I never intended to write about American military engagement in any war, much less World War I. Admittedly, as an undergraduate at Colgate University in the late 1950s, I had written by senior thesis on the controversy surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack. Yet my doctoral thesis, completed at Princeton in 1966, centered on the response of American opinion leaders to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. For the next forty years I was primarily researching in American anti-interventionism (misleadingly but commonly called “isolationism”), which led to a series of publications on the “great debate” over FDR’s foreign policy of 1939-41, the America First Committee, and opposition to Cold War involvement ranging from Greece in 1947 to Korea in 1950. I taught upper division courses on both world wars and on the Cold War but my focus was more often on diplomatic and ideological factors than on battles and leaders.
In 2005, at age 67, I retired from the faculty of New College of Florida, the state’s honors college, where I had taught for 36 years. Hoping for a large project to keep me occupied during my new “permanent leave,” I extended my interest in anti-interventionism to World War I and its immediate aftermath. Though never having researched on the Great War, my Princeton mentor was Arthur S. Link, the nation’s leading scholar on Woodrow Wilson. I was also strongly influenced by Princeton’s Arno J. Mayer, who stressed ideological battles between Wilsonianism and Leninism. Over the years, I had collected a number of contemporary books on the war. This project would give me a good excuse to read them.
I began by focusing on such anti-interventionist figures as publisher William Randolph Hearst, auto manufacturer Henry Ford, erstwhile Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, German-American spokesman George Sylvester Viereck, and Senator Robert M. La Follette. I soon found myself confronting such complicated matters as public perception of the belligerents, the preparedness controversy, the nature of submarine warfare, the British blockade, and Wilson’s neutrality policies. I quickly realized that the only way to explain accurately the debates over these items was to delve as well into administration policy, as reflected in such figures as the president, Wilson confidant Colonel E.M. House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and Walter Hines Page, ambassador to Britain. I soon found myself engaging figures far more hawkish than Wilson, such as Theodore Roosevelt, corporation lawyer James M. Beck, and former army chief of staff Leonard Wood. Well within a decade, I had amassed enough matter to write Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into War (2011), covering the period August 1914 to early April 1917.
My current book, its sequel, is titled More Precious Than Peace: A New History of America in World War I (2022). Both book titles come from Wilson’s war message of April 2, 1917, undoubtedly the most arresting speech he ever gave. Here I take the narrative from the conscription debates of April-May 1917 through negotiations surrounding the Armistice of November 11, 1918. The work centers on such matters as the draft, government propaganda, arch-nationalist and peace organizations, military mobilization, the ill-fated ventures into northern Russia and Siberia, and the war aims of the belligerents. For the first time, I tried my hand at combat history, that is coverage of engagements of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on Western Front.
As far as sources go, I began research by going through the published papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by my mentor at Princeton, Arthur S. Link. I did the same for the published letters of Theodore Roosevelt, edited by Elting Morison. I then went through the debates recorded in the Congressional Record and diplomatic records as published in the State Department’s Foreign Relations volumes. I then covered the years 1917-18 in detail through two newspapers, almost issue by issue: the New York Times and Hearst’s New York American, the latter a surprisingly good paper as far as coverage went, despite the obvious quirks of the publisher himself. (There is far more to Hearst than Citizen Kane!) I then went through, issue by issue, the following weekly journals: the Literary Digest; the Nation; the New Republic, the Outlook, and the War Weekly of the North American Review. I did the same for the monthly journals North American Review and Current Opinion. I read the newspaper columns of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. I went through the papers of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, obtained on microfilm from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. In addition to countless published monographs and articles in professional journals, I read a good number of doctoral theses. Newspapers.com, which I discovered only about six years ago, became an increasingly valuable resource.
Particularly within the past decade, amid the centennial of World War I, many fresh accounts have been written concerning the American role in the struggle. Some narratives paint with a broad brush, covering such matters as the nature of Wilsonianism, America’s rise to global financial dominance, and the Russian ventures. Not surprisingly, the story of American ground forces has received fresh treatment, with attention even given to the role of war correspondents. New biographies have been written on such diverse figures as Wilson, House, TR, Lansing, Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, War Secretary Newton D. Baker, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, and journalist Roy W. Howard.
