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World War I: European Origins and American Intervention

ISSUE:  Winter 1980

One day in July 1955 the ground around the town of Messines, Belgium, trembled from an underground shock. It was not an earthquake. It was the explosion of a cache of munitions buried nearly 40 years before. For eleven months, during 1916 and 1917, British troops had dug 21 mineshafts deep under the German lines in that part of Flanders and had filled them with five hundred tons of explosives. Early in the morning of June 7, 1917, the British had detonated the charges, causing a blast that had awakened people as far away as London, 130 miles distant. Only 19 of the loaded mineshafts had blown up, however. The rumbling in 1955 signaled the explosion of one of the two remaining charges. The other lies somewhere in the Flemish earth, still unexploded but practically certain to go off someday.

That incident of the explosives planted deep and their continuing after-effects is emblematic of the impact of World War I both on its own time and on the subsequent history of the 20th century. The war appeared to many contemporaries as a gigantic explosion or earthquake; those were two of the most popular terms used to describe the conflict. In longer perspective, too, the war looks like an explosion or earthquake in a metaphorical sense. It undermined an international dispensation under which European nations dominated among the world’s major powers and ruled over much of the globe through their colonial empires. Likewise, the war shattered the domestic stability of those nations, sapping the authority of traditionally dominant groups and giving rise to violent extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. The shocks generated by the crumbling of that international and domestic order have precipitated the greatest events of the last 60 years, since the end of the war, and their final tremors are yet to be felt.

From its outbreak, nearly everyone recognized the momentousness of World War I. The suddenness and magnitude of the conflict that erupted in August 1914 tended to throw imaginations out of kilter. Observers instinctively grasped for non-human terms to describe it. Natural catastrophes, like an explosion or earthquake, came readily to mind. Henry James called the war “the plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness.” Theodore Roosevelt believed that it was “on a giant scale like the disaster to the Titanic.” Others resorted to supernatural terms. In the United States, which was so strongly influenced by Bible-reading Protestantism, the most widely used name for the war came to be “Armageddon,” the nation-shattering miracle preceding the Last Judgment in the book of Revelation. “Now Armageddon has a real meaning,” announced one American magazine. “. . . If this be not Armageddon, we shall never suffer the final death grip of nations.” Those who have witnessed later occurrences in this century may balk at that assertion, but no one can doubt that people at the time of World War I knew that they were living through one of history’s greatest events.

Such knowledge was not an unalloyed advantage to the participants. The ready comparison of the war to events that did not have human origins betokened an attitude that the war was also beyond human control. That attitude, not the destruction and carnage, was what made World War I so profoundly disheartening. World War II claimed more lives, laid waste more land and cities, and introduced more terrible weapons. Yet that later war has legitimately exciting, hopeful, and noble aspects. The difference between the world wars involved more than the fixity of the first versus the movement of the second. Rather it is a question of why they differed in that way, and the answer lies less in the technology or art of war and more in the imagination and grasp of the civilian and military leaders of the belligerent powers.

“The Second World War in some ways gave birth to less novelty and genius that the First,” writes Sir Isaiah Berlin, who compares the literary production of the two wars. “Yet,” Berlin adds, “perhaps there is one respect in which the Second World War did outshine its predecessor: the leaders of the nations involved in it were, with the significant exception of France, men of greater stature, psychologically more interesting than their prototypes.” One does not have to agree with all of Berlin’s judgments of individual leaders to concede the truth of his observation. H. H. Asquith, Sir Douglas Haig, Erich Ludendorff, and Kaiser Wilhelm, for example, contrast so hollowly with Winston Churchill, George S. Patton, Erwin Rommel, and even Adolf Hitler, because those earlier figures made themselves captives rather than masters of events. World War I produced only two authentic world leaders, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, because they alone of all the national leaders grappled with the task of controlling the war itself. In their conflicting ways, Wilson and Lenin offered the only lights in the drab field of leadership in World War I.

