America First, Now and Hereafter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Five days prior to this editorial being printed, President Woodrow Wilson gave his famous Fourteen Points speech to a joint session of Congress, concerning his vision of what should follow the anticipated victory in World War I. This editorial strongly rebuked President Wilson and called for a return to the isolationist policy that had historically been the norm in American foreign policy. A Republican-leaning newspaper since supporting the campaign to get Abraham Lincoln elected, the Chicago Daily Tribune also had a decades-old policy of supporting isolationism. Using a Sunday editorial, Sunday being the day with the largest numbers of papers sold, the editors vigorously attacked the ideas set forth by President Wilson as un-American. For the writers of the editorial, what should be the goal of any American government was nationalism. They wrote, “Intense nationalism, we hold, is a precious possession to be wished imperishable.” Thus Wilson’s vision of an economically more unified world, as well as an international organization to maintain the peace, was anathema to the paper and the conservative political principles it represented.

Summary Overview

Five days prior to this editorial being printed, President Woodrow Wilson gave his famous Fourteen Points speech to a joint session of Congress, concerning his vision of what should follow the anticipated victory in World War I. This editorial strongly rebuked President Wilson and called for a return to the isolationist policy that had historically been the norm in American foreign policy. A Republican-leaning newspaper since supporting the campaign to get Abraham Lincoln elected, the Chicago Daily Tribune also had a decades-old policy of supporting isolationism. Using a Sunday editorial, Sunday being the day with the largest numbers of papers sold, the editors vigorously attacked the ideas set forth by President Wilson as un-American. For the writers of the editorial, what should be the goal of any American government was nationalism. They wrote, “Intense nationalism, we hold, is a precious possession to be wished imperishable.” Thus Wilson’s vision of an economically more unified world, as well as an international organization to maintain the peace, was anathema to the paper and the conservative political principles it represented.

Defining Moment

World War I broke out in July 1914 among the European powers and their allies. Most American leaders were content to let the Europeans solve their own conflicts. After Germany, however, tried to get Mexico to begin a war against the United States, and German submarines resumed attacking American ships trading with France and Great Britain, President Wilson asked for, and received, a declaration of war against Germany, in April 1917. Although ill-prepared for war, a point used as a campaign issue by Wilson’s Republican opponent in the 1916 elections, the United States rapidly mobilized hundreds of thousands of individuals per month and redirected appropriate resources to support the Allied cause against Germany. By the beginning of 1918, the American forces arrived in Europe in numbers that significantly raised Allied morale and prospects, while diminishing Germany’s. At that point, Wilson offered his famous Fourteen Points speech, to which the Chicago Daily Tribune and other papers responded. The Wilson campaign had eked out a narrow victory in 1916 by using the isolationist slogan “He Kept Us out of War,” implying that the president’s opponent would initiate war against Germany and maybe Mexico. Implementation of the Fourteen Points, as advocated by Wilson, would mean not that the United States would return to isolationism after the war, but that it would commit itself to playing a significant role in global politics and the international community–the opposite of what had gotten Wilson a second term. This openness to international entanglements is something that the Chicago Daily Tribune found unacceptable.

President Wilson had lost political support throughout his time in office. This included a big drop after the United States entered the war. Although the Republicans generally supported entering the war, they did not endorse Wilson’s plans for the postwar period. The Chicago Daily Tribune’s editorial was one of the first efforts to undercut Wilson and his fellow Democrats by supporting a Republican majority in Congress. Although it was almost eleven months until the election, the points made in this editorial were used during the interim to weaken the Democrats. As a result, the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, and because of that they were able to block entry of the United States into the League of Nations, the organization established to implement Wilson’s Point Fourteen. Thus, work by the Chicago Daily Tribune and others effectively shaped American foreign policy in the decade that followed and kept the League of Nations from having any real chance of success.

Author Biography

In January 1918, the Chicago Daily Tribune was led by its co-editors and publishers, Joseph M. Patterson and Robert R. McCormick, grandsons of one of the paper’s founders. At the time, however, McCormick was serving in the Army, which left the day-to-day operations to Patterson. Since the newspaper’s founding in 1847, it had supported Whig, and then Republican, candidates for national office, although it tended to be more conservative than those parties. Until it became a publically-traded company, the view conveyed in this editorial generally represented the feelings of the paper’s owners. Despite the fact that McCormick was on active duty when the editorial was printed, the views contained in the piece were the same as those that he strongly advocated as sole editor of the paper from the early 1920s until his death in 1955. Patterson parted company with McCormick in 1925, when gave up his interest in the Tribune for complete ownership of the New York Daily News.

