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American Intervention - A War of Choice

As the Great War raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson called on the American people to remain "impartial in thought as well as in action." Yet in the previously unknown context of a world at war, American involvement may have been inevitable. But Americas armed forces enabled the Allies to win a decisive victory they would not otherwise have wonthus enabling them to impose the draconian surrender terms on Germany that paved the way for Adolf Hitlers rise to power.

Woodrow Wilson's hypocrisy, arrogance, and hunger for power overcame his early idealism. To obtain French and British acceptance of the League of Nations, Wilson accepted their blatantly unjust punitive measures against Germany. Then, his refusal to compromise doomed acceptance of the League of Nations in the US Senate. His "war to end all wars" led directly to an even more horrible conflagration 20 years later.

Despite that seeming inevitability, in much the same way they have argued the background of the coming of war in Europe, historians have engaged in a process of recurring revisionism in their study of American intervention. Richard W. Leopold has credited the process perceptively in an essay in World Politics, "The Prablem of American Intervention" [1950), as has Ernest R. May in a pamphlet, American Intervention: 1917 and 1941 (1960).

American historian Harry Elmer Barnes, writing in The World War of 1914-1918, saw "... in American intervention one of the major calamities in modern history - a calamity for the Allies and the United States as well as for the Central Powers. Let us assume the worst possible result of American neutrality in 1917-18. If we had not gone into the war the worst imaginable result would have been a German victory. But no sane person can very well conceive that the world would be any worse off today if the Germans had won under the Hohenzollerns.

"We used to picture the horrors of a Germany and a Europe dominated by the [German] Crown Prince and his followers. But, compared to Hitler, Mussolini and Company, the Crown Prince and his crowd now appear to be cultivated gentlemen, urbane democrats, and sincere pacifists. A more warlike world than the present could hardly have been created as a result of German victory, and certainly the economic situation in Europe since 1918 would have been far better under a Europe dominated by monarchist Germany.

"But there is hardly a remote possibility that Germany would have won the war, even if the United States had not come in on the side of the Allies. Germany was eager to negotiate a fair peace arrangement at the time when Roy Howard's "knock-out victory" interview with British war-secretary Lloyd George put an end to all prospect of successful negotiations. We now know that the Lloyd George outburst was directly caused by his assurance that the United States was surely coming in on the side of the Allies. Had Wilson remained strictly neutral, there is little doubt that sincere peace negotiations would have been actively carried on by the summer of 1916.

"There is every reason to believe that the result of American neutrality throughout the European conflict would have been the "peace without victory," which Woodrow Wilson described in his most statesmanlike pronouncement during the period of the World War. We would have had a negotiated peace treaty made by relative equals. This would not have been a perfect document but it would certainly have been far superior to the Treaty of Versailles.

"Had we remained resolutely neutral from the beginning, the negotiated peace would probably have saved the world from the last two terrible years of war. Whenever it came, it would have rendered unnecessary the brutal blockade of Germany for months after the World War, a blockade which starved to death hundreds of thousands of German women and children. This blockade was the one great authentic atrocity of the World War period. In all probability, the neutrality of the United States would also have made impossible the rise of Mussolini and Hitler-products of post-war disintegration -and the coming of a second world war."

A flood of works appearing immediately after the war, such as John B. McMaster's The United States in the World War (1918-20, two valumes], and John S. Basset's Our War With Germany [1919], tended to agree with President Wilson's pronouncement that German recourse to unrestricted submarine warfare left the United States no alternative to war. The first serious scholar to contradict that view was Harry Elmer Barnes, who included a long chapter on American intervention in his Genesis of the World War (19263; Barnes in effect accepted the German contention that submarine warfare had been a last resort to save the German people from starvation. C. Hartley Grattan in Why We Fought (1929) reinforced Barnes's thesis while attributing much of the onus for the intervention to American economic entanglements, Allied propaganda, and inept American statesmanship.

The first solid challenge to that thesis came with Charles Seymour's American Diplomacy During the World War (1934). While avowing that submarine warfare was the cause of American intervention, Seymour maintained persuasively that Germany's resort to the submarine was less retaliation or desperation than unmitigated determination to win the war. Less than a year later appeared an explosive reassessment that, as a best seller, attracted far more attention than did Seymour's work. Written by an astute journalist, Walter Millis, The Road to War: America, 1914-1917 (1935) was a paean to the senselessness of force and may have contributed to the isolationist fervor that gripped the US Congress over the next few years. To Grattan's earlier charges, Millis added that of greed. A spate of writings blaming economic entanglements followed, none more hard hitting than American Goes to War (1938) by Charles C. Tansill. Edwin M. Borchard and William P. Lage, in Neutrality for the United States (1937), explored another angle, sharply denouncing Wilson's preoccupation with freedom of the seas.

Yet in the meantime works mure in keeping with the Wilsonian thesis continued to appear. Restudying the issue of intervention, Charles Seymour in a series of essays, American Neutrality, 1914-1917 (1935), asserted that Germany launched the unrestricted submarine campaign with the conscious expectation that war with the United States might result. Harley F. Notter, in The Origins of the Foreign Policy of Woodraw Wilson (1937), came to much the same conclusion. In a slim volume, The Devil Theory of War (1936), Charles A. Beard put the onus on multiple causes, Frederick L. Paxson, in Pre-War Years, 1914-3917 (1936), skillfulEy blended the stories of domestic and foreign affairs.

Early in a renaissance of World War I study that began some thirty years after the war, Hans J. Morgenthau in In Defense of the Natianal Interest (1951) and George F. Kennan in American Diplomacy, f90&1950 (1950) attacked Wilson and his advisers for having gone to war for the wrong reasons; rather than legal and moral issues, the true goals should have been to rescue the balance of power and to protect American security. Edward H. Buehrig in Waodrow Wilson and the Balance of Power (1955) argued that the accusations were unfounded, that for all the concern with moralism and legalism, Wilson was sharply conscious of the balance of power. Yet two of the most significant of the new works returned basically to the Charles Seymour thesis of German determination to win even at the cost of bringing the United States into the war. Both Ernest R. May in The World War and American Isolation (1959) and Arthur S. Link in Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915 (1960) showed that Wilson followed a flexible and conciliatory course but that with the Cerman decision to force a crisis no real option other than war existed. Another valuable study of American war aims is David F. Trask's The United States in the Supreme War Counsel: American War Aims and Inter-Allied Strategy, 1917-1918 (196l).

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Page last modified: 28-03-2016 20:53:00 ZULU