What really made the war so staggering to people’s sensibilities was its human origin: for the first time in history the deeds of men seemed to match the accidents of nature and the acts of God. World War I sprang from two related breakdowns in mankind’s proudest creations at the beginning of the 20th century—the highly civilized nation-states of Europe. One breakdown, which was immediate and obvious, lay in relations among those nation-states. Although Europe had not experienced a general conflict for a hundred years before 1914, its state system had shown unmistakable signs of instability for at least a generation. All the main European powers except Great Britain held grudges against each other, and their grudges involved such intractable matters as control of territories and populations and assertions of political and economic influence that were considered vital. The relative detachment of the British afforded no safety, either, since the general instability also threatened them. Imperial expansion during the generation before the war had sometimes deflected rivalries from European concerns, but in the end controversies over colonies and spheres of influence in Africa and Asia had exacerbated tensions among the home countries. Moreover, the colonial and naval dimensions of the European rivalries had alarmed the British and drawn them into the struggle in ways that strictly continental controversies probably would not have done.

It seems clear now that of all the instigators of the war which broke out in 1914 Germany bore the heaviest responsibility. During the preceding ten years Europe had witnessed a series of crises initially occasioned by conflicts in the Far East, North Africa, or the Balkans. The Germans had either fomented those crises or rushed into them, each time in hopes of sowing discord among their rivals and reaping gains for themselves and their client states. Those German actions had reflected more than a normal but reckless desire to get ahead at the expense of adversaries. As Fritz Fischer and other German historians have shown, an expansionist consensus had grown up since the 1890’s behind the proposition that Germany must become a “world state” with a “world mission.” Further, a number of German leaders had become convinced that their nation’s destiny could be fulfilled only through what the Foreign Minister in 1913 called “the coming world war.” By 1914, diplomatic setbacks in the Balkans and the Near East and foreign economic uncertainties had created what Fischer terms a “crisis of German imperialism.” The government in Berlin therefore greeted the dispute following the Austrian Archduke’s assassination at Sarajevo in a mood of desperate hope. The Germans not only gave the Austrians a “blank check” in their dealings with Serbia, but they encouraged their ally to go to war. As Fischer concludes, “It is impossible to speak seriously either of Germany’s being “towed in Austria’s wake” or of her being “coerced.”“

Laying such responsibility at the Germans’ door does not mean that they should once more be arraigned for “war guilt,” as the victorious Allies did in 1919 in the Treaty of Versailles. No one has yet examined British, French, or Russian moves with the same access and assiduity that Fischer has studied the German role in the coming of the war. It seems likely that closer examination of French or, if it were possible, Russian sources might uncover at least a few comparable actions in goading Germany toward confrontation. Some elements in France did seek and welcome war in 1914. There, too, a nationalist revival had been flourishing, with increasingly shrill assertions of French destiny and revanchism toward Alsace and Lorraine. Even Britain, which was the last and most reluctant major power to enter the war in 1914, does not appear entirely blameless. For a number of years the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been giving assurances to the French of backing in the event of war. Grey had kept those assurances secret not only from Parliament but also from the full Cabinet, and though he had never explicitly promised British intervention, he had made commitments to the French that could not realistically be honored without fighting at their side. As events transpired, the German violation of Belgian neutrality averted a political crisis over Britain’s entry into World War I. Defending “brave little Belgium” forestalled debate and rallied people to the colors in Britain in 1914 much as Pearl Harbor did in America in 1941.

