The Corner

More WWI And All That

From another viewer:

I apologize for the length but brevity is impossible.  I am a historian whose specialty is modern German history and I have taught history for 14 years.  Consequently, I’ve studied both world wars extensively from different perspectives and your discussion brought up too many things of interest to me.

First of all I agree with you on the importance of the First World War.  Personally, I think it is the single most important event of the 20th century.  Not only did it lead to WWII and the Cold War as you noted, it also had direct implications for the Great Depression and, one could argue, various crises in the Middle East (including the current War of the Islamofascists against civilization).  Much of the later troubles in that region have their roots in WWI.  For example, the borders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, etc. were all drafted by the “Big 3″ at Versailles.  Then there were Sykes-Picot, T. E. Lawrence, the Balfour Declaration, Armenian genocide, etc.

I should add that each of these major later events had other causes as well.  None were caused solely by WWI or any other simplistic explanation but the war and the peace treaties are significant for each.  Like you suggested, Hitler did not come to power solely because of the Versailles Treaty:  it is unlikely the Germans would have voted for the Nazis in large numbers had Germany not also suffered two major economic crises within a decade.

Concerning the causes of the war, it is hard to see how events could have happened differently.  The confluence of European history, American isolationism, industrialization, social unrest, growing nationalism, etc. seem to lead inevitably to that outcome.  If Europe had had decent leaders at the beginning of the century things might have been very different.  Instead, all the great powers were lead by incompetents, each facing major internal problems beyond their grasp.  In addition, few people had any real experience with modern industrialized warfare, certainly not on a large scale, and even fewer understood the dangers of a general war.  1914 was a big wake up call for everyone.

As for Peter’s dismissal of Germany as a threat to the US at the time, I can only refer you both to Fritz Fischer’s works.  He clearly demonstrates that Germany’s war aims were extensive.  A German Kaiser drunk with success and in control of most of Europe would have been a global menace.  The Zimmerman Telegram demonstrated their danger to the US specifically and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk proved that their ambitions were vast.  That said, he was right about German ambitions in Central Europe:  after after losing the greatest war in history, within 20 years they did make another attempt to enlarge their empire.  Although I’m not sure I would compare German imperialism in the 20th century to American Manifest Destiny in the 19th!

I also disagree with his contention that the Germans came close to a communist revolution at the end of the war.  The Spartacists were a fringe that never had a chance.  Yes, there were Leftist movements and uprisings all over Germany as a result of the war but the Rightist forces were still dominant and strong enough to violently suppress those movements.  Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknicht were not as skilled (or lucky) at manipulating a minority movement into power as were Lenin and Trotsky in 1917.  Instead, they were murdered.  Their movement died with them–and only revived with the arrival of the Red Army in 1945.  Even during the Depression, one could argue, the Communists never had a real chance in Germany.

I also agree with your blaming Wilson for most of the problems coming out of WWI–to the extent that they can be blamed on the Paris Peace Conference.  To be sure, the other allied powers deserve much of this blame–for their own selfish demands at the end of the war, for not allowing Germany to attend the conference (the Congress of Vienna should have been the model), the British decision to maintain the blockade of Germany after the armistice, and so on.  I do not blame the westerners for the Bolshevik Revolution which was the result of many internal flaws of Russian history and culture and there was not much the west could have done to prevent that tragedy.  I will add, however, that more could have been done about the Bolsheviks later.  And, of course, each of these events had many other causes.  For example, Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 did not make WWII inevitable.

I do not think that Wilson’s errors were only a matter of “Christian crusading”, although there certainly was some element of that.  Rather, I think it was more due to his being a progressive busybody and the extravagant idealism that went with it.  I cannot imagine a more idealistic foreign policy in American history except possibly that of Thomas Jefferson.  Not coincidentally, this kind of idealism is also one reason why the current Pres. Bush is having so much difficulty with Iraq.  Hopefully, when realism prevails it will not be as harsh as in past examples.

As for Henry Cabot Lodge, Peter blames him far too much for the failures of Versailles.  Wilson made numerous mistakes before, during, and after the Peace Conference which all but guaranteed the results.  While Lodge certainly deserves some of the blame for the failure of the Senate to ratify the treaty, he offered some substantive arguments against it that Wilson never satisfactorily engaged.  And at the end, Lodge did offer to make compromises only to be rejected out of hand.  I know you pointed some of this out, but I wanted to add my two cents worth.

Having studied the European history of the war, especially its beginning, I can understand your questioning British entry into the war.  However, it was ultimately inevitable because of their alliance with France and, more importantly, the German violation of Belgian neutrality as dictated by the Schlieffen Plan.  If you want to read more about these events, I suggest Barbara Tuchman’s excellent Guns of August.  She is one of my favorite historians largely because of this work.  As a bonus, she wrote  The Zimmerman Telegram, an excellent account of the events leading to the American declaration of war which Peter correctly identified as the result of that document.  The US could not have intervened earlier.  The sinking of the Lusitania, for example, had minimal impact on war sentiment two years earlier.

There is no question that the US provided the decisive force to end the war.  The Germans actually came fairly close to winning.  But they could not stand up to millions of fresh, idealistic, and motivated soldiers backed by the most powerful economy in the world.  We were fortunate to come into it late.  We were spared the misery of years in the trenches and the vast casualties that would have resulted.  The reason for this is that Gen. Pershing decided to avoid engagement until our forces were at full strength.    By the summer of 1918, we were ready and the German war machine collapsed soon thereafter.

I do not agree that Wilson was the worst president of US history.  Aside from several in the 19th century–especially Buchanan and Andrew Johnson–there were several in the 20th who compete for that distinction.  Nixon and Clinton may not have caused as much damage internationally, but domestically they did a great deal of harm and little good.  Think of it, Clinton’s greatest achievement was to make Nixon look like a saint!  Also, one could argue that Johnson and Carter were worse presidents in several ways.  In fact, Carter seems determined to continually demonstrate this by being the worst ex-president in US history!  I’ll leave out Harding and Ford for now–arguably, neither was around long enough to have as much of an impact.  The same could almost be said for JFK.

I hope my history lesson did not bore you too much.  I assume that you are already familiar with most of this but I wanted to be clear and thorough.  Now if only my students would aspire to do the same!

Lastly, I think both of you got a bit side tracked with the question of Wilson as the most racist president of the 20th century.  I think you had the better argument but Peter had some good points too.  However, you looked at it from different perspectives and it has no bearing on the subject of WWI.

I hope you two have more of these historical debates, on topics such as your suggestion about stopping the Soviets in 1946 (impossible).  Other topics might include:  Was progressivism a disaster?  Was the New Deal?  Was FDR all that great?   Should Truman have nuked Japan?  Was the Korean War a mistake?  Why does the Left hate Joe McCarthy?  Was JFK to blame for the Cuban Missile Crisis?  How great a disaster was/is the Great Society?  Why did the Left wait until Reagan’s death to realize that he was great?  Was he the greatest president since Lincoln?  (I think so).  Which presidents were “great”?  And so on.  I enjoyed this one!

 

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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