Was American Intervention in WW I Justified?

Burton Yale Pines’s work America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One is hardly a new book. (It came out in 2012.) Nor was it published by a leading commercial press, despite the author’s long, distinguished career as a Time magazine correspondent and later, as vice-president of Heritage Foundation. My one, brief contact with Pines was our joint appearance on a panel featured by the Philadelphia Society in 1986, in which we were pitted against each other as a critic and defender of the neoconservatives’ influence on the American conservative movement. Our exchanges were extremely acrimonious; and I never again saw the person I jousted with. Although I tried to locate Pines after reading his book, all my efforts (and those of two of my daughters who have far better computer skills) failed. I wanted to congratulate the author on producing his work, which presents a comprehensive case for why the U.S. should have stayed out of World War I. Pines also shows (if further proof is needed) that from the outset the American government took sides in the European conflict and flubbed every opportunity to make peace between the warring blocs.

Most of these arguments have been made before, from Harry Elmer Barnes in the 1920s down to the Cato Institute’s Jim Powell in 2009 and less dramatically, in the historical studies of Justus Doenecke. Indeed there are so many sound revisionist historians who have written about America’s participation in World War I that it would take several pages to list them all. But no matter how cogent their reasoning and evidence, these scholars have been generally ignored by the national press, and since the rise of the neoconservatives, in establishment Republican publications. This may well explain the fate of Pines’ study, which is forcefully written and heavily documented. His contentions that an honest attempt at mediating a peace would have been better than American military intervention on the Allied side and his obvious revulsion for Wilson’s “crusade for democracy” may have cost him the good will of his longtime allies.

Let me note, however, that I don’t fully share Pines’ view, as expressed in his title, that America’s involvement in World War I somehow rendered inevitable the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia and Hitler’s rampage through Europe. America’s participation in the Great War cost over 115,000 lives, guaranteed an unjust treaty, and helped turn the U.S. into what Walter McDougall characterized as a “crusader state,” waging what Richard Gamble has deplored as “wars for righteousness.” Those things are bad enough without having to blame Wilson’s fateful decision (which by the way enjoyed overwhelming Republican support) for happenings to which it contributed only distantly. The Weimar Republic would have survived, despite Allied efforts to wring obscene reparations from Germany’s constitutional democracy while blaming the Germans exclusively for the war they lost. It was the effects of the Great Depression and a series of contingencies, brought about largely by the scheming of President von Hindenburg’s advisers,  that brought the Nazis to power. Although the continuation of the monarchy (a possibility that Wilson raged against) might well have prevented that disaster from occurring, the Republic would have survived if other circumstances had not intervened.

The Bolsheviks took power because the Russian imperial government had plunged headlong into a war from which it couldn’t extricate itself. Unlike the Provisional Government, which seized power from the tsarist regime in March 1917, Lenin and his confreres promised to pull Russia out of a bloody, seemingly endless struggle. The Bolsheviks obtained power, by allowing the Eastern front to collapse. Although Wilson’s government tried to keep the Russian war effort alive while appealing to “democratic” fraternity against “German militarism,” by the time the U.S. joined the fray, the Russian front was coming apart and the Communists were waiting in the wings. Although many grievous sins can be ascribed to the American interventionists, the Bolshevik coup d’état may not be one of them. It was the Germans who brought Lenin from Swiss exile to the Finland Station in Petrograd, in order to push their Russian enemies out of the war.

Pines also misses an opportunity to tell the full story about the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland on May 5, 1915. Although the German government warned American passengers to stay off this “war vessel,” the death of 128 Americans as a result of the attack allowed Wilson and his pro-British government to be more open about their pro-Allied sympathies. William Jennings Bryan, the secretary of state, resigned when it became apparent in which direction the president was going; and Bryan’s successor (and the uncle of John Foster Dulles) Robert Lansing, who was passionately in favor of the Allied side, succeeded him. Pines treats as a mystery as well as catastrophic blunder the torpedoing of the Lusitania, but then drops this information: In December, 2008 divers had “discovered a new piece of the puzzle” about why the ship “sank so quickly.” The subsequent report given in the British Daily Mail (December 19, 2008) affirmed that the vessel was carrying bullets and other ammunition that would be used to kill German soldiers. It sank so quickly because the contraband cargo on a ship registered as a British war vessel exploded as soon as a torpedo hit it. The same article also mentions that Churchill welcomed the destruction of the ship because he hoped it would draw the U.S. into the war.    