Responsibility for the war was also generalized among the European nations in another way besides their diplomatic conduct. The second breakdown that contributed to the outbreak of World War I lay in the internal affairs of the countries involved. Foreign policy never exists in a vacuum, and in 1914 the actions of all the nations that became belligerents reflected domestic conditions. The Kaiser’s regime ruled Germany in a mood of constant, though often exaggerated, insecurity. A plethora of proscriptions and legal disadvantages had not availed to prevent the Social Democrats from emerging as the strongest single party, and in 1913 and 1914 some conservative spokesmen had advocated war as a means of curbing rising Socialist strength. In France socialism and nationalism had competed for the allegiance of the working classes, and only the fortuitous assassination of the eloquent Jean Jaures in July 1914 had removed a potential rallying point for Socialist opposition to the war. British internal discord stemmed not only from the growing strength and militancy of the Labour Party but also from woman suffrage agitation and, most gravely, from incipient civil war over autonomy for Ireland. Ironically, of all the major European powers, only backward, despotic, chronically troubled Russia seemed to be gaining in internal stability, thanks to massive industrialization and sweeping land reform.

By 1914, the breakdown that became so evident in Europe after World War I was already well advanced. The war undoubtedly accelerated the process, and in the case of Russia it may well have paved the way for a revolution that might not otherwise have occurred. But the war did not cause that internal breakdown. Instead, the breakdown contributed to the war. The dominant mood of the leaders of the nations that took up arms in 1914 was relief. British, French, and German leaders all seemed glad to lay aside their troubles at home and fight a foreign foe. David Lloyd George, the strongest figure in the British government, told one friend in August 1914, “In a week or two it might be good fun to be the advance guard of an expeditionary force to the coast of France, and run the risk of capture by a German ship!” The masses of men who went to war briefly shared such summer holiday sentiments, but their euphoria soon gave way to gloom and despair. Among thoughtful European observers, World War I almost at once instilled doubts about human nature and the progress of civilization. For men in the trenches and reflective onlookers, it was understandable that the war might seem beyond human control. For their leaders, however, the abdication of responsibility seems to have stemmed from their original relief at having escaped unpleasant domestic conditions. It would seem that European leaders did not try harder to control the war because they did not want to. They evidently preferred the carnage of the war to the upheavals which they knew would meet its end if they did not emerge somehow triumphant.


Viewed from America, many aspects of World War I appeared different. Observers in the United States also immediately marveled at the immensity of the conflict, and they used the same nonhuman descriptions and bemoaned the setback to human progress. But other elements entered into reactions on this side of the Atlantic. Where Europeans initially thrilled to the adventure of war, Americans expressed relief at not being in it. Later, when the United States did enter the war, the most popular description for it would be “over there”; that phrase also expressed the basic American attitude toward World War I at its outbreak. From the American standpoint, the war was a terrible catastrophe that had befallen somebody else, far away. “Again and ever I thank Heaven for the Atlantic Ocean,” wrote the American ambassador in London at the end of July 1914. People in the United States felt not only geographically but also morally removed from the war. It appeared to offer spectacular confirmation of longstanding notions about New World innocence and purity in opposition to Old World sin and decadence. In August 1914, the New York Times, usually a sober newspaper, contrasted the opening of the Panama Canal with the outbreak of the war by gloating, “The European ideal bears its full fruit of ruin and savagery just at the moment when the American ideal lays before the world a great work of peace, goodwill, and fair play.” In short, many Americans reacted to the outbreak of World War I by figuratively repeating the Pharisee’s prayer, “Thank God I am not as other men are.”

That pervasive sense of removal from the war presented the most formidable barrier to eventual American intervention. But any thoughts of intervention lay well in the future. When President Wilson admonished his countrymen in August 1914 to remain “neutral in fact as well as in name,” he simply seemed to be voicing the prevailing popular attitude. The following December he reiterated such sentiments when he dubbed the European conflict “a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes can not touch us. . . ..” Actually, Wilson meant to do more than convey soothing reassurance, since he had early come to fear the potential impact of the conflict on the United States. The mood of detachment lasted for the better part of the first year of the war. By the spring of 1915—despite some expressions of sympathy for the Allies, despite frictions with the British over their blockade of the Central Powers, and despite jitters at the German submarine proclamation—people appeared less concerned than ever about World War I. “Americans regard the war either as a bore,” reported the British ambassador in Washington in April 1915, “or as an immensely interesting spectacle provided for their entertainment, of which they are commencing to be rather tired.”

