On the morning of June 28, 1914, the future, at least of the prospering lands of the West, looked bright. Britannia ruled the waves and served as a model for liberalism globally. Democracy finally appeared to have firmly defeated autocracy in France, leaving the terrible Napoleonic era a century behind. Three great monarchies in which emperors still ruled as well as reigned — Austria‐Hungary, Germany, and Russia — were edging into the modern age, incorporating republican principles and democratic practices.
Then on that tragic Sunday in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia‐Herzegovina, recently annexed by Vienna, a Serbian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne. Princip was armed and otherwise aided by the head of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, making the crime an act of state terrorism.
Serbian politics was violent, even gory. Eleven years before Dimitrijević led a group of military officers in the gruesome murder of the Serbian king and queen; the killers afterward repaired to a café to celebrate, receiving accolades from their admirers. Dimitrijević targeted Ferdinand because the Serbs hoped to force the breakup of the Austro‐Hungarian empire, allowing his government to grab the Balkan pieces to create a greater Serbia.
Vienna decided to use the Serbian act of regicide to force a showdown with Belgrade. However, the competing alliances — the Central Powers of Germany and Austria‐Hungary versus the Entente of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia — turned into transmission belts of instead of firebreaks to war. The Russian Empire backed its bloodstained Slavic cousins. Germany’s bombastic Kaiser stood by Vienna. Republican France affirmed its commitment to Russia’s ancient despotism. And the British came in, after some controversy, in the name of Belgium — which was about to be overrun by the German army — but mostly to balance against the German Empire, the continent’s single most powerful nation. Over time additional countries entered the conflict: Italy, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, Romania, and Japan.
Once Germany’s offensive was halted in the west, the two sides settled down to murderous trench warfare during which the British and French did most of the attacking and dying. For more than three years the lines moved almost not at all. In the east the Austro‐Hungarians were close to useless, losing to the Serbs, Italians, and Russians unless bolstered by the Germans, who helped win victories against the latter three. The Ottomans primarily battled the British, with the combatants supplemented respectively by Germans and Aussies and Kiwis.
Europe became a continental abattoir, consuming lives and wealth at prodigious rates. The original objectives of the conflict were lost. Reluctant statesmen who had realized too late that “control has been lost and the stone has begun to roll,” in the words of German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann‐Holweg, were eventually pushed aside by harder men determined to achieve harsher objectives.
This was precisely the sort of conflict that America’s founders had expected their descendants to avoid. The US was separated by an ocean from the crazed combatants. In his famous Farewell Address George Washington warned his fellow Americans to have with other states “as little political connection as possible,” and not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils” of other nations’ “ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” US foreign policy was to advance the interests of the American people, not foreign governments.
Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson leaned toward the Entente for reasons of personal ambition and political expediency. The UK launched a brilliant propaganda campaign, completely outclassing the maladroit Germans. Moreover, British money bought loyalty: London borrowed heavily in America, creating a vested interest of America’s influential monied class in a UK victory.
Worse, Wilson, who, it was said, was awaiting the first vacancy in the Trinity, saw himself as the world’s glorious savior anointed with the task of leading humanity into a beatific and blissful future. Alas, the only way he could hope to seize control of the international agenda was to waste American lives fighting on behalf of the allies, who otherwise would have no reason to listen to him. Perhaps no other US president has so shamefully sacrificed his fellow citizens to advance his personal ambitions.
Americans could not claim they were not warned. President George Washington criticized “projects of pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.” For this kind of foreign policy “gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; guiding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.” So it was with Wilson.
What conceivable justification was there for intervening in Europe’s mass murderfest? The failings of the Central Powers — aristocratic politics, institutionalized militarism, harsh occupation practices, expanded geopolitical ambitions — were well‐amplified by the establishment Eastern press and inflamed by deceptive but brilliant British propaganda. The Ottoman‐Empire was worst, lacking Berlin’s and Vienna’s virtues, though it joined the war because it knew the Entente planned its dismemberment. Washington had no reason to back this lot, and especially to help Germany achieve its desired “place in the sun.”
However, the Entente also was not worthy of support. Serbia was a terrorist state whose officials sought to destabilize neighboring Austria‐Hungary. Italy joined the Entente with the promise to send its citizens into battle only after the allies promised territorial loot from a defeated Vienna. Revanchist Paris was motivated by revenge, determined to retake lands seized by Berlin in the Franco‐Prussian War. Belgium was perhaps the world’s worst colonial power, having murdered millions of people in the infamous Belgian Congo. Russia was an anti‐Semitic absolute monarchy whose Czar spent more time thwarting liberal movements than addressing grievous problems. The UK feared Germany’s growing economic competition and naval power.
Why would any American want to die for this dubious coalition masquerading as champions of democracy and peace? To paraphrase Germany’s late “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, a tough authoritarian who never would have risked Germany in a foolish feud over peripheral Serbia, the self‐serving ambitions of Europe’s gaggle of myopic politicians weren’t worth the blood of a single American doughboy.
However, Wilson’s selfish megalomania triumphed. He shamelessly employed techniques refined by presidents down the years, most recently by George W. Bush in warning of Iraq’s supposed nuclear arsenal. Wilson lied the nation into war.
