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1: The First Crusade - William Henry Chamberlin, America’s Second Crusade 
America’s Second Crusade (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Amagi, 2008).
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The First Crusade
Americans, more than any other people, have been inclined to interpret their involvement in the two great wars of the twentieth century in terms of crusades for righteousness. General Eisenhower calls his memoirs Crusade in Europe. And the mural paintings in the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University show the American soldiers of World War I as chivalrous knights, fighting for the freedom of wronged peoples. They bear the inscription:
This was how the war appeared from the beginning to a minority of Americans who felt close emotional ties with Great Britain and France. There were politically and socially less influential German-American and Irish-American minorities with opposed sympathies.
The majority of the American people were inclined to follow President Wilson’s appeal to “be neutral in fact as well as in name,” “to be impartial in thought as well as in action.” The tradition of dissociation from Europe’s wars was strong. It was only gradually that the United States was sucked into the vortex.
Despite the President’s intellectual sympathy with the British and French political systems, as contrasted with the German, there is evidence that Woodrow Wilson, until he felt his hand forced on the unrestricted submarine warfare issue, sincerely desired to keep America out of the world conflict. His imagination was fired by the hope of playing a leading disinterested role at the peace conference. He saw the advantage of keeping one great power outside the ranks of the belligerents, capable of playing the part of mediator.
The President was not an absolute pacifist, but his scholarly training had given him a strong sense of the inevitable brutality and frequent futility of resorting to force in disputes between nations. He became increasingly attracted by the vision of an international organization capable of maintaining peace.
Shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania Wilson risked criticism at home and abroad by saying:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
On two subsequent occasions he voiced sentiments that were truly prophetic, in the light of the crusade’s disillusioning aftermath. Addressing the Senate on January 22, 1917, he pleaded for a “peace without victory”:
Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last, only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit.
And on the very eve of his appeal to Congress for a declaration of war Wilson privately poured out his doubts and fears to Frank Cobb, editor of the New York World. Looking pale and haggard, the President told the editor he had been lying awake for nights, thinking over the whole situation, trying in vain to find an alternative to war. When Cobb observed that Germany had forced his hand, Wilson refused to be consoled. He said:
America’s entrance would mean that we would lose our heads along with the rest and stop weighing right or wrong. It would mean that the majority of the people in this hemisphere would go war-mad, quit thinking and devote their energies to destruction. . . . It means an attempt to reconstruct a peacetime civilization with war standards, and at the end of the war there will be no bystanders with sufficient power to influence the terms. . . . Once lead this people into war and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.
For a man to be led by what he considers irresistible necessity to follow a course of action from which he anticipates no constructive results is one of the highest forms of tragedy. It was such a tragedy that brought Wilson sleepless nights before his call to arms on April 2, 1917.
America in 1914 had no political commitments to either group of belligerents. But its foreign-trade interests were immediately and sharply affected. Each side went far beyond previous precedents in trying to cut off enemy supplies with slight regard for neutral rights. The Allies dominated the surface of the seas. They could not establish a close blockade of German ports, the only kind which was legitimate under international law. But they could and did sweep German shipping from the seas. And they stretched the rights of search and seizure and the definition of contraband far beyond previous rules and standards.
The American State Department filed sharp protests against seizures of American cargoes, but received little satisfaction. One reason why the remonstrances received little attention was the extreme Anglophile attitude of the American Ambassador in London, Walter Hines Page. Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Minister, reports that Page, after reading a dispatch contesting the British right to stop contraband going to neutral ports, offered the following postscript:
“I have now read the dispatch, but do not agree with it. Let us consider how it should be answered!”
Sir Edward’s reaction is understandable:
“The comfort, support and encouragement that Page’s presence was to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs may be imagined.”
The purpose of the blockade, according to Winston Churchill, who unconsciously anticipated a slogan of World War II, was to enforce unconditional surrender:
“Germany is like a man throttled by a heavy gag. You know the effect of such a gag. . . . The effort wears out the heart and Germany knows it. This pressure shall not be relaxed until she gives in unconditionally.”
