The American Legion Magazine | 8.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd
World War I had
many names. It was initially called “the Great War” because it was so sweeping
in its reach and in the number of nations it drew into its vortex. H.G. Wells famously
called it “the war that will end war.” Americans called it “the European War,”
until they were drawn in, when U.S. newspapers began calling it “the World
Woodrow Wilson described it as “the most terrible and disastrous of all wars,”
believing that its very destructiveness would convince nations of the futility
of war—and that he could somehow build a “concert for peace” out of the rubble.[ii]
lasted barely two decades, as a far more terrible, more disastrous war engulfed
the world a generation later—a testament to how wrong the peacemakers at Versailles were. We still live in the long shadows
cast by the peace they made and the war they waged a century ago.
historians say war was inevitable. Imperial Germany was emerging as a global
power in the early 20th century. The Kaiser felt hemmed in and wanted a bigger
slice of the world’s riches, as evidenced by his lunges toward the Philippines,
Venezuela and Morocco in the years before the war. These incidents
explain why President Theodore Roosevelt, as historian Edmund Morris writes,
considered the Kaiser “the
most dangerous man in the world.”[iii]
strength swelled across Europe: German military expenditures more than doubled
between 1910 and 1914.[iv] In the 14
years before the war, Russia’s army grew 16 percent, France’s 27 percent; and
Britain’s warship tonnage almost tripled.[v]
Yet at the same time, European nations enjoyed deep commercial connections.
German iron-ore imports from France grew sixty-fold between 1900 and 1913.[vi]Britain accounted for more than 14 percent of Germany’s exports.[vii]
such trade linkages made war unthinkable—then came the summer of 1914, the
assassination in Sarajevo and the cascade of secret treaties.
Winston Churchill described World War I as the moment when “all the
horrors of all the ages were brought together.”
Indeed, the mating of fully industrialized 20th-century empires with
19th-century conceptions of warfare yielded an unprecedented level of killing.
Some 10 million troops died during 52 months of war—more than the combat dead
from all the wars in the preceding century combined.[viii]
The war employed new and old technologies for killing—fighter planes, flamethrowers,
tanks, water-cooled machine guns, maneuverable submarines, industrialized
chemical arsenals.[ix] Germany was the first to
use poison gas during the war, launching a chlorine-gas attack in Belgium in
April 1915. It worked, killing some 5,000 troops, and the Allies followed suit.
By the end of the war, chemical weapons had killed 91,000.[x] Postwar
treaties tried to close Pandora’s Box, but chemical weapons have been used in 11
conflicts since 1919,[xi] most
recently in Syria in 2013.
Anglo-French forces lost 600,000 men during the Battle of the Somme—all
to nudge the front seven miles. Germany lost almost 300,000 men trying to
capture Verdun—and failed. These ghastly casualty figures underscore why Wilson
described leading America into the Great War as “a fearful thing.”[xii]
byproduct of the war was an instrument of war, however. The war produced The
American Legion, which was born in Paris in
March 1919; air-traffic control systems; international cooperation to
combat hunger; and a revolution in battlefield medicine—mobile x-ray machines, antiseptic
treatment of wounds, reconstructive surgery, “preventive inoculation.”[xiii] All
of these innovations would serve mankind in peacetime.
The war also
served as a proving ground for men like Eisenhower (who commanded a tank-maneuver training center), MacArthur (who led
offensives in France), Patton (who earned
a Distinguished Service Cross in the U.S. Tank Corps) and Halsey (who earned a Navy Cross commanding destroyers in the Atlantic).[xiv]
were serving a remarkably naïve commander-in-chief.
all, expected nations fighting for their survival to observe the legal nuances
and niceties of America’s strange brand of neutrality. Although Wilson vowed to
be “neutral in fact as well as in name…impartial in thought as well as in
U.S. loaned the Allies $2.5 billion in the first two years of the war, while
loaning the Central Powers less than one-tenth that amount.[xvi]
It was equally
naïve for Wilson to think words would compel Germany to respect America’s faux
neutrality. When German U-boats began attacking merchant ships, Wilson said he
would hold the Kaiser to “strict accountability.” Yet when Americans were
killed aboard the Falaba, Lusitania and Arabic, Wilson responded by writing letters.[xvii]
To be fair,
Wilson’s neutrality may have been his way of making a virtue out of necessity.
