A century ago Congress declared war on Imperial Germany. It was a bizarre decision: the secure New World voluntarily joined the Old World slaughterhouse, consigning more than 117,000 Americans to death for no intelligible reason.
The chief outcome of the war was to sweep away several reasonably benign if imperfect “ancien regimes” while loosing various totalitarian bacilli. All too naturally, even, seemingly, inevitably, emerged communism, followed by fascism and Nazism. The so-called Great War’s unfinished business was finally settled only in World War II, after consuming as many as 80 million additional lives.
In April 1917 Europe had been at war almost three years. On June 28, 1914 a Serbian terrorist killed Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne of Austro-Hungary. Vienna accused Belgrade of complicity in the crime, which in fact was promoted by Serbian military intelligence. But the Russian Empire came to Serbia's defense. Imperial Germany sided with its ally, Austro-Hungary. France backed its treaty partner, the Russian Tsar.
Berlin's troops rolled through Belgium to attack France; Great Britain came in against Germany. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire joined the latter, known as the Central Powers. Romania and Italy backed the Entente. Rome sold its participation to the highest territorial bidder, winning promises of Austro-Hungarian lands at war's end. Japan saw an opportunity to grab Germany's Pacific territories and also joined the conflict.
The resulting horror vindicated America's decision to remain aloof. The alliance system turned out to be a transmission belt of war. Millions upon millions of people died as a result.
There was little to choose between the two sides. The many failings of the German-led Central Powers were highlighted, and exaggerated, by brilliant British propagandists aided by America's establishment Eastern press. In fact, however, no one had clean hands.
Every combatant bore blame for the conflict, starting with Serbia, which was complicit in an act of essentially state terrorism. The Entente members were no tribunes of liberalism. Certainly not the anti-Semitic despotism of the Tsar. Belgium was a vicious colonial power; the Belgian Congo may have been the most misgoverned territory in Africa. Great Britain was a more benign ruler, but still brutally suppressed any subject people who sought self-determination. France was an angry revanchist power, determined on war to win back territory seized by Berlin in the Franco-Prussian War. Italy sold its people's blood for land. Some alliance.
The only sensible decision was for America to stay out. There was no conceivable threat to the U.S. The Atlantic insulated America from invasion. More important, prior to Washington’s intervention no European power had a quarrel with the U.S. It really didn’t matter much to the American people whether Tsar Nicholas or Kaiser Wilhelm was Europe’s dominant monarch, France regained territory it had lost after grabbing it in prior conflicts, or the ramshackle Hapsburg empire of Austro-Hungary maintained its influence in the Balkans. To paraphrase Germany’s late “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the results weren’t worth the blood of a single American infantryman.
Unfortunately, however, in the midst of the disastrous Progressive Era, as social engineers grabbed political power to ply their arrogant trade, a Republican Party split allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency in 1912. There was perhaps no president more sanctimonious and certain of his own righteousness. He was, it was said, hoping to fill the first vacancy in the Trinity. His ambitions did not stop at remaking America. He desired to transform the entire world. And that required that the U.S. become a combatant since otherwise his grandly unrealistic schemes for a new global order would be ignored. He was precisely the wrong man to have in the White House with Europe aflame.
He could not tell Americans he wanted to take them into war because of his megalomaniacal desire to dictate international affairs. Instead, he took Great Britain’s side in the war’s maritime disputes and allowed events to play out. The result was as he wished.
London employed skilled propaganda agents in America, who used faked atrocity stories to blacken Germany’s reputation (which made listeners less willing to believe what turned out to be true reports a couple decades later). British ships also cut the transatlantic cable, allowing London to control news that reached America.
Britain violated international law and the rights of neutral nations, most importantly America, while imposing a starvation blockade on Germany. The latter retaliated with U-boat warfare, a new innovation. When submarines attempted to comply with the dictates of traditional maritime warfare—by surfacing to challenge British merchantman—British ships rammed and sank the subs. So Berlin proceeded to torpedo British vessels without warning.
