The Corner

The Limits of Preparedness

A very interesting — and nice! — email from a viewer of the latest installment of WYP on WWI:

As a WWI aficionado, I was gratified—and a little surprised–to see you and Peter Beinart talking about that conflict in WYP, so (admittedly for the first time) I tuned in, out of personal interest, and because your opinions on Wilson have always intrigued me. Nice job to the both of you, (and please feel free pass this to Peter at your convenience) for an interesting and stimulating consideration of US involvement in the Great War. The lack of rancor, the thoughtful consideration of other points of view and the sheer discursiveness was a nice switch from normal left-right discussions. Even the point where the conversation wandered into a “which racist was bigger?” paper/rock/scissors contest had the appeal of spontaneity that comes from watching 2 people who like each other disagree. The only thing missing was the bar and the beer—maybe you should be sipping a Sam Adams during the discussion. I guess I need to tune in more from now on.  On the grounds that your on-line discussion is meant to be intellectually stimulating, I share what it stimulated in me, intellectual or otherwise, with you.  I was specifically impressed with your assertion that TR’s advocacy of Preparedness, generally expressed in the military policy of UMT (universal military training), might have forestalled US participation in the war by deterring the Germans from doing the things they did that impelled our involvement—implying that Ludendorff would not have assessed the US Army as a military neutron had UMT been established. If applied to a scenario in which Germany decided to forgo a policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (USW), this is an interesting and plausible insight.


One should be clear, however, that UMT was of limited value as a military policy, its primary intent being the inculcation of good citizenship and patriotism in the American (and immigrant) populace in the early 20th Century. As military policy, it was an incongruity—of value only in a scenario demanding use of a large American Army for defense of the homeland, a scenario that few, if any, believed to be probable when Preparedness and UMT were first conceived as a potential policy in the early 20th Century. In short, it was a military policy addressing internal concerns, not discernable external threats. The Germans weren’t about to conduct amphibious operations in 1910, let alone 1917—which you both implicitly acknowledge in questioning why we even got involved in the war.

Furthermore, it is true that under different circumstances (a TR presidency AND a compliant Congress—the latter by no means a probability even if the former occurred) a trained Army of 500K (with a reasonable Federal, not State, i.e, National Guard reserve) would have been fortuitously available for employment anytime after, say, 1916. But it would have been an army trained in a outmoded concept of offensive operations little different than the French doctrine of offense al outrance that devastated their Army and country in the first year of the war. Had an army based on UMT deployed to France, it very likely would have been cut to pieces by the Germans, just like the French were. The Army the US improvised and deployed—as ill trained as it was—was still better suited to adjusting to the real conditions of positional warfare in France than an Army organized and trained under UMT. (The AEF was an Army built on locally administrated conscription, an approach favored by Wilson over a volunteer force after the nation’s foremost volunteers, TR and General Leonard Wood–WW’s biggest political rivals—offered to raise their own division a la the Rough Riders). In short, UMT was a pig in a poke except as a facade of military preparedness. Another factor for consideration is that the bedrock political basis of the nation’s national interests was an entirely valid concern for Freedom of the Seas. We should not overlook that in 1917 this was no small matter in a world in which the US needed unfettered ability to market its production (industry, agriculture, etc). (Sure we couldn’t get to Germany because of the British blockade, but the Empire more than made up in sales for that). German USW quite explicitly contradicted this policy, and it was grounds for war regardless of Wilson’s avowed and perhaps derivative desire to reshape the world. The question is whether the US’s response was proportional. There are grounds to assert that Wilson originally envisioned the war to be purely Naval (before US entry he asserted the US should just build the biggest Navy and do what it wanted, no shrinking violet there). In the Navalist approach the US would have aided Allied Navies with the USR threat and left the ground war to the European countries—and plenty of sentiment in Congress supported that view. But the Allies made clear in the spring of 1917 they would lose without US ground forces. The US was in by then, and Wilson couldn’t rationalize being an Associated Power that wasn’t interested in being on the winning side; nor could he justify the sacrifice that an American Army in Europe would suffer without upping American War aims from Freedom of the Seas to a war to “make the world safe for democracy” and the 14 Points. The need for a ground deployment compelled (or gave the final welcome push to) Wilson’s Messiah complex to escalate the prosecution of the war to an ideological level rather than the more prosaic—and viable–policy matter of open seas and trade. (Whether the Army should have deployed to France, or, say to Russia–which Wilson had the General Staff examine not once but twice–is another matter).

I suspect this perhaps echoes the W.A. Williams view of the war, but it’s been a while since I was exposed to it. Still, it would have been nice to see you ruminate over some of these matters, but none of this necessarily contradicts your agreement with Peter that this was the most useless war we ever got involved in. Still, I hope it suggests some nuance to US involvement that frequently gets overlooked. The chapter’s discussing WWI in Walter Millis’s Arms and Men, Michael Pearlman’s Warmaking and American Democracy: The Struggle over Military Strategy, 1700 to the Present, and Millet and Murray’s Military Effectiveness: The First World War Vol. I (see Tim Nenninger’s chapter on the US) provide a lot of granularity to the common view on the US and WWI, at least as far as concrete military matters are concerned. I have to go home to compose a response, and then fight over the computer there, so this has taken a day or so to think about. For both you and Peter–keep up the good work on screen, and for you, on-line and in your column.

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