Lessons from the Tragedy of Woodrow Wilson’s War

by | Apr 11, 2017

Lessons from the Tragedy of Woodrow Wilson’s War

by | Apr 11, 2017


Today is an historical marker of immense importance in American history: it is the centenary of American entry into the Great War, later known as the First World War. One hundred years ago today the United States declared war on Germany following strong majority votes in both Houses of Congress and the impassioned speech of President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session on April 2, wherein he asserted that America must fight in the European war “to make the world safe for democracy.”

A century later, the ghosts of hallowed American war-dead at Belleau Wood, the Second Battle of the Marne, the Argonne Forest and elsewhere cry out to our political leaders of today with one searing question:  have you learned anything from our sacrifice?  From an objective perspective, a brief review of the historical context that led to this war, its aftermath across time, and on to later conflicts would appear to indicate that the answer to this seminal question is no.  However, in great humility and reverent remembrance for the fallen Americans of that war, the key lessons from the tragedy unleashed 100 years ago today are offered below, in hopes that their learnings can in fact be applied to the urgent problems presently confronting the Trump Administration.

Historical Background to the War and American Entry

When Count von Metternich convened the Congress of Vienna in November 1814 to settle long-simmering disputes in Europe following the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic wars (and as a pretext for securing a general peace), little could he have guessed that precisely a century later, his august project would crash forever upon the shoals of boiling Balkan nationalism, as evinced in the pistol of a crazed Bosnian Serb. Metternich’s peace had, in fact, been durable and substantial: there had been minor but contained skirmishes across Europe in the 19th century, most prominently surrounding the formation of the Second French Republic after its revolution of 1848, the Franco-German War of 1871 that flipped Alsace-Lorraine, and the consolidation of German and Italian nation-states.  The British, meanwhile, were extending their empire into the far reaches of Asia and Africa, but after victory over Napoleon in concert with a Prussian army at Waterloo (June 18, 1815), helped to stabilize a becalmed Europe, not fighting again in Europe until the brief Crimean War some 40 years later.

Indeed across the continent as a whole, the 19th century was one of general peace and ever increasing material wealth for the masses, thanks to increasing economic integration and its attendant gains from trade.  Via the policies laid out by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, the enduring prosperity that ensues via the rule of law, protection of property rights, a sound monetary framework, and the unleashing of entrepreneurial energies thanks to patient capital had spread across the continent and built a civilized order.  It was, said the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises later, the Age of Liberalism.

The First World War that ended this widespread peace and prosperity was therefore an appalling tragedy, all the more so because a century later, its root causes are still a matter of intense debate among scholars and military historians (thus demonstrating its total superfluity). It is true that tensions were somewhat high across the continent when the tinder of the Sarajevo assassination (of Austria’s Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914, by pro-Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Prinzip) led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, which in turn led to allied Central Powers (German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria) and the Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia) coming into what became a global war.  But in retrospect, the multilateral insanity, fueled by arrogance and miscalculation on several fronts, bred a catastrophe whose ripple effects are still being felt today.

The war quickly devolved into multiple and massive front stalemates in eastern and western Europe, as well as significant battlefronts in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. Across more than four years of war, more than 70 million men were mobilized, and while estimates vary, it is likely that between 18-20 million people died, in groupings of roughly 11+ million uniformed combatants and up to 8 million civilians. Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires were destroyed, many national boundaries redrawn, and activist high-tax governments replaced laissez-faire regimes everywhere, including the extreme of Bolshevism in Russia.  The era of big government, command economy, central planning, and total war was upon us, along with the emergence of a new global power in the United States.

But initially, with the advent of hostilities in 1914 President Wilson attempted to steer a neutral course. There was no discernible reason for America to ever become involved in a European land war, and the United States both traded with and had immigrants from all countries in the conflict.  Following longstanding foreign policy that had first been enunciated by Wilson’s foremost predecessor, George Washington, the American position on the Great War remained, as always, “Friend of Liberty everywhere, Guarantor only of our own.” Critics called it “isolationist”, but the American people in near-unanimity sought to steer clear of the massive conflict across the Atlantic Ocean.

