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 War.”[i] President 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]

Those labels 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.


Some 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]

Military 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]

Many believed 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]

Not every 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]

Non-Neutral Noncombatant

These men were serving a remarkably naïve commander-in-chief.

Wilson, after 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 action,”[xv] the 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 maneuvering.”[xviii]

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 artillery.[xx]

This was 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]

Nearly 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.

Wilson 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]

Embedded in 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]

Wilson’s own 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 “intemperate…declarations,”[xxviii] Lansing 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]

Wilson may 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.

Of course, 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]

The war 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 the czar.

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 virulently anti-democratic.

The term “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 died[xxxvii]) 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.

The reality is that miscalculation lit the fuse of World War I. The antidote, as we have learned in the intervening century, is clarity plus strength.

Arms alone 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.

History and Hope
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 interwar years.[xlv]

We 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.

[x] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

[xi] Encyclopedia 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.

[xix]LaFeber, p.305.

[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, p.149.

[xxxii] Gilbert and Large, p.173.

[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, p.163.

[xxxvi] Gilbert and Large, p.136.



[xxxix] Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.40.


[xli] Brogan, p.342; Der Spiegel, “The 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/.

[xlii]http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html; http://world.time.com/2013/12/01/china-and-japan-may-not-like-each-other-but-they-need-each-other/.


[xliv] Kevin Rudd, "A Maritime Balkans of the 21st Century?" Foreign Policy, January 30, 2013.

[xlv]http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/02/01/panetta-usa-today-interview/1884447/ ;


[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.