in his
second term. In his famous “Peace
Without Victory” speech of January 22, 1917 ñ delivered more than a week
before Germany announced resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare ñ he
told the U.S. Senate that he could not imagine “that the people of the United
States should play no part in the great enterprise” of laying the foundations
of peace. “They cannot in honor
withhold the service to which they are now about to be challenged” ñ a
service he defined as helping “to guarantee peace and justice throughout the
Honor did not mean protecting American lives and property as much as it
did serving others; service had to be rendered once the opportunity presented
itself. The Christ-Nation could not
refrain. In his Second Inaugural
Address (March 5, 1917) he rounded out this logic by claiming that “we have
always professed unselfish purpose and we covet the opportunity to prove that
our professions are sincere.”
Active service to the world would prove American sincerity and
Wilson’s sentimental ideal of service shaped his attitude toward war
and peace in yet another important way. Service
enabled America to go to war without a trace of self-centeredness, as a
“disinterested” associate simply performing its duty, unmotivated by
material interests. In his War
Message (April 2, 1917) he vowed that America had “no selfish end to serve,”
fought “without rancour and without selfish object,” and acted “without
animus,” without “enmity,” and as “the sincere friend of the German
In June 1917, two months after the American declaration of war, Wilson
explained his creed to a group of Presbyterian ministers: “I believe if ever a
nation purged its heart of improper motives in a war, this nation has purged its
heart. . . .”
In presenting the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate in 1919, moreover,
he once again claimed (perhaps protesting too much) that America acted for “no
private or peculiar interest of her own,” as “disinterested friends” and
Although a combatant, the United States achieved in Wilson’s
imagination a unique and exalted status in the whole sordid history of rivalry
among empires and nations. Because
of its mission of selfless devotion and service to others, America would not be
motivated primarily by fear, or interests, or even so much by honor ñ all the
timeless reasons for war as articulated by Thucydides and Hobbes.
Not safety just for one’s own, but security for everyone.
Not glory, but redemption of others.
Not self-interest, but service. With
Wilson’s guidance, America had transcended the past and human nature and
reasons of state. Even after the
war, after the golden moment of fulfillment for American service to humanity,
Wilson explained that he and all Americans desired “to lift [this great
nation] to yet higher levels of service and achievement.”
The quest was never-ending.
Nearly as important as the ideal of service to Wilson’s conception of
national mission was his interpretation (or re-interpretation) of American
history, especially the Founding, the Civil War, and, in general, the
transcendent “meaning” of America in the unfolding of the divine plan.
The fact that America’s mission was written into history by the hand of
Providence and could be plainly read in its national history meant for Wilson
and many of his generation that America was accountable to obey the revelation
of history. As Anders Stephanson
concluded, Wilson believed that “certain individuals and nations are bound to
lead because they have been privy to, or are embodiments of, the deeper
providential purposes of history.”
Wilson took great care in his speeches to present a particular version of
the American past, one that was useful in explaining why America had to be the
servant of all humanity, why it had to purge itself of all base motives, why
America had to enter the European war, and why it had to participate in the
League of Nations.
There is an interesting parallel here between Wilson’s attempt in
wartime to shape the American people’s understanding of the meaning of their
past and Abraham Lincoln’s similar efforts during the Civil War.
Each man tried to explain the significance of the present moment ñ and
to rationalize war ñ in light of his reading of the intention of the Founders
and of the universal applicability of the Declaration of Independence,
specifically that the American bid for independence was somehow tied up with the
destiny of all humanity from that point forward.
Wilson, typical of the Progressives, often quoted Lincoln, and, whether
consciously or not, picked up vocabulary and metaphors from his predecessor’s
speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. Both Wilson and Lincoln hitched the
Founding to the star of a powerful national telos.
Wilson was a professionally-trained academic (with a Ph.D. from Johns
Hopkins), and had published respected books on American history, government, and
He was no amateur in his handling of history; he knew what he
Consistently during his presidency Wilson developed the idea that America
had been born to perfect and universalize ideals of freedom, democracy,
self-government, and love of neighbor. In
an address to members of the Federal Council of Churches in 1915, he explained
America’s raison d’etre:
“[America’s] object in the world, its only reason for existence as a
government, was to show men the paths of liberty and of mutual serviceability,
to lift the common man out of the paths, out of the slough of discouragement and
even despair. . . .”