The German reply to the Allied blockade was a new naval weapon, the submarine. These undersea craft soon developed unforeseen power as destroyers of merchant shipping. As a wag remarked: Britannia rules the waves, but Germany waives the rules.
The German Government on February 4, 1915, after vainly protesting against the rigors of the blockade, declared the waters surrounding the British Isles a war zone, in which every enemy merchant ship was liable to destruction. Neutral ships were also warned of danger in entering this zone.
The submarine was a more visible and provocative weapon than the blockade, although Secretary of State Bryan, a staunch pacifist, professed to see little difference between the prize court and the torpedo. Submarine attacks cost lives and created headlines. Cargoes seized by British warships merely became the subject of lawsuits.
A crisis in American-German relations followed the sinking of the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The ship was carrying munitions and was not convoyed. Over eleven hundred passengers, including 128 American citizens, lost their lives. There was an almost unanimous cry of horror and indignation in the American press. But there were few voices in favor of going to war. There was a strongly phrased note of protest. But tension gradually eased off as there was no repetition of tragedy on the scale of the Lusitania sinking.
The submarine issue came sharply to a head after the British cross-Channel steamer Sussex was torpedoed, with the loss of some American lives, in the spring of 1916. Wilson informed the German Government that, unless it abandoned present methods of submarine warfare against passenger- and freight-carrying ships, “the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.”
Faced with this clear-cut alternative, the German Government yielded. It consented not to sink merchant ships without warning and without taking precautions to save lives. It tried to link this concession with a suggestion that the United States should hold Great Britain responsible for observing international law in the matter of the blockade.
The American Government refused to admit any connection between these two issues. As Germany offered no further comment, the dispute was settled, for the moment, with a diplomatic victory for Wilson. But the danger remained that submarine warfare would be resumed whenever the German Government might feel that its advantages would outweigh the benefits of American neutrality. And the President had now committed the United States to a breach of relations in the event of a renewal of submarine attacks against nonmilitary shipping.
This consideration lent an element of urgency to Wilson’s efforts to find a basis for mediation. In the light of later events there can be little doubt that a negotiated peace on reasonable terms in 1915 or 1916 would have been incomparably the happiest possible ending of the war. Such a peace would probably have saved the fabric of European civilization from the fearful shocks of communism and nazism.
But foresight does not seem to have been the gift of any of the men who occupied the seats of power in the warring countries. Winston Churchill, writing in a sober mood between the two great wars, in both of which he played a leading part, summed up the mood of the belligerent leaders, which he fully shared, in the following eloquent and somber passage:
Governments and individuals conformed to the rhythm of the tragedy, and swayed and staggered forward in helpless violence, slaughtering and squandering on ever-increasing scales, till injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface, and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilisation. . . . Victory was to be bought so dear as to be almost indistinguishable from defeat. It was not to give even security to the victors. . . . The most complete victory ever gained in arms has failed to solve the European problem or remove the dangers which produced the war.1
During the years when American mediation was possible, the Germans were clearly ahead on the war map. They had overrun Belgium and northeastern France before the western front sagged down in bloody stalemate. They had crushed Serbia and pushed the Russians far back from the prewar frontier. Rumania’s entrance into the war in 1916 was followed by swift defeat.
On the other hand the blockade was contracting their supplies of food and raw materials. And Germany and its allies faced a coalition of powers with a larger aggregate population and much more extensive natural resources. It would, therefore, have been advantageous for Germany to conclude peace on terms that gave some recognition to its military successes.
The Allies, on the other hand, based their hopes on wearing Germany and Austria down. Peace talks would have been embarrassing to them for two reasons. Morale would have been adversely affected. And annexationist ambitions which would have scarcely stood the test of impartial neutral moral judgment, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 16, 1916, for the partition of Asia Minor between Russia, France, and Britain, would have come to light.
