The United States and World War I
John J. Dwyer
by John J. Dwyer
know that I shall meet my fate
among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before . . .
William Butler Yeats
Irish Airman Foresees His
States’ 1917 entry into World War I represents one of the crucial
turning points in American history. Its significance, however, scarcely
exceeds modern America’s collective ignorance of it.
began for corporate America long before it started for the common
man. Within two months of the conflict’s August 1914 beginning,
Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, one of the world’s
largest arms merchants, took a profitable trip to London. There,
he secured orders from the British government for millions of artillery
shells, as well as ten 500-ton submarines. Though the construction
of such foreign vessels broke the law, Bethlehem proceeded with
it and the Wilson administration did not stop them. The company
earned $61 million in 1916, more than its combined gross revenues
for the previous eight years.
Bethlehem story is a pithy summary of the evolution of the United
States into a branch of the British armament industry during the
thirty-two months of its neutrality," writes historian Thomas
Fleming in his powerhouse book The
Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. "Wilson
talked and talked and talked about neutrality and
apparently convinced himself that he was neutral. But the United
States he was supposedly running was not neutral, in thought, word
or deed, thanks to Wellington House (the engine of British government
propaganda) and the international banking firm of J. P. Morgan
in New York."
time America declared war on Germany, Morgan was having a bang-up
war of its own. The company had already loaned Britain and France
$2.1 billion (around $30 billion by 2004 standards), and had cleared
$30 million around $425 million in 2004 dollars in
summarizes a very effective partnership: "As British and French
orders for ammunition and other war materiel filled the books of
U.S. companies, the pressure for financial assistance to pay for
them grew more and more acute." In other words, the more intense
the fighting, the more arms, ordnance, and supplies the British
and French ordered from American manufacturers, and the more money
they borrowed from American banks.
May, 1915, German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania
is typically cited as one of a series of outrages to which President
Woodrow Wilson reacted with restraint and patience. Eventually,
so the story goes, even Wilson, a devout, peace-loving man, was
forced to make war upon the Germans in order to protect the people
and land of America. Yet few in America at the time suggested the
nation should go to war because of the sinking of "a British
ship flying a British flag." In fact, that British ship carried
over four million rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells
– destined for use against German soldiers.
ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect
her from attack," wrote Wilson’s own Secretary of State, William
Jennings Bryan. "It would be like putting women and children
in front of an army." Bryan presciently feared that Wilson’s
orders to balloon the size and firepower of the American military
would multiply the chances of the country finding a war in which
to involve them.
It is interesting
to note what was and what was not told the American passengers who
perished on the Lusitania, which embarked from New York.
They were told by the Germans, in full page newspaper ads in the
New York Times and elsewhere, that boarding a British ship
heading into the war zone would place them at risk. They were not
told by the British that the ship was a virtual floating munitions
least one British leader, losses such as the sinking of the Lusitania
were perhaps no great tragedy in the larger context of the war.
"It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores
in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany,"
First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote. The more neutral
"traffic" the better, he insisted, and "If some of
it gets into trouble, better still."
the first of two World Wars in which Churchill would exert the full
strength of his being to drag America into the conflict in order
to preserve victory for the British.
by most "popular" historians is the brutal toll taken
on the men, women, children, and aged of Germany by actions given
the antiseptic term "naval blockade." Hundreds of thousands
of Germans starved to death or perished due to other malnutrition-related
maladies during the war because Britain and her allies would not
let supplies and food into Germany or even into Europe in many cases.
Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious or debilitating
illnesses. This was the context in which the Germans launched their
submarine warfare against ships traveling into British waters.
else is lost in traditional American histories. That is the vigorous,
often eloquent attempts of citizens and statesmen from every part
of the country to keep America out of what they saw as a war fought
by other nations for their own purposes, and the inevitable threat
to Constitutional liberties they posed.
James H. "Cyclone" Davis accused governmental and industrial
titans of "forming cabals to force upon the country a stupendous
program of military preparedness, hoping to put in the White House
a dictator to execute it."
"the unhappy nations of Europe," Davis declared that "The
wages of sin is death’ applies to nations the same as to individuals.