American lives were lost and President Wilson made an astonishing claim: U.S. citizens had an absolute right to book passage on armed merchant vessels designated as reserve cruisers carrying munitions through a war zone. The most famous case of allowing London to mix “bullets and babies,” as a frustrated Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan pointed out, was the Lusitania. It was torpedoed on May 7, 1915; it sank as a result of the secondary explosion of the ammunition it was carrying. Despite his pretense of neutrality Wilson made his biases clear: “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.” Recognizing that Wilson was determined for war, Bryan resigned the following month.
In an attempt to forestall U.S. intervention, Berlin backed away from unrestricted submarine warfare. President Wilson won reelection as the man who kept America out of war. But he pushed military “preparedness” and was frustrated by his inability to impose his will on the combatants. As the conflict dragged on and hundreds of thousands of men died on both sides in fruitless trench war on the Western Front, Germany decided to return Britain’s favor by trying to starve the island nation into submission. In January 1917 Berlin unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare.
On February 3 Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Berlin but held off on formal entry into the conflict, fearing that he lacked sufficient public support. On April 2 he requested that Congress declare war, claiming that “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.” It was nothing of sort: Wilson’s eloquence was calculated dishonesty. Indeed, he expressed shock that a government “that had hitherto subscribed to the humane practices of civilized nations” would engage in submarine warfare but conveniently ignored Great Britain’s illegal blockade which targeted the Central Powers’ civilian populations.
There was strong resistance from a handful of Senators more concerned about America’s interests than Wilson’s fantasies—most notably Minnesota Progressive Republican Robert La Follette, a genuine American hero. However, the reluctance of America’s heartland counted for little. On April 6 the House followed the Senate in voting for war and propelled America into the Europeans’ last imperial conflict.
Washington’s entry was a disaster for the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the world. American assistance was critical for the allied victory. However, no American other than Wilson benefited as a result. The U.S. troops were brave but ill-trained; American commanders were incautious and ambitious. Thousands of brave soldiers and Marines died unnecessarily.
As for Europe, Washington’s assistance was critical for victory. With the collapse of Russia’s Tsarist government in April and Soviet revolution in November, Germany was able to shift troops to the west and make one last attempt at victory. But that effort failed. Without America’s involvement a compromise peace loomed likely as the exhausted powers—the French military mutinied while Austro-Hungary teetered on the edge of collapse and German morale plummeted. Alas, the infusion of U.S. aid and troops put the Entente over the top.
However, Wilson’s subsequent attempt to dictate a glorious peace through “the war to end war,” as he termed it, proved to be a disaster. The Versailles peace conference wantonly violated his famed 14 Points as fellow allied leaders plundered the losing powers, traded subject populations as casino chips, trashed principle whenever it was to their advantage, and manipulated his idealistic vision to suit their pragmatic ends. The losers had no stake in maintaining the settlement: Germans called it the Diktat. Even some of the victors, most notably Italy, were unhappy at not gaining more loot. The French military commander Ferdinand Foch presciently said of the agreement: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia a few months after America’s entry into the war, creating the first communist nation. After the conflict ended Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts put the fascists in power in Italy. Around the same time World War I veteran Adolf Hitler took over a small nationalist party, beginning his rise to power in Germany. The following years allowed the former combatants to catch their breath before returning to the unfinished business of 1918.
World War II followed naturally.
The most obvious modern Wilsonians are the Neoconservatives. Alas, the result of their handiwork in Iraq had the same catastrophic character as Wilson's decision to drag America into World War I. The major difference is that Iraq was of minor geopolitical stakes compared to Europe. Wilson inadvertently set in motion a process that ravaged Europe, Imperial Russia and the Middle East, and slaughtered tens of millions of people. The Neocons merely wrecked the Mideast and killed hundreds of thousands.
Good intentions are never enough to justify government action, especially foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson's nominal idealism proved to be deadly. Americans should ponder the lessons of his fateful course. It's time for U.S. presidents to work hard for peace rather than take what has become the far easier path to war.