To be sure, America as example to the world, as the beacon of liberty, is
a mission the Founders themselves embraced, but Wilson made it clear that he
favored the active, interventionist, humanitarian role for America that had
triumphed in the 1890s. In the
closing paragraph of his War Message (in which he promised not only to “make
the world safe for democracy” but also to make “the world itself at last
free”) he drew inspiration from the famous pledge at the end of the
Declaration of Independence, as if to say that Americans once again “dedicate
our lives and our fortunes” for the sake of liberty.
That war for liberty had not ended at Yorktown in 1781.
Once again in her history “America is privileged to spend her blood and
her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace
which she has treasured.”
In his Thanksgiving proclamation for 1917, Wilson welcomed the
“opportunity to serve mankind” that the war had brought by now spreading
worldwide the earlier American triumph over a conspiratorial tyranny in “the
great day of our Declaration of Independence” (careful, of course, not to
mention the allied British Empire by name as the guilty tyrant).
America had achieved a victory for liberty “by taking up arms against a
tyranny that threatened to master and debase men everywhere and joining with
other free peoples in demanding for all the nations of the world what we then
demanded and obtained for ourselves. In
this day of the revelation of our duty not only to defend our own rights as a
nation but to defend also the rights of free men throughout the world, there has
been vouchsafed us in full and inspiring measure the resolution and spirit of
Consistent with the mission to serve, this war was not primarily an
action undertaken for American rights, or interests, or security (although
Wilson mentioned Germany’s very tangible threats to all of these), but
ultimately for principles, for founding propositions, in the same way that for
Lincoln at Gettysburg the Civil War was really the test of the founding
proposition of equality. And Wilson
and Lincoln both filtered the meaning of current history through their reading
of the Declaration of Independence. Wilson’s
interpretation of the meaning of the American founding helped transform the
United States into a permanently revolutionary nation, dedicated to the
fulfillment of universalized abstractions on behalf of others, whatever the cost
in blood and wealth. In his
enthusiasm for this version of the past, he even claimed at one Fourth of July
oration that Britain herself now recognized that the American Revolution had
brought liberty to her own citizens. And
at last that process culminated in “the spread of this revolt, this
liberation, to the great stage of the world itself!”
The United States in 1918 was leading a world revolution against the
Past, the very thing it was founded to do, according to Wilson.
Wilson did not stop with the Founding, however; he also carefully wove
the Civil War into his understanding of American history as the progressive
revelation of world redemption. He
believed, he told a group of Confederate veterans in 1917, that the true purpose
and meaning of the Union victory in the Civil War had to be read in the light of
subsequent history. America had
been providentially preserved for a knowable purpose: “We now at last see why
this great nation was kept united, for we are beginning to see the great world
purpose which it was meant to serve.” The
United States had preserved its own liberty and was now “an instrument in the
hands of God to see that liberty is made secure for mankind.”
Wilson, who habitually reversed the logic and sequence of cause and
effect in history, derived the real meaning of the past from the present, of the
Civil War from the later Great War: “We did not know that God was working out
in His own way the method by which we should best serve human freedom ñ by
making this nation a great, united, indivisible, indestructible instrument in
His hands for the accomplishment of these great things.”
American history was a clear and seamless revelation to Wilson, the
meaning of the Old Testament waiting to be read in the New.
In short, it seems that for Wilson American history and its principles
and even its symbols belonged to all humanity.
To think otherwise would have been for Wilson the epitome of national
selfishness, an unspeakable crime to the humanitarian internationalists of the
Progressive Era. In a remarkable
speech given before the outbreak of the European war in the summer of
1914, Wilson stood in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on the Fourth
of July and claimed that since the United States was the champion of “the
rights of humanity” then its “flag is the flag, not only of America, but of
He divorced the symbolism of the flag’s colors and stars and strips
from their historical meaning and reinvented the banner as a universal symbol
for the freedom of all mankind ñ an audacious claim of boundless national
It is arguable that Wilson’s conception of American mission was so
expansive that it prevented him from seeing the proper limits of American
involvement abroad. He spoke often,
either directly or indirectly, of there being no price too great in lives and
resources for the sake of service to humanity.
By themselves, these statements are not particularly striking, but taken
together as an indication of a habit of mind, they are alarming.
In 1915 he defined patriotism as a citizen living for the common good
even “though it be to the point of utter sacrifice of himself and everything
that is involved.”
Again, in his War Message, he pledged “the whole force of the Nation”
to defeat Germany.
Later in 1917, he promised a limitless vindication of service over
selfishness: “Now we are going to lay all our wealth, if necessary, and spend
all our blood, if need be, to show that we were not accumulating that wealth
selfishly but were accumulating it for the service of mankind.”
In a subsequent speech explaining the significance of the Fourteen Points
peace plan, he claimed that the American people “are ready to devote their
lives, their honor, and everything that they possess” to the enduring
principles of universal justice.
