America's Forgotten War
World War I Did the Most to Transform the World for the Worse
MARCH 01, 1999 by DOUG BANDOW
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.
The war that did the most to transform the world for the worse was formally settled 80 years ago. Not World War II, which employed greater destructiveness, exhibited greater cruelty, and slaughtered greater numbers of people. But World War I, which birthed World War II, along with the greatest of the totalitarian delusions—communism, fascism, and Nazism. Yet the Great War, as it was originally called, is largely forgotten in America.
Today the United States celebrates Veterans Day on November 11, which replaced the original Armistice Day. But when Americans think of veterans they think of Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. Not so in Europe. There World War I continues to loom large.
As it should. The Triple Entente, with which America was allied, had won when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918. But as the Versailles peace conference, which opened in January 1919, proceeded throughout the spring, the Western powers managed to lose the peace. Tens of millions in the next generation would pay for their mistakes.
And the Europeans continue to fight leftover issues of the war. For instance, last November French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin suggested rehabilitating army mutineers who had been executed during a massive soldiers’ revolt in 1917. President Jacques Chirac sharply rejected Jospin’s idea, however, citing the negative reaction from surviving veterans. Yet at the same time the British government allowed relatives of soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion during World War I to hold a ceremony at the Cenotaph, Whitehall’s monument to the war dead.
To the extent that Americans know anything about the war, they probably think of supposed idealist Woodrow Wilson leading the fight to make the world “safe for democracy.” This was pure cant. Instead, Wilson was dedicated to reforming the entire world and would have a chance to do so only if he headed a belligerent power. His high-flown rhetoric disguised the fact that he had allied America with one militaristic bloc against the other.
While Germany helped bring on the war by isolating itself and adopting a hair-trigger mobilization plan, it was not bent on war. German diplomacy after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was maladroit and stupid, not malicious.
France, in contrast, was aggressively revisionist. It wanted to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1871 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (which had been started by France). This required not just war between France and Germany, but a European-wide conflict, since France alone could not defeat Germany.
Austria-Hungary, Germany’s ally, was also a status quo power, desperately seeking to avoid internal collapse. In contrast, Italy, which eventually joined the Entente, desired Austro-Hungarian territory; Russia hoped to gain influence in the Balkans at the expense of Vienna.
Most important, the blood-stained Serbian regime, built on the brutal murder of the king and queen of the previous dynasty in 1903, wanted to break apart Austria-Hungary in order to build a greater Serbia. In fact, it was the Serbian-supported assassination of Austria-Hungary’s heir apparent that lit the fuse of the war. The contending alliance systems acted as transmission belts of war for all of the major European powers.
After the deaths of some ten million people, all the contending nations’ goals looked downright frivolous. Washington’s formal justification for war was its desire to protect the right of Americans to travel on armed British merchantmen carrying munitions through a war zone.
The celebrated Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, carried just such a mixed cargo of babies and bullets. Wilson’s eloquence notwithstanding, the Germans were perfectly justified in sinking it and other such vessels. In fact, there is a continuing controversy over whether British officials, particularly then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, hoped the Lusitania would end up on the ocean floor, thereby inflaming American opinion against Berlin.
The war offers many ugly precedents. There was, for instance, the brilliant British propaganda, which convinced the world that the “Huns” were ravaging Europe. Alas, it was all false, but it helped drive America into the war. Joseph Goebbels modeled the Nazi effort after that of the British.
There was also the war against noncombatants. London imposed a “hunger blockade,” denying foodstuffs to all European civilians, even though it was against international law. Britain maintained the blockade even after Germany had surrendered. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation.
Finally, soldiers were treated as cannon fodder to be slaughtered. The Western front became a static “sausage machine” once trenches stabilized positions in the fall of 1914. From then through the spring of 1918 no attack moved the lines more than ten miles.
The French mutineers about whom Chirac and Jospin quarreled represented soldiers refusing to lose their lives in useless offensives pushed by fantastically overoptimistic generals who commanded far from the front. Who could blame the poilus for resisting?
Especially since the politicians knew what was going on. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George admitted that people could not be told the truth about the war or they would end it the next day. He finally limited troop replacements to the front because of what he termed the generals’ “reckless wastage of the manpower so lavishly placed at their disposal.”
No one was immune from the effects of this reckless wastage. The carnage sparked revolution in Russia, breakup in Austria-Hungary, dissatisfaction with democratic politics in Italy, and, most important, collapse in Germany.
Unfortunately, after all this mindless bloodletting, the Allies came up with a peace that French Marshal Ferdinand Foch presciently called “an armistice for 20 years.” The Allies blamed Germany for the war, dismembered Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, plundered the defeated states, awarded Third World peoples to the victors like prizes in a sporting competition, and mixed different ethnic groups in a host of unstable new nations.
A decade later Britain was embarrassed by its handiwork and refused to defend it; France lost the will to act alone. They would neither ruthlessly enforce Versailles to contain Germany nor voluntarily revise the treaty to conciliate Germany. Then came Adolf Hitler, and the Allies yielded on every point. World War II was not long in coming—followed inexorably by the Cold War.
Even today we are not free of the lingering effects of World War I. The continuing Balkan civil wars are a bloody bit of unfinished business from Versailles in 1919.
The world was full of hope 80 years ago, as Allied leaders sought to create the world anew. But they failed: not only did ten million people die in vain, but some 40 million more would perish a generation later. It is the kind of history that we cannot afford to repeat.