On 15 March 1917, Czar Nicholas II, fearing the spread of domestic revolution, abdicated from the throne of imperial Russia. A provisional government, led by a recently formed party known as the Constitutional Democrats, asserted authority over the country. Inspired by British and other European liberals, the Constitutional Democrats promised to replace centuries of near absolute monarchy in Russia with a democratic society. They hoped to copy the social-market economies of western Europe that mixed industrial enterprise and private property with guarantees of basic public welfare.
The United States was far removed from events in Russia, but the nation and its leaders immediately expressed sympathy with the liberal revolution against the czar. Many immigrants in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago had come to America as a refuge from czarist tyranny and the frequent ethnic violence encouraged by the old regime. In earlier years these groups had pressured President Theodore Roosevelt to protest against Russian pogroms. In 1917 they applauded the overthrow of the czar and supported friendly American gestures toward the revolutionaries now in power.
President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisers shared much of this sentiment. On 22 March 1917, only seven days after the czar had abdicated, the United States officially recognized the legitimacy of the new government. Wilson was one of the first leaders to make this move because he hoped to encourage the spread of American-style liberty and enterprise in Russia and other areas emerging from long histories of autocratic rule. He followed the counsel of his confidant, Colonel Edward M. House, who explained that by supporting "the advancement of democracy in Russia," Wilson would accelerate "democracy throughout the world." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels recorded in his diary that the president spoke of the Russian Revolution as a "glorious act."
Wilson's vision of American-supported "democracy throughout the world" permeated his declaration of war against Germany on 2 April 1917, less than a month after the "glorious" Russian Revolution. After more than two years of bloody conflict on the European continent, accompanied by increasing attacks on American shipping, the president announced to Congress that "autocratic government," like that in Germany, was more than just distasteful to U.S. sensibilities. Autocratic militarism, repression, and economic nationalism had become profound threats to the life of democracy. Without the spread of American-style liberty and enterprise, the historian Frank A. Ninkovich has explained, Wilson feared the degradation and destruction of his society. World revolution on the American model was necessary for U.S. survival. This is what Wilson meant when he proclaimed that the "world must be made safe for democracy." The future of "civilization" had reached an apparent turning point. The president's Fourteen Points, announced on 8 January 1918 in a speech to Congress, outlined a program that sought to revolutionize the basic structure of international relations for the purpose of spreading democracy. Emphasizing the liberated "voice of the Russian people," Wilson called for political openness, free trade, disarmament, "independent determination" for oppressed peoples, and a "general association" of peace-loving nations. Liberty and enterprise, not balance of power or divine right, would govern the international system. Affairs between nations would evolve to look more like the relations among citizens in the United States.
In late 1917, just as the first American soldiers began to arrive on the European continent, a small group of communist, or Bolshevik, revolutionaries overthrew the new government in Russia. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the Bolsheviks pledged to destroy capitalism and American-style democracy. Liberty and enterprise, according to Lenin, allowed for the strong and the wealthy to repress the weak and the poor. A global proletarian revolution, starting in Russia, would create a new international structure guaranteeing equality and individual welfare, not the empty promises of bourgeois democracy. In order to establish their regime, the Bolsheviks made many short-term compromises, particularly the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany on 3 March 1918, but they were as serious as Wilson in their aspiration to revolutionize the international system.
This second, Soviet phase of the Russian Revolution elicited reactions similar to those inspired by the Jacobin period of the French Revolution more than a century earlier. Americans sympathized with Russian citizens who sought to overthrow the czar, but they recoiled from the sight of violence, property confiscation, and civil war. Wilson believed that his program for a democratic peace after World War I was the only one worth pursuing. Lenin's contrary vision challenged basic assumptions about liberty and enterprise. The Bolsheviks promised to make the world profoundly unsafe for democracy on American terms. Russia's communist revolution endangered the American revolution.
On 6 July 1918, Wilson authorized a small American expeditionary force to join British, French, and Japanese soldiers supporting the anti-Bolshevik White armies in Russian Siberia. This intervention followed a model that the president had applied, more than any of his predecessors, throughout the Western Hemisphere during his two terms in office. Small groups of U.S. soldiers entered a foreign country to assist favored revolutionary elements against their opponents. In Siberia—as in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Central American states—Wilson hoped to ensure the kind of political order that would allow liberty and enterprise to take shape. N. Gordon Levin, Jr., has explained that the president and his advisers convinced themselves that they were not threatening Russia's self-determination because the U.S. force was so small. Wilson viewed limited American intervention as the action required to nurture legitimate revolutionary impulses threatened by domestic competitors and foreign predators.
In this context historians have noted the conservative implications of the president's revolutionary rhetoric, especially at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Versailles settlement negotiated by the victors in World War I broke apart the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the German imperium outside of Europe. It established self-determination for the Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and other longrepressed peoples. It also created a League of Nations that the United States, despite Wilson's efforts, refused to join. These constituted significant changes in the international system, but they paled in comparison to what the Versailles settlement left intact. Fearful that Bolshevism and other nonliberal revolutionary movements in places like Germany, Hungary, and China would create anarchy, Wilson and his counterparts allowed the major world empires—Britain, France, and Japan—to grow. American influence—formal and informal—also expanded, especially in Asia. Local elites in China, Korea, and Indochina found their expectations for national independence under the terms of Wilson's Fourteen Points disappointed. Through military and economic means, the great powers worked to constrain political change that challenged basic liberal-capitalist assumptions.
Wilson carried the paradox of Jeffersonian politics into the twentieth century. American leaders and citizens naturally applauded the overthrow of old regimes, particularly those of King Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II. They expected that governments ensuring liberty and enterprise on the American model would replace centuries of despotism and autocracy. Because of his young nation's relative weakness, Jefferson had to rely largely on rhetoric to support overseas revolution. Wilson, in contrast, matched emotional words with extended military commitments.
When the revolutionary visions of Jefferson and Wilson encountered more radical ideas, especially Jacobinism and Bolshevism—these two men proved intolerant of diversity. They worked to repress rivals and eliminate the conditions that produced uncertainty instead of orderly change. Away from the American continent, this involved mostly rhetoric for Jefferson. Wilson, however, took advantage of his influence at the Paris Peace Conference to bolster efforts aimed at repressing challengers to American-style liberty and enterprise. In the early twentieth century, the United States had the power to enforce its worldview throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in parts of Europe and Asia. Wilsonianism revolutionized these areas by making them more like America and less like other revolutionary alternatives. U.S. policy followed this Wilsonian pattern in succeeding decades, albeit with important variations.