When, a few months later, Bolshevik Russia withdrew from the war as an
Allied power, closing down the Eastern Front and strengthening Germany’s
strategic position, Wilson vowed “Force, Force to the utmost, Force without
stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the
law of the world, and cast every selfish dominion in the dust.”
Wilson was evidently willing to expend unlimited time, resources and
lives to achieve the American mission, but he did not stop there.
He also defined unlimited goals for the war.
This was no ordinary war, according to Wilson; it was the last war, the
fulfillment of history, “the culminating and final war for human liberty.”
A war fought without boundaries of time and space, fought against every
foe to liberty, everywhere necessary. The
war would end not through limiting objectives, not through negotiation or
compromise or stalemate, but in final victory and permanent peace.
Wilson would not stop short of that goal, he informed the Pope in the
summer of 1917 in reply to the Vatican’s proposal for a negotiated settlement.
If the final solution to imperial ambition and militarism were not found
now, he averred, then the democratic nations would have to fight an even greater
war of redemption in the future.
Similarly, if the League of Nations failed, he warned the Senate in 1919,
then “there must be another and a final war and the world must be swept clean
of every power that could renew the terror.”
The final, apocalyptic confrontation was sure to come, and it was up to
the free peoples of the world to decide if the Great War had been the final
conflict, the final resolution of the world-historical struggle between freedom
and autocracy. If this really was
America’s mission, then logically, morally, there could be no compromise.
Departing from the Founders’ idea of mission, Wilson perpetuated the
messianic impulse of Romantic nationalism evident first in the radical phase of
the French Revolution and then in Poland, Italy, and Germany in the nineteenth
century. He dedicated American
foreign policy to the moralizing, redemptive “uplift” of humanity.
His presidency, therefore, clearly marks a turning point in U.S. history.
As Robert Nisbet wrote, “Ever since Wilson, with only rarest
exceptions, American foreign policy has been tuned not to national interests but
to national morality.” “Wilson
above any other figure,” Nisbet continued, “is the patriarch of American
foreign policy moralism and interventionism.”
Under Wilson, America lost its will to restrain the redemptive,
interventionist impulse to be the “Christ-Nation.”
That deliberative will and self-restraint had been impaired by the
crusading of the 1890s, but was destroyed by the Wilsonian gospel of service.
In the 1930s, historian Albert Weinberg cut through Wilson’s
“humanitarian imperialism” and “ethical interventionism” to see the
danger he posed to any sense of limits in foreign policy.
Thinking primarily of Wilson’s intervention in Latin
America and the Caribbean, Weinberg wrote that
The most radical imperialist . . . is
apt to be the one most devoted to liberty.
His exalted moral consciousness may destroy conscience itself in the
sense that it removes all sense of
limitations upon the means of attaining an ideal.
Imperialism is even less troubling to the ethical interventionist than to
the ethical expansionist, the former being reassured by the assumption that his
infringement of sovereignty is but a temporary inconsistency which will
eventuate in greater democracy.
Despite this tendency, some of the best-known studies of the idea of
mission in American history fail to see an outward-directed mission as
dangerous. Edward McNall Burns’s
Cold War-era treatment of mission in American history, while critical of the
uses made of American mission, does not see it as inherently dangerous; rather,
it needed only to be channeled intelligently, humanely, and productively.
The impulse to spread “liberty, equality, democracy, and peace” to
humanity was still valid and appropriate in the 1950s.
But while Burns called for America to lead the way to humanitarian
internationalism, he was enough of a realist to recognize that
“internationalism in this country has commonly taken the form of
Frederick Merk, writing soon after Burns and drawing on his work,
distinguished between Manifest Destiny and mission, seeing Manifest Destiny as
the spirit of conquest, while mission was alien to imperialism and simply the
impulse “to redeem the Old World by high example.”
He rightly interpreted mission as helping to propel Congress toward
intervention in 1917, but saw the spirit of intervention as consistent with an
inspiring, idealistic, and selfless mission in contrast to the crude grasping of
But this distinction is too tidy. As
Lee Tuveson correctly pointed out, mission is a complex and self-contradictory
idea, and it was often linked in the American mind with continental expansion
and imperialism. Tuveson discerned two competing expressions of American
mission: the vision of America as a “New Eden” destined to lead the world by
example and of America as a militant, millennialist “New Israel” destined to
build a kingdom through righteous conquest.
This distinction is helpful, but even the phrase “New Israel” does
not capture the shift in America’s self-understanding after the 1890s that
came with overseas empire and was then solidified with intervention in World War
I, namely, the Messianic vision of America as the “Christ-Nation.”
