Every war is a tragedy, a failure to resolve sharp differences of ideology and interest or to stop evil men before they can impose their will on others. The First World War was one of the most tragic wars in history: Although none of its major protagonists expected or wanted it to occur, it initiated thirty years of bloodletting on an unprecedented scale and planted the seeds for civil conflicts that continue to rage today. Witness the fate of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, the secret pact drawn up in 1916 by diplomats from Britain and France that mashed together Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in a new nation called Iraq.
Historians will debate forever whether the Great War could have been prevented. But for the United States, it was indisputably a war of choice. Germany neither threatened a trans-Atlantic attack, nor had the ability to mount one. And while Woodrow Wilson and the government’s propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, portrayed the Kaiser’s regime as a cruel autocracy, it could not raise an army without the approval of the Reichstag, an elected legislature. And was Imperial Germany so morally inferior to the three empires it was fighting—the British, the French, and, until March of 1917, the realm of the Tsar?
We cannot know what impact continued U.S. neutrality would have had; by its nature, counter-factual history is a speculative enterprise. But we do know the consequences of the U.S. decision to join the Allied powers in the spring of 1917.
The American Expeditionary Force, commanded by General John Pershing, played a highly significant and, perhaps, decisive part in compelling the Germans to sue for peace in the fall of 1918. They were forced to accept a humiliating Armistice, in which the Kaiser abdicated and fled into exile. What turned the tide was not the actual fighting done by U.S. troops, nearly all of which occurred in the final six months of the conflict. German generals recognized they had no ability to counter the two million or more doughboys set to arrive in the summer of 1918. So, that spring, they threw all their remaining forces into a final offensive in northern France. We must strike, General Erich Lundendorff told his fellow commanders, “before America can throw strong forces into the scale.” That strike failed and, with it, any hope for some semblance of the “peace without victory” in which Woodrow Wilson devoutly believed.
At home, the decision to go to war also led inexorably to a campaign of repression of individual rights far greater than any that had occurred before. Newspapers were banned for making the slightest criticisms of government policy, Eugene Debs and other anti-warriors went to jail for giving speeches, and vigilantes freely assaulted people who, in their opinion, failed to echo the hyper-patriotic gospel.
These outrages occurred, in large part, because the nation which Wilson took into war was bitterly divided over that decision. Millions of Americans from different regions, political persuasions, and ethnic groups thought it was a very bad choice. Not all their reasons were rational: Contrary to the claims of such opponents as Robert La Follette and Eugene Debs, greedy corporations did not compel the U.S. into the battlefields of France; manufacturers and the House of Morgan were doing quite well supplying the Allies with goods and loans. But going to war did make existing tensions much worse. The fear of “seditious” radicals and aliens also led to the post-war Red Scare and the racist immigration laws which followed in the 1920s.
The consequences of the victory won by the U.S. and its allies led, in part, to an even greater tragedy. As Wilson feared, the punitive settlement made in Paris did not last. The president may have won Senate approval for the peace treaty, if he had accepted some of the reservations which Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and his supporters demanded. But American membership in the League of Nations would likely not have stopped the rise of fascism, Nazism, or the Communist International—which, together, sowed the seeds of the Second World War. The terrible irony is that U.S. entry into World War I probably made that next and far bloodier global conflict more likely.
As the historian John Coogan has written, “It was the genius of Woodrow Wilson which recognized that a lasting peace must be ‘a peace without victory.’ It was the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson that his own unneutrality would be a major factor in bringing about the decisive Allied victory that made a healing peace impossible.”
Soon after the Great War began, Wilson told the New York Times, that the opportunity for peace would be greatest “if no nation gets the decision by arms.” An “unjust peace,” he warned “will be sure to invite future calamities.” He was so right before he was so wrong.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is editor of Dissent and a contributing editor of TNR. He is writing a book about the American opponents of World War I.