Tensions rose in May of 1915 with the sinking of the merchant cruiser Lusitania by a German U-boat, killing 128 Americans among others.  While there was an outcry against Germany over such unrestricted submarine warfare, the German government had in fact taken pains to warn American passengers via advertisements in major east coast media, and indeed the Lusitania was carrying contraband, and hence was a legitimate target of war. In any case Mr. Wilson was able to get the German government to restrict its operations and let a specified number and type of American ships pass through to England, and in spite of a few other minor incidents, the President cruised to re-election in November 2016 via the campaign war-cry of “He kept us out of war.”

By the end of 1916, however, things looked bleak for the Entente. Russia was in trouble in the east, and riddled with revolutionary fervor.  The western front, while stabilized, would be bled by increased and more powerful German thrusts should Russia quit the war, as increasingly looked likely.  The French and British, racked by losses in Turkey and higher casualties on their German front than the Germans, were beginning to fear as well an inability to continue to finance the war effort.  The Italians were stalemated at best.  The Allies increasingly saw one big salvation to their plight, and it lay across the Atlantic.

Pressures thus were mounting on Mr. Wilson to join the fray.  The British, as they were to do again after 1939, mounted a broad effort to entice America into their war via propaganda such as alleged German battlefront atrocities in Belgium.  Further, tens of billions of (2017-equivalent) dollars had been loaned to Britain and France by New York banks such as J.P. Morgan (which had major European offices in London and Paris, and thus led American capital raising efforts for these belligerents) and Goldman Sachs, in at least five times the amount lent to the Central Powers: should Germany win the war, these loans to the western powers could not be recouped.  American armaments makers and industrial producers such as Bethlehem Steel, which had suffered during the 1913-14 recession in the United States, loved the advent of war: exports to Britain and France quadrupled between 1914 and 1917, as many firms in what President Eisenhower was later to label America’s “military-industrial complex” benefited from supplying the western allies. Hence there were fervent supporters of an American entry into the war from American industrial and financial quarters, as well as some voices in the American political class, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, the “John McCain of his day” in terms of his “all-war, everywhere” bellicosity.

Early in 1917 the Germans came, therefore, to believe that these various pressures would draw the Americans into the war against them no matter what actions they took, but they also concluded it would take several months for America to mobilize and join the fight.  They sensed a quick end in the east, and intended to press the attack in the west such that, along with an intensified naval blockade, they could starve Britain and force France into capitulation before the United States could make a difference.

On January 19, 1917, the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded message to the German ambassador at Mexico City, announcing a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1. While a plea would be made to the United States to remain neutral, it was anticipated this would trigger a declaration of war, in which case Germany sought an alliance with Mexico, to attack the United States and reclaim territories in the American southwest lost 70 years earlier. This Zimmermann Telegram, as it came to be known, was intercepted by the British and made public in the United States, which along with the resumption of sub warfare led President Wilson to break diplomatic relations with Germany on February 2.  Mr. Zimmermann admitted the veracity of the note on March 3, and following a few more ship sinkings involving Americans, led Wilson to ask for war on April 2, with a formal declaration approved on April 6.

Wartime Conduct of the Wilson Administration and the Advent of Big Government and Central Planning

Although most Americans were inflamed with a sense of patriotic fervor when reminded of the Lusitania and then enraged at news of the Zimmermann Telegram, our entry into the war was not uncontroversial.  Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had already resigned his cabinet position in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, fearing a tilt toward the British via war finance (Bryan had recommended to Wilson right away in 1914 that American loans or exports to belligerents be forbidden as a way to shorten the war – this counsel was ignored).  Well-known Leftist and progressive Randolph Bourne publicly broke with Wilson over the war, one of many who did so.  And there were also critics from what would today be called small-government libertarian-types, most prominently H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun.

This mattered, because while the war effort went well enough once American Soldiers and Marines were on the ground fighting in Europe, there were pockets of protest in the United States that saw no logic to our fighting wars on behalf of European belligerents.

Domestically, historian Ralph Raico reports that the war ushered in central planning on a massive scale not seen since the Civil War, whose controls and federal dictates were easily surpassed in 1917. Congress passed the National Defense Act, for example: it gave the president the authority, in time of war “or when war is imminent,” to place orders with private firms which would “take precedence over all other orders and contracts.”  If the manufacturer refused to fill the order at a “reasonable price as determined by the Secretary of War,” the government was “authorized to take immediate possession of any such plant and to manufacture therein such product or material as may be required” for the war effort.  The private business owner, meanwhile, would be “deemed guilty of a felony.”