In the spirit of Romantic nationalists like Mazzini, who sacralized the
modern nation-state by transferring to it the whole vocabulary of the Church and
redemption, Wilson reassigned the divine attributes of Christ to the American
nation: the U.S. was the Mediator, the light of the world, the peacemaker, the
bringer of salvation.
Historian Walter McDougall, while not using the term “Christ-Nation,”
perceptively divided the history of American foreign policy into an “Old
Testament” of prudent exceptionalism and self-restraint and a “New
Testament” of ideological interventionism and missionary zeal.
America’s leaders embraced a crusading foreign policy in 1898,
“whereupon they began to draft a New Testament that did admonish Americans to
go forth and do good among nations.”
It is quite possible that this “New Testament” redemptive mission,
evident in many nations prior to 1914, helped prepare the imagination of the
West for total war.
No one can reasonably deny that modern industrial technology
made possible the scale of destruction and of the loss of life in the First
World War. What must also be
understood, however, is how the great powers, including the United States, had
the capacity of will to use this technology against each other.
An ungoverned sense of mission may be part of the explanation
for this unbridled willingness. At
the deepest spiritual level, mission may help account for the magnitude of the
Great War. At the very least, it is
the key to the spiritual core of the war. The
pervasive sense of mission in Europe and America may have intensified and
protracted the Great War. As an
abstract, Manichean conflict between Good and Evil, light and dark, redemption
and perdition, the Great War fed on each combatant’s exaggerated national
self-image, twisted caricature of the enemy, inflated meaning of the war, and
unlimited promises for the outcome of the battle.
A comprehensive comparative analysis of the idea of mission in the
century leading up to the First World War is needed to understand the extent to
which mission helped cause the war, or, more likely, helped intensify the war.
All of these competing missions seem to have been to greater or less
degree a distortion, secularization, or, in Wilson’s case, a gnostic
hyper-spiritualization of the authentic Christian mission, the evangelical duty
to advance the Kingdom of God. But
it may turn out that the “doctrinal” content of these various competing
national creeds was less important than the fact of the existence of competing
missions in the first place, that is, of the breakup of mission (whether ancient
Roman or Christian or both) into rival missions.
It may matter less what each of the great powers believed or said it was
doing than the fact that each nation was, in Irving Babbitt’s phrase,
“living expansively,” without restraint on appetite ñ “beautiful
souls” locked in mortal combat to realize their separate missions of world
mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Sixteen
hundred years ago, St. Augustine warned against the inherent idolatry of empire.
To assign to one’s earthly nation the mission that by right belongs
only to the Kingdom of Christ is to be guilty of the worst of disordered loves.
every nation is Rome, then every opponent is Carthage awaiting destruction, and
every battle a heroic campaign to destroy the last impediment to imperial
destiny. If every nation is the
Church, then every opponent is a heretic or infidel, and every engagement a
crusade for orthodoxy or for the liberation of the Holy Land.
If every nation is the City of God, the New Jerusalem come
down out of heaven, then every enemy is the Babylonian whore, and every victory
a defeat for the City of Man. If
every great power is the “Christ-nation,” then every adversary is Satan, and
every battle Armageddon. Under
these conditions, no limit, no compromise, no negotiation is possible.
Each nation obeys its own Great Commission to go into all the world and
preach its gospel and to make disciples of every nation ñ even if it means
baptizing them in blood.
Woodrow Wilson mentally
inhabited an impossible place and tried to wage war to achieve an impossible
peace for that impossible place. He
sought finality, perfect resolution, permanence and universality in a temporal
world of conflict, disappointment, transience, and boundaries.
He sought to redeem the world by universalizing American principles of
consent of the governed, self-determination, and democracy.
Since Wilson’s time, the American mission has become in some ways even
more abstract, attenuated, vague, and secularized.
Now we are told that America is an “idea” ñ as if that
fragment of mission alone can explain and justify any military action around the
globe. But is there an idea of
mission that is not idolatrous or that is not the product of a diseased
imagination? If so, then this is
the only kind of mission worth salvaging and reviving.
Perhaps that mission is the more modest hope of the Founders
that America would serve as an example of successful self-government, prospering
under the rule of law, protected by a Constitutional regime of limited and
defined powers, skeptical of the “lovers of humanity,” and unembarrassed by
a foreign policy based on national interests.
Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, translated
by Henry Bettenson and introduced by John O’Meara (New York: Penguin,
The Aeneid, translated by Robert
Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Classics, 1983), passim.
Augustine, City of God, 5.
