The Monroe Doctrine for the World

By Herbert Adams Gibbons

[The Century Magazine, May 1917]

"No peace can last or ought to last which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from potentate to potentate as if they were property…. Henceforth inviolable security of life, of worship, and of industrial and social development should be guaranteed to all peoples who have lived hitherto under the power of governments devoted to a faith and purpose hostile to their own.... I am proposing that the nations should with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world: that no nation should seek to extend polity over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful.... I am proposing government by the consent of the governed…. These are American principles, American policies. We could stand for no others.... They are the principles of mankind, and must prevail."—President Wilson to the American Senate, January 22, 1917.

Except in socialist and extreme liberal and radical circles, whose official newspapers reflect the opinion of minority parties, the message of President Wilson to the American Senate was received with coldness and reserve in all the belligerent countries. There was little difference in the editorial comment of London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Petrograd, and Constantinople. Unfortunately, the diplomacy of the European powers has refused during the present war to cut loose from the traditional foreign policy of the nineteenth century. It is impossible for any of the belligerent powers to agree offhand to follow the path of peace and justice unequivocally set forth by the President of the United States. Adherence to the principles that President Wilson quite rightly calls American policies would mean the end of European imperialism and the abandonment of the doctrine of European "eminent domain."

Europe has made no effort to combat the logic of President Wilson's conditions of a durable peace. I have searched in vain for an editorial or an article or a speech taking up in detail the points of the Presidential message to the Senate, contesting the facts or the line of argument, and endeavoring to show where and how Mr. Wilson is wrong. The criticisms of the message have either evaded the issues altogether and discussed irrelevant matters, or have been born of blind passion and sentimental hysteria. Nowhere in Europe does one find a disposition to consider any other peace than tht imposed by force for the benefit of the victorious group of belligerents. In every belligerent country, including even Turkey, I know personally men of the highest standing and authority who think exactly as President Wilson thinks; but with the single exception of Signer Giolitti, former premier of Italy, not a statesman who played a part in the diplomacy of the decade preceding the present war has the moral courage to approve President Wilson's conditions for a durable peace.

The American President and the American people have not had a good press in Europe since August, 1914. American neutrality has been persistently misunderstood and bitterly resented. There has been a tendency to consider the people of the United States oblivious to moral issues, bent on money-making, and divided into unassimilated groups according to their European origin. Much of the misunderstanding of America can be traced to Americans resident abroad, who have not hesitated to speak ex cathedra about matters of American social and political life, of which they had limited and imperfect, if any, knowledge. During the last two years I have talked with Americans in London, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Paris who told me that they were ashamed of their native country for exactly opposite reasons. According to the place in which they lived, these Americans thought that President Wilson had dishonored the American flag and denied the traditions of American history by not declaring war against Great Britain or Germany. Few of them, knew anything about either the underlying causes of the European War or the history and social and political development of the American commonwealth.

President Wilson's message of January 22, 1917, is the embodiment of American idealism. This idealism is not to be sneered at and ridiculed. When President Wilson sets forth the fundamental conditions of a durable peace, declaring that "these are American principles, American policies," and warns the world that the United States "could stand for no others," his meaning is perfectly plain. The weight and influence of America in the peace conference will be thrown into the balance on every question that is brought up to secure "government by the consent of the governed." The entry of the United States into the war should not mean that American principles and American policies are in any way modified. Long before deliberate provocation made necessary a break with Germany Americans had passed judgment upon Germany's methods of submarine warfare. Belligerency cannot destroy the persistent idealism of the American vision of world peace. It enhances, on the other hand, the significance of that idealism by testing its sincerity. Active participation in the war should not entail the blindness of Old-World traditional prejudices and Old-World racial passions. We are not entangled in the meshes of Old-World diplomacy. We are not bound by secret agreements, entered into without the knowledge of the nation. We have no world empire to retain and increase.

The United States is European civilization transplanted and developed by Europeans. The process has been different from that of any other American state. Canada remained in the political system of a European power. Immigrants to Canada either retained their Old-World allegiance or were compelled to transfer their allegiance from one Old-World government to another.* [* Canadians are not allowed to forget the British North American Act. After writing the above lines, I read that the Supreme Court had just declared unconstitutional the direct legislation law passed by the Manitoba Legislature The five judges were unanimous in holding that direct legislation was unconstitutional, since it was contrary to the British North American Act. One of the judges remarked in his written opinion: "The public are not sovereign in this country. In the United States the people are sovereign, but we get our sovereign power from England."]. In Central and South America the-stock for three hundred years was mingled with native blood or remained so distinctively Latin that the later European immigration has not been assimilated. The United States is the only country in the world in which all the European races have succeeded in fusing into a new nation.

