What We Can Learn From Woodrow Wilson's Great Blunder The Case for Staying Out of Other People's Wars

by Jim Powell by Jim Powell

The worst American foreign policy disasters of the past century have been consequences of Wilsonian interventionism. Critics have been dismissed as "isolationists," but the fact is that Wilsonian interventionism has dragged the United States into pointless wars and ushered in revolution, terror, runaway inflation, dictatorship and mass murder. It's past time to judge Wilsonian interventionism by its consequences, not the good intentions expressed in political speeches, because they haven't worked out.

Surely, one of the most important principles of American foreign policy should be to conserve resources for defending the country. President Woodrow Wilson violated this principle by entering World War I which didn't involve an attack on the United States.

German submarines sunk some foreign ships with American passengers, but they had been warned about the obvious danger of traveling in a war zone. People need to take responsibility for their own decisions and proceed at their own risk. It was unreasonable to expect that because a few adventurers lost their lives, the entire nation had to enter a war in which tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands more people must die.

There never was a serious possibility that Germany might attack the United States during World War I. The German Navy was confined to German ports by the British Navy, and British convoys dramatically reduced the number of merchant ships sunk by German submarines. The German Army was stalemated on the Western Front, and over a million German soldiers were engaged on the Eastern Front. German boys and older men were being drafted to fill the trenches. There wasn't any armed force available for an attack on the United States. Despite the suggestion, in German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann's inflammatory telegram, about a possible alliance between Germany, Mexico and Japan, America was safe.

Wilson claimed that American national security was linked with the fate of Britain, but because the British Navy had bottled up the German Navy and neutralized German submarines, Germany wasn't capable of invading Britain. In any case, Britain was struggling to maintain its global empire. The settlement following World War I had the effect of adding more territories to the British Empire. Why should American lives have been lost and American resources spent to expand the British Empire?

Why, for that matter, should the United States have defended the French or the Belgians? They were defending their overseas empires, and both had shown themselves to be brutal colonial rulers. The Belgians were responsible for slavery and mass murder in the Congo – the first modern genocide, involving an estimated 8 million deaths.

How could any U. S. president in his right mind have committed American soldiers to defend Britain and France, whose generals squandered lives on a stupendous scale? Britain's General Douglas Haig, for instance, whose blunders figured in the deaths of 95,675 British soldiers and 420,000 total British casualties at the Battle of the Somme (1916). Another 50,729 French soldiers were killed. Haig not only wasn't fired, but he continued to squander lives in battle after battle. It was amazing that a U.S. president would seriously consider conscripting Americans for European killing fields drenched in blood. There were the battles of the Marne (1914, 270,000 French and British soldiers killed), Artois (1915, 100,000 French soldiers killed), Ypres (Second Battle, 1915, 70,000 French soldiers killed), Gallipoli (1915, 50,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers killed), Verdun (1916, 315,000 French soldiers killed), Arras (1916, 160,000 British soldiers killed) and Passchendaele (1917, 310,000 British soldiers killed).

There would have massacres even with better generals. As military historian John Keegan observed, "The simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped, against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and provided with rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the attackers…The effect of artillery added to the slaughter, as did that of bayonets and grenades when fighting came to close quarters in the trench labyrinths."

Woodrow Wilson didn't need a crystal ball to understand that World War I wasn't our war. He knew how the Europeans, with their entangling alliances, had stumbled into the conflagration. He knew how they stubbornly refused to quit. He knew how the Allied Powers had negotiated their secret treaties to carve up Europe and colonial possessions. He could see how hundreds of thousands of young men were being slaughtered in the mud.

It was claimed that the United States would have been threatened if a single power – Germany – had been able to control the entire European continent. But that was unlikely, since World War I had been stalemated for more than three years. The best the Germans might have hoped for would have been to annex Belgium and northwestern France, where much of World War I had been fought, as well as territories gained from Austria-Hungary and western Russia. If the Germans had won the war, they would have had a hard time holding their empire together because of all the rebellious nationalities, the same nationalities that figured in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Most likely outcome of a German victory: costly civil wars ending in German collapse.

In any event, people have been fighting each other for thousands of years, and America managed to develop despite a succession of empires in Europe and elsewhere. America was in its infancy when Spain was the mightiest power on earth, enriched by precious metals from Mexico and Peru. During the late 1600s, the French King Louis XIV dominated Europe, persecuted Protestants and fought one war after another, but America thrived as a sanctuary. A century later, America broke free from the British Empire. George Washington, as the first President of the United States, wisely counseled his countrymen to stay out of European wars, and this policy was continued by his successor Thomas Jefferson despite French and British interference with U.S. shipping. The United States prospered while the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte organized the first modern police state, conquered Europe and marched into Russia.

America's Founders had the humility and wisdom to recognize that the United States couldn't prevent other people from fighting. If the United States had tried forcing "peace" on foreigners, this would have required raising and equipping an army, and fighting adversaries who knew their land much better than we did. We would have had to fight with allies whose motives turned out to be less pure than we had supposed. We would have made enemies we didn't have before. In the end, we would have widened a conflict, and probably more people would have been killed than if we had stayed out.