So all the mediation feelers of Wilson and his confidential adviser, Col. E. M. House, came to nothing. Wilson and House favored the western powers against Germany, although they were not such extravagant British partisans as Page. They distrusted militarist influences in Germany; they felt a sense of affinity between British and American conceptions of law, government, and morality. Their mediation would have been distinctly friendly to the Allies. This is evident from the so-called House-Grey memorandum of February 1916, the most concrete result of House’s journeys abroad and correspondence with Sir Edward Grey and other British leaders. This document, drawn up by Grey and confirmed by House, with Wilson’s approval, reads as follows:
Colonel House told me that President Wilson was ready, on hearing from France and England that the moment was opportune, to propose that a Conference should be summoned to put an end to the war. Should the Allies accept this proposal, and should Germany refuse it, the United States would probably enter the war against Germany.
Colonel House expressed the opinion that, if such a Conference met, it would secure peace on terms not unfavorable to the Allies; and, if it failed to secure peace, the United States would [probably] leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable. House expressed an opinion decidedly favorable to the restoration of Belgium, the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, and the acquisition by Russia of an outlet to the sea, though he thought that the loss of territory incurred by Germany in one place would have to be compensated by concessions to her in other places outside Europe. If the Allies delayed accepting the offer of President Wilson, and if, later on, the course of the war was so unfavourable to them that the intervention of the United States would not be effective, the United States would probably disinterest themselves in Europe and look to their own protection in their own way.
Here was indeed a venture in high politics. Wilson was willing to commit America to participation in a European war unless Germany consented not only to give up its conquests but to surrender Alsace-Lorraine, which had been an integral part of the German Empire for more than forty years.
The American offer, although politely registered, was never accepted. The Allies wanted a knockout victory and did not wish to tie their hands by accepting outside mediation, however friendly. They probably reckoned that America would be forced into the war ultimately because of the submarine issue. And, like the Germans, they were inclined to underestimate America’s military potential.
Long before America entered the war, its economy was being bolstered and sustained by huge Allied war orders. As the British and French ran short of means of payment, they floated loans of more than a billion and a half dollars on the American market, largely through the agency of the House of Morgan. Lend-lease was not thought of, but the economic aspects of the periods which preceded American involvement in the two great wars were remarkably similar.
Depression gave way to boom. There was unlimited demand for the products of the steel and other heavy industries. Prices of farm products were kept at high levels. This swollen and one-sided war trade built up a tremendous economic stake in Allied victory.
An emotional stake was also being built up, partly by deliberate propaganda, partly by the instinctive sympathy of influential groups in America with Britain and France. The task of British propaganda was greatly eased by the general disposition to accept it at face value, with little critical examination.
The best Allied propagandists were perhaps not the professionals, but the amateurs, men like Ambassador Page, who unconsciously and completely absorbed and mirrored the British viewpoint. There were thousands of Americans of this type in less distinguished positions—professors, writers, publicists, clergymen—who acted in all good faith and were all the more effective in influencing public opinion for this reason.
Moreover, Britons, in this war as on other occasions, were the most effective spokesmen for their country’s cause because of their national gift of restraint and understatement. This made it easy for them to identify more or less convincingly British interests with the requirements of reason, logic, and morality.
By contrast German publicity efforts, heavily handicapped by the severance of direct cable communication between Germany and the outside world, seemed clumsy, bumbling, and heavy-footed, and generally fell on skeptical ears.
Later, during the intellectual hangover that followed the wartime emotional debauch, there was perhaps too much emphasis on paid propagandists and on deliberate falsifications. To be sure, some German “atrocities” that never occurred obtained wide popular circulation. And some ruthless measures which every army of occupation would probably have employed to suppress irregular sniping were represented as peculiarly bestial acts which only “Huns” could commit. The superheated temper of a part of public opinion could be gauged from the following comment of Henry Watterson, veteran editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, on the letter of a correspondent who pointed out, in connection with the case of Edith Cavell, that the United States had once hanged a woman (Mrs. Suratt) on still more dubious evidence:
“This insensate brute is equally disloyal to his country and his kind—assuming him to be a man and not an animal—and at the same time he is as ignorant as he is treasonable.”
There was a good deal of scare propaganda in the magazines and in the movies. Popular magazines published serial stories describing German hordes trampling over American soil.
