Woodrow Wilson remains a controversial president, a century after he was in office. While many dislike him for domestic policies (his establishing the Federal Reserve and the IRS are still hot topics for some Americans), his foreign policy mistakes were greater still, since they shaped the whole world, not just the United States.
This month we passed the ninety-eighth anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War, on April 6, 1917. From this decision there would be no going back — for the United States or for the world. While some Americans still don’t like America’s role as a major world power, non-interventionists lost that argument a century ago, and we’re all still living with the consequences. America’s entry into World War One caused that epic conflict’s outcome and has repercussions that are still detectable today.
One of the big reasons Wilson took America into that war, despite much reluctance, was a perception that Imperial Germany was a lawless place that threatened a liberal world order. Incidents like the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German U-Boat almost exactly a hundred years ago, which killed 198 Americans (among 1,191 who went down with the ship off the Irish coast), cemented certain segments of the American population against the Central Powers.
Yet anti-German sentiment in the neutral United States was far from unanimous, with millions of Americans of German and Irish extraction in particular pointing out that Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare was a response to Britain’s illegal distant blockade of the Central Powers, which was starving Germany and Austria-Hungary into gradual submission, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians through malnutrition and disease in the process.
However, the propaganda image of the criminal Hun, pushed in America by pro-British media, increasingly stuck, helped by a wave of religious fervor among liberal Protestants that advocated for intervention in the European war as a moral crusade. This religious movement had real impact on many Americans, particularly as the war dragged on endlessly, with the nightmare battles of attrition of 1916, at Verdun and the Somme, killing hundreds of thousands of German, French and British troops for no apparent strategic gain. This religiously inspired progressive vision — their self-confident moralizing in a messianic way would ensure them airtime on FoxNews today — viewed the Great War as a simple matter of good versus evil, and inspired later Wilsonian rhetoric about “keeping the world safe for democracy.”
But in November 1916, Wilson succeeded in gaining reelection to the White House on a peace platform, since at that point he had indeed kept the United States out of the European war, despite period flame-ups of American popular opinion against Germany thanks to more U-Boat sinkings of civilian ships and even terrorist acts in this country.
Yet early in his second term, only a few months later, Wilson would take America to war. In fairness to Wilson, it’s not difficult to see why. Realizing that they were gradually losing the war through economic attrition thanks to British blockade, top generals and admirals in Berlin decided to go for broke in a sustained submarine campaign to force London to the table. This plan never stood a real chance of success, thanks to a critical dearth of submarines, but at the beginning of 1917 it was the last card Germany felt it had to play.
The German leadership assessed that America would enter the war over this renewed U-Boat offensive, but they were nonchalant. In the first place, Berlin considered that America wasn’t really neutral anyway, since its factories and banks were driving the British and French war effort. Additionally, the Americans would need at least a year to raise a real army and get it to the Western Front, which would give the Germans enough time to win the war first.
In an effort to cause trouble for the Americans, the German foreign ministry in a madcap outburst suggested getting Mexico in the war too, with their lost provinces — Americans call this our Southwest — as booty. Inconveniently for Berlin, this secret message was intercepted and decrypted by British naval intelligence which, in a cunning covert action, shared the details with Washington, DC. Outraged, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war — he promised a “war to end all wars” — and he got it on April 6, 1917.
The German assessment that it would take the Americans a year to really get in the war proved accurate. The U.S. Army in recent decades was a small-time constabulary that was expert in down-punching against natives, Mexican bandits, and decadent European has-beens like Spain; it inspired little fear in Germany. The American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in vast numbers by mid-1918, but they were untried and their only major battle experience, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which took place in the last six weeks of fighting on the Western Front, saw a staggering loss of over 120,000 dead and wounded Americans, many lost due to tactical incompetence, in what remains the bloodiest battle in American history.
Yet the mere presence of more than a million American troops in France, no matter how inexperienced, meant that Germany stood no chance of victory any longer, and Berlin knew it. Hence the willingness of Prussian generals to get an armistice in early November 1918, despite the fact that everywhere German forces still stood on foreign soil. In that sense, American intervention in the Great War unquestionably determined the conflict’s outcome.
However, the context of American intervention in the fighting must be examined. The stark reality is that, by early 1918, months before American military might mattered on the battlefield, the Central Powers had more or less won the war. Italy had just been crushed in the famous Caporetto offensive, with Rome staying in the war only thanks to British and French direct assistance, while the Balkan front had ended on terms entirely favorable to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Most importantly, the Bolshevik revolution took Russia out of the war altogether, and by early 1918 the Central Powers were occupying the Baltics and most of Ukraine. This was a victory by any standards.
Only the Western Front was seriously still in play, and there the fighting had been essentially static for years. Without American military participation in France beginning in the summer of 1918, it is difficult to see how the British and French could have managed any major offensive operations in an effort to push back the Germans, who occupied much of France and nearly all of Belgium. Therefore some sort of compromise peace would have had to happen, as both sides were utterly exhausted — militarily, politically, and economically.
