KC Johnson


Progressivism & Foreign Affairs (1902-1914)

  • Nancy Mitchell, “The Height of the German Challenge: The Venezuela Blockade, 1902–3,” Diplomatic History 20 (1996), pp. 185-210.
  • Mary Barton, “The Global War on Anarchism: The United States and International Anarchist Terrorism, 1898–1904,” Diplomatic History 39 (2015), pp. 303-330.

map–US interventions in the Caribbean Basin, turn of the century


Document: former Secretary of State Elihu Root, 1912 Nobel Prize address, excerpt

There is, however, another class of substantive causes of war which the agencies I have described do not reach directly. This comprises acts done or demanded in pursuance of national policy, and ordinarily either for the enlargement or protection of territory or for trade or industrial advantage. The conduct of a nation under such a policy is often regarded by other nations as unwarranted aggression or as threatening their safety or their rights. Illustrations of this kind of question are to be found in the protean forms of the Eastern question and of the balance of power in Europe, in the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine by the United States; in the position of Germany regarding the settlement of Morocco before the Conference of Algeciras; in the attitude of Great Britain regarding Agadir after that conference. It is plain that, under the present organization of civilization in independent nationalities, questions of public policy supposed to be vital cannot be submitted to arbitration because that would be an abdication of independence . . . The independence of a state involves that state’s right to determine its own domestic policy and to decide what is essential to its own safety.

It does not follow, however, that we are without opportunity to promote and strengthen specific influences tending to diminish or prevent causes of war of this description. In the first place, when there is a policy of intentional aggression, inspired by a desire to get possession of the territory or the trade of another country, right or wrong, a pretext is always sought. No nation now sets forth to despoil another upon the avowed ground that it desires the spoils. Some ground of justification is always alleged. The wolf always charges the lamb with muddying the stream. The frank and simple days of the Roman proconsul and of the robber baron have passed, and three things have happened: first, there has come to be a public opinion of the world; second, that opinion has set up a new standard of national conduct which condemns unjustified aggression; and third, the public opinion of the world punishes the violation of its standard. It has not been very long since the people of each country were concerned almost exclusively with their own affairs, and, with but few individual exceptions, neither knew nor cared what was going on outside their own boundaries. All that has changed. The spread of popular education; the enormous increase in the production and circulation of newspapers and periodicals and cheap books; the competition of the press, which ranges the world for news; the telegraph, which carries instantly knowledge of all important events everywhere to all parts of the world; the new mobility of mankind, which, availing itself of the new means of travel by steamship and railroad, with its new freedom under the recently recognized right of expatriation and the recently established right of free travel, moves to and fro by the million across the boundaries of the nations; the vast extension of international commerce; the recognition of interdependence of the peoples of different nations engendered by this commerce and this intercourse; their dependence upon each other for the supply of their needs and for the profitable disposal of their products, for the preservation of health, for the promotion of morals and for the increase of knowledge and the advance of thought – all these are creating an international community of knowledge and interest, of thought and feeling . . . Gradually, everything that happens in the world is coming to be of interest everywhere in the world, and, gradually, thoughtful men and women everywhere are sitting in judgment upon the conduct of all nations. Some very crass and indefensible things have been done by nations within the past few years, but no one can read the discussions about those national acts without seeing that the general judgment of mankind has sunk deep into the hearts of the people of the countries responsible; that a great new force is at work in international affairs; that the desire for approval and the fear of condemnation by the contemporary opinion of the civilized world is becoming a powerful influence to control national conduct. True, we are but at the beginning, but it is the beginning of a great new era in which the public opinion of mankind renders judgment, not upon peace and war, for a vast majority of mankind is in favor of war when that is necessary for the preservation of liberty and justice, but upon the just and unjust conduct of nations, as the public opinion of each community passes upon the just and unjust conduct of its individual members. The chief force which makes for peace and order in the community of individuals is not the police officer, with his club, but it is the praise and blame, the honor and shame, which follow observance or violation of the community’s standards of right conduct. In the new era that is dawning of the world’s public opinion we need not wait for the international policeman, with his artillery, for, when any people feels that its government has done a shameful thing and has brought them into disgrace in the opinion of the world, theirs will be the vengeance and they will inflict the punishment.