The great majority of Americans’ attitudes toward World War I changed suddenly and dramatically on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. That was when the news reached the United States that a German submarine had sunk the British liner Lusitania, the world’s largest passenger ship, killing 1,198 men, women, and children, 198 of whom were Americans. Ten years later the journalist Mark Sullivan discovered that all the people he interviewed could remember exactly where they had been when they had learned of the sinking of the Lusitania, what they had thought and felt, and what they had done for the rest of the day. The event left an indelible memory not only because it was another great catastrophe but also because it raised the threat of involvement in the war. Although many spokesmen fumed with outrage over the Lusitania, few raised cries for war. Out of 1,000 newspaper editors asked to telegraph their views to New York newspapers, six called for war. President Wilson caught the dominant public reaction when he stated a month after the sinking of the Lusitania, “I wish with all my heart I saw a way to carry out the double wish of our people, to maintain a firm front in respect of what we demand of Germany and yet do nothing that might by any possibility involve us in the war.”

That statement defined the diplomatic dilemma that persisted until the United States entered World War I in April 1917. German-American relations did not begin a long slide toward war. A grave but polite diplomatic duel persisted between the two countries for nearly a year, until an American ultimatum forced the Germans to restrain their submarines in the spring of 1916. Thereafter, the threat of war receded for several months, and most of the friction between the United States and European belligerents involved the Allies, particularly Britain. Only Germany’s launching of an expanded submarine offensive at the end of January 1917 brought the final crisis that plunged America into the war. Yet behind the ebb and flow of German-American relations lay the same conditions that Wilson had described after the sinking of the Lusitania. From mid-1915 onward two basic requisites existed for American intervention. Those requisites were the German use of the submarine and the presence of Woodrow Wilson in the White House.

For the last 40 years nearly all American interpreters have portrayed their nation’s entry into World War I as a well-nigh inevitable event. Deploring “revisionists” and applauding “realists” have alike viewed intervention in 1917 as an outcome virtually foreordained by the machinations of great political, economic, and strategic forces. By contrast, most British interpreters and Arthur S. Link in this country have emphasized the twists and turns of specific events and the roles of individual actors. Although the two perspectives can be complementary, whether to stress the weight of overarching forces or the actions of contemporaries poses an inescapable choice in assessing American entry into World War I. Of the two perspectives, the second—the stress on specific men and events—is the correct one. When due account has been given to the influences of culture, trade, political sympathies, and strategic reckoning that may have affected the course of American policy, two incontrovertible facts remain. First, the United States would almost certainly never have entered World War I if Germany had not resorted to submarine warfare. Second, the vehicle through which the United States did enter the war was Woodrow Wilson.

The German decision to use the submarine represented one of the most fateful moves of the war. It also involved two great blunders. The first blunder occurred with the initial submarine proclamation in February 1915, when Germany threatened to sink without warning all merchant shipping in a zone surrounding the British and French coasts. By issuing that proclamation, the Germans were, as Ernest May has pointed out, doing the only thing that could have caused meaningful hostility with the Americans. British control of the seas had curtailed contacts between the United States and Germany so thoroughly that no other occasion for war or even much diplomatic friction could have arisen without the submarine. Worse, the Germans were risking a wider war for doubtful military advantage. Not only were Germany’s World War I submarines small, vulnerable craft which carried few torpedoes and had a short cruising range, but in 1915 there were so few of them that they could inflict at most minimal shipping losses. Why the Germans took such a bad risk and then clung stubbornly to their intentions in the face of American protests sprang in part from tense, complicated civil-military relations within the Kaiser’s regime. But the submarine policy also reflected a new and disheartening development in the history of warfare. The German submarine advocates’ claims in 1915 offered the earliest example of what has become a familiar 20th-century faith in military “hardware”—the notion that some new piece of technology will bring victory that is both quick and cheap in one’s own expenditure of manpower and resources. Air power and nuclear weapons would offer later fields for this faith which the submarine had first occasioned.

