Woodrow Wilson and the First World War

Portrait of Woodrow Wilson, head torso and tie
Woodrow Wilson / John Christian Johansen / Oil on canvas, c. 1919 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of an anonymous donor, 1926

By Lauren Holt, Intern, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Elected in 1912, Woodrow Wilson came into office in 1913 with what many considered a neutral stance on foreign matters. It was Wilson’s goal to keep America completely out of World War I, which began in 1914—and have the country serve as a peacemaker to other nations. However, his efforts were largely unsuccessful; many countries failed to take seriously any of Wilson’s offers to be a mediator.

Wilson did not have a great deal of experience dealing in foreign affairs, as he had begun his political career in New Jersey. As governor of that state, Wilson focused on domestic issues like election laws and Workmen’s Compensation. After he gained popularity, he was nominated for the presidency and won a majority of the electoral votes with a platform focusing on individualism, states’ rights, and neutrality. Wilson went on to win a second term in office with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

His neutral stance and lack of involvement in foreign matters have been attributed to his religious upbringing and academic background. A devout Christian, Wilson did not believe God was calling him to enter World War I, so he attempted to keep the United States out of the conflict. His academic side also heavily influenced his political views and decisions; in his studies of politics, he focused heavily on the idea of power. Though experience with international matters is now of great importance, it was not always so. When Wilson entered office, foreign affairs expertise was not considered a prerequisite. Just before his first inauguration, Wilson said, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Unfortunately, with World War I was on the horizon, Wilson was thrust onto the world’s political stage.

Fighting broke out in Europe in August 1914 after Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August, Germany, Russia, and France were all involved in the conflict. Responding to the American public who had elected him, Wilson thought it was important to retain “neutrality,” because almost one out of every seven Americans had been born in one of the warring countries. Wilson said, “Neutrality is a negative word. It does not express what America ought to feel. We are not trying to keep out of trouble; we are trying to preserve the foundations on which peace may be rebuilt.” However, in 1917 America was forced to become involved after continued German submarine attacks, and Wilson offered assistance to the Allied forces. The war continued until November 1918. Although the United States only entered the war at the end, the country’s involvement is often considered a turning point that led to an Allied victory.

Portrait of Woodrow Wilson, sitting with pen in hand
Woodrow Wilson / Edmund Charles Tarbell / Oil on canvas, 1920-1921 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of the City of New York through the National Art Committee, 1923




American President: Woodrow Wilson: Foreign Affairs. University of Virginia, January 1, 2014 

John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). 

August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson. (New York: Scribner, 1991).

 “Woodrow Wilson.” The White House. The White House, 2006, http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/woodrowwilson

“Woodrow Wilson.” Woodrow Wilson. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/travpres/woods.htm.

Robert H. Zieger, America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).