Once war was declared, the power of the federal government grew at a dizzying pace in all sorts of directions. The Lever Act, for example, passed on August 10, 1917, was a law that among other things created the United States Food Administration and the Federal Fuel Administration: this put the federal government in charge of the production and distribution of all food and fuel in the United States.  President Wilson reached into all corners of American life for the sake of the war effort via price controls and monetary manipulation, as well as such direct actions as banning beer sales (and this right before Prohibition).

Some of the Wilson Administration’s conduct was shameful.  For example, in an effort at control of public opinion that would make Dr. Goebbels proud, some 850 citizens were prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts between 1917 and 1919, with many jailed for having the temerity to question the logic behind the war. Most famous of these was the Socialist former candidate for president Eugene V. Debs, who was fined and given a 10-year jail sentence after a June 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio wherein he decried American involvement in a war that was of no consequence to us or our national security, and he further criticized the use of a conscript – that is, slave labor – army to prosecute the war.  Mr. Debs was given early release by President Harding in 1921 and met at the White House the next day, but in a cold, damp, dark federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Debs had contracted tuberculosis, sending him to perhaps an early death in 1926.

Further, Wilson set up a propaganda office immediately after the declaration of war, called the Committee on Public Information. This was a government-staffed propaganda agency charged with message control of the media (viz. putting “spin” on war news) to sustain morale in the U.S., to administer voluntary press censorship, and to develop propaganda abroad.  This entity eventually comprised 37 distinct divisions, most notably the Division of Pictorial Publicity (hundreds of artists created graphics with patriotic themes, or that incited fear and hatred of Germans), the Four Minute Men Division (an “army” of 75,000 civilian volunteers to “sell” the war in terms of bond drives, conscription, and victory food gardens), a News Division, and the Censorship Board.

Mr. Wilson also had one of his cronies set up the American Protective League (APL), an organization of 250,000 private citizens that worked with Federal law enforcement agencies during World War I to identify suspected German sympathizers and to “counteract the activities of radicals, anarchists, anti-war activists, and left-wing labor and political organizations.”   In other words, it was a giant “army” of snitches, sort of a benign Gestapo. (As an example, a Lansing MI man named Powell was turned into the APL by one of his own relatives for opining about unfair media treatment of German war conduct. Powell was set up to be tried, and believing the whole thing was a farce, did not hire an attorney but instead defended himself at trial. But he was convicted, fined $10,000, and sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison, in spite of being the sole breadwinner to a wife and 5 children.  In New Hampshire, a man named Taubert got three years in prison for saying out loud and in public that World War I was a war “for J.P. Morgan, and not for the people,” meaning it was being fought to recoup Morgan’s war loans to the Allies and pad the bottom line of the capitalist class.)

The American entry into the war did have the desired effect for the Allies: Germany ran out of money, out of food, and began to suffer reversals in the west. Even though not one square inch of German soil was ever breached, it was the Germans who blinked, and the war was finished on November 11, 1918, at 11AM Central European Time.

In a final scandal, there were perhaps 10,000 casualties in the final hours of the war’s final day – some 320 Americans died and 3,240 were wounded on the morning of November 11, including U.S. Marines ordered to charge and cross the Meuse River, and the U.S. Army’s 92nd Infantry Division in an attack in the Argonne. This was in spite of general knowledge on November 9 that the end would likely be on the 11th, and firm knowledge as of 5AM on the 11th that the Germans had agreed to halt hostilities six hours later.  The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John Pershing, was challenged in congressional testimony a year later about the insanity of attack orders on the final morning of the war, whereupon he dissembled in his answers.  What was later shown to be true was Pershing’s lying to Congress about knowledge of the precise ending of the war, but Pershing, by then an anointed war hero, was never charged with anything, nor was any other American officer.

The Aftermath of the War and Lessons Learned

President Wilson, having obtained his victory, thus also his seat at the Versailles conference, sought to pursue a peace grounded in a 14-point proposal that he hoped would form the basis for permanent international tranquility monitored through the League of Nations. But the American people quickly turned inward, rejected American participation in the League, and pulled out of Europe.

Meanwhile the terms of the Versailles agreements were unduly harsh toward the loser countries, and the great British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in his 1919 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that as a result, war would resume in 20 years. In this he was precisely correct, as Versailles set forth reparations amounts that the vanquished could never repay (and hence were eventually repudiated in any case), but they were harsh enough into the 1920s to ensure political and civil instability in Germany – that ushered in Hitler.