America was ill-prepared for war, as TR detailed in late 1914. “Our navy is lamentably short in many
different material directions. There is actually but one torpedo for each
torpedo tube,” he wrote. “For nearly two years, there has been no fleet
The War Department set a goal of fielding 2 million
troops in 1917. But between April and December of 1917, the U.S. deployed only
200,000 troops to Europe—all of whom were still in training.[xix]France and Britain initially supplied Pershing’s men with mortars and
predictable and avoidable: In the eight years before entering World War I, the
United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to national defense.[xxi]
Still, American manpower and matériel turned the
tide. America’s “productive strength…was unequaled,” historian Paul Kennedy
observes, noting how America churned out merchant ships by the hundreds.[xxii] U.S.
factories could produce a 7,500-ton ship in three days.[xxiii]Between mid-1917 and the end of the war, U.S. automakers built some
20,000 Liberty aircraft engines.[xxiv]
5 million Americans served, and 116,516 died, in Europe’s civil war.
“It would be
an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign
affairs,” Wilson remarked before his inauguration. Yet in drafting his peace
plan, Wilson proved himself a visionary statesman. Wilson’s 14 Points were so
visionary that the world was not ready to embrace them in 1919—and still
wrestles with them today.
envisioned “a partnership of democratic nations,” “the rights of
nations great and small…to choose their way of life,” “open covenants of peace,
openly arrived at,” “freedom of navigation upon the seas,” removal of trade
barriers, reduction of armaments, “impartial adjustment of all colonial
claims,” borders based on “recognizable lines of nationality,” “autonomous
development” for national minorities—all undergirded by a “general association
of nations…for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence
and territorial integrity.”[xxv]
Wilson’s postwar plan was the principle of self-determination. “Peoples may now be dominated and governed
only by their own consent,” Wilson declared. “Self-determination is not a mere
phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will
henceforth ignore at their peril.”[xxvi]
secretary of state, Robert Lansing, called it “a phrase loaded with dynamite…It
will, I fear, cost thousands of lives.”[xxvii]
Pointing to Wilson’s
asked, “When the president talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit does he have
in mind? Does he mean a race, or a territorial area, or a community? Without a
definite unit that is practical, application of this principle is dangerous to
peace and stability.”[xxix]
have sensed the tides of history carrying humanity toward decentralization and
democratization. But Lansing’s instincts were right: In 1900 there were 57
independent countries. Today, there are nearly 200. Many of them came into
existence through self-determination movements; many of those movements
triggered wars. Consider the UN’s newest member, South Sudan, which fought to
secede from Sudan and is now in the midst of a fight that could further divide
the country; or Kosovo, which cut itself away from Serbia and is now dealing
with a Serbian enclave that wants to cut itself away from Kosovo[xxx]; or
Ukraine, which may divide into Russian and Ukrainian statelets (Moscow wrapped
its annexation of Crimea in the blanket of self-determination); or Iraqi
Kurdistan, which wants to turn its autonomy into independence.
these examples speak to the great sweep of Wilson’s vision: Much of what Wilson
advocated—an international order seeking peaceful settlement of disputes, an
international organization committed to heading off great-power conflict,
international borders determined by nationalities, open markets, open treaties—was
accepted in 1945.
The war left
in its wake a trail of bitter ironies and broken promises.
The war began with Europe’s empires dominating the world, but it left Europe broke and broken: Total European indebtedness
to the United States surpassed $11.6 billion[xxxi]—the
rough equivalent of $157.8 billion today. Europe was smashed into a jagged
jumble of ethno-national shards.
The war gave
us the Weimar Republic (seedbed for Hitler’s Nazis), the Polish Corridor and
French acquisitions of resource-rich German lands (seedbed for Hitler’s
territorial grievances), and a dismembered Germany (seedbed for Hitler’s Anschluss). All told, Germany lost 13
percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population at Versailles.[xxxii]
rolled back the frontiers of Russia, resurrected an independent Poland and
midwifed new nations from the Adriatic to the Baltic—all of which would be
undone by Hitler and Stalin.
