Wilson and Foreign Affairs

Woodrow Wilson tended to regard himself as an expert in domestic matters and had no real experience in diplomacy. Nevertheless, world events would dictate the administration's agenda, not the president's preferences.

Wilson was not a great admirer of William Jennings Bryan, but felt indebted to him because of Bryan's support during the 1912 nominating convention. Wilson also recognized that Bryan remained a popular figure in some areas where Wilson himself lacked broad support. As a result, Bryan was rewarded with an appointment to head the Department of State.

The new secretary was an immediate target of the hostile Republican press, especially after he announced that intoxicating beverages would not be served at diplomatic functions. Bryan, an ardent prohibitionist, was accused of trying to conduct "grape juice diplomacy." He also came under criticism for continuing to accept fees for appearing on the Chatauqua lecture circuit, where he pressed his themes of prohibition and Biblical fundamentalism.

Wilsonian diplomacy began with an effort to avoid war through arbitration treaties, but it later encountered a series of complicating challenges in both hemispheres.

  • Bryan and the Cooling-Off Treaties. Secretary of State Bryan negotiated arbitration treaties with 30 nations in the hope of averting future wars.

  • Western Hemisphere. President Wilson wanted to distinguish himself from the bullying tactics of Theodore Roosevelt and the Dollar Diplomacy of William Howard Taft. Wilson believed that government funds should not be used to protect American business interests abroad. The president quickly learned, however, that it was difficult to remain loyal to ideals when the security of the nation was at stake.
    • Colombian Treaty Proposal (1914). Wilson attempted to embarrass the Republicans over Teddy Roosevelt's heavy-handed actions in the Panama revolution.
    • Bryan-Chamorro Treaty (1916). Wilson and Bryan somewhat reluctantly concluded a treaty with Nicaragua, engaging in Dollar Diplomacy to advance strategic interests.
    • Haiti and the [1981 Republic (1915-1916)]. Despite his earlier criticism of intervention in Latin America, Wilson fell into the same trap in two Caribbean nations.
    • Mexico. Political turmoil and endangered foreign investment caused tension between the United States and its southern neighbor. This situation quickly spiraled out of control and developed into an embarrassing series of crises.
      • Watchful Waiting. Wilson became embroiled in Mexican internal affairs by trying to encourage the implementation of a democratic regime in 1913.
      • The Tampico Incident. Relations became severely strained over an incident involving U.S. sailors onshore in Mexico.
      • Occupation of Vera Cruz. The U.S. seized the Mexican port of Vera Cruz in April 1914; lives were lost on both sides.
      • The ABC Conference. Outside nations offered mediation, providing the U.S. with a means to withdraw from a chaotic situation.
      • The Pancho Villa Interlude. Wilson's "watchful waiting" gave way to an invasion of Mexico because of the actions of a Mexican bandit.

    • Acquisition of the Virgin Islands (1917). The U.S. acquired these strategically located islands from Denmark in a cash transaction.

  • Far East
    • Chinese Railway Proposal (1913). Wilson reversed Taft's Dollar Diplomacy by withdrawing government support from a private project.
    • Japan and California. California legislature threatened U.S.-Japanese relations by placing limitations on land ownership by aliens.

  • Europe