The participation in the war caused economic gyrations in the United States, too. First and foremost, 117,000 Americans died, and around 200,000 were wounded or maimed (half the war-dead died due to various sicknesses, including a deadly influenza that swept the world in 1918-19 – Spanish Flu also claimed 500,000 lives inside the U.S.).  Thanks to the exigencies of wartime finance and production, the U.S. economy experienced a jump in debt, inflation and monetary gyrations, and then a punishing post-war recession in 1920-21 that saw unemployment quadruple to 12%, briefly, amidst much human suffering.  Wartime regulatory oversight and taxes were challenging for American business, and only when deregulation and the Mellon tax cuts came under President Coolidge did the U.S. economy fully recover a vibrancy stolen in the post-war correction.

When seen especially against the outsized global panorama that was World War II, the First World War has receded in Americans’ collective memory; it is little-studied and even less-discussed.  But in the fullness of time, armed with full information of subsequent history, analysts have begun to ask the ultimate uncomfortable questions: beyond the biggest one of why the war was fought at all, the late entry of the great power an ocean away in 1917 is also the subject of honest inquiry.  Why did America go to war, and what was accomplished?  In any analysis of costs and benefits of American intervention in a European war, was it the right decision?

Here, the answer is now clear: morally, strategically, and financially, the American entry was a disaster.  The American effort clearly failed vis-à-vis President Wilson’s own stated war aim: ensuring the spread of democracy and an end to all wars.  But the answer and the insights it confers go deeper than this.  While we cannot ever prove a counterfactual assertion, it is safe to say that had America not intervened, the belligerent nations would have likely fought to some draw and negotiated truce, accepting a status quo according to the position of opposing armies in 1918.  The German government would have remained in place and indeed captured additional French and Belgian territory, which is not a major development of import and certainly no threat.  A stable German government and society would have meant a faster economic recovery and likely the forestalling of the Nazi regime 13 years later. It is likely Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and others would have recovered faster, too.

There still might well have been an aggressive Communist regime in place in Moscow, menacing western Europe, but here a coalition led by the natural Anglo-German alliance could have bolstered the collective defense.  The Baltic states might never have suffered as they did.  And, who knows, perhaps across decades, had there been no kinetic war against the Soviet Union (in the 1940s), maybe the absence of American troops would have made the Soviets less paranoid, more accommodating, and more prone to open trade that in time would have liberalized them faster.

The lesson is clear, and similar to one that other wars would teach the American people if only they could be in an open-minded mode, and ready to see plainly what is before them: the secondary and unforeseen consequences attendant with any military or naval project thousands of miles away, done for no clear strategic aim, and/or involving no discernible existential threat, and/or done solely for the benefit of narrow special interests (that might include the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” to use President Eisenhower’s full appellation for the web of Beltway special interests who profit from American wars and might inexorably draw Americans into a war overseas, even if subconsciously), will likely be too untoward to ever suggest pursuit of such projects.

The uncomfortable truth about World War I from an American perspective is that it made absolutely no difference to most all Americans who won the war, short or long term. Had the flag of the Imperial German Reich eventually flown over Paris in 1920, it would have mattered little to most all of us.  But it would have mattered a great deal to certain interests at the time, primarily in Washington or New York.  The bankers, industrialists, and power-seeking politicians all had their own reasons to want American entry into the war, but of course no American citizen will ever support the sending of our forces into battle for the sake of corporate profits.  So, a fancier and loftier and more sublime war aim was developed by the great manipulator of public opinion, Woodrow Wilson: “Make the world safe for democracy.”

We have seen this political legerdemain several times in American history, before and since. Why did America fight the Spanish in 1898, especially since it is highly dubious that they had anything to do with the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine?  Why did America fight in Vietnam? Especially since Communism collapsed 16 years later anyway.  Why did America go to war in the Middle East in 1991 on behalf of two Arab dictatorships who were then being menaced by a third?  And, similar to the flow of events following World War I, what if America had not fought in 1991: there’d have been no 1991-2003 No Fly Zone War or crippling sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi women and children, or stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, that enraged Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Again, while not provable, it is at least quite possible that American intervention in Iraq in 1991 begat 9/11/2001, which in turn begat wars in the Muslim world in 2001 and 2003 – that continue to rage today.