There were some attempts by German and Austrian agents to stir up and exploit labor discontent in factories and to interfere with munitions production for the Allies. Supplied with information from the alert British Intelligence Service, the State Department requested the recall of the Austrian Ambassador, Dr. Constantin Dumba, and of the German military and naval attachés, Captains von Papen and Boy-Ed.
The extent of German subversive activity was considerably magnified in the public imagination. There were repeated fearful predictions of a hidden army of German reservists who would rise and fight for the Fatherland. No such “army” ever materialized, even after America entered the war.
Despite the strong economic and propaganda pulls toward a pro-Ally orientation, there was little popular demand for American entrance into the war. At the very time when House was working out his mediation formula, with its strong suggestion of American intervention, there was considerable support in Congress for the Gore-McLemore resolution, warning Americans not to travel on ships belonging to belligerent nations. This anticipated the spirit of the neutrality legislation of the thirties. Strong White House pressure was employed to get this resolution tabled.
Foreign policy was not a clear-cut issue in the election of 1916. The German-Americans were inclined to regard Wilson as pro-British. It was the difficult task of the Republican candidate, Charles E. Hughes, to capitalize this discontent and at the same time to keep the support of a bellicose wing of the Republicans, of whom Theodore Roosevelt was the principal spokesman.
Undoubtedly the slogan “He kept us out of war” helped Wilson win one of the most closely contested elections in American history. But the President, in contrast to his successor in 1940, gave no sweeping “again and again and again” pledge to the voters. He stood on the warning which he had given to the German Government on submarine warfare.
The sands of time for effective American mediation were running out as the pressure of the German military and naval leaders for resumption of undersea war became more intense. Wilson was considering a peace appeal when the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg anticipated him with a note expressing willingness to enter a peace conference. This note, dispatched on December 12, 1916, was noncommittal as to terms. A week later Wilson made his last effort for the “peace without victory” which he later described to the Senate as the only peace that could be enduring. He addressed a note to all the belligerent powers, asking them to state their peace terms.
The Germans maintained their reserve. The Allies, indignant at being called on to lay their cards on the table, sent a joint reply which slammed, bolted, and barred the door to any prospect of negotiated peace. Besides the evacuation of all invaded territory, with indemnities, they called for “the restitution of provinces or territories wrested in the past from the Allies by force or against the will of their populations, the liberation of Slavs, Rumanians, and Czechs from foreign domination, the enfranchisement of populations subject to the bloody tyranny of the Turks, the expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire.”
Such terms could only be imposed on defeated enemies. There was also a strong annexationist flavor in the German conditions, which were published late in January. These included “a frontier which would protect Germany and Poland strategically against Russia”; restitution of France “under reservation of strategic and economic changes of the frontier and financial compensation,” restitution of Belgium “under special guaranty for the safety of Germany,” restitution of colonies, “in the form of an agreement which would give Germany colonies adequate to her population and economic interest.”
All prospect of a peace in which the United States might have played a mediating role disappeared on January 31, 1917, when Germany announced the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare. The naval and military leaders had convinced the Kaiser that they possessed sufficient submarine strength to cut the lifeline of British communications.
This German decision was not irrational. The figures of sinkings soon rose to formidable heights. But in retrospect the calculated breach with the United States was a fatal blunder. It is very doubtful whether the United States would have entered the war actively without the submarine provocation. Wilson said to House as late as January 4, 1917:
“There will be no war. This country does not intend to become involved in this war. We are the only one of the great white nations that is free from war today, and it would be a crime against civilization for us to go in.”
The Russian Revolution occurred on March 12, a few weeks after the fateful German decision. One of its consequences was to eliminate Russia from participation in the war. The Russian front crumbled during 1917, and early in 1918 Germany was able to impose the Peace of Brest-Litovsk on the Soviet Government, which had come into power on November 7, 1917.
Now it is highly doubtful whether Britain, France, Italy, and the smaller Allies, deprived of Russia’s vast manpower and receiving only economic aid from the United States, could have won a decisive military victory. The war would probably in this case have ended either in a German victory or in a stalemate, with Germany perhaps making some concessions in the West, but expanding on a large scale in the East.
