WASHINGTON, July 22, 2014 – World War I began one hundred years ago. In that war, 8.5 million or more from both sides died, and more than 20 million were severely wounded. In Europe’s first total war, called the Great War until the second one came, seven million civilians also died.
What was the cause of World War I? What were the two sides fighting about?
Few good answers can be discovered 100 years later. And there are fewer good answers to the question of why we, the United States, were involved. And among historians there has been much speculation about how the 20th century might have evolved if Woodrow Wilson kept his promise to the American people to keep us out.
World War I really began in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie by a young nationalist seeking a greater Serbia. The war that followed destroyed kings, Kaisers, czars and sultans and demolished empires.
It introduced chemical weapons, tanks and airborne bombing.
Even now, historians disagree over who is responsible for the war. For some, Germany is to blame. For others, the system of alliances, driven by concern about the weakness of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and the growing strength of Germany and Russia, set the stage for war, regardless of the particular precipitating act.
In England, a debate continues over whether the British should have been involved at all.
Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College, London notes:
“The sense that the war was futile and unnecessary still hangs over a lot of the discussion in Britain. Those who argue that this was a war that had to be fought and for good reasons have a harder struggle than with World War II, which is considered clear in terms of who to blame and how it started.”
Why the U.S. entered World War I, which was locked in stalemate in 1917 and might well have eventually ended with a negotiated peace settlement of some kind if U.S. participation did not provide the basis for an Allied victory, remains obscure and far from clear.
Woodrow Wilson, now lionized by neo-conservatives who took us to war in Iraq for reasons which remain difficult to understand, and who urge a pre-emptive war with Iran and military action in almost any area of tension from Syria to Ukraine, emerges as the man who, almost single-handedly, took us into World I with dire consequences for us and for the world.
Wilson, one of the first “Progressives,” was dubious about the merits of the U.S. Constitution. He preferred a parliamentary system and opposed the system of separation of powers and checks and balances which he believed unduly restrained the power of the president. Wilson was also a strong advocate of segregation. Upon assuming the presidency, he re-segregated U.S. government offices which had been integrated prior to his election.
When segregating the federal government was criticized, Wilson responded that having blacks in separate quarters with separate facilities would make them less likely to be discriminated against by whites. When he faced a black delegation which objected to segregation in the fall of 1914, he ordered them out of his office and called them “unchristian.”
Wilson supported the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of territory such as Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, on the grounds that the Americans would bring “civilization” there. As president, he was prepared to intervene in the affairs of America’s neighbors, by force if necessary.
He once told a British diplomat, “I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men.”
When he sent American forces to intervene in Mexico’s internal affairs, he said, “We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find out the way.”
Initially, Wilson advocated U.S. neutrality in World War I and promised voters that he would keep the U.S. out of the conflict. His 1916 re-election campaign had as its theme the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
After he was elected, he changed course, squelched dissent, and mobilized the economy for war. This, he said, would be a “war to end wars” and make the “world safe for democracy.”
Wilson slowly moved toward entering the war. His Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned in protest of Wilson’s movement toward war. When Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany, he cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean and its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the U.S. as reasons for declaring war.
On May 4, 1916, the German government signed what became known as the “Sussex pledge,” agreeing to refrain from attacking all passenger ships and allowing the crews of enemy merchant vessels to escape from their ships prior to any attack. By January 1917, things changed. Representatives from the German Navy convinced the military leadership that a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare could help defeat Great Britain within five months.
German policymakers argued that they could violate the “Sussex pledge” because the U.S. could no longer be considered a neutral party after supplying munitions and financial assistance to the Allies.
The precise reason for Wilson’s decision to choose war remains the subject of debate. in fact, at the time, international law stipulated that the placing of U.S. Naval personnel on civilian ships already constituted an act of war.
In “The American Political Tradition,” historian Richard Hofstadter provides this assessment of Wilson’s statement in April 1917 that he must stand by the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships in the war zone:
“This was rationalization of the flimsiest sort…The British had also been intruding on the rights of American citizens on the high seas, but Wilson was not suggesting going to war with them.”
