World War I was the greatest folly by far to befall Western civilization. The second greatest folly was America entering the catastrophe. The totalitarian rebounds that followed were consequences that could have been avoided.
I am not excusing German militarism, which indeed played a major part. The kaiser was arguably mentally ill, with dreams of martial glory and building an empire.
He had ignored the advice of Bismarck, who, though militarist himself, had enough sense to limit his territorial ambitions. Bismarck knew that Germany was surrounded on all sides and that it is not good to provoke rivals. So the kaiser pressured Bismarck to resign. The kaiser wanted Germany to have her "Place in the Sun."
The problem was that the sun was already owned by the British, and it never set on their empire.
Now, to be sure, British complaints about German militarism rang hollow when Britain sought a navy as big as her next two competitors combined, and when the British Empire owned a quarter of the planet, against the wishes of most of its inhabitants. The French Empire was similarly culpable, though not quite as large. Nor can the French be excused of the charge of militarism. After her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France went on an arms-building binge. Her policy toward Germany was "revanchism" – revenge.
What uniquely happened before WWI was that Britain's usual practice of playing off the third power in Europe against the second power, so Britain could remain the first power, no longer worked.
In the 16th century, when Spain was powerful, and France was upcoming, England was allied with France against Spain during the Anglo-Spanish War. When France rose to supremacy, England was on Spain's side, during the Napoleonic Wars.
Historians like to say England kept the peace by making sure no power got control of Europe. England maintained a balance of power. Maybe! One could equally assert that England purposefully and ruthlessly kept the whole continent off balance so England could reign supreme.
Around 1872, England found herself in the usual predicament. There was, once again, up and coming competition challenging England's supremacy.
It would have been England's usual practice to make alliances with other powers against the rising second power. However, in 1872, England had two competitors on the rise at once: the United States and Germany. The United States had just come out of the Civil War with a massive military, while Germany had just been unified under Bismarck. Both were industrializing rapidly, and both would soon surpass England in output. Now England had to face two number twos at once. Worse yet, to England's horror, at that time in history, Germany and America had no historical animosity toward each other, while one of them, America, had historical animosity toward Britain.
What was England to do? England's usual game was to turn the rivals against each other, but this time, it appeared as though this wouldn't work.
England appealed to a shared Anglo-Saxon heritage with the United States. But that could go only so far. A good portion of America's Anglo-Saxons had fought England in the Revolution. Then there were the German- and Irish-American communities. The German-Americans were often proud of Germany's success, even if they were removed from it, and not given to Germany's nationalism. The Irish-American community was often hostile to Britain.
There was no reason for America and Germany to go to war. So how did Britain maneuver this situation?
Unbeknownst to most Americans, in the latter third of the 19th century, Britain played a game of deference to America in order to win America over to her side.
In 1895, though the British had a bigger fleet than America's, they backed down to American insistence that a land disagreement between Venezuela and British Guiana be submitted to arbitration.
In 1898, after America defeated the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, the German fleet tried to land troops in Manila. Dewey's ships were outclassed. But the British fleet stood by Dewey.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Canadians had wanted a Yukon corridor to the sea, and they had argued with Americans over the border. It had almost came to shooting. In 1903, during the Alaskan-Canada border arbitration, the British went out of their way to agree with Americans rather than the Canadians. The U.S. case was legally good – even the Canadians admitted it – but the Canadians felt they had been ignored by the British just to defer to the United States.
A mere seventy years earlier, the British were trying to subvert America – from dissuading Texas joining the Union to later helping the Confederacy. What happened? Why did "Perfidious Albion" stop being so perfidious?
What happened was Germany!
Britain could no longer afford to antagonize America with Germany on the rise. She had to decide who was more of a threat. So England offered a pretense of Anglo-Saxon unity – due in no small part to the ideas of Cecil Rhodes – that was sold to America. Some American elites sopped it up, moved by now discredited ideas of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. So when World War I started, Britain did not have to worry about America.
The president at that time, Woodrow Wilson, claimed to be neutral, and he criticized German-Americans in favor of Germany and Irish-Americans against Britain.
However, what was hidden from, or played down to, the public was that Wilson was an inveterate Anglophile. His paternal grandfather came from Orange stock (the pro-British element) in Northern Ireland. His mother was from England. Wilson, who decried hyphenated Americans, was no less guilty than they were, only his affections were deemed acceptable.
In actuality, Wilson tilted entirely to the British Side. He made the right of Americans to travel on British ships ... a cause of war. [He] allowed munitions sales to Britain and gradually moved toward government loans to pay for them, the latter not really permitted by international law. He accepted the British boycott of food and raw materials sent to Germany, both dubious acts in international law. When Britain lay mines far from German ports, and stopped American ships on the high seas, the United States tolerated the actions even though they were highly illegal by international law[.]
His secretary of state, Williams Jennings Bryan, was so infuriated by this double standard that he resigned.
Bryan insisted that Wilson send a similar protest to Britain for its violations of neutral rights, an act the president rejected. Wilson's dispatch of a second note demanding an end to German submarine warfare prompted Bryan to resign on June 9, 1915.
The usual causes listed for America's entry into World War I are Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram, an intercepted telegram offering Mexico an alliance should Germany and America go to war.
True, the Zimmerman Telegram was what fired American fury, but in fact, it was a worthless, conditional treaty, to take effect if, and only if, America and Germany were at war. Given Mexico's descent into civil war, it was not much of a threat. Indeed, Pancho Villa's armed raid into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 was quickly driven off. So much for Mexican martial prowess.
German unrestricted submarine warfare, though controversial, has to be balanced against Wilson's de facto belligerency. The U.S. was arming the Entente Cordiale and, de facto, preventing a German victory. The U.S. was a silent partner in the Allied war effort, thanks to Wilson's non-neutrality.
I am not here to argue in favor of the kaiser, whom I consider one apple short of a strudel. I am here to argue that America was mistaken to enter into World War I and that we should have stayed out of it. We should not have preferred either side, but merely insisted on neutral rights.
At the worst, a negotiated peace would have occurred. More likely, the British and French would have won anyway. The British and French introduction of tank warfare – which the Germans ignored during WWI – was the chief instrument of victory. Such a victory might not have occurred until 1919, but it would have arrived. American troops were not critical. They came in late and merely sped up the inevitable.
Even in the highly unlikely chance that the Germans won the war, it would have been a negotiated victory, not a total surrender. The kaiser, as nutty as he was, was not Hitler. He was hamstrung by a left-wing Reichstag. Eventually, Germany would have become a constitutional monarchy.
There would have been no rise of fascism in the West. No rise of bolshevism in the East. Any German gains would have been soon smothered under a rising wave of East European nationalism that the Germans could not have controlled. During the war, the Germans began to realize they would have to concede some autonomy or independence to Poland. It would be a rump state, but still a start.
There was no way Austria-Hungary could have survived, even had Germany won. Austria-Hungary was a collapsing mess.
But best of all, the United States would have stayed out of world affairs.
The ridiculous urge to save the world would not have become part of our national psyche. We would have stayed home and minded our business. The prosperity the United States enjoyed after the Civil War and before World War I would have been our heritage.
We should have remained neutral and stayed out of it.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish in high school, lo those many decades ago. He just started a website about small computers athttp://thetinydesktop.com.