I find each historical period so unique as to make me wary of finding particular lessons. Witness, for example, the misapplications of faulty analogies to “the guns of August,” Pearl Harbor, or the Munich conference. However, I do offer some tentative lessons on specific matters. My conclusions might well provide stimulus for those who wish to speak with a more “prophetic” voice.
Obviously Woodrow Wilson dominates American involvement. He set the nation’s policy and served as America’s public face. All debate was conducted on his terms. As with Lincoln, he articulated the nation’s mission most eloquently, usually discerning public opinion with uncanny accuracy.
Most general accounts, including high school textbooks, strongly praise Wilson’s role as war president. Often only his abysmal record of civil liberties is portrayed as an exception. His administration, as historian Eric F. Goldman once pointed out, suffered less corruption than had existed under Abraham Lincoln and showed more imagination than did a host of subsequent wartime presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman included. The president waged America’s first total war, its entire life– manpower, factories, farms, indeed its thinking– becoming welded into a militarized behemoth. As part of a production miracle, 2.8 million inductees were supplied with 30.7 million pairs of shoes, 21.7 million blankets, 13.9 wool coats, and 131 million pairs of socks. Moreover, American shipments to Europe, ranging from steel and copper to textiles and raw cotton, were essential to Allied victory. Four Liberty Loan campaigns successfully financed the nation’s massive war machine. George Creel, chairman of the nation’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), distributed close to a hundred million pieces of literature throughout the world. Most important of all, in the fall of 1917 AEF forces were essential to Allied victory.
When it came to concrete administration, few leaders were more conscientious than the chief executive, His revenue policies, which included a progressive income tax, sought to equalize civilian sacrifice. Mistrusting wordsmiths, he personally wrote all his speeches and handled all diplomatic correspondence. He maintained daily oversight of all military operations, reading daily reports of General Tasker Bliss from the Supreme War Council while leaving strategy and tactics to the professionals. Unlike much of the Congress and indeed the general public, the president immediately realized that once the United States became a belligerent, it would have to send troops to Europe. Furthermore, he recognized that only conscription could supply the large masses of troops, infantrymen in particular, essential to the Allied effort. Wilson took a particular interest in naval matters, instituting convoys in the face of British suspicion and shifting production from battleships to destroyers, craft far more useful for this particular conflict.
What makes the Wilson leadership all the more remarkable was that his administrators were prosecuting the war with little experience. Except for eight years of Grover Cleveland’s presidency, the Republican party had dominated the executive branch and its leading figures had far more practical knowledge. In contrast, just ten years before the United States entered the conflict, its president headed a major eastern university, its secretary of war served as a solicitor of a leading midwestern city, its secretary of the navy edited a powerful metropolitan daily in the South, and the secretary of the treasury had just helped create a subway connecting Manhattan to Jersey City. Postmaster general Albert S. Burleson was attorney for a judicial district outside of Austin, Texas, while its nation’s leading general, John J. Pershing, administered a fort outside of Manila. The man who headed the nation’s war propaganda, George Creel, ran a newspaper in Kansas City. Colonel Edward Mandell House, the president’s alter ego who was later entrusted with the most delicate of overseas missions, had simply been an intimate of several Texas governors and was just becoming immersed in national Democratic party politics. Only Secretary of State Robert Lansing had some experience befitting his station, for he had long been a respected international lawyer. Of all Wilson’s ambassadors to Europe, just one had ever held a diplomatic post before.
President Woodrow Wilson and George Creel
As expected, the Wilson administration set a premium on national unity. Americans, the president pledged in his war message of April 2, 1917, would “dedicate our lives and fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have” to the common effort. Two weeks later, in a proclamation urging sacrifice, he remarked, “We must all speak, act, and serve together!” In his Flag Day address delivered within two months, he warned, “Woe be the man or group of men that seek to stand in our way in this day of high resolution…..” Speaking to Congress in May 1918, Wilson went so far as to claim “politics is adjourned.”
Just as important, his war aims put the Allies to shame. Negotiation, not unconditional surrender, was always his priority, as he renounced all efforts at a Carthaginian peace. Admittedly, his belief that “the people” everywhere, in contrast to “their rulers,” shared his democratic ideals was highly naive, but he realized that the war must transcend aspirations of territorial conquest. The same holds true for his conviction that a league of nations in itself could resolve major international tensions. His vision of world organization, however, embodied a great advance over the prewar status quo. The old balance-of-power system lacked staying power. Instead of justice or international stability, there had resulted an international tinder box that exploded in 1914.
