Centennial of a Disaster

April 6, 2017 is the centennial of one of the greatest disasters in the history of American government.  President Woodrow Wilson, days earlier, had asked Congress to declare war on Germany, effectively entering the First World War on the side of the Allied Powers.  Wilson gave no compelling arguments for sending American men across the ocean to die.

The most common rationale was that the Germans resumed "unrestricted submarine warfare," but those are specious grounds, using rules largely written by the British, who controlled the surface of the seas.  The Germans went to great lengths to assuage American opinion, even running advertisements in American newspapers warning shipping firms and the public of the danger of sailing in certain zones.

Why was it fine to stop a freighter with wheat sailing from neutral America to neutral Holland, upon threat of sinking, which is precisely what the Royal Navy did throughout the war?  Both sides were using every tool they possessed to force the other to make peace.  Blockades of neutral nations by the British, surprise U-Boat attacks by the Germans, poison gas, and flamethrowers and other horrors were used by both.

All of the six major combatants – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Russia – were imperfect nations, but none of these remotely approached the great evil powers we would see in the Second World War.  All six of these – including imperial Germany and tsarist Russia – had elected national assemblies with multiple political parties that were openly critical of the regime. 

Most importantly, by April 1917, all six of these nations were desperate for peace and so repulsed by the nightmare of modern, industrialized, nationalized war that nothing more than an armistice was needed to insure peace for the next hundred years.  In the years after the First World War ended, one thing Frenchmen, Germans, and Brits could agree on is that nothing could ever justify another war.  Even in the pre-war years of Hitler, while the Germans relished his bloodless conquests, they dreaded actual conflict.

The reason Wilson asked Congress to declare war is pretty well understood.  Wilson believed that government is the proper cure for national problems.  The Federal Reserve System, that unaccountable and supra-constitutional invention that plagues us to this day, was one of his "cures" for a problem that did not exist.

Total victory by the Allied Powers would create the prospect of imposing terms and creating a system of international government.  War also allowed Wilson to terrorize citizens who expressed the slightest doubt about going to war or the least sympathy for Germany's position.  Americans were arrested without warrant or probable cause, and civil liberties were ruthlessly squashed.

Wilson asked Congress to declare war on April 2, but he could have been thwarted and the world saved much misery if Congress on April 6 had done the right thing and voted not to declare war.  If Congress had done so, then the First World War would have ended in a negotiated peace at some point soon, and America could have offered its good offices (although with financial help to both sides) to reach a lasting and fair peace.

Hitler would never have come to power, and Nazism would have never grabbed Germany by the throat.  Lenin would never have been able to overthrow the Provisional Government of Kerensky, the non-Marxist and non-totalitarian regime that replaced the tsar.  There would have been no Second World War, no Holocaust, and no Holodomor.

Congress failed to check Wilson, though the Senate, at least, would soon enough burst the bubble of his League of Nation fantasy.  Congress was invested by the Constitution with great powers, much greater than the two other branches, and the power to declare (or not declare) war is surely among the greatest of those powers.

One hundred years ago, when it counted most, Congress failed the American people; failed the nation; and, perhaps most importantly, failed its own institutional purpose.  Congress was intended to be the bulwark of the states (the Senate) and the people (the House) against rogue presidents and the pox of internationalism, a sickness the Founding Fathers feared. 

All the hubbub in history programs this April is about "America entering the First World War," but the real story is Congress assuming the position of lapdog to a lousing president, something it did not have to do.