The second even greater submarine blunder was the decision in January 1917 to resume and widen the undersea war. The German government made that decision in full knowledge and expectation of likely American intervention. They were taking the calculated risk that their submarines could knock the Allies out of the war by cutting off their overseas supplies of munitions and food long before any American contribution could swing the balance against them. This risk in 1917 seemed considerably better than the earlier one, in-as much as German shipyards had by then built enough submarines to make serious inroads in Allied shipping. The rate of tonnage losses inflicted in the spring of 1917 nearly crippled the British war effort. Only the timely adoption of the convoy system cut those losses to an acceptable level by providing an effective defense against the submarine.


The German error in 1917 lay in believing that the submarine offered the sole means to victory. By the beginning of that year, the Allies had fallen into desperate financial straits. The impending collapse of their credit in the United States was about to accomplish the same result as the German submarine offensive—cutting the Allies’ overseas supply life-line—with no risk of American intervention. In fact, the Allied financial position had deteriorated so badly that nothing could save them short of the rapid, massive infusion of money that would require American co-belligerency as a precondition. By resuming and broadening submarine warfare in January 1917 the Germans were doing the one thing that could save the Allies from collapse. To use a recent phrase, Germany was snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Why the Germans made this blunder evidently stemmed from two considerations. One was a simple, though inexcusable failure of intelligence. “So far as I know the Germans were totally unaware of our financial difficulty,” wrote the British Treasury expert John Maynard Keynes, who talked with his German opposite numbers after the war. Such ignorance seems incredible, particularly because much of the information about the Allied financial predicament was public knowledge and a few hours of simple intelligence gathering in New York and Washington would have yielded further, convincing evidence.

A second, deeper consideration also underlay the German blunder. As the German historian Gerhard Ritter has observed, indications abounded in Berlin not only that the best chance to win the war lay in waiting to let Allied troubles mount but also that a more cautious submarine policy might keep the United States neutral. Despite those signs, the Germans went ahead with the submarine campaign because nothing less than swift, decisive military victory seemed acceptable to the men in power. That decision sprang in part, as Ritter suggests, from the ascendancy of the military, which had transformed the Kaiser’s government into a dictatorship by General Ludendorff behind the figurehead of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Even more, the decision reflected the abdication by both military and civilian leaders to what they regarded as the larger than human requirements of the World War. They were simply unable to conceive of any course except riding the war through to total victory. It seems likely, therefore, as the British historian Patrick, Lord Devlin has speculated, that the German leaders would have chosen to unleash their submarines even if they had known more about the Allies’ financial peril. If that were so, then the German choice of the submarine campaign was, as Edmund Burke described the French Revolution, “a fond election of evil.”

The second incontrovertible fact about American intervention in World War I is what Winston Churchill recognized more than 50 years ago when he wrote of Woodrow Wilson, “It seems no exaggeration to pronounce that the actions of the world depended, during the awful period Armageddon, upon the workings of this man’s mind and spirit to the exclusion of almost every other factor; and that he played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man.” Wilson’s role was the opposite of that of the German submarine. If the United States would not have entered World War I except for the submarine, no one besides Wilson would have done so much to keep the country out of the war. No major American statesman of the time equaled Wilson either in representing majority opinion or in grasping basic problems. His principal rivals and critics all leaned too far toward the belligerent half of the people’s “double wish,” as with Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, and Henry Cabot Lodge, or toward the pacific half, as with William Jennings Bryan and Robert M. La Follette. William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes came closer to Wilson’s middle ground, and Taft also looked beyond the immediate controversies, but they lacked Wilson’s boldness and perception.

