Does Trump’s presidency signal the end of the ‘American Century’?

American troops walking along a road during World War I. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) In 2012, President Barack Obama declared the United States would always be “the one indispensable nation in world affairs.”

“No other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs,” he added. “That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st.”

But only five years later, many people wonder whether that remarkable era of world leadership is now coming to an end. Donald Trump has publicly spoken of abandoning America’s longtime commitments in many regions of the world. Just this week, reports indicate President Trump plans to slash the number of refugees who can resettle in the U.S. and block Syrians and others from entering.

But when exactly did the “American Century” begin and what role did religion play in its creation?

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, a minister’s son with strong Presbyterian beliefs, went before Congress asking for a formal declaration of war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s imperial Germany.

President Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 2, 1912. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Pach Brothers, New York

President Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 2, 1912. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Pach Brothers, New York

To bolster his call to arms, Wilson, a progressive Democrat who still remained a staunch supporter of racial segregation, employed both idealistic political phrases and uplifting religious rhetoric that stood in stark contrast as Wilson listed Germany’s hostile military and political actions directed against the U.S.

Wilson’s combination of religion and realpolitik persuaded the Senate and the House of Representatives to go to war.

The concluding sentence in his congressional address, invoking God, is the quintessential religio-political essence of the American Century: “To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”

In a letter to a friend, Wilson made clear his profound religious commitments: “My life would not be worth living if it were not for the driving power of religion, for faith, pure and simple. … never for a moment have I had one doubt about my religious beliefs.”

During the 18 months between Wilson’s speech and the armistice that ended World War I, more than 1.5 million Americans were thrown into the conflict with Germany. Historians agree the large number of fresh American troops greatly hastened the Allied victory.

Beginning in 1917, the U.S. emerged as a global superpower, later earning the titles of “the arsenal of democracy” and the “world’s policeman,” along with other similar descriptions — all reflecting America’s major role on the world stage during the past 100 years.

Wilson’s 1917 speech is the seedbed from which “American exceptionalism” and “indispensability” sprang. A century ago, the 28th president went to war to “make the world safe for democracy.” He also sought the creation of an international “League of Nations” to ensure a peaceful world.

Many years later, George W. Bush, a Republican, echoed Wilson in his second inaugural address: “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. … So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Wilson could not have said it better.

But an inflexible Wilson never achieved his goal of American participation in the League of Nations organization (a forerunner to the United Nations). In his religiously driven zeal to secure the Senate’s approval for his proposed international organization, the president undertook a rigorous postwar 29-city tour to build public support for the League.

Unwilling to compromise, and driven by what his friends and foes both termed a personal messianic fervor, Wilson’s body and mind cracked under the strain. He suffered a debilitating stroke on Oct. 2, 1919, in Pueblo, Colo. The president never regained the physical or intellectual strength required to lead the nation. Wilson died a broken man at age 67 in 1924.

But he will be acknowledged forever as the political architect and the religious author of the American Century.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com

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A. James Rudin


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  • For all Wilson’s vaunted ideals and religious fervor, he was a bigoted racist, and duplicitous to boot. He campaigned for a second term with the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” and shortly after that election was secured where did we find ourselves? I’m not suggesting that the war was not a just cause, I’m suggesting that Wilson was personally dishonest in his successful effort to retain the Presidency. He certainly is not among those presidents’ that I have admired or valued as effective statesmen.

  • I as well have a lack of regard for Wilson, but I have no trouble with campaigning on keeping the U.S. out of WW I and then later getting us into it. If Charles Evans Hughes had won in 1916 he likely would have gotten us into it as well. But the modern nation state requires Presidents to be deceptive at times.

  • FDR also said, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars” during the 1940 presidential campaign.

  • Why can’t we all just shut up and give Trump his chance at leadership? He couldn’t do worse than Barak Obama’s leading from behind for the past eight years! During those years one can hardly say that “the US is the one indispensable nation in world affairs!”

  • He’s having his chance right now, and failing miserably. Muzzling scientists, muzzling the press, appointing incompetents to the cabinet, forcing his press secretary to lie to the press, being too uninterested in the business of government and wanting to watch TV instead like a four-year-old.. this is an incomplete list by the way. I’m happy to give Golden Showers the chance to prove himself. Withdrawing America from the world stage will fail in the end, the same way it did after Wilson’s presidency.