Certainly Wilson remained far too vague concerning the League’s structure, failing to reflect on the matter, and ignoring such potential allies as William Howard Taft’s League to Enforce Peace, an organization that had devoted serious study to the matter of international organization. Self-determination and collective security so dominated his thinking that he failed to wrestle with the current underlying international equilibrium. In his demagogic 1917 Flag Day speech, he falsely accused Germany’s “military masters” of seeking to dominate an area from “‘Berlin to Bagdad.” However, he never clearly articulated the implications of German domination over the European continent.
The bulk of this essay, however, is critical of the president, in part to compensate for the often one-sided, if deserved tributes to the chief executive. It is here one might find “lessons” concerning the relationship between war and statecraft.
Wilson, as New Republic editor Herbert Croly once observed, often wrote for “nothing shorter than a millennium.” In 1910, he had proclaimed that the United States had been founded to bring “liberty to mankind” and he never abandoned this goal. Addressing teachers in 1918, the president claimed that “it was the high logic of events and the providence of God” that the U. S. “should thus meet in battle to determine whether the new democracy or the old autocracy shall govern the world.” To British and French leaders, who had experienced innumerable casualties over four years, such rhetoric still could not help but be galling. Lesson: it is always unwise to confuse the goals of any nation with those of the Deity,
The president’s manner of governance was far from flawless. Colonel House correctly complained that Wilson failed to delegate responsibility, allowing himself far too often to become absorbed in trivia. Teamwork was not his strength. Moreover, the president neglected sharing his global views with foreign leaders, an attitude for which he would later pay dearly. After all, it was their armies that had bore the burden for most of the war. Lesson: realize that no one world leader, no matter how gifted, is invincible.
During the last year of the conflict, Wilson’s political sagacity left him. The man who successfully engineered a host of progressive legislation through Congress– tariff revision, laws regulating corporations, a ban on child labor, the creation of the Federal Reserve– committed one blunder after another. His intervention in the 1918 Wisconsin’s special congressional election in the spring of 1918 severely detracted from the image of one who stood above the political fray. To endorsed the eccentric Henry Ford for the Senate bordered on the suicidal. Late in the congressional elections of 1918, he claimed that the European powers would deem the election of Republican majority a repudiation of his leadership. The statement was nothing short of disastrous, weakening his bargaining position overseas when he needed to maximize support. Furthermore, such partisanship insulted the Grand Old Party as a whole, particularly since it backed the president far more than did the Democrats on such crucial matters as conscription. Lesson: in the word’s of Senator Arthur Vandenberg at the outset of the Cold War, politics must stop at the water’s edge.
In some highly significant ways, George Creel’s CPI did the president no favors. While most skillful in promoting American war aims, its simplistic approach– particularly in personally demonizing the Kaiser as Germany’s despotic dictator– soon led to demands for unconditional surrender, making Wilson’s negotiations with the Germans in late 1918 far more difficult. In a sense the president stood victimized by his own propaganda machine. He in turn did little to communicate international complexities to the electorate. Creel was a poor choice to head the CPI, combining a prickly personality (he once compared engaging with Congress to “going slumming”) with Rotarian boosterism. It is unfortunate that the far more able editor of New York’s World, Frank Cobb, turned down the position. Lesson: simplistic rhetoric in foreign relations can only backfire when the chips are down.
Add to this the postponement of crucial matters. From the moment the United States entered the war, it held serious leverage over the Allies. Indeed, Wilson could possibly have made acceptance of his broad diplomatic agenda the condition for American participation in defeating the Central Powers. The United States supplied huge numbers of troops. It maintained a severe financial hold. It served as the major supplier of food and raw materials. Without such support, in fact, the Allies would probably have been forced to sue for peace, particularly after November 1917 when Russia left the war. Lesson: if you have leverage, use it as quickly as possible.
The president often showed himself at best an indifferent judge of talent. Because he feared that his secretary of the interior was leaking cabinet discussions, he brought little of substance before that body. Navy Secretary Daniels proved instrumental in creating the war’s greatest great military machines, but War Secretary Baker showed himself far too hesitant in grasping the full implications of total war, particularly in regards to aviation. Only the crippling blizzard of 1917-18 forced the administration to put industrial production on a genuine wartime footing. The general caliber of ambassadors remained poor, with the possible exception of Walter Hines Page, so outspokenly pro-British that Wilson ignored him. Admittedly, sweeping conversion from peacetime to wartime production would inevitably be disruptive.
