The attitude of the federal government changed at the outset of the Civil War, when the United States found itself in the embarrassing position of using force to suppress the will of a minority of the nation seeking to establish its own independence. Among the interested European observers of the American Civil War, there were perhaps as many partisans of the South as of the North. To some it seemed that the Southern states, by fighting for their self-determination as a nation, were striking a blow for political freedom and independence in the spirit of similar revolutionaries and national movements in the Old World. Southerners themselves contended that they were following the example of the American patriots of 1776, a view that appeared reasonable to many Englishmen. To the latter, Secretary of State William H. Seward made it clear that the United States could not regard as friends those who favored or gave aid to the insurrection under any pretext. In taking this position the United States pointed out that it was claiming only what it conceded to all other nations. Thus, the Civil War clearly determined the official policy of the United States toward self-determination. The United States in effect denied the right of communities within a constituted federal union to determine their allegiance, and that denial had been enforced by military power. Clearly, the doctrine of national sovereignty, supported by the principle of nonintervention, had officially and unequivocally taken precedence over the concept of self-determination.
This official view also influenced the policy of the United States in regard to the use of the plebiscite as a means of settling questions of sovereignty and self-determination. For example, Secretary Seward adamantly opposed a plebiscite on the abortive cession of the West Indian islands of St. Thomas and St. John in 1868. Again, in August 1897, in response to the Japanese minister's suggestion that a plebiscite be taken regarding the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, Secretary of State John Sherman drew upon the history of international relations to confirm the impropriety of "appealing from the action of the Government to 'the population.'" "In international comity and practice," said Sherman, "the will of a nation is ascertained through the established and recognized government," and "it is only through it that the nation can speak." The same principle in regard to annexed territories was asserted in the memorandum of the American Peace Commission at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. Thus, by 1899 the United States had emphatically asserted its adherence to the principle and practice of annexation without the consent of the peoples annexed.
On the fall of the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere in 1898, the United States gained colonial control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and enjoyed quasi-suzerainty over Cuba, from which it withdrew its military presence in 1902 while reserving certain rights for itself. This put the United States in the anomalous position of having fought a war against Spain at least officially for Cuban self-determination, only to deny that principle to the colonies acquired in the peace settlement. Those who opposed annexation constituted a powerful anti-imperialist movement, headed by many political and intellectual leaders. Deeply concerned over the concept of self-determination, although they did not specifically mention it, they clearly opposed annexation on the ground that it involved the suppression of a conquered people. Although the anti-imperialists could not defeat the peace treaty, they were able to bring the issue of imperialism into the open and to raise considerable national doubt as to whether the treaty was in accord with the direct traditions of self-determination as revealed by the establishment of the nation.
The nation's ambivalence concerning the proper interpretation and appropriate application of the concept of self-determination was exposed again when the American people were called upon to decide the novel questions of whether the Constitution followed the flag across the Pacific and whether democracy could be preserved at home in its new imperial setting. Anti-imperialists argued against the abandonment of American principles for the ways of the Old World. Imperialists, also calling upon American traditions, maintained that democracy could be extended only to a people fit to receive it. Self-government depended upon a nation's capacity for political action, and if a people was not ready for independence, it must undergo a period of political tutelage and protection. Thus, the imperialists joined the American conception of manifest destiny with Rudyard Kipling's call for the Anglo-Saxon nations to take up the white man's burden. In the curious reasoning of an official U.S. commission to the Philippines, "American sovereignty is only another name for the liberty of the Filipinos." And yet it must be noted that every president after William McKinley extended the prospect of freedom and independence to the Philippines until it was actually granted in 1946.
By 1899, then, the American conflict of principle in regard to self-determination might clearly be seen by examining two great heroes in American history. The popular reputation of George Washington rested less on his great work as the nation's first president than on his successful conduct of a struggle for self-determination, while Abraham Lincoln's rested on his success in suppressing such a struggle. Although pursuing diametrically opposite principles, both were judged right by posterity—even, in the main, by the descendants of the defeated sides. Later events have caused the Civil War to be regarded as waged on the issue of slavery, but at the outset Lincoln asserted that it was fought not to abolish slavery but to maintain the Union—that is, to resist the claim of the Southern states to independence. Such a claim or right has its limits, and—to state the matter from the cold standpoint of political philosophy—the national government believed that in this case the claim was not within the limits where the principle properly applied.
Considerations like these induce one to reflect upon the limited nature of principles commonly accepted as universal; upon the conflicts that arise when two inconsistent universal principles come into collision; and how far such conflict may be avoided by recognizing that there are limits, with a debatable region in which neither can be rigorously applied.
Wilsonianism World War I and the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson provided the nation an opportunity for a supreme effort to reconcile the principles of self-determination and national sovereignty in a way that might provide a lasting peace. In a May 1916 address before the League to Enforce Peace, he announced as a fundamental principle "that every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live…. " During the following two years, Wilson continued to proclaim vigorously and with passionate conviction his version of the right of national self-determination. He stated that "No peace can last or ought to last which does not 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 sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property." The president's repeated affirmation of an abstract principle of justice that should be universally applied had a profound influence on the subsequent statements of both the Allies and the Central Powers. In a dramatic appearance before Congress in January 1918, Wilson crystallized his war aims in the famous Fourteen Points address. Although the phrase "self-determination" was not specifically used, at least six of the Fourteen Points dealt with some interpretation or application of the principle.