Woody could not honestly admit to the American people that he was sending them to die so he could act like a global czar, reimagining humanity. His task became even more difficult after being reelected in 1916, with his campaign largely based on keeping the US out of war. (The Republican Party, pushed by the ostentatious militarist and imperialist Theodore Roosevelt, was even more determined to intervene and sacrifice a generation of Americans in Europe.) Going to war so soon after his reelection was embarrassing even to Wilson.
It was difficult to create a plausible reason for war. The bitter naval struggle in the Atlantic gave Wilson his excuse. London repeated its violations from a century before of the rights of neutral nations, most notably America, enforcing an illegal starvation blockade on Germany. Berlin lacked a competitive surface fleet and instead relied on U‐boats, or submarines. When German captains at first surfaced to challenge UK merchantmen in compliance with international law, British merchantmen rammed or fired on the subs. Germany responded in the only way possible, sinking the ships without warning.
Some Americans recklessly sailed on British vessels that were sunk, a tragedy resulting from their own stupidity. (How much did a person save booking passage on a U‐boat target?) Nevertheless, President Wilson demanded that Berlin grant absolute immunity to U.S. citizens who traveled on armed commercial liners and cargo ships, designated and sometimes armed as reserve cruisers by London, carrying munitions through a war zone. That is, Wilson, the supposed candidate of peace, insisted that Germany allow its enemies to arm themselves to kill more German soldiers.
A frustrated Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, genuinely committed to peace, complained that this policy allowed belligerents to mix “bullets and babies,” as the UK did on the famous Lusitania, which a German U‐boat sank on May 7, 1915. The ship’s second and fatal explosion was from munitions it was carrying for use on the Western Front. Even before his reelection campaign Wilson indicated his commitment to the British cause: “England is fighting our fight, and you may well understand that I shall not, in the present state of the world’s affairs, place obstacles in her way when she is fighting for her life — and the life of the world.” So much for any pretense of neutrality.
To avoid triggering America’s entry, Berlin restricted submarine operations until January 1917. In the meantime Wilson had no other excuse for war and acted like the faux peace candidate to get reelected. But after increasingly desperate Germany resumed sinking British ships on which American foolishly traveled he requested a congressional declaration of war, eloquently lying: “the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States.” This was cold and calculated dishonesty, used to advance his ambition to literally remake the world.
Even with the support the eastern intellectual and financial establishment, Wilson’s desire for war was no slam dunk. But he was aided by a grievous German blunder, the so‐called Zimmerman Telegram, by which Berlin proposed an alliance with Mexico if the US entered the war. This was, in principle, an eminently reasonable reaction to a possible American attack, but was predictably used by Wilson to inflame the very nationalism that he claimed to abhor. In April Congress approved a declaration of war against Germany.
Wilson’s dishonest campaign was a disaster for everyone. Most directly, 117,000 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded in service to Wilson’s obsessions of grandeur. US involvement in the conflict also gave the allies a complete victory when a compromise peace was otherwise the most likely alternative.
Due in part to Wilson’s egotistical incompetence, the concluding Versailles Treaty created a continent full of geopolitical landmines as his partners enthusiastically mocked his principles by plundering the losing states’ territories. Four imperfect but seemingly reformable “ancien regimes” — Austro‐Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian — were swept away. The first two simply disappeared, leaving a gaggle of what Germans called Saisonstaaten, or “states for a season.” A chastened, humiliated, but still populous and industrialized Germany remained, bent on revenge. At the same time, authoritarian and totalitarian viruses were released, most importantly communism, fascism, and Nazism.
Ferdinand Foch, France’s military commander, predicted a grim future, accurately saying of Versailles: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” He was eerily prescient. On September 1, 1939, almost exactly 20 years later, Europe again plunged into war. That conflict ran six years, resulting in global destruction and killing as many as 80 million people.
So much for the delusional pretensions of Woodrow Wilson, who had planned to eliminate war. Unfortunately, his murderous moralisms live on among both liberal humanitarians and neoconservatives.
Indeed, the invasion of Iraq was a Wilsonian triumph — and it killed thousands of American and allied personnel, wounded tens of thousands of them, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displaced millions of them, wrecked countries, destroyed minority religious communities, released both local al‐Qaeda affiliates and ISIS upon the world, and empowered the region’s most malign regional actor, Iran. There was no finer, or tragic, Wilsonian moment than when the hapless incompetent President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” even as his fantasies of democratic transformation were collapsing into seemingly endless sectarian war. Few American presidents have caused so much harm while believing they were doing good.
Today Americans still fall for Wilson’s enduring rhetoric even though his policies continue to result in death and destruction on a mass scale. Can President Joe Biden, who has a laudable concern for human rights, avoid the siren call of Wilsonian intervention, which resulted in so much horror over the last century?
Americans who died in World War I deserve a monument. However, the better way to honor them would be tear down statues of the malign fool who sent them into war, Woodrow Wilson. He should be forever removed from the pantheon of “great presidents.” He never was one, and his foreign policy legacy gets only bloodier and more destructive over time.