Finishing World War I
A worldwide system of nations had already come into being when the
European powers rashly attacked one another over marginal dynastic
problems - Serbian terrorists against the tenuous Austro-Hungarian
Empire. And for three years the USA watched
perplexedly and disgusted as the most advanced nations of the world
killed and maimed their men by the millions. Every last farm boy
was scraped from the old sod for cannon fodder.
But the U.S. was to play a part, too, in the holocaust. For a while
its citizens went about taking advantage of the forsaken commercial
opportunities of the Europeans, and making and selling profusely to
the combatants. American bankers were busy, cautiously evading
loans to the Central Powers and lending, with the encouragement of
their own government, to the Allies.
The feasting on the anguished could not continue. Americans
became entangled emotionally, financially and physically. The
German submarines made Allied shipping hazardous. When the
Allies decided to arm their merchant vessels, the submarines could
no longer surface before firing their torpedoes. Americans were
drowned, American vessels were sunk.
The War raged from August 1914 to April 1917 before Wilson asked
and Congress gave resoundingly a Declaration of War against the
Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. He had sworn not
to go to war, the people had shown little inclination for the war in the
majority, but one thing led to another - English propaganda was
excellent (one would think that the American
Revolution had been their idea).
The Germans were being too logical both in explaining their side
and in justifying their actions. And clumsy therefore. An "Ackerman
letter" leaked: the German Ambassador to Mexico was
proposing that the Mexicans side with Germany to get back their lost
territory. So America moved from neutrality at first to feeling
sympathetic to the Allies, to finding fault with German war aims
(which were modest, a protectorate over Belgium, a bit of
French land to even things out, retention of Alsace-Lorraine of
course, and probably a colony or two; but then one does not know
how expansive their aims would have become with victory), and
finally to rage at atrocities presumed and real, and
the killings at sea.
At first America was not perceived as a great threat:
it had a small and not well-trained army, its navy was
sizeable, its air force small. It would have to
convert its industry for producing war materiel.
Administration and Congress were hoping that the war would end.
Once gone to war, the country mobilized with the speed that the
impatient people always displayed. Within the year a half-million
soldiers had arrived in Europe; by the time of the Armistice in
November of 1918, two million soldiers were
massed along the Western Front.
German commanders decided upon a great thrust to
end the war before too many Americans piled on.
Their great attack of the Spring of 1918 carried to
within fifty miles of Paris; evacuation plans were prepared.
Still the Allies refused to sue for peace.
General Pershing's American headquarters were packed and
ready to go - backwards. He had angered the Allied command
consistently by refusing to allow American troops to be
committed to battle, until they could have their own
Army command and general staff. (American
historians have nodded at this policy, whose
wisdom was by no means compelling.)
One would wish to say that at this juncture
American contingents of infantry, both Army and Marines,
with field artillery, were thrown into the breech
at Chateau-Thierry and saved the day and perhaps the war.
As a matter of fact, one can say so, with justification.
The Germans were using all the troops that they had
formerly employed in Russia, for the Czar's regime had fallen
and a peace-seeking social democracy had replaced it.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was still battling strongly,
although it had begun losing back to the Italian armies some
pieces of the miserable territorial gains that it had made earlier with
the great Caporetto victory. Mutinies and desertions were
occurring among the French troops.
And, the American presence was already elevating the Allies'
low morale. The first engagements brought the aggressive
Americans heavy casualties, but they won their battles,
which is victory in the final analysis, and
the best propaganda of the deed.
Halted, the Germans' morale slipped further.
Every day, thousands of American troops came into the lines.
American propaganda, carrying the Fourteen Points of
President Wilson, was distributed among German
troops and civilians, and attracted them with its
objectivity and promises of a future concord.
A final grand Allied offensive, Marshal Foch
commanding, reached the German borders.
Riots and rebellion broke out in the Reich,
the Kaiser fled to neutral Holland.
The German armed forces gave up. So did
the Austro-Hungarian. So did the Turkish.
Some forty-nine thousand American soldiers were killed in the
fighting, two hundred and thirty thousands suffered wounds or
disabilities, fifty-seven thousands died of disease. Compared with
the Russian, French, British and Italians, the American losses were
a mere 1%. But considering the number of troops committed and
their days in combat, their losses were heavy and confirm
allegations of recklessness.
Mind you, the number of accidents connected to U.S. railroads,
mines, factories, roads, and farms in a given year, then, were equal
to the death and disablement of war; and the high American murder
rate sufficed to top off the comparison. Most of the deaths from
disease were caused by a fierce influenza that swept over Europe at
this time and that flared up in America, too, where it
caused a million deaths.