The German leaders, however, did not anticipate the good fortune that was awaiting them in the East. They decided to stake everything on the submarine card. Wilson promptly broke off diplomatic relations. Then there was a pause, a period of waiting for some “overt act.” Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador in Washington, was praying for “the destruction of an American ship with American passengers.”2
Lloyd George, the new British Prime Minister, was trying to insure America’s entrance into the conflict by subtler methods. No one, as he told Page, could have so commanding a voice at the peace conference as the President. The President’s presence at this conference, Lloyd George suggested, was necessary for the proper organization of the peace. These were just the considerations that were most likely to appeal to Wilson’s self-esteem and to his sincere belief that he might deserve well of his country and of the world by laying the foundations of a new international order, with safeguards against war.
The President, however, showed no disposition to rush the country into war. He was influenced by the doubts which he had confessed to Cobb. The pace of events was hastened by the revelation on February 24 that German Foreign Secretary Zimmermann had proposed, in the event of war with the United States, a treaty of alliance with Mexico, on the following basis:
“Make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
Japan was also to be invited to adhere to this pact. From a moral standpoint Zimmermann’s proposal is indistinguishable from the territorial bribes with which the Allies induced Italy and Rumania to enter the war. But in view of Mexico’s military weakness the proposal was extremely stupid and helped to speed up the development of American war psychology.
Despite the stubborn filibuster of a minority of antiwar senators (a little group of willful men, as Wilson called them), the government hastened to arm American merchant ships. By April 2 there had been enough “overt acts” to induce Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war. America’s war aims were described in the following glowing and abstract terms in the peroration:
We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
The crusading note was further emphasized by such phrases as:
We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. . . . The world must be made safe for democracy.
Opposition voices were heard in the debate on the war resolution. Senator Robert M. La Follette delivered a four-hour speech attacking the idea that this was or could be a war for democracy, suggesting that true neutrality would have kept the United States out of the war. Senator George Norris spoke of “the enormous profits of munitions manufacturers, steel brokers and bond dealers” and cried out: “We are about to put the dollar sign upon the American flag.”
Six senators and fifty representatives voted against the declaration of war. Most of them were from the Middle West, where pro-Ally feeling was less pronounced than it was in the East and the South. By becoming involved in a European war, a fateful departure was made in American policy. Giving up our historic limited goal of protecting this hemisphere against foreign aggression, we were committing ourselves to an ambitious crusade with such alluring but vague objectives as “making the world safe for democracy” and “making the world itself at last free.”
One reason for growing skepticism about the success of this crusade was Wilson’s inability to inspire the majority of his countrymen with enthusiasm for, or even understanding of, his great design for future world peace. One wonders how many Americans carefully studied the Fourteen Points, laid down by the President as America’s peace aims, or the supplementary statements of principle which amplified these points.3
The main principles of Wilsonism were government by consent of the governed, national self-determination, an end of secret treaties, a nonvindictive peace, and an association of nations strong enough to check aggression and keep the peace in the future. The mood that developed in wartime America did not make for intelligent popular support of Wilson’s aims. The nation had not been involved in a major foreign war within the memory of a living man. It went on a prodigious emotional debauch.
American soil had not been invaded and the immediate cause of the conflict, the right to carry on one-sided trade with one set of belligerents, was not an ideal trumpet call for martial action. As Wilson’s ideals, to the average man, were too abstract and rarefied to serve as fighting slogans, the builders of national morale concentrated on building up belief in the supreme wickedness of the “Hun,” for whom “unspeakable” was one of the mildest adjectives in general use.
“Four-minute men” rushed about the land, selling war bonds and hate with equal vigor. Their favorite peroration was: “I’d compare those Huns with snakes, only that would be insulting the snakes.” Some pastors found relief from previously repressed lives by shouting dramatically: “I say God damn the Kaiser—and I’m not swearing, either.”
Pittsburgh “banned” Beethoven, to the greater glory of democracy. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” Producers of films and stories with stock Teutonic villains reaped a rich harvest. Some professors went just as war mad and said just as foolish things as the extreme German nationalists whose chauvinistic boastings were held up to deserved ridicule.