  • The Lusitania WAS carrying war supplies along with civilian passengers, something strictly forbidden. The Germans warned them about it, but when the Lusitania was torpedoed, no one mentioned war supplies on it again. Lots of lies are brought about to get the United States into war.

  • Thousands of American soldiers died for what? So France and Great Britain could punish Germany and sow the seeds for WWII? Brilliant. This is exactly why we should have stayed out of European wars.

  • And he did everything in his power to drag us into WWII, including provoking the Japanese until they attacked us.

  • He’s done more in a week than Obama did in a year. And I didn’t vote for Trump. I voted Constitution Party. Nonetheless, killing the TPP, actually working on controlling the borders, and allowing pipelines to be built instead of dangerous rail travel were all very sensible. Have you forgotten some of Obummer’s nominees? How about Eric Holder in the Department of Injustice, for starters?

  • What the heck??

    I get it. I know you don’t like Trump. But why does everyone want to criticize EVERYTHING about him??

    This article right here?? It is SERIOUSLY advocating for a RETURN to Bush-era foreign policy!! Well, not so much a return as a continuation, because Obama didn’t do much of anything to end it.

    Hey guys, maybe ending a long history of America-centric foreign disasters would be a GOOD thing. It was a seen as a GOOD thing about eight years ago. Why is it not a good thing anymore because it’s coming out of a mouth you don’t like??

  • And the inevitability of the war spilling out over US interests. Neutrality was a fiction for us. The US depended on trade with the UK, France and their empires. Germany was blockaded. US interests and the Allied interests would have intersected eventually.

  • Which happen to have been the right thing to do on both counts. US neutrality only benefitted the Axis.

    Japan’s attack was fueled as much by the confused Japanese power structure as it was on territorial aggression. Once hostility was in the air, war was inevitable.

  • It looks to as though the president has no interest in maintaining America’s leadership in the world and so, in effect, he has ended the American Century.

    I think there were many problems with TPP, but effectively abandoning Asia to Chinese power and influence is a very bad idea. The more trading partners America has, the better for all parts of our economy -if- appropriate safe guards are attached. I believe the president would have been much wiser to offer to renegotiate TPP and maintain American strength in that part of the world. Instead, he seems to enjoy antagonizing China. My concern is that he’ll antagonize us into war, just as some claim FDR antagonized Japan in 1941.

  • Yes he has done more damage in a week.

    Now government agencies publishing established scientific facts are considered “going rogue”. He has threatened 300 cities to “drop dead”, and put forth one of the worst collection of miscreants for the cabinet (Mattis and Tillinger are about the only exceptions).

    The TPP was dead regardless of who won the election. As for the borders, Trump hasn’t done anything other than annoy Mexico. An executive order money, materiel and manpower to build a farcically useless wall. Now if Trump wanted to spend a ton of money and manpower to help the country he could start by authorizing infrastructure work within our borders. Most notably water supplies which are becoming more endangered, expensive and hazardous.

  • US entry in WWI in 1916 might have prevented the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. The US entry in the war was one of the key factors in the loss by the Central Powers. It possibly could have ended the war earlier. The Czar’s overthrow was inevitable, but the Bolshevik takeover was aided by Kerensky staying in the war. If the overthrow happened after the war, the Bolsheviks would not have been so popular or well armed.

  • I’m sure no one questions the facts concerning the Lusitania, particularly the warning issued by Germany because of those supplies, but the subject was Mr. Wilson and the rather fawning article by the author regarding him. I merely pointed out that Mr. Wilson was dishonest in his re-election campaign. In fact, given the German warning, faulting them for the incident was disingenuous and naïve, and served other ends.

  • O.K. But let me remind you of that in all good humor should it occur, and it probably will, with Mr. Trump…that is if the consequences in such a case are not too dreadful.

  • Obviously he gets a chance but no one is going to shut up. Obama was ragged mercilessly by the Right during his term and called out for nearly every action. So expect the same and more for Trump from the Left, the Centrists and eventually his own party.