Despite this omission, Pines demonstrates that conventional accounts of the German danger faced by the U.S. in 1917 have been inaccurate. Germany posed absolutely no “military or security threat” to the U.S., when Wilson dragged the U.S. into war in the spring of 1917: “The only reality at that date was the extraordinarily bloody and costly stalemate that the war had become, with the sole certainty that no nation would emerge victorious or even healthy and that all would emerge weak and wounded and disillusioned.” The Germans resorted to submarine attacks on Allied sea vessels, in order to break a British starvation blockade that took many hundreds of thousands of German civilian lives and which may have killed more German inhabitants than all the aerial bombing of the Second World War. Pines stresses that the Wilson government was utterly indifferent to the use of this outrageous weapon, which was contrary to international law (although this weapon was permissible to England, which refused to sign the Hague Convention that barred it). The starvation blockade was only lifted in March 1919, months after the fighting ended, in order to make sure that the representatives of the Weimar Republic would sign “the dictated” Peace of Versailles. (The Germans were not allowed to negotiate the terms.)

For the record, Winston Churchill as first lord of the Admiralty began his blockade in the North Sea on August 1, one day before the Germans entered the war, that is, at the same time that Britain’s ally, Russia, mobilized about a million soldiers on the German and Austrian-Polish borders. Given such circumstances, Pines finds it impossible to assign exclusive or even primary blame for the war’s outbreak to the Germans and their Austrian allies. They were, as the German government complained, “encircled” by hostile powers, namely Russia, France, and more distantly England. And it may have appeared that the Germans were suckered into taking the first shot, except for the fact that however belligerently the French had behaved before the War, they seemed genuinely surprised when German armies came crashing into their country. It was the Central Powers, never the Allies, who from 1916 on were looking to end the war with a negotiated peace and which grabbed at the proposed (insincere) American efforts to mediate. By 1917 the Germans, much to their relief, saw the Eastern Front disintegrate, but their allies, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, were also collapsing militarily and trying desperately to exit the war.

Although Pines correctly observes that a totally triumphant Imperial Germany would not have behaved better than the side that defeated it, he also maintains the Germany would not have been in a position to dictate such a peace, even if the U.S. had not gone to war. This may be the most illuminating part of Pines’s work, showing that Germany by the end of 1917 had so badly depleted its resources in a grinding war of more than three years that it would have been exceedingly hard for their armies to achieve a one-sided peace. By the fall of 1917 Germany was fighting without effective allies against enemies with superior numbers. Whether or not the Americans joined the conflict, the British blockade would have continued to strangle Germany internally. Moreover, the Germans didn’t have the numbers on the Western front to achieve more than a possible superior bargaining position, if and when it could end the war. Of course the British had no reason to end the war, without totally crushing the German Empire, which had been their stated goal since 1914, since they always counted (with good reason) on the U.S.’s eventual entry into the war.

Pines gets one point right that few Americans writing on this subject seem to be aware of. By the beginning of November 1918 the German military command had collapsed into panic and depression. Eric Ludendorff and his staff were fitfully urging the Kaiser to abdicate. This was done to placate Woodrow Wilson’s anti-monarchist fervor and to obtain the relatively lenient peace terms offered by Wilson in his Fourteen Points, promising a “peace without annexations and reparations.” (Such a peace, Pines observes, quickly became a dead letter as the vindictiveness of the victorious side took over.) Unlike Ludendorff, the German civil government warned against dissolving Germany’s Western Front, which would place their country at the mercy of vengeful enemies. We might also note that in July 1917 a majority in the Reichstag had called for a “peace without annexations.” Needless to say, neither the German military nor the Allies found these peace terms acceptable. But there were those in the German civil government, some of whom had desired “peace without annexations, who later called for protecting the Fatherland against Allied invasion. The “stab-in-the-back” accusation used to explain Germany’s defeat was particularly congenial to some military leaders who took less heroic stands at war’s end. Finally, anger at how Germany was treated after the armistice was not peculiar to the nationalist Right. It was understandably felt, Pines explains, across the political spectrum.