In the early sixties, German historian Fritz Fischer famously raised an intense historiographical controversy by asserting, in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (Bid for World Power), that Germany did, in fact, bear the major responsibility for starting the First World War, a claim that had long since been discredited as Allied propaganda. The ensuing decades-long “Fischer Thesis Controversy” had its own life and meaning. In terms of the present series about American intervention into the Great War, I bring it up to introduce the conception of explicit “world power” policies as this conception relates to the U.S. entry into the war.
The “Thesis” that spawned the controversy was Fischer’s assertion that Germany’s guiding elites — much influenced by American naval officer/intellectual Alfred Thayer Mahan as well as other social Darwinists — adopted the outlook that marking time was no good in the struggle for national survival of the fittest. Hence, the German elites, according to Fischer, produced a national vision fundamentally altered from Bismarckian Germany’s essential conservative pragmatism. That is, they began to discuss “Weltpolitik” (World Policy) as a way for Germany to survive in a world dominated by powerful empires, like those of Britain and Russia. To do this, Germany would have to build a fleet many times larger than its small coastal navy. And the German Empire would go on to do so, after much national discussion, beginning with the passage of the First Navy Law in 1898. In these same terms of great conflict, though, the new navy could only be aimed at the British, who sensed this, made defensive arrangements with the French and Russians, which in turn… all the way to the assassination of the Archduke.
Unlike many acrimonious debates, and in spite of promoting some very one-sided and parti pris historical arguments, the Fischer dispute did actual raise some very useful points. I would argue that the most useful was the recognition — at the end — that most, if not all, of the belligerents, had elites doing these kinds of social Darwinist calculations and pushing expansive, imperialistic programs based on some idea of the survival of the fittest. The British had in a sense invented such planning long before Darwin, and they were still engaging it in the years leading to World War I. The French were both aggrieved at losing to Germany in 1871 and anxious to prove themselves through overseas empire in the pre-war years. Russian Pan-Slavist aggressive policies before 1914 acted as a kind of social Darwinist cover over the old Romanov house rules of expansion. Of course, each of these world power programs was handsomely veneered with benevolent justifications and slogans couched in the language of “duty,” “the nation,” “liberty and civilization,” “God With Us,” and the like.
So everyone was in the same game. Let me say here, editorially, that considering the aggressive, expansive origins of the modern state and the rapidly expanding technologies in weapons, transportation, and communications of the late nineteenth century, the only surprise in this scenario comes in the few cases in which we can point to members of elites who were counseling non-aggression, limited governance, individual autonomy, and peace. And there were such individuals and entities among within all of the rising “world powers,” even if they were relatively few and far between.
American troops celebrate after capturing a Korean fort, 1871
Certainly, the United States had developed its own scientific and moral rationale for “world power.” From a territorial standpoint, of course, the United States expanded massively in the nineteenth century, and where the German wars of unification had left a peacemaking, consolidating Bismarck in charge, the American war of unification seemed to lend a spirit of state-building, moral rightness, and the spread of “American ideals” to the bombastic and self-righteous calls for Manifest Destiny and other world power slogans. And these slogans were hardly empty rhetoric. Seward’s Folly of 1867, for example, was no folly, but a bold act of an expansionist Secretary of State. And the complicated expansion of American power into the Pacific that followed were likewise carefully thought out by American elites (including state-supporting and supported commercial and industrial elites, soon backed and eventually piloted by financial elites).
Almost immediately, in the late 1860s, American naval forces had already projected American power to the mainland of Asia. Korea was the first target. A shadowy filibuster expedition to Korea failed obscurely in the late sixties, whereupon in 1871 an American “punitive expedition” invaded Korean territory. The raid was quite purposely carried out at the behest of Seward’s successor, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. The American commander was hard pressed to find a fight but eventually succeeded in provoking a battle between his flotilla and a number of Korean forts. Though the two-day battle was small by most standards, it left much wreckage and over 250 Korean soldiers dead. The justifications were complicated but “humanitarian.” (See Gordon H. Chang’s account from 2003 in the Journal of American History).
Other significant expansionary efforts in the Pacific came in the efforts to seize Hawaii (beginning in the 1880s and ending with an American coup in 1893) and Samoa, divided between Germany and the United States in 1889, also for humanitarian reasons, naturally. A related piece of this world power policy was the expansion of the U.S. Navy. Just fourteen busy years after the acquisition of Alaska, in 1881, the United States began a continuous expansion and modernization of the Navy. The moderate expansion turned out to be the prelude to the Naval Bill of 1890, which historian Daniel Smith described as “truly epoqual.”
So if the Spanish-American War kicked U.S. expansionary activity into high gear, the previous century represented much more of a continuum in that direction than the “isolation” often imagined. American expansion in both the Pacific and in Latin America predated McKinley’s prayerful war with Spain. Yet the vast acquisitions of the splendid little war accelerated these tendencies, and its aftermath put the American empire on a footing with the European empires in many ways. And in a parallel to the British and French techniques of financial manipulation and control perfected in the 1880s, the United States engaged in “dollar diplomacy” (shorthand for the politics of big loans and big loan guarantees), which played a continuous role after 1909, with the expanding naval power always hovering in the background. By the time Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, the Empire was extensive and complex but wholly justified in the public sphere by a range of moralistic and social-Darwinist as well as strategic justifications. The Anti-Imperialist League and the jeremiads of its most famous member, Mark Twain, had been drowned out by the (in large part Progressive) arguments for American world power from McKinley to Wilson. Wilson himself — these days is seen as a peacemaker — enunciated a policy which emphasized national self-determination and “peace” the world over, but this policy in the end “forced” him to authorize invasions, occupations, or other military interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and finally Mexico (in 1914 and again on a much larger scale in 1916).
U.S.S. Denver landing force in Nicaragua, 1912
Hence, in the larger view, by the time Europeans were killing each other by the ten thousand in Flanders, Picardy, East Prussia, Serbia, elsewhere, the United States — by now the most materially powerful country in the world — had developed habits of projecting its power across much more extensive distances. And these distances were far more daunting and difficult than the week-long ocean voyage from New York to Le Havre which was now standard.
So, clearly, there were multiple vast plans for world power among the great powers of the earth. Indeed, to the European great powers, we can add not only the United States but Japan, which joined the war on the Entente side on August 25, 1914. The Japanese government declared war on the Central Powers on the condition that Japan could seize all German possessions and territorial leases in China and the whole Pacific. In the weeks after joining the Entente’s Great Crusade for Civilization, Japan snapped up much of German-controlled Shandong province in China and numerous island possessions of Germany.
When Lenin and his friends called the Great War an imperialist war, they were not wrong. Readers will no doubt have apprehended that many of the parts and pieces of these multiple plans were mutually exclusive, even among powers on the same side in the conflict. And these factors of long-term world policy planning affected military strategies as well as long-term diplomatic considerations. In particular, they were critical in the timing and manner of entering the war for all belligerents.
This short background to the American version of world power is necessary to understand the nature of some very personal decisions made to intervene in the conflict in Europe. The decision revolves around the intimate relationship of the American President and his “alter ego,” Colonel House, the subject of the next installment of this series.
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