Document Analysis

Speaking to their local readers as well as to a national audience, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune printed a straightforward critique of Wilson’s Fourteen Points based on one belief: that American nationalism was to be developed and sustained at all costs. The United States should be a strong, self-reliant nation on which no other country should have any claim. Conversely, the United States should not rely upon any other country or group of countries. Thus, any international agreement under which the United States would share power with other nations or organizations should be totally rejected. The role of the American government was to support strong nationalistic programs, even to the point of rejecting peace offerings if these would compromise American nationhood.

Opening with a small compliment on the way Wilson had handled the Russian governmental transition, the editors then move to the main focus of the editorial. This is, from the Tribune’s point of view, the abysmal policies Wilson has put forward in his Fourteen Points. To them, Wilson was an internationalist, a person who believed in the possibility of voluntary international cooperation in order to reach goals beneficial to all. This was an almost traitorous way of thinking, in the editors’ view, because it showed that Wilson’s altruism was “anti-nationalistic.” The Tribune editors, in contrast, believed that the ultimate goal for everyone in the United States was to be an “intense American.” The latter term is defined as a person who puts the country ahead of all else, which meant doing everything necessary to make the United States as strong as or stronger than any other country and greater than all others in its unity. The preciousness of this nationalism is expressed by means of quasi-religious concepts, as in the reference to “sacramental nationality.” As for anything suggested by Wilson that might deter the United States from reaching the goal of complete American independence from others, or blunt American dominance when interacting with other countries, the writers’ response is clear and simple: “We do not like it.”

The editors see trade as a domestic issue, not something to be discussed internationally. As a self-reliant nation, the United States should be able to develop its own trade policy, independent of other countries. The newspaper believed that “nationalistic competition” is the best policy for everyone. Thus, they oppose this portion of Wilson’s program as well as those that would create international bodies to organize cooperative efforts for peace. While recognizing that in the recent past the British Navy had successfully kept the shipping channels free, the Tribune is willing to accept this only until the United States itself developed sufficient naval strength. Such priorities should hold in all areas, the editors suggest. This is because “An intense American wants the United States to be itself, strong in its own right.” There should be no dependence on anything international; the citizens of the United States can and should secure everything the nation needs or desires. Other countries can fend for themselves, it is thought. The Tribune is not concerned with matters regarding European borders or ethnic groups. A policy based on American nationalism–and that clearly and fully incorporates the ideal of “America first” in all things–is the only policy the Tribune editors find acceptable.

Essential Themes

Isolationism, and a skeptical attitude about giving any power to an international organization, have remained a part of the American political debate. While this one editorial is not alone responsible for this, it did reflect the attitude of a substantial number of people in 1918 and gave a form of legitimacy to this view. Having the editors of one of the most respected and widely read newspapers of the period support a cause, drew others into that camp. Thus, the Chicago Daily Tribune’s criticism of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and what that proposal stood for, strengthened not only the Republican efforts in the 1918 elections, but also the isolationist movement in general. Because of the influence of this group, the United States did not enter the League of Nations. When one of the strongest countries in the world, and the very nation whose president introduced the idea to the peace talks, failed to join the organization, the strength of the League could only be undercut. Although it cannot necessarily be said that had the United States joined the League events leading to World War II could have been altered or prevented, it is safe to suppose that the calculations drawn on by various leaders might have been different. The isolationist views represented by the editorial held the day into the 1940s, keeping the United States out of World War II until it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor. Many of the events of the 1930s and early 1940s might have unfolded differently had there been a weaker or less successful isolationist movement in the United States.

In any case, the Tribune editors seem to hate everything about Wilson’s approach and the various proposals he seeks to advance. Their concern for the United States is based on the belief that the American nation should be a world leader, not through pursuing collegial relations, but through demonstrating strength and self-sufficiency. The Chicago Daily Tribune sees no place for any governmental program that does not further that goal. Regarding Wilson’s Fourteen Points, specifically, the writers summarize their view in two sentences: “It preaches international altruism. It does not emphasize national integration.” Such is President Wilson’s error, in their view. Their own motto might best be stated as, “Only America Counts.” Moreover, that view seems to have been a majority opinion at that time. It is also one that has echoed down through the decades and continues to have strong support today.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cooper, John Milton. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
  • Harries, Meirion and Susie Harries. The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917–1918. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities. “The Debate in the United States over the League of Nations.” EDSITEment! National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • __________. “Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy.” EDSITEment! National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • Wendt, Lloyd. Chicago Tribune: the Rise of a Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1979. Print.
  • Zieger, Robert H. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.
Categories: History Content