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

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I
Reviewed by David Beer

The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I

by Thomas Fleming
Basic Books, 2003

President Wilson Visits General Pershing at Chaumont, Christmas Day 1918

We don't have to go very far in The Illusion of Victory to realize that the late author Thomas Fleming is no admirer of President Woodrow Wilson—nor of America's role in the First World War and the president's attempts to play a significant part in the peace process. Yet this 500-page volume is interesting and easy to read. It's also a sweeping panorama of the political and military background of the war, Fleming's focus being primarily the motivations and machinations of the politicians of the time, particularly Woodrow Wilson. I was intrigued by this book even though by the end I had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling about the war of "Why did we bother?"

That isn't my true feeling about America and WWI of course, but it is an indication of how well the author shows us the war experience through the filter of his own impressions and interpretations. Many critics have labeled the book "revisionist", but it's still well worth reading, whether you agree with Fleming or not. We're presented with a U.S. helplessly at the mercy of British propaganda. We follow an unpalatable Wilson who had not only left academia in "a cloud of acrimony, having alienated almost everyone," but who also possessed an unhealthy appetite for fame. He was overly edgy and sensitive, was "careless about facts and had a volatile, vindictive temper," and was always ready to denounce his opponents as treacherous and un-American. His naïve idealism caused him to try to interfere in European affairs and arrange with the warring nations a "peace without victory"—which was rejected and which caused former president Theodore Roosevelt and other Republicans to practically label Wilson as a traitor.

You'll meet all the well-known political figures involved in the war in The Illusion of Victory. I think the one who comes off best is Colonel House, whose fidelity to the president and whose political and social savvy played a considerable part in war decisions and negotiations. On occasion he pretty much saved Wilson from himself in both the domestic and international arenas—until the president decided to drop him. Teddy Roosevelt, of course, was the perpetual thorn in Wilson's side, while Franklin Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy Department, appears self-seeking, ready to undermine authority, and with an agenda of his own.

Of special interest is the president's wife, Edith, a woman fiercely devoted to protecting and supporting her husband no matter what, and who practically ran the White House during the many months while her husband was incapacitated. Robert Lansing, Joseph Tumulty, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Cabot Lodge, George Creel, and many others fill the stage of this lively drama of a world at war and a country increasingly filled with "war hate" and almost unbelievable civil repression.

Although politics and diplomacy (for better or worse, mostly worse) are the main subjects of this book, the practical aspects of America's participation in the war are not ignored. It's not a cheerful story. The author deals with the usual timeline: military unpreparedness, overly hasty preparation, green troops landing in France and soon facing the enemy, and the constant tug by the British and French to replace their own corpses with American bodies. All U.S. combat operations are touched on, and the way Belleau Wood is dealt with is typical.

Fleming argues that the story of Belleau Wood has been distorted by myth and misinformation (he gives examples) and that many green young marines died there needlessly due to the ignorance, ambition, and recklessness of senior officers. Although reported in the U.S. press as a great victory, the slaughter at Belleau Wood actually "revealed the horrendous limitations of General Pershing's version of open warfare" (p. 227). In a similar vein, in the Argonne "everything imaginable proceeded to go wrong with Pershing's army" (p. 270), an army in which five of the nine divisions had never seen combat before—including 2,100 men who had never fired a gun. Soon some 100,000 men deserted from the battle, hiding in the rear, and Pershing had to order officers to shoot men who ran away (p. 271).

Tired Men of the 91st Division in the Argonne

If this sweeping panorama of World War One were a novel, I think the climax would be the unhappy fate of President Wilson's Fourteen Points, the League of Nations, and the tragic outcome of the Treaty of Versailles. As you might expect, given the book's angle, President Wilson ends his presidency an ill, bitterly disappointed, and practically broken man. Moreover, the nation's enthusiasm for the war quickly melted as a result of unsuccessful ratifications and continued strife in Europe. The editors of the Los Angeles Times decided that "It is quite impossible to tell what the war made the world safe for" (p. 449). France and Britain traditionally downplayed America's contribution to victory—which is probably why a British Army captain I chatted with a few years ago sadly had no idea that the United States had even been involved in World War One.

Many readers will consider this book overly negative or outright revisionist. I feel, however, that Thomas Fleming has written an extremely readable book that is disputable because of the author's interpretation of facts rather than because of false or alternative facts. His title sets out his thesis clearly—and as we know, an illusion can often consist of a vision that others don't experience. Yet with its clear and lively prose, numerous notes, and sources, full index and several interesting black-and-white photos, The Illusion of Victory is a book I would highly recommend reading.

David Beer


  1. I had not heard of this book, but your excellent review makes it next on my list.

  2. For a minute there, I thought I was reading about our current POTUS: "... but who also possessed an unhealthy appetite for fame. He was overly edgy and sensitive, was "careless about facts and had a volatile, vindictive temper," and was always ready to denounce his opponents as treacherous and un-American. His naïve idealism caused him to try to interfere in European affairs and arrange with the warring nations a "peace without victory"

  3. Thank you for your review. I read the book several years ago and thought well of it. I, however, object to using the term "revisionist," asa pejorative. Revisionist isn't necessarily bad sometimes it is needed like the recent biographies of U. S. Grant and the reconstruction era. Call a book revisionist in regard to the First World War associates it with the works of Harry Elmer Barnes and other critics of American intervention some of them were bad history some were not they were all called revisionist. But many of the official histories they were meant to revise were not go histories either.

  4. Excellent reviews, David. It sounds as though this book is similar to the one published by an author named Pines a couple of years ago. To those who take this approach I ask two questions. How could Wilson have avoided war? Germany was sinking American ships and the major pressure was for intervention not staying out. The more ships sunk, the more lives lost, the stronger the pressure would grow to enter the war. The second question addresses the aftermath of the war. It is possible that the Allies might have lost without US intervention. Yes, the world after the war was a mess, but what would it to have been like to face a Germany in control of all of Europe east of the Marne? With our focus on the West, we tend to lose sight that in the East the Kaiser accomplished what Hitler failed to do a generation later. Germany could have become the world's super power.

    1. There's an interesting alternate history novel along these lines. 1920: America's Great War, by Robert Conroy.

  5. fine review; the book is well-researched and written. the author brings up points worth reviewing.

  6. I hope that Mr Beer reads “William C Lambert, World War One Flying Ace” and writes a review of it. I enjoy his reviews and I would like him to review a book that is more individualistic, not so panoramic. Would enjoy his insight about America’s second highest scoring ace. We frequently hear of the guy at the top of the totem pole, would be excellent to read his review of the No. 2 man in enemy kills.
    Thank you!!

  7. Prof. Fleming is not alone in thinking that Belleau Wood was a fouled-up operation. See, e.g., Edward G. Lengel's very detailed description of the fight for Belleau Wood in his book THUNDER AND FLAMES (2015, U of Kansas Press). Fismette doesn't seem to come off much better. It makes me wonder why the hard-won "lessons learned" at Cantigny, Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood were not drilled into the newer US divisions coming on line. Instead, these newer divisions - and their commanders - seemed to have been left to make the same bloody mistakes that the Marines and the Army's 1st and 2nd Divisions had learned the hard way.

  8. Cf my review: