Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

America's Road to War: Did President Wilson Make the Right Decision? No, Says Author Burton Yale Pines


Our contributor is former foreign correspondent and editor for Time magazine, who later headed a team of policy experts at a Washington think tank during  the Reagan administration He is the author of the award-winning America's Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One.


Burton Yale Pines
Exactly a century ago, Woodrow Wilson on 2 April 1917 addressed Congress, asking for a declaration of war on Imperial Germany. His speech was eloquent. It also was puzzling—and troubling. Nowhere did Wilson accuse Germany of doing anything to America to warrant our ending neutrality and going to war. He didn't because he couldn't. Germany had launched no attack on us. Germany was not threatening us. Germany, since war's outbreak in August 1914, had been extraordinarily respectful of American neutrality—unlike Britain which repeatedly violated our rights as a neutral.

Then what reasons did Wilson list for sending Americans into battle? His justification: "To make the world safe for democracy." The war, he added, would be a fight for "peace and justice." Four days later, Congress, on 6 April, gave him war. It was an action setting the young 20th century on its course of horrifying violence and destruction.

When the European war had erupted on 2 August 1914, no one thought that it would become America's war. Wilson immediately proclaimed neutrality, a policy fully backed by the nation. So, why did we abandon neutrality to mobilize America's massive industry and manpower to help Britain and France?

There were five big factors.

The first was Britain's phenomenally effective propaganda campaign distorting and fabricating facts to convince Americans that Germany was their enemy. London controlled all information flowing to America. All dispatches from Europe to the U.S. went via Britain, where heavy censorship was imposed. What Americans thought they knew about the war, about Germany, about the Allies, about the battlefield, about troop behavior, about atrocities, about home front conditions all were determined by Britain.

The picture painted by Britain was of Germans as evil predators. Typical was the Bryce Report of May 1915. It professed to be an academic and impartial finding that Germany was committing atrocities—including crucifixion, gang rape, decapitation of POWs, sexual mutilation of Belgian and French women and bayoneting of Belgian infants. As extensive studies after the war concluded, just about everything in the Bryce Report were lies. But, in 1915, as it swept America, it was acclaimed as credible, fixing in American minds the indelible notion of Germans as barbarians.

The second factor undermining U.S. neutrality was America's growing banking, farming and manufacturing dependence on sales to the Allies. This created a huge lobby pushing for America to help the Allies.

The third factor was the March 1917 Russian revolution. By toppling the despotic Romanov dynasty, it removed an obstacle that had been preventing American liberals and progressives and such huge groups as Poles, Finns, and Jews from backing Britain and France, which were allied with the Russia they hated.

The fourth factor was Wilson's feeling that if he were to have a seat at an eventual peace table, then America would have to fight.

A Section of the U.S. St. Mihiel Cemetery
This Was Part of the Price President Wilson Was 

Willing to Pay for a Seat at the Peace Table


And fifth, nothing was more devastating to German standing in America than the U-boat. Americans felt that Germany's U-boat attacks were behavior unacceptable for a civilized nation, akin to a mugging in a dark alley. But the U-boat issue had two sides. Britain, by imposing a blockade and stopping American ships from reaching Germany, was violating our freedom of the seas and our rights as a neutral. Yet Wilson never denounced Britain for that. By contrast, he excoriated the U-boats, even though they were not attacking American ships. Thus America increasingly saw Germany as an outlaw nation.

But Germany viewed the U-boat as a legitimate weapon to break the British blockade. U-boats hunted British and French ships; but U-boats did not attack neutrals. Not until February 1917. Then, desperately attempting to force Britain to lift its blockade, Berlin ordered U-boats to fire on all ships—including neutrals—in the German-imposed war zone around France and Britain. And these attacks, on very few U.S. ships, were cited by Wilson in his call for war.

