Should We (or for that Matter Britain) Have Entered World War I
March 15, 2015 8 Comments
This is an exercise in thinking for yourself. it came up in a comment stream (yes, we were off topic) on AATW last week, and it interesting one. There is simply no doubt that the infusion of American arms and money won the Great War for the Allies.
But should we have entered, there is some truth that we entered because Wilson was outraged that the Kreigsmarine ignored his warnings about submarine warfare, and some truth that America was outraged by the Zimmerman telegram. On the other hand it hard to see how we were going to collect the loans we had made to the Allies if we didn’t.
Nor was this a small matter, sometime in 1915 or 1916 the world’s financial center had moved from London to New York, as the British went from being the world’s largest creditor nation to being the world’s largest debtor nation. Without that there is no American century. By the time of the Armistice, Germany was literally starving to death (that’s true in World War II as well, but irrelevant for now). this is when America became the “indispensable nation”. there are lessons in that for us today that we would be wise to take to heart as well.
But to me the more interesting question is this. What if Great Britain had sat out the Great War? Here are four eminent British historians talking about that very idea. Watch the video and then we’ll talk a bit more.
I think I’ve run this before but no matter, it’s quite valuable, and directly on point. One thing that is very hard for us all is that one can only consider the information they knew at the time.
You heard quite a bit about shopping lists and Bethmann-Hollweg’s demands. If I remember by about October 1914 Germany was so far in debt that she had to make ridiculous claims to pay off her debt, she, of course, didn’t have the British (and then American) banks to hold her hand, and you do remember what happened to Weimar Germany in the 20s, right?
What do I think, overall? From the viewpoint of what we now call Realpolitik there is simply no question, there were no gains available commensurate with the risk of war for Great Britain. And the outcome of her victory could have hardly been worse, if she lost. That is not entirely her fault of course. There are other actors, I, personally would lay a great deal of the blame on the idiotically inexperienced and stubborn Woodrow Wilson But there, are, in fact, no clean hands in this mess.
And the other fly in the ointment is this. Germany should have won anyway, and in 1914. von Moltke the Younger weakened the Schwerpunkt to strengthen the defenses in the Ruhr unnecessarily (the French weren’t coming). That led to the necessary shortening of the right hook and is the reason the First Marne happened instead of the fall of Paris. Then he panicked when he saw the mobilization of Russia proceeding faster than the Prussian plan said they would, and diverted a further three corps from the attack to Hindenburg in the run-up to Tannenberg. When he was told they were coming Hindenburg reportedly said, “Why, I have no use for them. And he didn’t.
They got there after the battle had been fought. So they spent the entire decisive stage of the war riding around on trains across Germany. And so, “the Miracle of the Marne” was actually that the Germans panicked.
And so the whole thing settled into stalemate. The apologists would like you to believe this couldn’t have been foreseen. They’re wrong, it could have been, and should have been. Europe, then as now, believed so much in their superiority that they never looked around. They didn’t have to look far. The 1864-65 campaign of the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia, looks very similar. To change the paradigm was going to take the development of practical combustion powered armored force vehicle which didn’t happen until the 1930s.
And so a clear win for the non-interventionists. Or is it?
Because in the cold logic of realpolitik it seems pretty clear, there remains that nagging little voice, “What of Honor? What of our commitments, and our word?”
And as I sit here in a United States whose feckless government has seemingly forgotten (or never knew) the terms, let alone what they mean. I’m inclined to think they do, other countries need to know what a great power will, in general do. that it will keep its word. And while here, we have been talking of the beginning of the wars of the twentieth century, those wars ended when an American, British, and Polish, person of honor showed the way. Perhaps honor does matter. I think so, i think it makes us better, much better. Otherwise, we are simply a pack of wolves, arguing over the spoils.
A couple of points. World War II is simply not conceivable (at least as it happened without the Great War. I think Churchill correct, when he called them together a new Thirty Years War and the same is true for the Cold War.
Those debating for the proposition in the video have one point that is hard to overstate. It is hard to conceive of an outcome that is worse than what we got.
Perhaps Churchill was also right when he said of the times.
Great Events and Small Men
He excluded himself from that judgement, of course.