This post was written by Robert Gassman, an undergraduate at the University of Louisville and 2016 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.
Following the Allied victory in World War I, the United States entered a period of rapid change, experiencing changes both in its stature as a global leader and changes from social experiments, including universal women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol. One widely discussed topic of this time was “Americanism,” the idea that certain unique qualities, traditions, and ideals set apart the United States.
After the Great War, conflicting conceptions of Americanism were expressed in debates over ratification of the Versailles treaty and U.S. entry into the League of Nations. No two speeches exemplify two of the most prominent positions in this debate more than the ‘Americanism’ addresses of then-presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Harding ran on a platform of calm leadership, a drastic shift from the progressive years of Wilson and the World War. He declared that “Americanism really began when it was robed in nationality… In the spirit of Americanism, we proclaim America, we acclaim America.” He viewed America’s future through an “America first” lens, leaving the conflicts and struggles of other nations to be handled without American intervention.
Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a stark contrast to Harding’s vision, viewing America’s participation in the war as an affirmation of the American ideals. Speaking of those who fell in battle, he noted, “To them we must write the binding finish: it shall not happen again. Americans demand: the crime of war shall cease.” In his vision, America plays an active role in ending “the crime of war,” to ensure that American ideals are promoted globally.
These conflicting visions of Americanism have not yet been settled, and America’s role as a global leader continues to be debated. It seems likely that the discussions over that role will continue as the world becomes increasingly interconnected.
Allow time for your students to listen to both speeches, using the transcripts as necessary. Possible points to discuss include:
- Perspectives found within the debate over U.S. entry into the League of Nations;
- Attitudes that contributed to U.S. isolation in the Second World War;
- Connecting “America first” to definitions of Americanism evident in today’s political discussions;
- Isolationist and interventionist attitudes fluctuating throughout the history of the United States.
Let us know in the comments how your students responded to these two speeches on Americanism.