In Wilson’s mind, U.S. entry would tip the balance toward the more democratic countries, England and France (discounting authoritarian Russia) and enable him to construct a better international order.
In that new order, the rights and territorial integrity of nations large and small would be guaranteed and some sort of international body would be created to prevent war and improve humankind.
As we know, it didn’t quite work out that way. Wilson’s new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, warned about the ill-defined notion of “self-determination.”
What made a nation–ethnicity, culture, religion–and how far could peoples be divided into smaller and smaller units. And how could the competing claims to national territory be adjudicated? And did Wilson’s allies really share any of his idealistic notions about the future? At the end of 1919, Wilson told the Senate the he himself had come to regret that he ever uttered the words “all nations had a right to self-determination.”
At Versailles, the Germans were declared to be the guilty party and harsh reparations were imposed, setting the stage for seething resentment, the rise of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust. The Ottoman Empire was dismantled. Today’s Syrian civil war and the advance of Islamic militants toward Baghdad are ripping up the colonial borders drawn by the British and French, with Russian assent, in 1916, to which Woodrow Wilson was oblivious.
Even the Balfour Declaration, which threw British support behind the establishment of a Jewish state In Palestine, was signed during the war in 1917, even though Jews constituted a small minority of the population in Palestine.
Indeed, some in England were critical of Lord Balfour. Lord Curzon, the representative of the House of Lords in the War Cabinet, who would succeed Balfour as Foreign Secretary in 1919, opposed the declaration.
He opposed Britain making a commitment to establish a Jewish state in a land that “already has an indigenous population of its own of a different race.” According to George Kidston, who served in the Middle East division of the Foreign Office, Balfour promised Palestine to the Zionists “irrespective of the wishes of the great bulk of the population.”
Woodrow Wilson, despite his repeated embrace of the concept of “self-determination,” supported Balfour and the idea of a British protectorate in Palestine to replace the defeated Ottomans.
The artificial boundaries of today’s Middle East are a direct result of the victorious European powers dividing the spoils of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. At the time, Lord Balfour declared that, “Surely, President Wilson did not seriously mean to apply his formula (regarding self-determination of peoples) outside Europe.” Whether he did or not, he acquiesced in the result. The division of the Middle East, writes Margaret MacMillan in “Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed The World,” was “reasonable enough if you were a Western imperialist.”
As a result of World War I, despite Wilson’s alleged commitment to “self-determination,” the victors divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Syria were handed to the French to administer. Britain’s de facto control over a number of countries was legally mandated: Cyprus, Egypt and Sudan became colonies while Iraq and Palestine were declared British “mandates.”
World War 1 was also “pivotal in the collapse of the defense against anti-Semitism in Germany,” writes Holocaust historian Christopher Browning. Humiliating defeat, brought about because of U.S. entry into the war, made a wider swath of German society receptive to the view that the Jews were “Germany’s misfortune,” as anti-Semites put it. After Germany’s defeat on the Western Front, nationalists helped spread the myth that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitors including socialists and Jews. The defeat radicalized Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism, turning it into an obsessive belief that Germany’s redemption required the “removal” of the Jews, as he put it in 1929.
If the U.S. had never entered World War I we cannot, of course, know how that war would have ended nor how the world would have evolved. It seems likely, however, that the way things did develop, and the disasters to which World War I directly led, might have been averted.
And Woodrow Wilson’s decision to take us into a war which we might have avoided, whether for idealistic or other reasons, should give us pause when contemplating involvement in wars in which we have not been attacked and cannot properly cite self-defense as the basis for action.
The world is in an increasingly precarious state of affairs. Much of this can be traced to the U.S. decision one hundred years ago to participate in World War 1, naively subscribing to the slogans of the day, that this would be the “war to end wars” and to “make the world safe for democracy.” Although it has often been said that the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, it would be a wonderful gift to future generations if we could finally break that pattern.