It is imperative that in a dangerous world the United States possess an impregnable national defense, replete with a powerful quick-strike and mobile army, a navy sustained by carrier-borne air power and a global sub fleet, Force Recon Marines and their lethality, and a modern air force able to project power globally within hours.  All well and good.  But based on our considerable history, and the primordial lesson unveiled beginning 100 years ago today, will we ever learn to be more circumspect in our deployment of combat power?  Will we learn both the wisdom and humility of mission-capable defense that is second to none, but to be careful in attacking others for no good reason?

President Trump said yesterday that gas attacks on innocents in Syria had “changed his mind” about the situation there. U.S. Marines and Soldiers, including conventional artillery units and copter-borne forces, are already on the ground in Syria, as well as more of them now in Iraq.  Meanwhile, Mr. Trump said as well that he might choose to take the lead on North Korea (pre-empting China), clearly threatening a first strike there.  Additionally, Mr. Trump’s Defense Secretary, General Mattis, has decried ISIS, but also asserted that ISIS’ mortal enemy Iran must be checked in the Middle East, and he has openly ruminated about the boarding of Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf.

Does the Trump Administration seriously think it wise to contemplate simultaneous American-led wars against Syria, ISIS, Iran, and North Korea in the current moment?  Especially when none of them pose even the remotest threat to North American security?  And when all of them are, if at all, threats to other countries, such that any kinetic move against them would, once again as in World War I, represent Americans’ fighting and dying on behalf of others in conflicts where there is no direct linkage to the national security of the United States?

Let us be starkly clear in our closing thought: America went to war 100 years ago today for no good reason, and certainly not for the “general interest” of national security. Instead, Mr. Wilson wanted war for the sake of narrow special interests contained in what President Eisenhower was to later call the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” This panoply of overlapping Beltway groups or individuals, coupled with the “ruling class elite” who toil in Manhattan board rooms, or those of major defense contractors and industrial supplier firms around the country, is still alive and well today.  These groups all do great things on their own on behalf of the American people, as the case may be.  But never again should an American Soldier or Marine be asked to die, face down in the mud, thousands of miles away from the borders he is paid to defend, for anything less than a lethal threat to our national security.  Nor should hard-pressed American taxpayers foot the bill for the wars of others.  THAT is the primordial lesson of April 6, 1917 that reverberates through time, and still resonates today.

Republished with the author’s permission from Real Clear Defense.

About John L. Chapman and Karl-Henrik Smith

John L. Chapman is an economist and merchant banker with Hill & Cutler Co. in Washington, D.C. Karl-Henrik Smith Smith is a foreign policy analyst and graduate student in international business and politics at Copenhagen Business School.

Our Books

latest book lineup.

Related Articles


Ukraine’s Corruption has Poisoned America

Ukraine’s Corruption has Poisoned America

The U.S. Congress is working towards a bill which would fund Ukraine into 2025. This, of course, is into the next presidential term. As Senator JD Vance recently explained to Tucker Carlson, the idea behind this is that if Donald Trump is again elected it will...

read more
Trump Railroaded: Will Investors Flee?

Trump Railroaded: Will Investors Flee?

You've surely heard about Justice Arthur Engoron in New York imposing a ludicrous $455 million in fines and interest on Donald Trump and his corporation. Kathy Hochul, governor of New York, obviously approves of the decision, but somehow wants to punish Trump in this...

read more
Protect the First Amendment: Impeach Joe Biden!

Protect the First Amendment: Impeach Joe Biden!

Protecting democracy and the Constitution from Donald Trump and the “MAGA extremists” is a major theme of President [Joe] Biden’s reelection campaign. As is often the case in American politics, President Biden is just as, if not more, guilty of posing an “existential...

read more
What Really Happened on October 7?

What Really Happened on October 7?

On 7 October, Hamas carried out an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel. Under the cover of a barrage of rockets, fighters from the Hamas military wing, the Qassam Brigades, broke through the Gaza border fence to attack nearby military bases and settlements...

read more
Washington, Pro-Democracy? Depends on the Country

Washington, Pro-Democracy? Depends on the Country

Pakistan just held an election; Venezuela is about to. Both incumbent governments have banned the leading opposition figure from competing. The United States sanctioned one and was silent on the other. What was the difference? Not international law or responsible...

read more

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This