The nations, now drunk on blood, rioting in ruinous war, are paying
the death penalty because their sins have found them out. Given
over to ravenous greed, with a riotous aristocracy living in luxury
and lust, ruling in rapacity . . . they are now reaping the harvest
of their sowing." Another Congressman called the war "a
war of kings against kings."
also fought tenaciously against the forces, domestic and foreign,
that sucked America toward war. Texan James Slayden called it "a
conspiracy to force our country into a war with Germany" and
reminded his audience of "the sound advice of George Washington"
in Washington’s farewell address regarding foreign entanglements
and attachments. Slayden exhorted other leaders to mobilize the
American public "against the majority of the newspapers and
great commercial interests."
it seemed as though these and other opponents of America’s involvement
in the Europeans’ war had an ally in President Woodrow Wilson. He
was berated for his supposed caution by Republicans like Theodore
Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge; after their roles in America’s
imperialistic adventures with Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and
the Philippines, these men with evident disregard for the
Constitution and the Monroe Doctrine alike considered it
a disgrace for America not to throw its weight into the much-larger
fracas of World War I.
went so far as to campaign for re-election in 1916 with the slogan,
"He kept us out of war." Less than ninety days after beginning
his second term, however, he called upon Congress for a declaration
of war against Germany in order to "make the world safe for
of American manhood to that declaration was underwhelming. Weeks
afterward, only 73,000 men out of a pool of 10 million had volunteered
for the army. Part of the problem may have been that Congress and
the American public in general were led by the government to believe
that even though the country was now at war, it would never have
to send an army of its own people to fight that war!
should hope not, when considering historian Jackson Spielvogel’s
sobering outline of the effect of the war on its belligerents: "increased
centralization of government powers, economic regimentation, and
manipulation of public opinion to keep the war effort going."
These led, Spielvogel writes in his Western
Civilization, to a situation in which, "Throughout
Europe, wartime governments expanded their powers over their economies.
Free market capitalistic systems were temporarily shelved as governments
experimented with price, wage, and rent controls, the rationing
of food supplies and materials, the regulation of imports and exports,
and the nationalization of transportation systems and industries.
Some governments even moved toward compulsory employment. In effect,
to mobilize the entire resources of their nations for the war effort,
European nations had moved toward planned economies directed by
fails to mention is that these same pathologies swept the U.S.,
in some ways even more dramatically than the Europeans because of
America’s heritage of more limited government. Mercantilism and
an authoritarian central government colossus superseded the Founding
Fathers’ vision of a limited, Federated, check-and-balanced system
of Constitutional Republican government with enumerated powers.
It is impossible
to grasp with clarity American history during the World War I era
without accurately apprising President Woodrow Wilson, just as Abraham
Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, respectively, must be understood
to in order interpret the War Between the States and World War II.
Mainstream American historiography typically portrays Wilson as
a pious, greathearted leader with a watershed vision for God using
America as a sort of chosen nation to light the way to freedom and
prosperity for the benighted nations filling the rest of the world.
Indeed, prior to World War I, Wilson had already loosed the American
military on a controversial series of forays against Haiti, the
Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In the latter case, he
sided with one faction during a murderous civil war, but managed
to draw the contempt and hatred of both sides.
conservative scholar Robert Nisbet wrote that Wilson "was an ardent
prophet of the state, the state indeed as it was known to European
scholars and statesmen…. He preached it…. From him supremely comes
the politicization, the centralization, and the commitment to bureaucracy
of American society during the past seventy-five years."
conservative historian Paul Johnson describes Wilson as having "…a
self-regarding arrogance and smugness, masquerading as righteousness,
which was always there and which grew with the exercise of power."
Donald Miller writes that Wilson intended to transform America as
well as the other nations: "From a domestic and economic standpoint,
as with his foreign policy, he wanted to expand the power of government
to effect a revolution in society. He sought to increase both the
size and scope of government. He said that he wanted to put government
‘at the service of humanity.’"
points out that it was during Wilson’s two terms as president, from
19131921, that Congress passed bills creating the Federal
Reserve System (1913); the Federal Income Tax (Amendment 16, ratified
in 1913); the Federal Trade Commission (1914); the Federal Farm
Loan Act (1916); and the Prohibition of alcohol (Amendment 18, ratified
in 1919). Before he was elected president, federal government spending
never exceeded three percent of the Gross Domestic Product, except
during the War of 1812 and the War Between the States. It rose to
more than twenty per cent of GDP during Wilson’s two terms as president.
especially those related to building America’s military juggernaut,
could not occur quiescently, not amidst a citizenry still largely
hostile to central government growth and intrusion into their lives.