From the war’s outbreak, Wilson had apprehended that his fundamental task lay in attempting to end the conflict and prevent the recurrence of anything like it. His early admonitions about neutrality and remoteness from the war had also contained urgings to remain self-controlled in order to be ready to perform great international services. That vision of service owed less to any Presbyterian idealism of Wilson’s than to his convictions about the indivisibility of world peace and security. In this regard, he resembled his fellow, deeply religious Southerner, Jimmy Carter, with whom he has been compared, rather than a more worldly operator like Franklin Roosevelt. In his handling of the submarine troubles with Germany in 1915 and 1916, Wilson proved highly resourceful in hewing to the middle way between war and submission when so many others were falling away, including his successive Secretaries of State, Bryan and Robert M. Lansing, and his main confidant, Colonel Edward M. House. Moreover, all the while he was preparing for an effort to end the war and lay the basis for a new international order.

Wilson’s finest hour during World War I came in the two-and-a-half months following his re-election in November 1916, when he moved simultaneously on several fronts to mediate the conflict and create a structure for peace. Shortly after the election, Wilson exercised America’s financial leverage over the Allies by backing and strengthening a Federal Reserve Board warning against excessive foreign loans. Then in December 1916 he dispatched a circular note to the belligerent powers, asking them to state their peace terms and pledging American participation in a future international body empowered to maintain peace. The note went first through diplomatic channels and was made public two days afterward. Finally, on Jan. 22, 1917, after receiving various replies from the warring nations, Wilson delivered a speech to the Senate in which he called for “a peace without victory.. . . . Only a peace among equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common benefit.” In that speech he also laid down the specific principles for the war’s settlement which he reiterated a year later in the Fourteen Points, and he again pledged American participation in an international concert to keep the peace.

Wilson gave an extraordinary performance. He moved deftly and calmly amid suspicions, jealousies, and recriminations abroad and at home. The Germans and the Allies responded to the American initiative by executing labyrinthine, often deceitful, maneuvers which reflected internal strains as well as mutual enmity. The mediation effort drew fire in the United States from pro-Allied stalwarts like Lodge and Roosevelt, who charged Wilson with playing Germany’s game. His proposal for American membership in an international peace-keeping organization earned denunciations both from pacific isolationists, who feared involvement in foreign conflicts, and from nationalists, who rejected any abridgment of sovereignty and self-interest. Those attacks in December 1916 and January 1917, which were spearheaded by Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William E. Borah, offered a foretaste of the post-war debate over joining the League of Nations. Besides outright opposition, Wilson also had to brook disloyalty from his top lieutenants, as Secretary Lansing and Colonel House each in his own way tried to sabotage the mediation venture. Whether Wilson’s attempt to gain control of the international situation at the beginning of 1917 would have succeeded if Germany had not reopened submarine warfare is doubtful. Too many factors seem to have been working against it. Yet, merely by making the attempt, Wilson had staked his claim to world leadership.

The German submarine decision transformed Wilson’s task from guiding other nations toward peace to wrestling with his own country’s likely involvement in war. The two months from the unleashing of the submarines to American intervention formed what Arthur Link has called Wilson’s “Gethsemane.” Alone of the nation’s leaders, he apprehended that no quick, simple choice could be made between going into and staying out of World War I. Curiously, this most solitary of modern Presidents found himself perfectly attuned to the sentiments of the great majority of his countrymen. Studies of public opinion have shown that even after the mounting submarine sinkings and the publication of the Zimmermann telegram in February and March 1917, relatively few people favored intervention. Likewise, a number of contemporary observers noted that most members in both Houses of Congress remained undecided about entering the war right down to the night of April 2, 1917, when the President finally disclosed his decision. As it was, Wilson convinced large majorities in the House and Senate to go in, but he could almost certainly have persuaded equally large majorities to stay out.