When one considers how the American nation has been formed, and is still being formed, he realizes the absurdity of criticisms in connection with our attitude toward the European War, hastily made by publicists who know nothing of American history and American life, and taken up and glibly repeated by the unthinking. The outstanding criticisms are: the United States is not a nation, but a collection of unassimilated European groups; Americans cannot understand the issues at stake in Europe.

Alarmists talk of unassimilated immigrant groups in the United States who are not "genuine Americans" and who cannot feel like "genuine Americans." They believe that large immigration to America other than Anglo-Saxon is a phenomenon of the last generation or two. But this is not borne out by the facts. In proportion to the total number of inhabitants of the United States, the immigration from continental Europe has always been large. It was large even in colonial days. At no time in our national history has this continental immigration proved difficult or slow of assimilation. Nor has it ever succeeded in forming colonies with political attachment to a European motherland. I have not ceased since the beginning of the war to protest against the unfounded and cruelly unjust German-American scare. From the Revolutionary War down to the present time the United States has never had any reason to question the loyalty of the German-American element. Americans of German stock are just as good Americans as those of any other stock. We may not be able to make Americans of the first generation of our immigrants unless they come to us in childhood, but we never fail to cast the second generation in the American mold. Our schools and early environment are irresistible influences of assimilation. Even in some of our large cities, where first generation immigrants have tried to transplant the Old World, the second generation proves refractory to what it instinctively feels are exotic institutions.

By the last American census, thirteen million Americans were of foreign birth, and nineteen other millions were born of foreign parents. An additional five millions have gone from Europe to America since the census of 1910, and the foreign born already in the United States have been more prolific than the native born. Is it to be presumed that this large portion of our population has not brought to America a keen, intimate, personal knowledge of the ills from which Europe is suffering? Do not our American Poles, Irish, Germans, Bohemians, and Jews know what political and religious persecution means? Do not our immigrants hold in detestation racial antagonisms and the crushing taxation due to the maintenance and increase of armies and navies? Is it forgotten that the foreign elements of the American electorate, inspired by their own bitter experience in Europe, were solidly opposed to the wave of imperialism that threatened to carry the United States into the maelstrom of international colonial rivalry after the war with Spain? The marvelous growth of America during the last two generations is largely due to the desire of Europeans to get away from compulsory military service, and from the financial, economic, and political handicaps of a continent continually disturbed by international rivalries.* [* The criticism that the American attitude is because of ignorance through distance has as sponsor Premier Lloyd-George, who in a recent Abraham Lincoln's birthday message to "The New York Times" said: "It has been difficult for a nation separated from Europe by an ocean and without political relations with the European peoples to grasp the true significance of this war," etc. Mr. Lloyd-George is one of the most insular of Englishmen, who knows as little about the United States as he knows about the nations of continental Europe. Not more than ten per cent, of the population of the British Isles has any connection with Europe, and the connection of that ten per cent, is extremely slight. Forty per cent, of the people in the United States have an intimate connection with Europe from the Ural Mountains to the North Sea.]. Our immigrants were not driven to America because of inability to hold their own in Europe, and because they felt that transplantation would bring a change of luck. Since 1848, just as in the two preceding centuries, the Europeans who emigrated to America have been the enterprising elements, clear-headed and full of spirit, who dared to cut loose from the past and venture everything in order to win religious and political freedom and better economic conditions.

The nineteenth-century immigrants met their colonial predecessors, then, on common ground. They came to have a share in the "government by the consent of the governed'' that the older stock had established. If they had not appreciated to the full the advantages of the New-World democracy, they would not have come. They were ripe for assimilation from the moment they landed on our shores. The American immigration of each succeeding generation, far from threatening to destroy our institutions, has strengthened them. Through the immigrants, indeed, Americans of older stock have been constantly reminded of their blessings under the New-World dispensation.

The Monroe Doctrine was established, and has been constantly upheld, by the American people. They were unwilling to have the baneful handicaps because of which they had left the Old World follow them to the New World. Nearly a century of history has proved the wisdom and the success of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States has been able to keep out of entangling alliances, and to protect every other American republic from the inevitably disastrous results of the inheritance of European racial rivalry through the extension of European imperialism.

To-day Europe is looking to her children in America for aid in establishing a world peace. We are willing, we are eager, to give that aid; but how can we offer to Europe any other solution than that which we have tested and proved good in the foundation and development of our own national life, and which we are making the basic principle of our own foreign policy? We cannot be convinced by the polemicists and partizans of either group of belligerents that the panacea for the world's woes is the destruction of Great Britain's naval supremacy or of Germany's military supremacy. Nor, despite our horror and detestation of what Jews and Poles and Armenians and Belgians and Serbians are being made to suffer, do we think that the punishment of and a change in the political status of Russia, Turkey, Germany, and Austria-Hungary would prevent the renewal in the very near future of wrongs inflicted upon small and weak nations. With President Wilson we propose "government by the consent of the governed" as the formula for the readjustment of the world.

Paris, February 20, 1917.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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