Examples of Wilson Administrationspearheaded governmental
repression of the Constitutional rights of its citizens, across
the country, in nearly every walk of life during World War I are
numberless. Some corporations and political leaders used sedition
laws to crush trade unions with whom they were contending before
the war started. Historian Walter Karp recalled a woman who wrote
to a newspaper during the war that "I am for the people and the
government is for the profiteers" received a ten-year prison sentence.
Federal agents seized a motion picture, The Spirit of ’76,
because the "portrayal of the American Revolution had cast British
redcoats in an unfavorable light." That film’s producer, too, received
ten years in prison.
and Irish-Americans, in particular Irish Catholics, faced harsh
treatment by a galaxy of government agencies. They were widely distrusted
because both Germany and Ireland were at odds with England. They
often faced worse from the public, which had imbibed a years-long
stream of pro-British, anti-German propaganda, much of it generated
by the British themselves. Patriotic, longtime German-language newspapers
were shut down, the German language was disallowed from being taught
or, in places, even spoken, and musical performances by German composers
such as Beethoven were outlawed.
dissenting elected leaders were immune to unconstitutional repression
from the Wilson Administration. Wisconsin Congressman Robert D.
LaFollette had credited Wilson’s expansion of military expenditures
to the influence of "the glorious group of millionaires who
are making such enormous profits out of the European war."
A Congressional committee investigated LaFollette, and for months
he was in jeopardy of prison, though no official charges were ever
filed against him.
any fair reading of the period, there was probably more real freedom
of speech in Germany and in the German Reichstag in the same years
than in the ‘home of the free’ or the World’s Greatest (and Least)
Deliberative Body," writes historian Joseph Stromberg.
not place all the blame on the United States government. "The
(American) people’s participation in suppressing their own rights,
so to speak, calls to mind the radical phase of the French Revolution.
There," he writes, "everyone who was not a republican
zealot was thought of as an ‘enemy’ to be guillotined. In the American
variation, the Rousseauian form of republicanism, in which the people
force particular individuals ‘to be free,’ held hands with Americans’
notion of their natural goodness as ‘natural men’ produced by the
to Karp, "The official repression drove millions of independent-minded
Americans deep into private life and political solitude. Isolated,
they nursed in private their bitterness and contempt."
count of America’s World War I battlefront casualties, meanwhile,
listed nearly half-a-million men ultimately dead to war-related
wounds and/or diseases, and hundreds of thousands more wounded.
It is a staggering toll unknown to contemporary Americans.
the end, drove Woodrow Wilson to stake his career and his nation’s
liberties on an all-out effort in World War I? Perhaps Wilson himself
best answered that when he said, in regards to his vision for American-inspired
democratic post-war global peace and harmony: "as head of a
nation participating in the war, the president of the United States
would have a seat at the peace table, but . . . if he remained the
representative of a neutral country, he could at best only ‘call
through a crack in the door.’"
Wilson’s frequent proclamations against his domestic critics grew
harsher and shriller the longer the war lasted, and after the war.
Still, his greatest hopes remained. He had crafted the Fourteen
Points, a plan designed to insure a fair and lasting peace, and
a "League of Nations" to work among themselves to preclude
future wars. Too late did Wilson learn the British and French had
long possessed "peace" plans of their own, and they contained
little concern for fairness. The wily British Prime Minister David
Lloyd-George and the vengeful French Premier Georges Clemenceau
repeatedly outflanked and outfoxed Wilson in their post-war peace
negotiations. "I never saw a man talk more like Jesus Christ
and act more like Lloyd George," Clemenceau mocked Wilson behind
of Versailles officially ended the war in May 1919. The crushing
effect of this "peace treaty" on an already-reeling Germany
is as staggering as it is forgotten. The defeated nation lost nearly
one-third of its total land area, along with millions of German
citizens. Its foreign colonies were divvied out to the victorious
Allies. The brazen and humiliating requirement for the Germans to
admit all responsibility for the war when Serbia, Austria,
Russia, and France all held equal or greater roles for its inauguration
set the stage for the half-starved nation to pay financially
for the whole war as well, to the tune of $7.5 trillion in
today’s dollars. This, along with later punitive actions taken by
France, set the Germans on a course of runaway inflation, Communist
uprisings, economic ruin, social chaos, moral breakdown, and Adolf
Hitler and the Nazis.
