Arthur Herman explores for National Review Online the legacy of “Mr. Wilson’s War.”

One hundred years ago on April 6, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. It was an event that changed America, and the world, forever.

America’s entry into that war was the result of the dream of one man, President Woodrow Wilson. In the light of America’s experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it’s easy to retrospectively dismiss our participation in World War I as the first egregious exercise in Wilsonianism — an act of high-minded liberal idealism and moralism leading to disaster rather than redemption.

Yet seeing this centennial exclusively through that lens is a mistake. Whatever else it was, America’s role in what was then the world’s bloodiest and most destructive war signaled the emergence of the U.S. as the arbiter of a new world order, one that would be built around America’s economic strength, military power, and moral authority as promoter and defender of democracy and freedom. Assuming that role and burden has caused the U.S. a good deal of trouble and brought considerable cost, much of it in human lives — but far less cost, one has to argue, than if the U.S. had stayed out of World War I and evaded a responsibility we still carry today, however reluctantly: that of the superpower of freedom. …

… Wilson’s reasons for going to war were subtle and important for the future. In his mind, it was not America that was declaring war on Germany, it was Germany that had declared war on America — and the rest of the civilized world. America now had to take up the challenge and remake the future. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he told Congress. “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”

Fine words, noble sentiments. Like those uttered by some other presidents who have embarked on similar crusades for democracy in far-off lands, they only raised the curtain on frustration and failure.