Jack P. Green, ed., Colonies to Nation: A Documentary History of the
American Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 424.
the history of the companion ideas of Manifest Destiny and mission see
Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny:
A Study of National Expansionism in American History (Chicago:
Quadrangle Books, 1963); Edward McNall Burns, The
American Idea of Mission: Concepts of National Purpose and Destiny (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957); Frederick Merk,
normal”>Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation
(New York: Vintage Books, 1966); Ernest Lee Tuveson,
normal”>Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1968); Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s
New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971); Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt, The Myth
of the West: America As the Last Empire, translated by Herbert H. Rowen
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995); Anders Stephanson, Manifest
Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1995); Walter A. McDougall, Promised
Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). On
literary themes see David W. Noble, The
Eternal Adam and the New World Garden: The Central Myth in the American
Novel Since 1830 (New York: George Braziller, 1968).
On the redemptive rhetoric and imagery of the Civil War, see James H.
Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War,
1860-1869 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978) and Charles
Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall
Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), especially
chapter 6, “The Vicarious War.”
“Remarks about Guiseppe Mazzini” and “Further Remarks in Genoa,” 5
January 1919, PWW, 53: 614, 615.
The American Idea of Mission, 4.
Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, 134-135.
The American Idea of Mission, 187.
The American Idea of Mission, 256.
any number of Beveridge’s speeches, but especially “The March of the
Flag” (available in several anthologies) and “The Star of Empire,” in
Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel,
Promised Land, Crusader State,
Stephanson, Manifest Destiny,
used both words in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1920.
Arthur S. Link, et al., eds. The
Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1966-1993), 66: 485. Hereafter
cited as PWW.
Address on Tariff Reform to a Joint Session of Congress,” 8 April 1913, PWW, 27:
“The First Inaugural Address,” 4 March 1913, PWW, 27: 150.
at Brooklyn Navy Yard,” 11 May 1914, PWW, 30: 14.
at Arlington,” 4 June 1914, PWW,
Day Speech,” 15 June 1914, PWW,
Neutrality ñ An Appeal By the President,” 19 August 1914, John Randolph
Bolling, et al., eds., Chronology of
Woodrow Wilson (New York:
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927), 191-192.
Speech in Long Branch, New Jersey, Accepting the Presidential Nomination,”
2 September 1916, PWW, 38: 132,
in Richard Hofstadter and Beatrice K. Hofstadter, eds.
Great Issues in American
History: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1981 (New York:
Vintage Books, 1982), 198-203.
Second Inaugural Address,” 5 March 1917, PWW,
Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” 2 April 1917, PWW, 41:525,
reply to a delegation from the PCUSA, 19 June 1917, PWW, 42: 537.
Address to the Senate,” 10 July 1919, PWW, 61: 435 and passim.
his History of the Peloponnesian Wars,
Thucydides identified honor, fear, and interests as the key causes of
imperial rivalry, and Hobbes, who had translated Thucydides, wrote in Leviathan
that states went to war for the sake of glory, safety, and competition.
It is interesting to note that in Thucydides’ account of the Melian
Dialogue the Athenians claim that they are subduing the people of Melos for
their (the Melians’) benefit, a hint that Thucydides well understood the
possibility of a democracy waging a war of service.
Address to the Senate,” 10 July 1919, PWW,
December 1915, PWW, 35: 335.
Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” 2 April 1917, PWW,
November 1917, PWW, 44: 525.
at Mt. Vernon,” 4 July 1918, PWW,
to Confederate Veterans in Washington,” 5 June 1917,
normal”>PWW, 42: 452-453.
to the Gridiron Club,” 11 December 1915, PWW,
Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” 2 April 1917, PWW, 41:525.
to Confederate Veterans,” 5 June 1917, PWW,
Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” 8 January 1918, PWW, 45:
in McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader
Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” 8 January 1918, PWW, 45:
to the Pope’s Peace Proposal,” 27 August 1917,
normal”>PWW, 44: 57-59.
Address to the Senate,” 10 July 1919, PWW,
normal”>The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (New York:
Harper & Row/Perennial, 1989), 29, 30.
Manifest Destiny, 437. Emphasis
The American Idea of Mission, 268,
359-360. Writing in the 1950s,
Burns believed that “purged of its dross of conceit and illusion, the
mission of America remains one of the noblest expressions of idealism that
any nations has embraced. What
it needs most of all is more wisdom and tolerance in carrying it out” (p.
Manifest Destiny and Mission in
American History, 3, 262-263, 265-266.
Redeemer Nation, 131.
Stephanson, Manifest Destiny, 117.
Promised Land, Crusader State, 11,