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Boy Scouts take to the streets in New York City, 1917. (Underwood & Underwood/National Geographic Magazine/Wikimedia)
(Underwood & Underwood/National Geographic Magazine/Wikimedia)

How 'Mr. Wilson's War' Shaped the World Order

Arthur Herman

One hundred years ago on April 6, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. It was an event that changed America, and the world, forever.

America’s entry into that war was the result of the dream of one man, President Woodrow Wilson. In the light of America’s experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it’s easy to retrospectively dismiss our participation in World War I as the first egregious exercise in Wilsonianism — an act of high-minded liberal idealism and moralism leading to disaster rather than redemption.

Yet seeing this centennial exclusively through that lens is a mistake. Whatever else it was, America’s role in what was then the world’s bloodiest and most destructive war signaled the emergence of the U.S. as the arbiter of a new world order, one that would be built around America’s economic strength, military power, and moral authority as promoter and defender of democracy and freedom. Assuming that role and burden has caused the U.S. a good deal of trouble and brought considerable cost, much of it in human lives — but far less cost, one has to argue, than if the U.S. had stayed out of World War I and evaded a responsibility we still carry today, however reluctantly: that of the superpower of freedom.

It’s worth remembering how we got into the war in the first place. America, and President Wilson, had worked hard to stay out of the conflict that had broken out in the summer of 1914, pitting France, Britain, Italy, and Russia against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. In just two and half years, it had all but consumed the heart of Europe, leaving more than 10 million dead and pushing three long-lasting empires — Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov — to the brink of dissolution.

Wilson’s personal view had been that staying out of war meant preserving America’s role as the beacon of the future, of a peaceful and harmonious world in which war would be a thing of the past — and even possibly negotiating a final peace once the combatants finally exhausted themselves.

But Imperial Germany was unwilling to leave America alone. It knew that although America was officially neutral, the Allies were steadily buying from U.S. factories the food and other supplies they needed to stay in the war. Germany’s resumption of all-out submarine warfare in February 1917 aimed at sinking neutral shipping (it had been suspended after Wilson’s protest over the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, which killed 128 Americans) was meant to sever the transatlantic supply line between America and Britain. German experts figured that cutting this supply line would lead to German victory in six months, regardless of what Wilson did in response to German torpedoes’ killing more Americans.

In case the Americans did take military action, however, Germany came up with another plan, one that proved to be disastrous: offering to give Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico, if Mexico joined with Germany in opening a second front on America’s southern border. The gist of that plan was contained in a telegram that was intercepted by British naval intelligence and passed on to Wilson; that telegram, and the sinking of three American vessels in three days in late March, finally tipped Wilson’s hand. The man whose reelection campaign slogan in 1916 had been “He kept us out of war” now asked Congress on April 2 to enter that war, by declaring war on Germany. Four days later, Congress enthusiastically agreed.

Wilson’s reasons for going to war were subtle and important for the future. In his mind, it was not America that was declaring war on Germany, it was Germany that had declared war on America — and the rest of the civilized world. America now had to take up the challenge and remake the future. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he told Congress. “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”

Fine words, noble sentiments. Like those uttered by some other presidents who have embarked on similar crusades for democracy in far-off lands, they only raised the curtain on frustration and failure. With American help, by November 1918 Germany had been beaten but not defeated. No fan of war, Wilson eagerly accepted an armistice that halted the advancing Allies before they entered German territory. The stab-in-the-back legend — that Germany was going to win the war but was prevented from doing so by domestic traitors — was born and would cause enormous problems later. In the movie Casablanca, when the German Major Strasser remarks to Captain Reynaud that Rick Blaine is just “another blundering American,” Reynaud retorts, “I was with them when they blundered into Berlin.” If only they had; it would have spared Europe, and the world, enormous pain two decades later.

In any case, in less than a year more than 116,000 Americans — nearly twice as many as were killed in Vietnam over twelve years — had died in a war that, as time went by, seemed more and more a tragic waste. The pain of “Mr. Wilson’s war” wasn’t felt only on the battlefield. The war-mobilization effort triggered an enormous growth in the size and reach of the federal government, which the New Deal only extended and which one could argue has never quite stopped. Numerous new federal agencies, including the Food Administration (led by a former mining engineer named Herbert Hoover) and the Fuel Administration, tried to take control of the U.S. economy, with dismal results. The full flush of wartime patriotism fomented anti-German and anti-immigrant feeling that led to such absurdities as banning the playing of Bach and Beethoven and the teaching of German in schools (in South Dakota’s case, even banning the use of German on the telephone). The absurdities took an ugly turn when a German immigrant in Illinois was lynched by an angry mob, and when the crackdown on anti-war dissenters led by Wilson’s Department of Justice put hundreds in jail, spilling over into the Red Scare and the mass deportation of thousands of suspected radicals.