However, the appointment of sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who saw himself akin to Leonardo da Vinci) to investigate aircraft production revealed irresponsibility at its worst.
Never a man of modesty, by the end of 1917 the unctuous Colonel House maintained privately that he alone (and certainly not Wilson) possessed the qualities needed to conduct war and make peace. His Paris negotiations, held in October 1918, with French premier Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George revealed him at his worst, confusing shadow with substance. He permitted the papering over of major differences over such vital matters as reparations and armistice terms just as the war was ending and a united position needed to be solidified.
In December 1916, Robert Lansing had publicly undercut Wilson when the president was making a peace initiative. Wilson had such little respect for his secretary of state that in September 1917, several months after the U.S. had entered the war, that he said that Lansing was “so stupid” that he might “commit some serious blunder.” At best the secretary served as a glorified clerk while putting Wilson’s lofty if abstract ideas into the bland prose of diplomacy. Yet if Lansing were given serious responsibilities, his knowledge of global conditions, even if only based on the daily dispatches crossing his desk, could have proven invaluable. So would have his energy, legal acumen, and administrative ability. Certainly his agreement with Viscount Ishii Kikujiro of November 1917, if deliberately vague concerning the Open Door and Japanese interests in East Asia, postponed tensions with Japan when a common front was absolutely essential. Lesson: get the best out of your subordinates.
Versailles treaty negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Lansing said of the treaty that he and President Wilson brought home: “The Versailles Treaty menaces the existence of civilization.”
In October 1918, when Wilson was trading notes concerning an armistice with the Germans, Wilson opposed popular desires for unconditional surrender as well as pursuing the German army all the way to Berlin. Yet he himself bore some responsibility for this sentiment, as far too often he oversimplified the issues of the war. Differentiating between the “good” German “people” and their “wicked” leaders only strengthened desires to continue fighting. The Germans always perceived themselves fighting to defend their homeland, not hold imperialistic aims. Wilson failed to understand the radical changes the Reich was undergoing. Hence, he ignored the increased revolutionary activity there and created undue delays in establishing an armistice. Lesson: most of us are neither beasts or angels. It is folly to make crude distinctions.
America’s entire Russian policy could not have been more flawed. In the spring of 1918, Wilson sent a special mission to Russia, which had just undergone the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II and was struggling to create a democratic regime. Led by Elihu Root, the mission irresponsibly misread Russia’s insatiability, claiming that it could maintain the struggle against Germany. When a provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, sought to replace Russia’s expansionist war aims with democratic ones, it received no American support. The American embassy, the Red Cross mission, and representatives of the Committee on Public Information failed to cooperate, leading to a disastrous lack of coordination. The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 caught America completely unawares. From endorsing forged documents, claiming that Lenin and his comrades were in the pay of Germany, to the calamitous interventions in Siberia in August 1917 and Archangel in September, the United States continually blundered. Admittedly, Wilson did resist sending doughboys to Siberia until foreign and domestic pressure became insuperable. The major problem lay in a fallacious assumption shared by the U.S. and the Allies alike, namely that Russia could ever again become an effective fighting force. Lesson: as noted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, the wish cannot be father to the thought, particularly when lives are at stake.
If Wilson’s leadership had its share of limitations, it positively shone compared to the behavior of the nation’s second most prominent figure, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt. Never given to understatement, he viciously attacked such “foes of our own household” as German-Americans and conscientious objectors. Roosevelt’s ill health, triggered in part from his near death experience on the Amazon River in 1913, undoubtedly added to his bitterness, making him almost irrational in his advocacy of “100 Americanism.” Chief among his target was Wilson himself, whom TR found an even worse president than James Buchanan and “much less patriotic.” The fact that Wilson had denied Roosevelt the opportunity to lead a volunteer division in Europe did little to improve their relationship. Roosevelt’s leading military protégé, former chief of staff Leonard Wood, took every opportunity to undercut the administration yet appeared surprised when the Wilson government refused to give him an overseas command.
