It is difficult for many of us to understand the almost euphoric enthusiasm with which millions of Europeans marched off to war in the summer of 1914. For almost a century the people of Europe had, in general, lived through an amazing time in which living standards for practically everyone reached heights never before known in history. Governments, however imperfectly, had been tamed by constitutions, the rule of law, growing respect for individual liberty, and protection for private property and free enterprise.
Europe had not experienced a prolonged and massively destructive war since the defeat of Napoleon one hundred years earlier. To be sure, there had been some wars and civil wars, especially in central and eastern Europe during the nineteenth century. But they were relatively short and, compared to what were experienced in the twentieth century, rather limited in their destruction of life and property. “Rules of warfare” recognized the rights of neutrals and noncombatants in Europe, though not in the colonial areas of Asia and Africa.
But in the last decades of the nineteenth century, beneath the appearance of a classical-liberal utopia of freedom, peace, and prosperity, new ideological forces had been winning the hearts and minds of a growing number of people. These forces were socialism, nationalism, and imperialism—in a word, philosophical, political, and economic collectivism.
The air was filled with calls to arms in the name of national greatness and glory, talk of a higher social good more important than the “mere” interests of individuals, and the notion that peoples discovered their “destinies” not in peaceful industry, but on battlefields amid the thrust of bayonets.
Four years after the war began, by the autumn of 1918, more than 20 million Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians Italians, Russians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Serbs, Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and many others were dead. European industry and agriculture were ruined, and a good part of the accumulated wealth of a century had been consumed.
Jim Powell, in his book Wilson’s War, tells the story of how this came about, what the consequences were, and the role Woodrow Wilson played in making this entire catastrophe worse than it might have been.
While not ignoring Imperial German militarism, aggressiveness, and bellicosity in the decades before World War I, Powell emphasizes the various nationalist ambitions and secret alliances among all the major belligerents that kept the war from being simply “Germany’s fault.” Battlefield incompetence by generals and political arrogance and stubbornness by national leaders on both sides dragged the war on and on in the face of mounting casualties and growing economic hardship unknown in living memory.
At first, Powell explains, Wilson—a vain and often vengeful man—claimed the role of impartial arbiter to bring the war to a negotiated conclusion. But soon both he and his circle of cabinet members and advisers decided that victory should belong to Great Britain and France. Finally, after winning reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson had Congress declare war on Germany in April 1917, although neither Germany nor any of its allies had attacked or threatened the United States. At the peace conference that followed the November 1918 armistice, Wilson’s idealistic rhetoric was drowned out by the imperial and territorial ambitions of the British and French that left Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires in a shambles.
Powell persuasively suggests that if America had stayed out of the war the belligerents, exhausted and with no hope of a clear battlefield victory, might have accepted the need to end the conflict without any winner. Had that happened, there might well have been no Bolshevik revolution in Russia and therefore no deadly 75-year “experiment” in Soviet communism under Lenin, Stalin, and those who followed them. If Germany had not been humiliated, stripped of 13 percent of its territory, burdened with “war guilt” and heavy reparations, and left in political and economic chaos, a demagogue like Hitler, with his Nazi ideology of racism and blood lust for revenge and conquest through a new war, might not have come to power.
Had America not taken the path of foreign intervention in 1917, it might not have set the precedent of assuming the mantle of global policeman throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and now into the 21st century. In the world Woodrow Wilson did so much to create, the United States suffered not only hundreds of thousands of casualties in two global wars, but also over a hundred thousand additional deaths in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Nor should it be forgotten that this U.S. role has cost Americans dearly in other ways: hundreds of billions of dollars in tax money; the growth and increased intrusiveness of the federal government; and their placement in harm’s way throughout the world. This has been a heavy price to pay for Woodrow Wilson’s war ambitions.