The Bolsheviks in Russia played a decisive role in the specific clarification and implementation of the American concept of self-determination. When the Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky came to power in November 1917, they demanded an immediate, general, and democratic peace with the Central Powers, based on no "annexations and contributions [reparations] with the right of all nations to self-determination." On 3 December the Russians suspended hostilities with Germany and its allies, a state that lasted until 17 December. During this period the Bolsheviks used the concept of self-determination heavily on behalf of peace. After a powerful propaganda campaign, they were finally able to convince their opponents to allow more time for the negotiations, so as to permit the Allies to define their war aims and decide whether they wished to participate. During this period the Bolsheviks published the six points for world peace that they had laid down for the guidance of the peace conference. Five dealt with self-determination. Although the United States and the Allies failed to perceive it until Trotsky pointed it out to them, the points were directed at them as much as at the Central Powers. Indeed, the Russians had proposed five points that in essence were the same as five of the Fourteen Points of President Wilson, published only a few weeks later.
On 29 December, with six days remaining during which the Entente Powers could exercise their option to participate in the negotiations, Trotsky sent them an appeal, pointing out that the Allies could no longer insist on fighting for the liberation of Belgium, northern France, Serbia, and other areas since Germany and its allies had indicated a willingness to evacuate those areas following a universal peace. Some response appeared to be necessary, for not only did Trotsky call for violent proletarian revolution against the Allied governments, but he had also shrewdly based his primary argument on Wilson's principle of self-determination. Although probably not realizing it, Wilson was in an ideological corner; either he must accept the Bolshevik conclusion that all peoples in all states, including all colonies, had the right to immediate self-determination, or he must reject it but in its place offer some standard of what constituted an acceptable unit for the application of that principle.
While Wilson had been sympathetic to the principle of self-determination as enunciated by Lenin, he had no illusions concerning the German response to it. By the end of December 1917 it appeared clear that self-determination, as understood by the Germans, justified the severance from Russia of the territories occupied by the German army: Russian Poland, most of the Baltic provinces, and parts of Belarus. Indeed, by the middle of December the State Department was aware that the Ukraine, Finland, and Transcaucasia were in the process of declaring themselves independent under the auspices of Lenin's program of self-determination. Finally, it was apparent that if Russia was to have peace according to the German interpretation of self-determination, it would entail heavy territorial sacrifices. Wilson was opposed to such an interpretation of self-determination, and on several occasions declared his opposition to the dismemberment of empires. But in that case, what did Wilson's concept of self-determination really mean? Trotsky had made it clear that to demand self-determination for the peoples of enemy states but not for the peoples within the Allied states or their own colonies would "mean the defense of the most naked, the most cynical imperialism."
Since Trotsky's invitation presented an ideological challenge, an analysis of the American response becomes crucial. Secretary of State Robert Lansing totally opposed it. His attack was based on his social conservatism, his animosity toward Bolshevik ideology, and, most important, his insight into the logical and political requirements for a meaningful application of the principle of self-determination in foreign policy. His advice to the president betrayed the contradictions that still existed in his thinking. On the one hand, he argued that the president should refuse to make any response whatsoever to their appeals. On the other, he admitted that Trotsky's logic demanded some answer and that a more detailed restatement of American war aims might well be expedient.
In his analysis of the Bolsheviks' reasoning, Lansing apparently also sought to convince the president of the undesirability of settling territorial problems by means of self-determination. He pointed out that the existing concept of the sovereignty of states in international relations would be destroyed if the "mere expression of popular will" were to become the governing principle in territorial settlements. He reminded Wilson of the nation's decision in regard to popular sovereignty in its own civil war and stated: "We as a nation, are therefore committed to the principle that a national state may by force if necessary prevent a portion of its territory from seceding without its consent especially if it has long exercised sovereignty over it or if its national safety or vital interests would be endangered." The Bolshevik proposal, Lansing warned, would be "utterly destructive of the political fabric of society and would result in constant turmoil and change."
One of the strongest points in Lansing's analysis was his discovery that the discussion regarding self-determination up to that point had a major ideological flaw. There was no definition of the "distinguishing characteristic" of the unit to which the principle was to be applied. Trotsky had discussed the right of nationalities without defining what a nationality was. Was it based on blood, habitation of a particular territory, language, or political affinity? Clearly, accurate definition of the word was necessary if the terms proposed were to be properly interpreted; otherwise, they were far too vague to be considered intelligently. Lansing added that if the Bolsheviks intended to suggest that every community could determine its own allegiance to a particular state, or to become independent, the political organization of the world would be shattered. The result, he said, would be international anarchy. Lansing did not provide a definition of "nationalities." He surely must have perceived that his criticism of the Bolsheviks applied equally to Wilson's position.