What that compromise peace would have looked like is impossible to say with precision, though one suspects that the Germans would have been willing to make some concessions in the West since they were occupying so much territory in the East. Certainly their ailing Habsburg ally by early 1918 was begging the Germans for peace on almost any terms. Yet this did not happen; we know what did, and what the terrible consequences of how the Great War ended would be.
Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the Great War made any compromise peace utterly impossible, however. He used the righteous rhetoric of the progressive academic he was, even when it was not altogether connected to reality (here comparisons to the current occupant of the White House, another progressive academic with an ideological bent, are unavoidable). Wilson took America into the war as something both more and less than a member of the Allied coalition. Less, in the sense that Wilson did not intend to take orders from the British and French, whom he viewed as imperial powers that were less morally worthy than the United States. More, in that, by possessing a vast economy and unlimited manpower reserves, Wilson could dictate terms to the Allies, and so he did.
Those terms were elaborated in his (in)famous Fourteen Points of January 1918, which fully captured Wilson’s progressive vision of how the world ought to work. Europeans noted that Wilson had no experience of foreign affairs and it showed; the French prime minister found Wilson’s Fourteen Points a bit much, noting that God himself had only ten. But he played along, as did London, since America could now dictate the terms it wanted for Allied victory.
None of Wilson’s Points would have more impact than the tenth, which advocated autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary, which a month later Wilson expanded into full “self-determination.” In other words, Wilson wanted to break up the ancient Habsburg realm. A liberal intellectual who possessed all the fashionable faculty views of a hundred years ago — including very much the “scientific racism” that progressives advocated — Wilson despised the Habsburg Monarchy as backwards in politics and religion and wanted it to simply go away.
While multinational Austria-Hungary had many problems, it was a much more coherent and capable polity than the European Union of today, and none of the Allied powers save America wanted to see it disappear. Some sort of Habsburg realm was seen as a strategic necessity by the British and French, since without that dynasty, Southeastern Europe would fall into chaos, with a dozen ethnic groups fighting amongst themselves. Yet, following Wilson’s lead, the Allies in early 1918 began advocating for the dissolution of Austria-Hungary along ethnic lines, giving material support to exile groups, mainly Czechs, who sought the end of the Habsburg Monarchy.
They achieved that at the end of 1918, thanks to Allied accomplishments on the battlefield, and Europe has been living with the consequences ever since. Back in the mid-19th century the Czech statesman František Palacký stated that if the Austrian Empire “did not exist it would have to be invented,” since the alternatives in that European region were worse. Presciently, Palacký observed that, in the event of Habsburg collapse, Central Europe would fall prey to either a growing Germany or “a universal Russian empire.”
Both happened to Central Europe in the decades after the Great War. The unsatisfactory settlement forced by Wilson guaranteed future problems. The new Czechoslovakia included more Germans than Slovaks, but the tactless Wilson seemed not to care about the real-world consequences of his liberal vision on the region. It did not take long for German nationalists to exploit the legitimate grievances of those left out of the Fourteen Points. Eventually a particularly disgruntled war veteran named Adolf Hitler would emerge to change Europe and unleash another world war to clean up the mess made by the first one.
It’s clear, with a century of hindsight, what a Europe without Wilson and his Fourteen Points would look like. A compromise peace would have allowed the Germans to quickly crush Russia’s nascent Bolshevik thugocracy like a bug, as they planned to do. Without the Bolshevik threat, European politics would have been transformed in positive ways, for without the Communist menace, which was real, with violent Red revolutions in Hungary and Germany in 1919, far-right extremists like Mussolini and Hitler would have enjoyed limited appeal. It’s easy to see the angry Austrian painter wasting his subsequent decades selling postcards on the streets of Vienna or Munich, as he did before the Great War — and not taking over anything more important than his current flophouse.
While Imperial Germany was not a postmodern liberal’s dream, neither was it a totalitarian place — comparisons between the Second and Third Reichs are very flattering to the former — and besides a German-dominated Europe is what we have today anyway, a century later. Moreover, the survival of the Habsburg realm in some fashion would have brought Central and Southeastern Europe a degree of peace it has not enjoyed since before 1914.
All this belongs at the foot of Woodrow Wilson and the United States. While the Europeans caused the First World War, it was American involvement that forced such an unsatisfactory end to that conflict, all but guaranteeing the far worse Second World War. It’s unfair to say that Wilson created terrible things like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, but it’s certainly fair to note, with a century’s worth of hindsight, that Wilson’s terrible errors of 1918 led directly to horrors on a scale none could have imagined. Without Wilson, his Fourteen Points, and America’s fateful intervention in the Great War, our world would likely be a far happier place today. This is something every American, particularly those who advocate military interventions abroad in a casual manner, should contemplate.
P.S. Further exploration of the terrible impacts of Wilson’s animus against the Habsburgs can be found here.