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Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism


Zacharie Leclair

This book presents a study of the career of Charles R. Crane, a central player in President Woodrow Wilson’s entourage. In the wake of the U.S. intervention in the Great War, Crane participated in important diplomatic and fact-finding missions. Leclair follows Crane through revolutionary Russia and on the Western front, in the emerging countries born out of the Ottoman Empire, and then in postwar China. In the process, Leclair’s book offers original insights into some of the major domestic and international decisions that define Wilson’s presidency and its legacy in the history of the United States and of international relations, most notably Wilson’s motivation and effort to bring about a new world order under American political and moral leadership. Leclair convincingly portrays Crane as a proponent of the principle of self-determination –one, indeed, whose aversion to colonialism predated Wilson’s international vision as formulated in his Fourteen Points. While a convergence of reform interest and humanitarian concerns brought Crane and Wilson together on some of the most complex issues of the time, Crane’s vision –propelled by a genuine philanthropic commitment—adds substance to what has largely been derided as empty Wilsonian idealism. The thematic structure of this book, the quality of its narration, and the wealth of information it contains, are added elements that make it an excellent contribution to the field of U.S. history. It could be used as a an assigned reading in college or university courses, especially in advanced American history, American Political thought and international relations courses.

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Framework and Purpose

To historians, World War I generally appears, in a rather paradoxical manner, as both the height of the Progressive movement in the United States and the start of its decline. American Progressives of the time, particularly Wilsonian Progressives, generally construed the war as the beginning of a new era in human history. In that sense, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, with Woodrow Wilson’s preeminent figure at the head of an imposing American delegation, created a very particular setting for this transformation. From it emerged both traditional forces—like the decidedly active and aggressive imperial interests—and new forces, well illustrated by the presence of various diplomatic specialists from the countries that determined the outcome of World War I. In the midst of the main issues surrounding the German question and the planned dissolution of “blameworthy” empires, the United States presented themselves as the only disinterested1 party in Paris. By its insistence on peoples’ right to aspire to and achieve political and economic freedom (and liberalism), President Wilson’s message bolstered various national movements, fuelled by the interempire conflicts of 1914–1918, and acted as a major inspiration in the victorious powers’ efforts to mend international relations ← 1 | 2 → after the war. This political message rested on various moral and ideological considerations attributable not only to Wilson’s own character and mind but especially to the specific context of American society in the Progressive Era and to the late nineteenth century intellectual sphere in which...

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