So America declared war. And the result was decisive. Near war's end— when we were fighting in the Argonne—there were two million Doughboys on the Front. And Pershing was asking a receptive Wilson for two million more. These Doughboys were fresh and eager, in striking contrast to the British, French and Germans who then were fielding their 3rd and even 4th generation of recruits. With their huge numbers and enthusiasm these Doughboys won the war. They tilted the battlefield balance, ending the stalemate and guaranteeing Britain and France the victory allowing them to impose on Germany their draconian armistice and peace—ignoring everything that Wilson had promised Germany: a "peace without victory" and a "peace between equals."

And had America not gone to war. Then what?

Both sides surely would have had to negotiate an end to the conflict. Of course, they would do this reluctantly, balking at admitting that all their suffering had been in vain. But as 1918 unfolded, they would have little choice. Both sides were running out of manpower; were imposing stricter rationing and tightening their economic belts; and were dealing with mounting calls for peace. At a conference table they would do what combatants had been doing in every major European war since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648: They would compromise. Some territory would be exchanged; some reparations would be imposed; some lines on a map would be redrawn.

It would be, as Wilson long had advocated, "a peace without victors." There would be no one-sided armistice and no Versailles Treaty inflicting horrific punishment on Germany. There would be no conditions that allowed an obscure demagogue like Hitler to enthrall and mobilize masses against Versailles and, more consequential, against the young German democracy.

There thus would have been no Hitler, no WWII and likely no Cold War. Was it a blunder for America to go to war? Indeed, yes. Likely the greatest foreign policy blunder in America's history.

This article is based on the author's work: America's Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One.


Tomorrow:  The United States of America Declares War

8 comments:

  1. Intriguing summary of the anti-war arguments.
    How does the book hold up?

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  2. Q: The Zimmermann letter indicates a quite different approach from Germany than expounded here.....so I ma not so sure of Germanys lack of empire intentions. They needed and wanted to be a sea power like Britain...for the US that was not in our interest?

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  3. The "then what?" is certainly not true. Any "negotiated peace" from where the armies stood in 1917 would have favored Germany...greatly. The Low Countries and much of northern France would have become German territories, and much of Russia and the Ukraine as well.

    For those reasons alone neither France nor Britain nor Belgium would have found any negotiations with Germany at all productive. And Germany didn't have to negotiate at all.

    Yet Germany was starving. It would not have taken long for the German fleet to be either deployed to envelop the French coast or attack England directly...that or they would have been sent into the trenches. With the rebuilt armies from the East and 2 million or so fresh sailors...how long would France have lasted?

    And no Cold War? Does the author have any good idea what caused that? Clearly not. Hint: it wasn't Potsdam.

    In sum, this essay solipsistic nonsense. The U-boats attacked neutrals regularly. Ignoring the Zimmerman Telegram (as the clueless author did because it would have destroyed his argument) sinking a single American ship should have been enough.

    No, negotiated peace was not possible. By 1940 Germany (defined as everything between the English Channel and the Don by then) and Communist Russia would have gone to war in a matter of decades, with Japan going at the rump of the British Empire and what was once America soon after.

    Or, the Martians would have invaded Earth. Either scenario is possible.

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    1. Are you saying: that had a negotiated piece been accomplished that Germany would have extended from the English Channel to the river Don deep in Russia? Wasn't that Hitler's aim, taking the Ukraine and the Caspian oil?

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    2. The only sensible point made by the writer is that the Martians would have invaded Earth.

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  4. Quite apart from the arguments above, the article makes interesting reading for a British reader like myself. The British are presented as being as devious as the Germans. To this day the British are completely mystified as to why the Americans didn't join in on Day 1 in both wars. Its just so obvious... why wouldn't they? I'm talking about popular culture rather than serious historians, though many of the latter are not so far removed from that position. We have a Special Relationship with the USA, don't we? (Most Americans have never heard of it). Notwithstanding the fact that a considerable number of Americans are of German origin and at least a few fought for Germany in the WW1. And at least until the 1930s, US Naval policy for the Atlantic assumed that if there was a war, it would be with Britain.
    Perhaps the correct perspective is that the Americans had more sense than to get involved in wars. Until they became a superpower themselves, then they became pretty much like all previous superpowers

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    1. You make interesting points.

