24 May 2011

Nothing Less Than War: the U.S. and the 'Great War'

What if the Central Powers -- Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey -- had won World War One? It's an intriguing topic for speculation because we can imagine much of the subsequent violent history of the twentieth century never taking place. Assuming that the Habsburg and Ottoman empires would have emerged revitalized, the world might have been spared the Balkanization of the Middle East (not to mention the actual Balkans) that has sparked so much conflict. Had the newborn Soviet Union never regained the territory it gave up to Germany in 1918, the history of Russia and international Communism might have been profoundly different. Most importantly, for many people, a triumphant Germany would have had no reason to turn to Adolf Hitler, who himself, with no grudges against the world, would presumably have been demobilized back into the obscurity from which he had volunteered for duty in 1914. Actual events would probably not prove as utopian as I suggest here, and on top of that, historians to the present day argue about the extent to which Hohenzollern Germany was an "evil empire" whose hegemony over Europe would have been an unacceptable outcome of the war. "Prussian Militarism" was a demonized ideology a century ago, though I'm not sure whether it was a distinctively dangerous phenomenon or simply a construct of hostile outsiders -- notably the British and their friends. In the schoolroom history of the war, America struggled for years to maintain principled neutrality but was finally provoked by the unprecedented barbarism of unrestricted submarine warfare and an attempted German conspiracy with Mexico to confront and defeat Prussian Militarism -- though it took another war to destroy it for good.

Justus D. Doenecke's Nothing Less Than War bills itself as "A New History of America's Entry Into World War I." Doenecke, an emeritus professor at the New College of Florida, is scrupulously evenhanded, almost to a fault, in his account of different bodies of opinion in this country and the range of diplomatic options open to Woodrow Wilson's administration. While it's important to be reminded of the American opposition to war and hostility to the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia), Doenecke's commitment to balance obscures the fact, which he does regularly acknowledge, that public opinion overwhelmingly favored the Entente, with German and Irish-Americans making up much of the minority. But while most Americans sympathized with Britain & Co., most of them still balked at the idea of military intervention until Germany's stupid provocations of 1917. Even then, Doenecke emphasizes, Wilson was driven less by any mass pressure for war, or by any inherent sympathy for Britain, than by the ultimate necessity of asserting America's right to trade with belligerents with the least possible interference by any party in the conflict. As a nation, the U.S. had profited from the European War, trading itself out of a recession as the militarized European economies became increasingly dependent on American products and, in the case of the Entente, American loans. Americans bristled when either side protested that American shippers were aiding the enemy, whether with food, munitions, or anything on an ever-growing list of "contraband" goods. But British naval superiority allowed the Allies to simply intimidate neutral shipping into compliance with restrictions, while the Germans were compelled to employ a kind of weapon of the weak -- the submarine -- to sink ships bound for Britain. Each side was trying to cripple or starve the other, but because the Germans believed themselves to have no alternative to lethal force, they gradually alienated more and more Americans from their cause. As an American diplomat told the Kaiser, if two men jumped his fence and invaded his yard, he'd be more likely to chase the one who'd killed his sister than the one who'd merely trampled his flowers.

The importance of the neutral-shipping issue raises an interesting question about what it should really mean to be neutral in someone else's war. Many Americans objected to the idea of being dragged to war to protect those who were profiting from it and extending the suffering of all the belligerents. But none of these people could generate the political will to compel the country to cease doing business with all belligerents, either because they feared the economic consequences for the U.S. or because they resented any limitation on American freedom of trade. They couldn't help moralizing the issue, lashing out rhetorically at both sides without acknowledging any American responsibility for provoking either side, and once the issue was moralized, the Germans couldn't help but look the worse of the two sides.

While Doenecke insists that Wilson wasn't driven by pro-Entente public opinion, he does make clear the extent to which many American opinion leaders had come to identify their country's interests with those of Britain while assuming an inherent conflict between the U.S. and Prussian Militarism. The buildup to war in 1917 is an important episode in America's abandonment of its historic Anglophobia, and if anything Doenecke understates this point. I would also have liked more development of the roots of American Prussophobia, but that may have been outside the legitimate scope of this book. Doenecke does touch on a related topic, the surge of what H. L. Mencken (himself a pro-German Anglophobe) called "100% Americanism," and what the author here refers to as a hostility to "hyphenates." Both Wilson, a southern Democrat with Ivy League credentials, and his opposition, most noticeably the belligerent ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, lashed out at those who disagreed with them on foreign policy as "hyphenates," people whose loyalty was dangerously split between their adopted and ancestral countries. German and to a lesser extent Irish Americans were singled out for suspicion, given the pro-Entente bias of the American majority, but why wasn't the Americanism of Entente sympathizers also compromised or "hyphenated?" There were also dissidents whose stance could not be blamed on ethnicity: socialists, pacifists and isolationists, for instance -- the latter two to be found in both major parties. They were condemned by Roosevelt in particular as cowards and traitors, and the assumptions and prejudices underlying the viewpoint embodied by TR need more explication than it gets here, because it has deeper roots than Doenecke has time to explore.

Doenecke also notes in passing, without overrating their influence, a fad of paranoid fantasy scenarios about invasions of the United States by Germany, Britain, Mexico or Japan, all such accounts emphasizing America's grave vulnerability to foreign attack. While the American military was weak in 1914, Doenecke rightly emphasizes how fantastic these books were. None of the belligerents were in any condition to divert forces to attack the U.S., and would be in no condition to attack us for a long time after the war. But a certain paranoia about American vulnerability seemed to come with our assertion of a greater role in the world. It may reflect a sense that we were being shut out of opportunities by European imperialism in general (and by Japanese imperialism in Asia) -- not just Prussian Militarism -- before we could claim what we considered our due. It may also have been simple fear of the massive military machines constructed by the imperial powers, but however misplaced they were, their roots also deserve further scrutiny than Doenecke can spare time for.

Woodrow Wilson himself, at the brink of war, worried about its consequences for American culture. He confided in a newspaper editor his suspicion that "the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life," since he feared that "it required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front." Wilson was in a position to fulfill his own prophecies and went a good way toward doing so. Again, the why of all this is beyond Doenecke's scope, but as readers will have noticed, he does a great job raising questions in his readers, even if that means that we may not find all the causes of American intervention within his pages. As it is, his is a compelling introductory account of the conflicting impulses and conflicting interests within the Wilson administration itself, particularly its diplomatic corps, as well as the conflicting interests and impulses in the country at large at a turning point in its history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And yet how many of the war profiteers took up arms when the clarion call came? How many of them, rather, simply turned their profit-making machine upon their own fellow countrymen, pushing them through the meatngrinder of WW1?

This still goes on. Haliburton and it's subsidiaries have made billions from our various 'adventures' in the middle east. Blackwater, or whatever this vile group of legalized murders calls itself now has as well. But what of the victims? The Americans who have died or been traumatized, their families, the civilians of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.? What of their losses? In the minds of the shareholders and profiteers, those losses don't count because they're never entered in the ledger.

True and lasting peace can only be achieved when war-profiteering is outlawed and those who engage in it are dealt with - in the harshest manner possible.

Those who profit from war should be, at all times, held to account by those who suffer from war. They should, at the very least, be expected to pay reparations from their profits and, in my opinion, slaughtered for their greed.