The war ended the Russian Empire, but it spawned the Russian Revolution,
which spawned the Soviet Union, which gave the world something far worse than
Wilson promised “peace without
victory,” and Germany seized upon Wilson’s plan as a face-saving way to end the
war. But Wilson’s partners were not in a magnanimous mood when they arrived at
Versailles. “Their concerns related to the future weakening of a strong and
dangerous Germany, to revenge and to the shifting by the victors of their
unbearable financial burdens onto the shoulders of the defeated,” John Maynard
Keynes lamented. “Nations have no right to use peace treaties to punish the
children of their enemies.”[xxxiii]Germany made its final World War I debt payment in 2010.[xxxiv]
Wilson envisioned a world “made safe for democracy.” Yet as historians Felix Gilbert and David
Large note, “After 15 years, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, not one of
the states created or reorganized at the Paris Peace Conference remained a
democracy.”[xxxv]Some pieces of postwar Europe—Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy—became
“postwar” is itself an irony. After all, the “war to end wars” did the very
opposite. World War II was a continuation of World War I, and so the adjective
“postwar” was soon replaced by “interwar.”
The war was
romanticized when the guns thundered to life in August 1914, but those who
survived the trenches realized the Great War was more apocalyptic than romantic:
Like Revelation’s Four Horsemen, it brought conflict
(28 nations were engaged), famine (Belgium starved; Germany survived on
turnips; Austria’s cities went hungry[xxxvi]),
death (10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians
and pestilence (the 1918-19 influenza
pandemic claimed 50 million[xxxviii]).
Leftovers and Lessons
We can virtually plot recent U.S. military
interventions—and many of today’s hottest hotspots—by glancing at the maps drawn
after the Great War.
The postwar creation known as
Yugoslavia was “a miniature empire run by the Serbs,” historian Paul Johnson
writes.[xxxix]From the very beginning, these “south Slavs”—some Catholic, some Muslim, some
Orthodox—did not get along. But they remained glued together, at least until
1992, when Yugoslavia finally came undone. The wars that dismembered Yugoslavia—now
seven countries—claimed some 250,000 lives.[xl]
The League of Nations entrusted much
of the Ottoman Empire’s wreckage to Britain and France. They would haphazardly stitch
together or tear apart ethno-religious groupings that should have been handled
with more care—Kurds, Shia and Sunnis crammed together in Iraq and Syria;
Lebanon separated from Syria; dangled promises of a Jewish homeland in the
middle of an Arab-dominated Palestine. Not surprisingly, the region has barely
seen a moment’s peace: Iraq has made war against four of its neighbors,
prompting repeated U.S. intervention. There have been four major Arab-Israeli
wars, two intifada uprisings, and brutal
civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Lebanon’s civil war claimed 120,000 lives, Syria’s 150,000
(and counting), Iraq’s Sunni-Shia war 825 per month (and counting).[xli]
As to some of the war’s lessons, a common refrain is that Europe’s arms race triggered
World War I. If this were true, then a) there shouldn’t have been a World War
II, since the Allies allowed their arsenals to atrophy after World War I, and
b) there should have been a World War III, since the United States and the
Soviet Union engaged in an unprecedented arms race.
is that miscalculation lit the fuse of World War I. The antidote, as we have
learned in the intervening century, is clarity plus strength.
aren’t enough to deter war. After all, the great powers were armed to the teeth
in 1914. But since they weren’t clear about their treaty commitments, a small
crisis on the fringes of Europe mushroomed into a global war. Nor is clarity
alone enough to deter war. After all, Wilson’s words to the Kaiser were clear, but
America lacked deterrent military strength.
The men who crafted the West’s post-World War II blueprint applied the
clarity-plus-strength model to prevent the Cold War from turning hot. It
remains to be seen whether the world will follow
their example in what may be today’s equivalent of prewar Europe: the Asia-Pacific.