Wilson’s strict segregation policy, which he imposed on all federal agencies, also applied to the armed forces, where it led to resentment and backlash. The years of America’s entry into World War I saw a steady wave of racial tensions and race riots, the worst since Reconstruction. One, involving black soldiers in Houston in 1917, left a dozen dead. The same day Woodrow Wilson returned from the Paris peace conference in 1919, whole neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., were in flames in a race riot that killed 15. A similar riot in Chicago killed 38.

To top it all, after the war, Wilson’s proudest achievement, the Federal Reserve Board, sharply and disastrously raised interest rates, triggering a nationwide depression in 1920 that soon reverberated around the world — a foretaste of the Great Depression ten years later. In the presidential election that year, a Democratic rout was inevitable, and Wilson left office a sick and broken man. As socialist and anti-war activist Eugene Debs, sitting in a jail cell at the Atlanta Penitentiary, wrote: “No man in public life in American history ever retired so thoroughly discredited, so scathingly rebuked, so overwhelmingly impeached and repudiated as Woodrow Wilson.”

And yet Wilson’s goal of establishing America as a new kind of global arbiter had been achieved. The conventional view is that it is the end of World War II that marked the creation of a U.S.-centered world order. In fact, it was World War I — starting with the economic and financial might the U.S. acquired during the war as Wall Street replaced London as the center of world finance, and growing as U.S. economic power was deployed to feed and then rebuild a shattered post-war Europe, including Germany and even Soviet Russia.

This shift in world power began even before America formally entered the conflict. On April 1, the day before Wilson’s speech to Congress, the U.S. government extended an unprecedented $250 million in credit to Great Britain, with another $3 billion awaiting congressional approval. Overnight, Britain and the other allies became completely dependent on the U.S. to underwrite their purchases of war matériel — a debt that continued to mount until, by war’s end, the world owed the U.S. in excess of $10 billion, with Britain alone owing more than $4 billion and France upward of $3.4 billion. (To get a sense of the size of the debt in today’s money, add three or four zeroes.)

One could say that on April 1, 1917 — April Fool’s Day — the United States became the most powerful nation on earth, and that entry into the world war was merely anti-climax. Of course, some argue that Wilson should have used America’s financial leverage to force the Allies to the peace table without entering the war directly — but that would have left Imperial Germany as the dominant power in Eastern as well as Western Europe. A better criticism is that he should have entered the war earlier, in 1915 or 1916, before the Western democracies had exhausted themselves and before Russia had been shattered by revolution.

In any case, the armistice in November 1918 put the final seal on the United States’s status as the world’s lone superpower, which no future president could afford to ignore or deny. Indeed, far from being stereotypical isolationists, Wilson’s successors, Harding and Coolidge, embraced the new post-war U.S.-led world order and were heavily involved in European affairs in the 1920s, exerting strong influence to stabilize the world economy and even to promote multilateral disarmament. It was actually isolationist Democrats of the Thirties (including, ironically, a recently elected President Franklin Roosevelt) who worked to detach the U.S. from its post-WWI responsibilities and withdraw from the troubles engulfing the world. That in turn helped to set the stage for the rise of the totalitarian powers, which forced America’s entry into a second world war, one in which American deaths would dwarf those in the first.

After 1945, however, we finally learned our lesson from the experience of World War I. The world needed and still needs America’s military and strategic power, as well as its economic and diplomatic leverage, to ensure stability, prosperity, and (relative) peace. While Woodrow Wilson may have entered World War I in part for the wrong reasons — to fulfill utopian dreams about making the world “safe for democracy” and making war a thing of the past through an all-powerful League of Nations — 100 years later his decision stands as the right one. In the final analysis, it has made the world, and the U.S., safer, and created a U.S.-led system of international freedom, prosperity, and peace that has lasted until today.

Certainly the alternatives are not worth contemplating.

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