The arrogant Wilson should have learned a lesson when he tried nation-building in Mexico, and the effort backfired. What could have been simpler than sending some American soldiers across the Mexican border to find a bandit and help install a good ruler down there? Yet Wilson's intervention failed to find the bandit, failed to install a good ruler, killed people and made enemies.

Preoccupied with his good intentions, Wilson never seemed to have considered the possibility that intervening in Europe might do worse than fail to achieve peace. Because of historic resentments and staggering battlefield casualties, there was a lot of bitterness in Europe. Governments were nearly bankrupt, and people were hungry. They wanted vengeance for their suffering. The political situation was explosive. If one side were able to achieve a decisive victory, the temptation would be strong to seek retribution. So, Wilson intervened, enabled the Allied Powers to achieve a decisive victory, and the result was the vindictive Versailles Treaty with devastating political consequences that played out in Germany and around the world.

Apparently thinking only about what he wanted, he pressured and bribed the Russian Provisional Government to stay in the war, when he ought to have known that country had been falling apart ever since it entered the war in 1914. Wilson ought to have known that millions of Russian peasants weren't going to be affected much one way or the other by what happened on the Western Front, the only thing that Wilson cared about. He ought to have known that Russian peasants were deserting the Russian Army by the thousands, to go home and claim land, and soon there wouldn't be any army to defend the Provisional Government. If Wilson didn't know these things, he didn't have any business trying to play an international war game. Wilson's blunders made it easier for Lenin to seize power on his fourth attempt in 1917, leading to more than seven decades of Soviet communism.

Wilson ought to have known he was playing with fire when, at the Versailles Conference following World War I, he participated in redrawing thousands of miles of national borders. He knew how nationalist hatreds had exploded in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and triggered the Balkan wars and World War I. Turkish nationalists expelled some 100,000 Greeks from the Anatolian Peninsula where many families had lived for over a thousand years, and large numbers of Greek women were raped and Greek men murdered. Turkish nationalists massacred an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.

Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I had serious consequences in Iraq, too. Because the British and French were on the winning side of the war, the League of Nations awarded "mandates" to Britain and France in the region. If the United States had stayed out of World War I, there probably would have been a negotiated settlement, and the Ottoman Empire would have survived for a while. The Middle East wouldn't have been carved up by Britain and France. But as things turned out, authorized by League of Nations "mandates," British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill was determined to secure the British Navy's access to Persian oil at the least possible cost by installing puppet regimes in the region.

In Mesopotamia, Churchill bolted together the territories of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra to make Iraq. Although Kurds wanted an independent homeland, their territory was to be part of Iraq. Churchill decided that the best bet for Britain would be a Hashemite ruler. For king, Churchill picked Feisal, eldest son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. Feisal was an Arabian prince who lived for years in Ottoman Constantinople, then established himself as king of Syria but was expelled by the French government that had the League of Nations "mandate" there. The British arranged a plebiscite purporting to show Iraqi support for Faisal. A majority of people in Iraq were Shiite Muslims, but Feisal was a Sunni Muslim, and this conflict was to become a huge problem. The Ottomans were Sunni, too, which meant British policy prolonged the era of Sunni dominance over Shiites as they became more resentful. During the 37 years of the Iraqi monarchy, there were 58 changes of parliamentary governments, indicating chronic political instability. All Iraqi rulers since Feisal, including Saddam Hussein, were Sunnis. That Iraq was ruled for three decades by a sadistic murderer like Saddam made clear how the map-drawing game was vastly more complicated than Wilson had imagined.

Considering Wilson's global catastrophes, it's remarkable that his interventionist policies have been adopted by Democratic and Republican presidents ever since. President Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in Wilson's footsteps when he maneuvered the United States into World War II, after promising American voters that he would stay out. Within five years after Hitler's defeat, more people than ever – some 800 million – suffered oppression from totalitarian regimes, in the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, East Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania and Yugoslavia. Millions in Eastern Europe were liberated from Hitler, then handed over to Stalin. Both Hitler and Stalin murdered Jews. One might make a case that the war against Hitler was pragmatic, but since the United States was allied with Stalin, an even worse mass murderer, World War II couldn't be described as a just war. And, one must not forget, the Pacific war occurred as a consequence of American efforts to thwart Japanese aggression in China, but China ended up going Communist. No justice in that, either.

President Harry Truman followed in Wilson's footsteps with his undeclared Korean War that didn't involve an attack on the United States yet killed more than 38,000 Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson followed Wilson with his undeclared Vietnam War, still another war that didn't involve an attack on the United States – over 58,000 Americans killed.