All this did not create a hopeful background for a just and reasonable peace. It was significant that when the President, toward the end of the war, made one of his more serious and statesmanlike addresses, the audience perversely applauded all the more trivial clichés and remained indifferent to his more original and fruitful ideas.
By the autumn of 1918 the breaking point in the world struggle had come. America had proved more than an adequate substitute for Russia. The number of American troops on the western front increased from three hundred thousand in March 1918 to two million in November. Half-starved and exhausted by the blockade, repulsed in the last desperate attempts to break through on the western front in France, Germany faced the prospect of ever increasing American reinforcements and of continually increasing American supplies.
Ludendorff, who shared with Hindenburg the command of the German armies, urged the civilian government to appeal for an armistice on October 1. The German Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, in agreement with the Austrian Government, appealed to Wilson on October 5 for an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points.
There was a widespread clamor in America for unconditional surrender. But Wilson kept the negotiations in progress. When the armistice was finally signed, it was on the basis of the Fourteen Points and subsequent public declarations of Wilson, with one reservation and one elucidation. Lloyd George reserved for future discussion Point 2, providing for freedom of the seas. And it was agreed between Colonel House, Wilson’s representative in Paris, and the Allied leaders that “restoration” of invaded territory should mean that “compensation will be made by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the forces of Germany by land, by sea and from the air.”
That there was a recognized obligation on the part of the Allies to make the peace treaty conform to the Fourteen Points and to Wilson’s other statements is evident from the wording of a reply to a German protest against the peace terms in May 1919:
“The Allied and Associated Powers are in complete accord with the German delegation in their insistence that the basis for the negotiation of the treaty of peace is to be found in the correspondence which immediately preceded the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918.”
Wilson did not obtain Allied endorsement of his peace conditions without a severe diplomatic struggle behind the scenes. Colonel House went so far as to intimate that if the Fourteen Points were not accepted the negotiations with Germany would be wiped off the slate and America might then conclude a separate peace with Germany and Austria.4 This firm tone led to satisfactory results in this instance, but it was seldom employed when the practical details of the settlement were being worked out.
The hope of far-sighted liberals in America and in Europe that Wilson’s principles would be the foundation of a just and lasting peace could never have been achieved for several reasons.
Wilson’s prestige was weakened first of all when he issued an ill-advised appeal for the return of a Democratic Congress in 1918. The Republicans were successful in the election, and Wilson’s influence was lessened in the eyes of European statesmen accustomed to the system of government by a cabinet responsible to parliament. Another tactical error was Wilson’s failure to appoint a single active representative Republican as a member of the commission to negotiate the peace. (The five members were Wilson, House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, General Tasker Bliss, and Henry White, a Republican who had lived much of his life abroad and carried no special weight in the councils of his party.)
It was probably a mistake on Wilson’s part to have attended the conference personally. He would have wielded greater power and influence from Washington. And Paris was an unfortunate choice for the seat of the conference if reconciliation rather than vengeance was to be the keynote of the peace. France had suffered much in the war, and in the Paris atmosphere everyone was afraid of being reproached with pro-Germanism. As Harold Nicolson, a young British diplomat who viewed the proceedings with a keen and critical eye, remarked:
“Given the atmosphere of the time, given the passions aroused in all democracies by the four years of war, it would have been impossible even for supermen to devise a peace of moderation and righteousness.”5
Old-fashioned secret diplomacy is open to criticism. But one reason why the Congress of Vienna, meeting after the convulsions of the Napoleonic Wars, succeeded far better than the conference of Versailles was the freedom of the statesmen there from the influence of popular passion. The chief representatives of the European Allies, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando, knew they faced the danger of being swept away by a storm of popular reproach if they did not hold out for the maximum in territory and indemnities.
So the cards were heavily stacked against a peace treaty that would reflect the Fourteen Points and Wilson’s other principles. If the President, amid the terrific strain of Paris, had time to take a cool historical view of what was going on, he must have felt the rightness of his earlier preference for a peace without victory. It is to his moral credit that he sometimes fought hard for his principles.
But Wilson’s support of his ideals was erratic, inconsistent, and, on balance, ineffective. The President was uncompromising in rejecting Italian claims for Fiume and Dalmatia. But he acquiesced without a struggle in a still more flagrant violation of the right of self-determination: the assignment to Italy of the solidly German-Austrian South Tyrol.