      The "Special Relationship" was a product of WWII and the years after. There was no Special Relationship in 1914. In fact, in that year, the largest immigrant group in the U.S. was the German; one-fourth of all Americans were of German Origin. The second or third largest immigrant group was the Irish -- determined to oppose Britain. Other large U.S. immigrant groups -- Poles, Finns and Jews -- hated and had fled from the despotic Russian Czarist regime; these groups would do nothing to support a British (and French) alliance with Russia. In fact, in some U.S. cities, there were efforts by Jews to form Jewish battalions to fight on the side of Germany. So, based on U.S. demographics, there was much to argue that the U.S. should not support the UK-French-Russian alliance.

      The British were absolutely as devious -- more devious -- than the Germans in the years between the start of WWI and 1917 when the U.S. entered the war. The U.K. subjected the U.S. to a steady campaign of lies about the war and about Germany. The U.K. in imposing a war zone around Germany and creating a tight blockade, violated America's freedom of the seas and its rights as a neutral. American merchantmen dared not risk running the British blockade, fearing that they would be attacked, even though they were neutrals. Had American ships similarly respected the German war zone around the U.K., then no U-boats would have attacked U.S. ships.

      Burton Pines

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  5. I am very glad this was posted, as I missed the opportunity to comment on Mr. Pines' book when it was first published. I disagreed with many points the author made then, and I considered the book superficial at times and misleading at others. His post here repeats these errors.
    You can divide Mr. Pine's points into two categories. First is his description of historical events, which I find misleading, and second is his counterfactual argument about what would have happened if Wilson had not chosen war.
    First of all, in terms of his historical interpretations, Mr. Pines says that every war in Europe since 1648 had ended in a compromise, “a peace without victors” Is this true of the end of the 7 Years War? Clearly, the coalition of France and Spain was defeated with the result that France lost all of its North American colonies, and Spain lost Florida. Both countries were left embittered and eager to reverse the loss when the American Revolution gave them the opportunity for a rematch. Wasn’t Napoleon defeated at Waterloo, and didn’t the victors impose regime change, territorial losses, reparations and occupy France? Was the Treaty of Brest Litovsk a compromise peace? I think not.
    He says Wilson had no reason to go to war against Germany, yet the Germans started sinking American vessels at the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The British blockade caused economic losses. Germany’s U-boat campaign cost lives. From February 1, 1917 to our declaration of war in early April, German subs had sunk 10 American ships with dozens of casualties. How many more ships did they need to sink and how many more Americans needed to be killed before Mr. Pines would have felt war justified? What about the Zimmerman Telegram, offering Mexico territorial compensation for attacking the United States? He conveniently overlooks that.
    He says the war would have ended in stalemate in 1918. Really? Look at a balance sheet at the start of 1918 without the US actively in the war. German forces controlled almost all of Belgium and a large part of France. Germany had defeated Russia and had overcome its fundamental strategic dilemma of fighting a two front war. Germany’s victory in the east had for all intents and purposes broken the British blockade, as Germany now had access to the food and resources of Eastern Europe. Time would now be on the side of Germany. It could take its time, restock its larder and strengthen its allies. Germany would have no longer been under the pressure to defeat France and Britain in the Spring of 1918 if it was not faced with American troops pouring into France, The Germans could take their time and pick their battles in the West. Now look at the Allies. The Russians were out of the war. The French army was still recovering from the mutinies of 1917. After the 3rd Battle of Ypres, there was serious distrust of the British high command by the Lloyd-George cabinet and an unwillingness to give Haig additional troops. Italy was still reeling from its defeat at Caporetto. The only bright spot on the Allied side was in Palestine, which was a side show at best.
    For the sake of argument, say the Germans went ahead with their series of offensives in the Spring of 1918. Would the French have been able to hold the line of the Marne River in late June and July without reinforcement by American troops? I think there is a better than even chance they would not have held making a German capture of Paris possible. With the capture of Paris, would the Allies have continued to fight on? I doubt it

    As a war leader and a peacemaker, Wilson made many mistakes. But it is a bit of a stretch to blame him for Hitler, World War II and the Cold War.

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