Why Wilson chose war has remained a puzzle ever since. In recent years some doubt has been cast on the reliability of his eleventh-hour outpouring to Frank Cobb of the New York World about making Americans “go war-mad, quit thinking and devote their energies to destruction.” But even if Wilson did not say those exact words to Cobb, he gave plenty of other indications between February and April 1917 that he hated to plunge the United States into World War I. Even more than possible hysteria at home Wilson recoiled from the loss of control abroad. To Cobb he reportedly said that intervention “means an attempt to reconstruct a peace-time civilization with war standards, and at the end of the war there will be no bystanders with sufficient power to influence the terms. There won’t be any peace standards left to work with.” Earlier, in his second inaugural address, on March 5, 1917, Wilson had reviewed America’s relations with the war, emphasizing that “all the while we’re not part of it.” Americans had “grown more and more aware and more and more certain that the part we wished to play was the part of those who mean to vindicate and fortify peace.” No matter what trials lay ahead, he had vowed, “nothing will alter our thought or purpose.” At bottom, the problem remained how to keep Americans from surrendering to the war.


Wilson made it clear in his war address on April 2, 1917, that he wanted American belligerency to serve the same ends as his peace initiative. “I have exactly the same things in mind now,” he asserted, “that I had in mind when I addressed the Senate on the twenty-second of January last. . . . Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.” Wilson was not sounding the trumpet for a holy war. The tone of the war address was somber and low-keyed. Wilson alluded to the “solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking,” and he prefaced his conclusion by conceding, “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” The Allies soon painfully discovered that Wilson had not enlisted America on their side in a crusade. Rather he was still seeking to control the war. Only now he believed that he could not avoid belligerency, and he was gambling that he could make belligerency serve the same ends of reaching a just settlement and maintaining a lasting peace.

Wilson knew that the gamble might fail. He feared that belligerent means might subvert his pacific goal, but he believed that he had no choice. Interestingly, Wilson’s last words in the war address, which followed his declaration that America would fight to achieve a new international order, were “God helping her, she can do no other.” The phrase was, as some observers recognized, a paraphrase of Martin Luther’s declaration to the Diet of Worms: “God helping me, I can do no other.” The phrase had probably occurred to Wilson by chance, but it did express both his own Christian philosophy and the role in which he was casting the United States. Like Luther, he was acknowledging that men and nations could not avoid sin but must, in seeking to do God’s will, “sin boldly.” He was asking his countrymen to “sin boldly” in seeking to control the war and in striving to make the world better, freer, and more peaceful.

American intervention revolutionized World War I. It saved the Allies from financial collapse, which, together with the other reverses they suffered in 1917, would have insured their defeat. It gave the British and French the morale boost that allowed them to hold out on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 against the last great German offensive. It supplied fresh manpower for the counteroffensive that ended the war on Nov. 11, 1918. Moreover, American intervention made the war for the first time a global conflict. Before April 1917, it had involved mostly European nations and had had ramifications elsewhere largely through their colonial possessions. The entry of the United States drew in the Western Hemisphere and extended connections into the Pacific. Also, because of Wilson’s efforts, the war came to be about more than territorial appetites and imperial designs. Now it involved world-wide aspirations to self-government, new ways of conducting relations among nations, and attempts to create a different international order. Without Wilson and without the United States, it would have been a far different war.

Woodrow Wilson never forgot that he might be making a tragic mistake by entering World War I, and he may have. Certainly his justification for intervention helped implant the habits of glib globalizing and facile homogenizing of disparate parts of the world which have been besetting sins of American foreign policy since World War I. Similarly, despite Wilson’s intentions, the war did turn into a self-righteous crusade for many Americans, thereby confirming another dangerous predilection in the nation’s conduct in world affairs. The international and the domestic orders of Europe lay in ruins, and instability was going to reign there no matter who won the war. Perhaps, as the isolationists always insisted, America might have done better to have left that unhappy continent alone and might have done more for the world by setting an example of restraint. But that was not what Woodrow Wilson chose to do, and that has not been America’s role in the 20th-century world. Thanks to him and to the long-running after-effects of World War I, the United States has tried again and again to shape events that have seemed to others beyond human control. That has been America’s glory and tragedy.


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