On a more
personal level, the German nation itself faced the danger of mass
starvation. Between the November 11, 1918 armistice, which stopped
fighting, and the signing of the Versailles treaty, the British
and French insisted on continuing the strangling naval blockade
of Germany. Future U.S. President Herbert Hoover arranged for the
delivery of hundreds of millions of tons of free American food to
the malnourished Germans, only to have the French, Italians, and
British disallow it and accuse the Americans of selfish ulterior
motives for the act. During this time, eight hundred adults were
dying of starvation every day in northern Germany alone. By the
final tally, hundreds of thousands of Germans had starved. One disgusted
British journalist visiting a Cologne, Germany hospital described
"rows of babies feverish from want of food, exhausted by privation
to the point where their little limbs were like slender wands, their
expression hopeless, and their faces full of pain."
America, President Wilson campaigned across the country to generate
support for the League of Nations. But after he pushed himself to
exhaustion, his speeches grew confused and his treatment of hecklers
surly. The scale and passion of his opposition, which wanted nothing
to do with roping America’s future to Europe’s, frustrated and angered
him. Finally, he suffered a devastating cerebral thrombosis. His
wife Edith then orchestrated a scheme that kept from the American
people for the last eighteen months of Wilson’s second term the
fact that their President, in the words of White House Chief Usher
Ike Hoover, had changed mentally "from a giant to a pygmy."
Wilson had little knowledge of the issues and events transpiring
outside his sealed-off little world.
the upshot of Lloyd-George and Clemenceau’s outmaneuvering of Wilson
in their strategic peace talks the shredding of the Fourteen
Points had led the United States Senate, controlled by members
of Wilson’s own Democratic Party, to reject membership in the League
of Nations because they feared its toll on American political sanctity.
Bitterness and hatred toward his foes consumed Wilson the final
years of his life, until his death in 1924.
I killed nearly ten million people, The United States’s "retreat"
from involvement in European affairs following that bloodbath had
"dire consequences" according to Jackson Spielvogel. Our
belated pursuit of the Founding Fathers’ admonitions against foreign
entanglements and permanent treaty alliances "forced"
the French to "stand alone" and take "strong actions
against Germany that only intensified German resentment," according
the dire consequences were generated by the French and the gaggle
of other European nations who engineered The Great War. These included
the aforementioned consequences for Germany that led ultimately
to the Götterdämmerung of that nation in 1945; the fall of
Christian Russia to the mendacious Bolshevik strain of Communism,
which led to Stalin’s slaughter of between ten and forty million
of his own countrymen in the 1930s, and to the half-century enslavement
of ten Christian countries in Eastern Europe to atheistic Communism;
the millions of deaths that meant the loss forever of the flower
of British and French manhood and the greatness of their nations;
and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of America’s bravest young
men, broad and deep growth of our nation’s central government, and
the sacrifice of many of its Constitutional liberties, some permanently.
fact is that when [under Wilson] America was introduced to the War
State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known
as the total, or totalitarian, state," wrote Robert Nisbet.
final accounting, the Great War was only the opening chapter of
a new Thirty Years War. That war climaxed more than fifty million
deaths later with the incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese
men, women, and children. And it launched a bitter half-century
Cold War involving triumphant Bolshevism.
the Los Angeles Times said it best after World War I and
its "peace" were concluded: "It is quite impossible
to tell what the war made the world safe for."
J. Dwyer (send him mail) is
chairman of history at Coram Deo Academy near Dallas, Texas. He
is author of the historical novels Stonewall
E. Lee, and the upcoming historical narrative The War
Between the States, America’s Uncivil War. He also is the former
editor and publisher of The Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage newspaper.
© 2004 LewRockwell.com