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

Friday, March 6, 2015

Interviewing Historian Thomas Fleming on America, President Wilson, and the Great War

Ten years ago I helped organize a group interview with noted historian and novelist Thomas Fleming on his work Illusion of Victory: Americans in World War I, a scathing criticism of  President Wilson's decision to bring America into the war and of his administration's conduct of the war, especially on the home front.  I recently ran across the interview and was impressed by Mr. Fleming's incisiveness. I  passed it by him to see if he had reconsidered any of the matters covered, and he stands by everything today that he shared with us in 2004.

Thomas Fleming Is One of America's Most Honored and Prolific Authors

1. Why did you conclude a reevaluation of America's participation in the Great War was needed today?

TF: I thought it was an important part of our history. Even a crucial part. The Great War is the fundamental event of the 20th century, from which so many things have flowed: World War II, the rise of communism, fascism, and Zionism, the destabilization of the Middle East, the emergence of America as a world power. 

In the final chapter of my book, I explore what I call America's "covenant with power" which developed from our experience in World War I. We discovered that power, not soaring ideals, was the critical factor in history. At the same time, idealism remained important to Americans. How to balance these two factors has been the problem that has troubled the United States ever since. 

2. Would not a requirement for America to maintain "True Neutrality" have been the abandonment of the "Freedom of the Seas" doctrine? Was this a feasible action for Wilson or any other president?

TF: Under Wilson's presidency there was no such thing as true neutrality. He abandoned the freedom of the seas doctrine, but in only one direction. He never seriously objected to the British blockade of Germany. He only objected strenuously to the German blockade of Great Britain. Millions of ethnic critics, notably the Irish-Americans and the German-Americans, spoke out against this travesty. So did Democrats such as William Jennings Bryan and Republicans such as Robert La Follette. Wilson's response was to accuse the ethnics of "pouring poison" into the veins of our national life. He accepted Bryan's resignation as secretary of state — and he pursued a vendetta against Senator La Follette which resulted in silencing him for most of the war.

3. By the spring of 1917, with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, plus the revelation of the Zimmerman telegram, could war have been avoided under these circumstances?

TF: The Zimmerman telegram probably made war unavoidable for America. Although a president who said he was "too proud to fight" after the Lusitania was sunk probably could have finessed it. The same thing might be said for unrestricted submarine warfare. As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said in an acerbic letter to Theodore Roosevelt, if Wilson was right about going to war in 1917, everything he had done for the previous two years was wrong. All this begs the fundamental question. Wilson's sham neutrality had produced these 1917 decisions in Berlin. The Germans regarded the United States as a de facto enemy — with good reason. American industry had become an adjunct of the British war effort. Of the five million pounds the British spent on weaponry and supplies each day, two million pounds, 10 million dollars, was spent in the United States. This comes to $986 million a week in 2002 dollars. British Munitions Ministry agents operated in hundreds of U.S. factories, rode freight trains, and supervised loading at U.S. docks to prevent sabotage. If you were a German, what would you think of all this?

4. There was considerable disagreement with your observation that a true or full neutrality by America would have led to a stalemate and presumably a settlement in 1915 or 1916. On the Western Front at that time, the Germans were occupying significant chunks of France and Flanders. The Germans would have had no incentive for surrendering the captured territory and most of us believe it is highly unlikely that the Allies would have accepted a settlement in place. The most likely scenario we see is continued fighting with the Germans gaining the upper hand. Comment?

TF: There is ample room for disagreement on this contention. I don't make it with absolute assurance. It is no more than a probability. The German peace offer of early 1917 did not make any demand for retaining the occupied areas of Belgium or France. They also supported the pope's peace initiative of mid-1917, which called for a return to prewar borders. There was a strong peace party in France, led by former premier Joseph Caillaux. In The Illusion of Victory I narrate how close they came to exiting the war in late 1917 after America had come in. Only in 1918, when Ludendorff and his fellow generals took over the German government, and reasonable men such as Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg were discarded, did a Deutschland Über Alles policy emerge in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and a determination to retain Belgium and portions of France. German war aims until this point were relatively modest — basically a recognition of Germany as the dominant power in Europe  — a status she occupies today. 