In general, this principle was stretched to the limit whenever it would work to the disadvantage of the defeated powers and disregarded when it would operate in their favor. So there was no self-determination for six and a half million Austrians, the majority of whom wished to join Germany, or for three million Sudeten Germans who did not wish to become citizens of a Czecho-Slovak state, or for other ethnic minorities belonging to the defeated powers.
The Treaty of Versailles was especially disastrous on the economic side. It embodied two inconsistent principles, revenge and rapacity; the desire to make Germany helpless and the desire to make Germany pay. The completely unrealistic reparations settlement was to contribute much to the depth and severity of the world economic crisis ten years later. This crisis, in turn, was a very important factor in bringing Adolf Hitler into power.
Many of Germany’s economic assets—her colonies, her merchant marine, her foreign holdings, her gold reserves—were confiscated. Under the terms of the treaty Germany lost about 10 per cent of its territory and population, one third of its coal, and three quarters of its iron ore. At the same time it was saddled with an enormous and at first undefined reparations bill, far in excess of any sum ever collected after any previous war.
This bill was finally fixed by the Reparations Commission at 32 billion dollars. (French Finance Minister Klotz, who was later appropriately committed to a lunatic asylum, had at first proposed a figure of 200 billion dollars, two hundred times the indemnity exacted from France after the Franco-Prussian War.) Germany could only hope to pay this tribute, which under the later Dawes and Young plans was set at annual payments of about half a billion dollars, by developing a permanent large uncompensated surplus of exports over imports.
There were two insoluble dilemmas in this attempted financial settlement. First, a weak Germany could not produce such a surplus, while a strong Germany would be inclined to balk at payment. Second, the only feasible method of transferring wealth on this scale, the use of German labor and material on reconstruction projects, was ruled out. And, in times of unemployment and failing demand, foreign countries were unable or unwilling to purchase German goods on a scale that would make possible the desired surplus of exports over imports.6
One of the many dragons’ teeth sown by the Treaty of Versailles was Article 231, which read:
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her Allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
This linked up Germany’s obligation to pay reparations with a blanket self-condemnation to which almost no German could have honestly subscribed. In the objective retrospect of postwar years few students of the subject in Allied and neutral countries upheld the proposition that Germany was solely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. There were differences of opinion about the degree of responsibility borne by Germany, Austria, Russia, and other belligerent powers. Fairly representative of the judgment of impartial scholarship is the opinion of Professor Sidney B. Fay, of Harvard University, the conclusion of an exhaustive inquiry into the causes of the conflict:
Germany did not plot a European war, did not want one and made genuine, though too belated efforts to avert one. . . . It was primarily Russia’s general mobilization, made when Germany was trying to bring Austria to a settlement, which precipitated the final catastrophe, causing Germany to mobilize and declare war. . . . The verdict of the Versailles Treaty that Germany and her allies were responsible for the war, in view of the evidence now available, is historically unsound.7
By the time the Treaty of Versailles was cast in final form and imposed upon the Germans, scarcely a trace of the Wilsonian spirit remained. A bitter gibe became current in Europe. It was said that Wilson deserved the Nobel Prize not for peace, but for mathematics, since he had made fourteen equal zero. It is interesting to note the judgment of a well-known British participant in the peace discussions who sympathized with Wilson’s ideals. The economist John Maynard Keynes, in his Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan), wrote:
The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe—nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new State of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of economic solidarity amongst the Allies themselves.
Wilson was partly reconciled to the sacrifice of his ideals of political and economic justice by the hope that the newly formed League of Nations, with the United States as a member, would be a force for reform and reconciliation. This hope was not fulfilled. The President experienced his final tragedy when, after his nervous and physical breakdown, the Versailles Treaty, in which the League Covenant had been incorporated, failed to win ratification in the Senate. There was an unbreakable deadlock between the President’s insistence that the Covenant be accepted with, at most, minor changes and Senator Lodge’s insistence on strong reservations. A majority was not to be had for either proposition and the United States remained outside the League of Nations.8
The submarine remained a permanent weapon of warfare against merchant shipping. For every injustice the Treaty of Versailles redressed, it created another, equally flagrant and disturbing to future peace. The failure of the new and enlarged states in eastern and southeastern Europe to band together in close voluntary federation created an unhealthy fragmentation of the European economy and made it easier for Nazi and Communist careers of conquest to get under way.
