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|
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.
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