The American military itself bore its share of responsibility for an inadequate mobilization that lasted until well after the United States had entered the conflict. Until Peyton Marsh became acting chief of staff in March 1918, the War Department remained better suited to fighting Native Americans on the Great Plains than engaging in a brutal mechanized conflict. As historian Robert Ferrell has noted, the regular army served as “a home for old soldiers, a quiet sleepy place where they killed time until they began drawing their pensions.” Training conditions often proved miserable, with ill-clothed draftees drilling with broomsticks instead of rifles. Some camps lacked proper heating and sanitation. During its entire period of engagement, the AEF found itself dependent upon Allied artillery, aircraft, and machine guns. AEF commander Pershing’s focus on Metz as his major goal was misplaced. So was his belief in the bayonet, rifle, and frontal assault, though he reflected an attitude that at first permeated the entire American military. Yet, if such generals as Hunter Leggett and John Lejeune could learn from their experiences at such places as Belleau Wood, so could the man soon titled General of the Armies.
Far too little popular attention has been given to the centennial of the Great War. So, too, with the major historical associations and journals, the quarterly Diplomatic History excepted. Admittedly, some excellent works on military history have recently been written and some excellent television documentaries produced. Hopefully such attention can still filter down to the wider public.
Yet without understanding the impact of World War I one cannot understand the world of today. Change was most marked in eastern Europe and the Middle East, where entire empires (Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman) were replaced by a host of new nations, ranging from Poland and Czechoslovakia to Transjordan and Saudi Arabia. Although the mandate system gave some empires– British and French– a new lease on life, Giuseppe Mazzini’s description of Europe as the lever that ruled the world no longer held true. Because of the Fourteen Points, Lloyd George call for self-determination, and V.I. Lenin’s denunciations of imperialism, nationalities as diverse as Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, and Vietnamese suddenly saw themselves as autonomous players on the global scene.
President Woodrow Wilson and members of his cabinet walk in a Welcome Home parade for U.S. servicemen down Pennsylvania Avenue (near the now-location of the National World War I Memorial) in Washington, D.C. on February 27.1919.
The Great War also marked the emergence of total war in a way not seen since the Thirty Years War of the sixteenth century. The ten million dead and twenty one million wounded are only part of the story. Millions of other civilians experienced violence as a daily occurrence, as entire societies were dislodged. Laissez faire capitalism disappeared for good, never to return. Artists, writers, intellectuals in general celebrated the irrational as a positive good. Total war would soon lead to the totalitarian state, Verdun and the Somme to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
The United States became a major player on the global scene in a way that would have been inconceivable a decade before the conflict. It was not only a world power, which it had since the nineteenth century, but an assertive one. Indeed, it was becoming the essential power, whose activity could determine the course of history more than could any other nation. The seat of world finance shifted from London to New York, there to remain.
Internally, the nation experienced tremendous standardization. Consumer goods became far more uniform. 150 different colors of typewriter ribbons were reduced to five, for example! Such agencies as the War Industries Board, the War Labor Board, the Food Administration, and the Railroad Administration regimented the nation’s economy in an unprecedented manner. Government controls were no longer perceived as a violation of rigid economic laws but something that could work in the public interest. As business leaders enjoyed the new atmosphere of power while serving as “dollar-a-year” men, they came to realize that government regulations can make for increased efficiency, indeed profit. Such uniformity extended to human beings as well, for young men of varied social, ethnic, religious, and regional backgrounds were uprooted from their locales. Due to the common experience of basic training and combat experience, they turned into the far more homogenized “doughboy.” George Creel spoke of “mobilizing the minds of America” and, given the successful suppression of dissent, he succeeded to a frightening degree.
It is with a particular sense of tragedy that one examines a conflict in which the enemy was so demonized that compromise no longer seemed possible. The opposing nation must not just be defeated; it must be obliterated. The lack of response to the varied peace overtures made in 1917 compounded the tragedy. Because neither the Central Powers nor the Allies would yield on long-held war aims, the July Reichstag resolution, Pope Benedict XV’s appeal of August, and the open letter of Britain’s Lord Lansdowne written that November lay stillborn. Berlin and Vienna felt too strong to make any compromise settlement, London and Paris saw themselves too weak. Given the loss of life that lay ahead and the ensuing social upheaval, this might have been the greatest tragedy of all.
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