More American soldiers died in World War I than any other wars except the Civil War and World War II. Indeed, despite the U.S. population being far smaller in 1917-1918 than it would become after World War II, more than twice as many American soldiers were killed in the single year that America fought in World War I than were killed in the Vietnam War and more than twenty times as many as were killed in the Iraq War. The Civil War was necessary to end slavery, though the North’s motives for fighting it were far less pure. But was World War I necessary? And since World War I was a stepping stone to World War II, what does that say about the inevitability or lack thereof of our second world war? It is surprising, given the staggering number of American soldiers killed in World War I, that this war has received relatively little attention.
Describing the causes of World War I in great detail would require a great deal of space and distract from the focus of this post. Suffice it to say, the root causes of the war were nationalism and imperialism, and the immediate cause was the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The war ended up involving the militaries of far, far more countries than it should have due to the fact that so many governments had mutual defense treaties. For three years, war waged between the Central and Allied Powers, while the United States avoided direct involvement. The U.S. government did, however, make the decision to continue trade with nations involved in the war, as well to allow Americans like J.P. Morgan to make loans to Allied nations. Germany was outraged by the U.S.’s decision to continue economic relations with nations of the Allied Powers, such as the British Empire. Germany also took out ads in American newspapers warning that Allied ships/ships in British waters were liable to be sunk. Thus, the infamous sinking of the Lusitania was tragic and immoral, but it was no surprise. While it would be another two years before the United States became directly involved in the fighting, the sinking of the Lusitania severely exacerbated U.S.-German tensions. Along with Germany’s submarine warfare against British ships, which sometimes carried American passengers, the Zimmerman Telegram helped convince Wilson to enter the war. This telegram was sent by the German Empire to the Mexican government proposing that, in the even that the United States entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers, Mexico should side with Germany and the other Central Powers. In the event of a Central Powers victory, Mexico would be given back Western territory that it had lost to America in the 1830s and 1840s. Just as it was ignored that the German Embassy had warned Americans before the sinking of the Lusitania that they traveled on British ships at their own peril, the facts that the Zimmerman Telegram’s proposal was moot if America did not enter the war and that the territory promised to Mexico had been plundered by the United States were considered irrelevant by Woodrow Wilson.
The issue of whether or not it was necessary for the United States to enter World War I is closely related to the issue of whether or not preserving foreign trade is a sufficient reason for war. I believe that any peace-loving individual must conclude that is not a sufficient reason. If another country attempts to force the United States to change the way it governs itself within its own borders, that is cause for war. For instance, if Germany had tried to forcibly prevent the United States from accepting German immigrants fleeing their native country, that would have interfered with both human rights on American soil and America’s self-government. Foreign trade, by its nature, goes beyond the borders of a single country. Hence, it becomes far harder to claim that by trying to prevent the United States from trading with Allied nations, Germany was interfering with our national sovereignty to the point that American military action was justified. Fighting a war to end slavery in our country, to keep our country from being conquered by a totalitarian power, or to be able to admit immigrants fleeing oppression, makes very good sense. Fighting to preserve foreign trade, however, seems cold comfort in the face of multitudes of husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons dead and many more wounded. What if, instead of going to war, America had instead worked to become less economically dependent on nations like Britain? Would the cost of this measure have really exceeded the cost of blood and treasure that the United States paid for World War I? Furthermore, it is worth noting that the Treaty of Versailles signed after the war, which included a clause allowing Germany to be occupied by foreign troops, helped create the resentment that Hitler manipulated to rise to power. Thus, the postwar treatment of Germany at the hands of the Allied Powers helped lead to World War II and the Holocaust.
But how does Woodrow Wilson share culpability for this? After all, Wilson did not start World War I, and he warned fellow Allied nations not to treat Germany harshly after the fighting ending. However, a strong case can be made that by entering the war on the side of the Allies, Wilson tipped the balance firmly in their favor and prevented the best possible result: a stalemate. As long as one side won decisively, a one-sided, vengeful treaty that heaped humiliating terms on one or more losing nations and filled their people with resentment was almost a guarantee. Yet, had both sides fought to a stalemate, they would likely have been forced to sign an equitable treaty. That, combined with the war’s sheer destruction, would have been likely to make both sides reluctant to enter into another war. Hitler would have probably never come to power, and the Holocaust would have probably never happened. Woodrow Wilson did not approve of the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, but his decision to send troops to Europe helped make these terms possible.
Did Woodrow Wilson enter the war to “make the world safe for democracy?” As will be discussed in upcoming blogs, Wilson was a staunch segregationist and went back and forth on women’s suffrage. If his motivation for fighting World War I had been to promote freedom, one would think he would have done a better job promoting freedom in his own country. Yet because of their race, Wilson probably a strong sense of empathy for the suffering of the people of Europe, an empathy that did not extend toward fellow Americans who happened to have been born with a different skin tone than him. Everyone should feel empathy for the Europeans who suffered in World War I. Yet can we really support the decision to wage war for the welfare of other nations while turning a blind eye to the welfare of oppressed Americans?
A final argument must be considered. Documents discovered by historians in recent years demonstrate that Kaiser Wilhelm II, the man who ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918, began planning in the late 1890s to attack the United States. While this demonstrates the ruthless, conniving leadership of Wilhelm II, it provides little justification for U.S. military involvement in World War I, since the plan was scrapped in 1906, eight years before the war even started and eleven years before the U.S. entered it.
“No, it wasn’t worth one.”–Harry Patch, last surviving British Army veteran of World War I, on whether or not the conflict was worth the lives lost.