Again and again, seemingly easy interventions have become complicated, starting with Wilson's fiascos in Mexico and Europe. The Korean War became a quagmire with its rugged terrain and Chinese hordes, the Vietnam War with its jungles and guerrilla fighters, and the Middle East with its cities and suicide bombers. We play to our strengths defending our country and play to our weaknesses intervening in the affairs of other countries where people speak different languages, have different ideas, live in places that are strange to us – and are embroiled in conflicts that have little to do with our national security interests. In some cases, such as the Balkans, the United States intervened in conflicts that have been going on for hundreds of years, before the United States existed.

And, yes, the United States has made enemies by intervening in ancient disputes between Jews and Muslims as well as disputes among Muslim sects in the Middle East. American blood has been shed defending unpopular Saudi kings and the Shah of Iran, and trying to maintain order in Lebanon and build a new Iraqi nation following the overthrow of Saddam. During the past thousand years, the Muslim world has produced kings, dictators and religious fanatics – it's a region largely unfamiliar with religious freedom and constitutional limitations on government power. Yet Wilsonian nation-builders have imagined that they could somehow develop a nice liberal democracy by sending in soldiers and money. What we've seen, of course, has been terror and civil war.

Americans seem surprised when local people have opposed our well-meaning interventions, particularly after we helped get rid of an acknowledged evil like Saddam Hussein. But people don't seem to want somebody else building their nation, even when they made a mess of it. They might want Americans to send money and sacrifice some lives, then go home. A small but determined terrorist minority can cause a lot of trouble for us.

An interventionist foreign policy requires a president with the highest level of foreign policy expertise, but there isn't any method of assuring that only such people will occupy the White House. Many factors other than foreign policy expertise influence the outcome of presidential elections, such as a candidate's personality, achievements and positions on other issues. In any case, the worst foreign policy decisions, such as entering World War I, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, have tended to involve a consensus among foreign policy experts – "the wise men," as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas called them in their book about postwar policy. "The best and brightest" was David Halberstam's phrase in his critique of the Vietnam War.

How could the experts be wrong? Predicting foreign policy outcomes is as difficult as predicting anything else. Intervening in the affairs of other nations means taking sides. It isn't easy to predict which among many personalities and groups might emerge as enemies. Anyway, an outsider has a limited number of options, including support for a sympathetic regime and conquest, both of which would inflame nationalist hatreds.

The catastrophes Woodrow Wilson unleashed ought to serve as a warning that humility is urgently needed in U. S. foreign policy. It is not possible to control what other people do. We can only control what we do. We will have our hands full making this the best country it can be.

U.S. foreign policy ought to be guided by the following principles:

(1) Defend America from terrorism. The focus should be protecting the national security interests of the United States, not defending other countries from a wide range of threats. Nor should the United States try to counter political instability elsewhere. There has always been political instability in the world, and most of it doesn't affect the national security of the United States. We should avoid having American forces permanently stationed in other countries. American blood and treasure should be reserved for safeguarding Americans. We should repeal proliferating restrictions on civil liberties which, enacted in the name of fighting terrorism, do little if anything to protect national security.

(2) Stay out of other people's wars. By definition, these don't involve an attack on the United States. We should phase out alliances that obligate the United States to enter wars unrelated to American national security interests, such as the NATO alliance obligating the United States to enter wars in which any of 19 member nations might become embroiled. The United States should phase out similar obligations in the Middle East, Korea and elsewhere. The more American resources expended in other people's wars, the less are available to protect American national security interests.

(3) Don't try to build other people's nations. Independent nations cannot be built by stationing U.S soldiers in a territory and giving the government foreign aid. For better or worse, people must build their nations by making their own choices. People don't want foreigners trying to build their nations, because the foreigners – in particular, a foreign government – would be making the choices. When the United States pursues nation-building, American soldiers are killed enforcing choices that local people don't want. This essentially means American soldiers die in vain.

(4) Be open to the world. Maintain freedom of movement for people, goods and capital, among other things to minimize the risk that economic disputes escalate into political and military conflicts. We should abolish immigration quotas and welcome immigrants from all nations, except immigrants with known terrorist or other criminal backgrounds. Immigrants should perhaps be excluded from welfare state benefits (which, considering the debilitating effects of welfare, would probably give immigrants an advantage over those born in the United States). There shouldn't be any tariffs, import quotas, antidumping penalties or other import restrictions. Nor should there be foreign exchange controls or other restrictions on capital flows. The goal should be to minimize government-to-government contacts and facilitate the entire range of peaceful, private contacts around the world.

More immigrants have come to the United States than to all other destinations combined. Immigrants created new technologies, built great companies, enriched American cuisine and the American language itself. This was anything but "isolationism." America became a rich and influential country precisely because of a willingness to learn from everybody.

America cannot save the world by fighting endless wars, but we can set an example. We must protect a flourishing free society which peaceful people are welcome to join or emulate in their own lands.

Jim Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Wilson's War, How Woodrow Wilson's Great Blunder Led To Hitler, Lenin, Stalin And World War II (2005), FDR's Folly, How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression (2003), and The Triumph of Liberty, A 2,000-Year History Told Through The Lives Of Freedom's Greatest Champions (2000).