Americans were highly popular in Europe at the moment.
Woodrow Wilson betook himself to Versailles to discuss with the
other heads of state how to deal with the vanquished. Like Lincoln
after the Civil War, Wilson harbored no hate in his heart. He
wanted more than anything else to set up a League of Nations that
would make the world safe for democracy, the slogan at the time,
and eradicate the menace of future war.
He was given a rough time by the other Allied leaders,
yet prevailed to some degree with the League and in
effecting his doctrine of the self-determination of peoples.
This took largely the form of ridding Austria of every extension
of its heartland; Russia, too, lost its European possessions;
new nations were formed in Hungary,
Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States.
Later Turkey was to give up its territories outside Anatolia, and the
Near and Middle East became several nations, including
Iraq, Audi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.
The French and British made themselves trustees of several
of these and dominated the others. The rest of the century
was bloodily affected by the defective manipulations
of boundaries and regimes by the British and French.
German possessions everywhere were confiscated and
turned over to trustee nations, the Allies, for safekeeping.
Wilson could not, and perhaps had no reason to expect
that he could persuade the devastated victors to go easy
with Germany. The French took over a Rhineland occupation,
Italy received several small territories from Austro-Hungary,
Poland was allocated a crucial piece of Prussia.
Woodrow Wilson returned home and toured the country
to sell it the Treaty and the League.
He might have won out save for two facts.
He was opposed by an especially vicious opposition
in the Senate composed of isolationists and Progressives,
who could now shout about imperialism and duplicity of the Allies,
and an Eastern Republican set who took umbrage at being left
at home while all the fun was being had in Paris.
Then Wilson took ill in September while the debate waxed furious.
Late in the month he was felled by a stroke. The facts
were concealed for five weeks. Some say his wife
became de facto President. He himself could never again take
firm command of operations, and his cause was lost.
The Senate voted down the Treaty and the League,
which went into effect without America.
The event was disastrous for America and the World.
Instead of all the beautiful achievements for which
the best people of the world pined, one had
a grim remembrance of the evils of war and death,
of the waste of environmental resources,
of the saddling of the victors with the greatest debts in their history,
of the reinforcement of reactionary forces in Britain, France, and Italy,
of a Treaty heaping ignominy upon the vanquished,
burdening them with reparations difficult to repay,
of a League of Nations used by France
and Britain to manipulate the world to their ends,
of a system of trusteeships of former enemy territories
that amounted to outright unregulated absolutism.
Meanwhile, in Russia, terrible events occurred.
The Kerensky social democratic government was overturned
by a band of Bolshevists, a faction of the communist party,
led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
These few men quickly seized
the vastest empire in the world,
doing in days what millions of men had fought and died to do,
and did not do, during four years of war.
They organized and led an army that put down the "Whites" or
opposition, whether royalists or other radical factions, and
staved off assaults by the Allies in the Arctic and the Pacific
region of Siberia, in which American troops participated.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had become a reality.
Part and then much of American history for the
next eighty years would be bent by these events.
Something of the quintessential quirk of Americans
had helped to cost Wilson his triumphs:
the contradiction of a noble set of goals of peace,
democracy, and welfare for all humanity,
against an arrogant insistence upon possession of
the truth and the whole truth on all issues and an
inability to withstand opposition without resorting
to the very tactics that were opposed by one's principles -
in two words, Puritanism and hypocrisy.
More than this.
A large part of the American people hated England
and the Allies, preferred Germany, were scandalized by
financial operations on Wall Street long before the War and all
during it, were furious at the industrial and business war profiteers:
thus a popular revulsion occurred once the boys came home ,
when it was "over over there."
While domestically he had tended to become liberal
in his economic policies, Wilson had propelled
vigorously Americanism in the Americas. He had backed
the communications imperialism and propaganda machine
of his man, George Creel, that could be a
model for governments wishing to control and censor
freedom of speech and press.
He had backed Attorney General Palmer who
had inaugurated with his police and local forces
a reign of terror among radicals and pacifists of the nation,
whipping up public sentiment to commit outrages
against presumed German sympathizers and every stripe of
radical. He had encouraged Samuel Gompers to spread
capitalist-approved labor union propaganda and organizations
around the world.
All in all, World War I was truncated at its close, as if on purpose,
to assure that it might, after an interval,
resume as World War II.