President Wilson Visiting General Pershing and the Troops
Christmas Day 1918, Chaumont, France

5. Wasn't President Wilson's awful record on civil liberties fully consistent with the historical pattern for America when we were involved in large wars? Lincoln and FDR seem open to similar charges although the specifics are different. 

TF: There is no doubt that Lincoln pursued a very tough (and little discussed) policy toward dissenters in the Civil War. Lincoln confronted (and destroyed) real conspiracies, such as the plan to set up a Northwest Confederacy in 1864. FDR was comparatively moderate in World War II, having learned from Wilson's mistakes. Roosevelt contended with and caught some real spies in the U.S. and fought a secret war in South America that has received little publicity. He put a few extremists on trial. 

In contrast, Wilson's record was uniquely awful. No other president tolerated creating the 250,000 vigilantes of the American Protective League, who operated as "Secret Service Divisions" and were empowered to spy on their neighbors and friends — tapping phone lines, putting recording devices in bedrooms. Worst of all, Wilson's mostly amateur agents did not catch a single spy, and they threw in jail thousands of fellow Americans who were only guilty of speaking their minds about the war.

6. There were lots of questions as to what President Wilson was thinking when he asked Congress to declare war? For instance, did he have reports from independent observers (e.g. U.S. military attachés) on the battlefield situation and did he anticipate the nation would eventually be mobilizing 4.7 million men and the entire economy? Did the president grossly underestimate the national sacrifice required?

TF: The answer to the latter end of this question is yes. Wilson underestimated the political and military realities of the war to an almost incredible degree. He assumed the war was as good as won. There is no evidence of reports from military attachés or other observers. Wilson seems to have relied for information on Colonel House, his unofficial representative abroad, and newspaper reports. The British and French propaganda machines strove mightily to give the impression that they were winning. American newsmen reporting from the German side of the lines complained their dispatches were suppressed or mutilated by British censors. Thanks to severing Germany's Atlantic cables, the British controlled almost all communication between Europe and America. 

Not until months after America declared war did the British and French send military missions to Washington, who told the truth — the Germans were winning. As one French general put it, "We want men, men, men!" Wilson was also strongly influenced by a message from the American ambassador to England, Thomas Nelson Page, a blatant Anglophile, that Great Britain would be bankrupt within two weeks, if the U.S. did not enter the war and provide her with funds. Also in the picture were cables from the U.S. Embassy in Paris, warning that French morale was cracking. I deal at length with Wilson's mindset, which was shared by everyone in his cabinet and Democratic leaders in Congress, in the early chapters of The Illusion of Victory

7. What were Wilson's greatest accomplishments as a war leader, commander-in-chief, and peace negotiator?

TF: Wilson's greatest accomplishment as commander-in-chief was the feat of creating a huge army and shipping over two million men to France in time to win the war. Next, thanks to his superb skills as an orator, he gave the war a patina of idealism — a struggle to make the world safe for democracy. Most Americans accepted this nostrum, which was concocted by the British, who ruled an empire of 440,000,000 people in which perhaps five percent had a vote. The truth was the war made the world safe for British and French imperialism. Wilson's ability to tap the latent idealism in every American's soul was crucial to a successful war effort. 

As a peace negotiator, Wilson was an egregious failure, both in Europe and America. He abandoned his "Fourteen Points" for a peace of reconciliation (on the basis of which Germany had agreed to an armistice) and joined the Europeans in forcing Germany to sign a vengeful peace treaty which sowed the seeds of World War II. Back in Washington, his refusal to compromise on his design of the League of Nations destroyed all hope of winning Senate ratification of the Versailles Treaty. Later, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, the Senate Democratic leader, said the vote he cast against the treaty on Wilson's orders was the greatest mistake of his life.

Contributing to these questions were Great War Society Members and guests: Leo & Noreen Benedetti, Sal Compagno, Brett Currie, Bob Denison, Jim Folger, Mike Hanlon, Alice Horner, George Linhart, Dana Lombardy, Terry McGill, Tony McIntosh, Anne Merritt, Bill O'Malley and John Wheat. Questions and responses were compiled by moderator Mike Hanlon.


  1. Great book, well worth reading

  2. I had not considered that the main war aim of Germany was to be the dominant power in Europe but it makes sense to put it that way. And this was eventually achieved.