Two conclusions from all these considerations are quite obvious. First, that the development and understanding of international law and the habit of submitting international controversies to judicial decision will continually tend to hinder wanton aggression because it will tend to make it more difficult to find pretexts, excuses, or justification. Second, that quite apart from argument and exhortation concerning war and peace, there is a specific line of effort along which those who seek to promote peace may most usefully proceed: by insisting upon a willingness to do justice among nations, and this, not justice according to the possibly excited and warped opinion of the particular nation, but according to the general public judgment of the civilized world; by condemning injustice on the part of nations as we condemn injustice on the part of individuals; by pressing upon the peoples of the earth a consciousness that if they are arrogant and grasping and overbearing and use their power to oppress and despoil the weak, they will be disgraced in the estimation of mankind. Such an effort is not a denial of the innate impulses of the race but is an appeal to them. It accords with the line of historic development. The taboo of savage tribes is nothing else. The social penalties of civilized communities are the same thing. The theoretical postulate of all diplomatic discussion between nations is the assumed willingness of every nation to do justice. The line of least resistance in the progress of civilization is to make that theoretical postulate real by the continually increasing force of the world’s public opinion.

Yet there are other influences tending in the same direction which may be usefully promoted. The self-interest which so often prompts nations to unjust aggression can no longer safely assume that its apparent profit is real; for a nation which has been built up by the industry and enterprise of its people, which depends upon its products and the marketing of them, upon its commerce and the peaceful intercourse of commerce for its prosperity, the prize of aggression must be rich indeed to counterbalance the injury sustained by the interference of war with both production and commerce. At the same time, freedom of trade regardless of political control is diminishing the comparative value of extension of territory. The old system of exploitation of colonies and the monopolization of their trade for the benefit of the mother country has practically disappeared. The best informed men are coming to understand that, under modern conditions, the prosperity of each nation is enhanced by the prosperity of all other nations; and that the government which acquires political control over new territory may gratify pride and minister to ambition but can have only a slight effect to advance the welfare of its people . . .

There yet remain certain disposing causes, which, quite apart from real substantive questions in controversy, operate upon national feeling and give injurious effect to trifling or fancied occasions for offense. There is no international controversy so serious that it cannot be settled if both parties really wish to settle it. There are few controversies so trifling that they cannot be made the occasion for war if the parties really wish to fight. Among these disposing causes which create an atmosphere of belligerency are:
(a) Race and local prejudice, breeding dislike and hatred between the peoples of different countries.
(b) Exaggerated national amour propre, which causes excessive sensitiveness and excessive resentment of foreign criticism or opposition.
(c) With these go the popular assumption, often arrogant, often ignorant, that the extreme claims of one’s country are always right and are to be rigidly insisted upon as a point of national honor. With them go intolerance of temperate discussion, of kindly consideration, and of reasonable concession.

Under these feelings, insulting words and conduct towards foreign governments and people become popular, and braggart defiance is deemed patriotic. Under them the ambitious aspirants of domestic politics seek preferment through avenues of military success.

And under them deep and real suspicions office sinister purpose of other nations readily take possession of a people, who become ready to believe that an attack by their own country is the only recourse to guard effectually against an attack upon their country by others, and that patriotism requires them to outstrip other countries in armament and preparation for war.

Prejudice and passion and suspicion are more dangerous than the incitement of self-interest or the most stubborn adherence to real differences of opinion regarding rights. In private life more quarrels arise, more implacable resentment is caused, more lives are sacrificed, because of insult than because of substantial injury. And it is so with nations.

The remedy is the same. When friends quarrel we try to dissipate their misunderstandings, to soften their mutual feelings, and to bring them together in such a way that their friendship may be renewed. Misunderstanding and prejudice and dislike are, as a rule, the fruits of isolation. There is so much of good in human nature that men grow to like each other upon better acquaintance, and this points to another way in which we may strive to promote the peace of the world. That is by international conciliation through intercourse, not the formal intercourse of the traveler or the merchant, but the intercourse of real acquaintance, of personal knowledge, of little courtesies and kindly consideration; by the exchange of professors between universities, by the exchange of students between countries; by the visits to other countries on the part of leaders of opinion, to be received in private hospitality and in public conference; by the spreading of correct information through the press; by circulating and attracting attention to expressions of praise and honor rather than the reverse; by giving public credit where credit is due and taking pains to expose and publish our good opinions of other peoples; by cooperation in the multitude of causes which are worldwide in their interest; by urging upon our countrymen the duty of international civility and kindly consideration; and by constant pressure in the right direction in a multitude of ways – a slow process, but one which counts little by little if persisted in.

. . . Standards of conduct are changing in many ways unfavorable to war.

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