As before, there is a rising authoritarian
power that feels hemmed in and entitled, strategic uncertainties abound,
territorial claims remain unsettled, the scope of treaty commitments is uncertain,
military arsenals are swelling and yet trade is booming. Total Japan-China trade is $334 billion annually; U.S.-China
trade is $562 billion annually.[xlii]
Still, Japanese Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe sees
his nation and China in a “similar situation” to Britain and Germany on the eve
of World War I.[xliii]Kevin
Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, draws parallels to prewar Europe in
the South China Sea—a region “riven by
overlapping alliances, loyalties and hatreds,” and simmering with a mix
of “primitive…nationalisms” and “great-power politics.”[xliv]All the while, U.S. defense spending is ebbing to levels not seen since the
can hope that America has enough residual muscle to maintain the balance, that
America begins to speak with sufficient clarity to prevent miscalculation, that
trade ties prevent a great war in the Pacific. But the signs are not good: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey
expects “the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise.”[xlvi] And
historian Robert Kagan ominously warns, “History
has not been kind to the theory that strong trade ties prevent conflict among
nations. The United States and China are no more dependent on each other’s
economies today than were Great Britain and Germany before World War I.”[xlvii]
[i] History Channel,
“Were they always called World War I and World War II?” March 6, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/were-they-always-called-world-war-i-and-world-war-ii.
[ii] Wilson, War Address, http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson's_War_Message_to_Congress.
[iii] Edmund Morris, “A
Matter of Extreme Urgency,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2002, http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/presidentpics/venezuelacrisis.pdf.
[iv] Paul Kennedy, Rise
and Fall of the Great Powers, p.210-212.
[v] Kennedy p.203.
[vi] Dale Copeland,
“Economic interdependence and war: A theory of trade expectations,”
International Security, Spring 1996.
[vii] Paul A.Papayoanou,
“Interdependence, Institutions, and the Balance of Power: Britain, Germany, and
World War I,” International Security, Spring 1996, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/papa.htm.
[viii]World Book, World War I, p.466.
[ix]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/spiesfly/uavs.html; Robert Jones, The
Top Ten Innovations of World War I.
Britannica, “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Britannica, “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
[xii] Wilson’s War Address.
[xiii] JDC Bennett, Medical
advances consequent to the Great War 1914-1918,” Journal of the Royal Society
of Medicine, November 1990.
[xiv]http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/halsey-w.htm; http://www.biography.com/people/george-patton-9434904; http://www.biography.com/people/douglas-macarthur-9390257; http://www.biography.com/people/dwight-d-eisenhower-9285482.
[xv] Wilson Address,
August 20, 1914, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3791.
[xvi] Walter LaFeber, The
American Age, p,285
[xvii] LaFeber p.287-288.
[xviii] Roosevelt, “The Navy
as Peacemaker,” The New York Times, November 22,1914.
[xx] Chris Trueman,
“America’s Military Power in World War One,” http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/america-military-power.htm.
[xxi] CRS, National Defense
Outlays as a Percentage of GNP/GDP, FY1910-2003, 1998.
[xxii] Kennedy, p.271.
[xxiii] LaFeber, p.307.
[xxv] Wilson’s Address to
Congress, April 2, 1917, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65366; Wilson’s Address to
Congress, January 8, 1918, http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson's_Fourteen_Points.
[xxvi] Wilson’s Address to
Congress, February 11, 1918, http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson's_Address_to_Congress,_Analyzing_German_and_Austrian_Peace_Utterances.
[xxvii] Quoted in David
Callahan, Unwinnable Wars, 1998.
[xxviii] Quoted in the
Congressional Record, May 3, 1999.
[xxix] Quoted in Abdelhamid
El Ouail, Territorial Integrity in a Globalizing World, 2012.
[xxxi] Gilbert and Large,
[xxxii] Gilbert and Large,
[xxxiii]Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the
Peace, 1919, University of Cambridge Press, October/November 2011
[xxxiv] Reuters/MSNBC, “For
Germany, WWI finally ends on Sunday,” MSNBC.com, September 29, 2010.
[xxxv] Gilbert and Large,
[xxxvi] Gilbert and Large,
[xxxix] Paul Johnson, Modern
[xli] Brogan, p.342; Der
Aftermath of World War I in the Middle East,” January 31, 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photo-gallery-the-aftermath-of-world-war-i-in-the-middle-east-fotostrecke-110083-11.html; https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/.
[xliv] Kevin Rudd, "A
Maritime Balkans of the 21st Century?" Foreign Policy, January 30, 2013.
[xlvi] DoD, 2014 Quadrennial
Defense Review, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf, p.61.
[xlvii] Robert Kagan, The
Return of History and the End of Dreams, p.79.