The greatest failure of all was in “making the world safe for democracy.” Communism and fascism, not democracy, were the authentic political offspring of World War I.
There remains the argument that America, by taking part in the war, had frustrated a German design for world conquest. But this design looked less and less convincing as high-powered war propaganda receded into the shadows. The contention that the British and French fight was “our fight” did not convince Wilson’s confidential adviser, House, even in the first weeks after the end of hostilities. Discussing this question in his diary on January 4, 1919, House observes:
I for one have never admitted this. I have always felt that the United States was amply able to take care of herself, that we were never afraid of the Germans and would not have been afraid of them even if France and England had gone under.9
The ghostly tramp of imagined German legions, marching through the streets of American cities, may have frightened a few nervous Americans in 1915 and 1916. But by 1933 most Americans would probably have agreed with the sentiments expressed by William Allen White in a thoughtful Armistice Day editorial:
Fifteen years ago came the Armistice and we all thought it was to be a new world. It is! But a lot worse than it was before.
Ten million men were killed and many more maimed, fifty billion dollars worth of property destroyed, the world saddled with debts.
And for what? Would it have been any worse if Germany had won? Ask yourself honestly. No one knows.
Is this old world as safe for democracy as it was before all those lives were lost?10
By no standard of judgment could America’s First Crusade be considered a success. It was not even an effective warning. For all the illusions, misjudgments, and errors of the First Crusade were to be repeated, in exaggerated form, in a Second Crusade that was to be a still more resounding and unmistakable political and moral failure, despite the repetition of military success.
WILSON’S BLUEPRINT FOR PEACE
The Fourteen Points, set forth in an address to Congress,
January 8, 1918
1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
2. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
3. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
4. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
5. A free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
6. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.
7. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.
8. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
9. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
10. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.
11. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.
12. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
13. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
14. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
Further points in President Wilson’s address to Congress,
February 11, 1918
That each part of the final settlement must be based upon the essential justice of that particular case and upon such adjustments as are most likely to bring a peace that will be permanent.
That peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game, even the great game, now forever discredited, of the balance of power; but that
Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims among rival states; and
That all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe and consequently of the world.
Statements in Wilson’s New York City address,
September 27, 1918
The impartial justice meted out must involve no discrimination between those to whom we wish to be just and those to whom we do not wish to be just. It must be a justice that plays no favorites and knows no standard but the equal rights of the several peoples concerned;
No special or separate interest of any single nation or any group of nations can be made the basis of any part of the settlement which is not consistent with the common interest of all;
There can be no leagues or alliances or special covenants and understandings within the general and common family of the League of Nations;
And, more specifically, there can be no special, selfish economic combinations within the League and no employment of any form of economic boycott or exclusion except as the power of economic penalty by exclusion from the markets of the world may be vested in the League of Nations itself as a means of discipline and control.
[1. ] Churchill, The World Crisis, 2:1-2. This passage could serve even better as an epitaph for the Second World War than for the First.
[2. ] Millis, Road to War, 401.
[3. ] The Fourteen Points and other essential items in Wilson’s peace program are printed at the end of this chapter.
[4. ] House, Intimate Papers, vol. 4.
[5. ] Nicolson, Peacemaking, 1919, 72.
[6. ] For this same economic reason, inability or unwillingness of the United States to accept large quantities of European exports, the war debts of the European Allies to the United States were unpayable.
[7. ] Fay, Origins of the World War, 552, 554-55.
[8. ] A certain school of thought is inclined to attribute most of the world’s inter-war troubles to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union (until 1934) were outside the League. But these two powers have been charter members of the United Nations, without producing world harmony.
[9. ] House, Intimate Papers, 4:268.
[10. ] White, Autobiography, 640.