American Foreign Policy and the Coming of World War II

In their arguments for staying out of World War II, non-interventionists claimed that their position was the traditional American stance on foreign policy. The founders’ advice to steer clear of other nations’ conflicts, they said, had for a century served America well, and that same advice should guide American policy again.

On the other side of the debate were interventionists who claimed that the world needed American leadership during this time of crisis. Not only would American intervention save European democracy, but World War II was at bottom a battle of absolute good against absolute evil, and American intervention was necessary to defeat evil and usher in a lasting peace.

To the non-interventionists, these arguments must have sounded familiar. Twice in the preceding 40 years, interventionists had claimed that the country’s traditional foreign policy was outdated and that it was America’s destiny to achieve greatness and world leadership through military intervention. War, these mostly progressive interventionists said, would bring glory to the country and enlightenment to the world as the United States colonized its values at the point of a gun. In neither case had the interventionists’ predictions come true. Indeed, the ultimate result of both interventions seemed to have culminated in the outbreak of World War II.

The Spanish-American War

The first significant break with America’s non-interventionist tradition came just before the turn of the 20th century and was a result of new ideas about economics and militarism that had gripped the country. Some Americans believed that the economy was overproducing and therefore needed foreign markets for its surplus goods, while others argued that for the United States to become a great power, it needed a large, deployed navy with significant overseas possessions. These ideas coincided with the rising tide of progressivism which held that war could be a tool for perfecting humanity.

This confluence of factors came to a head in 1898 over the Spanish occupation of Cuba. Spain had ruled Cuba since the early 16th century, but by the turn of the 20th century the Spanish Empire was a dilapidated shell of its former self, strong enough to defeat Cuban challenges to Spanish rule but no longer a formidable world power. In the United States, the new phenomenon of yellow journalism – the sensationalized exaggeration and misrepresentation of the news – whipped up support for the Cuban resistance, which had intermittently fought the Spanish since the 1860s, and for American involvement in the conflict. Pressed to take action, President William McKinley exerted diplomatic pressure on Spain to resolve the conflict, eventually dispatching the USS Maine to Havana as a show of America’s commitment to a resolution. In February 1898, the Maine mysteriously exploded, killing 266 sailors and leading publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to surmise, without any evidence, that the Spanish were responsible.

Hearst and Pulitzer’s calls for war were echoed by officials within the American government, particularly the progressives within the Republican Party. The Republicans had made “the achievement of the manifest destiny of the Republic in the broadest sense” a plank in their 1892 platform, but, wrote journalist Gregg Jones, the slogan “failed to fire the public imagination, and voters sent Democrat Grover Cleveland to the White House.” Cleveland, who writer Bill Kauffman called “the last of the laissez-faire Democrats,” immediately played the foil to the expansionist-minded Republicans. In early 1893 Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by American sugar planters with the aid of American Marines and the American envoy to Hawaii. The American planters, hoping to enjoy the benefits of being a protected part of the American economy, established a government, which immediately sought to be annexed by the United States. But Cleveland rejected this maneuver, saying that

The military demonstration upon the soil of Honolulu was of itself an act of war; unless made either with the consent of the government of Hawaii or for the bona fide purpose of protecting the imperiled lives and property of citizens of the United States. But there is no pretense of any such consent on the part of the government of the queen…

The expansionists were livid. Theodore Roosevelt, whose adolescent attitudes towards war and conquest would plague American policy for the next two decades, criticized Cleveland for his “base betrayal of our interests abroad.”

The Republicans were forced to put their expansionist designs on hold until McKinley’s election in 1897. After McKinley’s inauguration early the following year, Roosevelt gained a position in the Navy Department and brought with him a determination to not allow American foreign interests, as he perceived them, to go ignored any longer. He immediately pressed McKinley to reverse Cleveland’s policy and annex Hawaii, a goal that was finally accomplished in July 1898. From retirement, Cleveland proclaimed himself “ashamed of the whole affair.”

Roosevelt further advocated war with Spain. It was bad enough that the Spanish had attacked the Maine,  or so the interventionists said, but Roosevelt claimed that, by its inaction, the United States would be morally responsible for the deaths of innocent Cubans. Roosevelt’s concern for innocent life would, characteristic of interventionists, be more apparent before the war than it would during it. The pressure from Roosevelt and others finally pushed McKinley to ask Congress on April 11, 1898 for the authority to go to war with Spain in order to

secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the government of Spain and the people of Cuba, and to ensure in the island the establishment of a stable government, capable of maintaining order and observing its international obligations, insuring peace and tranquility and the security of its citizens as well as our own…

Congress approved McKinley’s request eight days later, although not without an important clarification. Senator Henry Teller, concerned that the country would be lured into imperialism, proposed an amendment that disclaimed any “intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island…” The Teller Amendment easily passed both houses of Congress. On April 21, McKinley sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding the immediate liberation of Cuba. Four days later, the United States declared war on Spain.

War and Peace – and More War

The Spanish-American War was, in the words of Secretary of State John Hay, “a splendid little war.” Hostilities lasted less than four months and resulted in fewer than 400 American battlefield deaths. The American Navy destroyed one Spanish fleet in the harbor of Havana and another in Manila Bay in the Philippines. The peace was consummated by the Treaty of Paris, which was signed in December 1898. The treaty, wrote Kauffman, “gave Cuba a nominal independence and transferred the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States for $20 million,” developments which he called “a violation of contiguity, of common sense, and of the Constitution…”

But in a scene that would become all too familiar, military victory, far from solving problems, created a new set of them. This was particularly true in the Philippines where, just as in Cuba, resistance groups had been battling Spanish rule for decades. The Filipino resistance viewed American intervention with some skepticism, causing its young leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, to ask a representative of Admiral George Dewey, commander of the American Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, what America’s intentions after victory would be. Dewey’s representative replied, “The United States…is a great and rich nation, and neither needs nor desires colonies.” In late April 1898, wrote Jones, “Aguinaldo received the same pledge from the ranking American diplomat in Singapore,” U.S. Consul General Spencer Pratt. “As in Cuba,” Pratt said, referring to the Teller Amendment, “so in the Philippines.” These assurances were enough for Aguinaldo to pledge that the Filipino resistance would “fight side by side with the Americans.”

Not long after the Spanish defeat, however, American leaders began to backtrack from these promises. In September 1898, about a month after Spain’s surrender, Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge told a crowd in Indianapolis that the United States could not simply walk away from the Philippines. Fully embracing Roosevelt’s conception of “interests abroad,” Beveridge cast imperialism as a God-ordained path, remarking,

The burning question…is whether the American people will accept the gifts of events; whether they will rise as lifts their soaring destiny; …or whether…the American people, doubting their mission, will question Fate, prove apostate to the spirit of their race, and halt the ceaseless march of free institutions.

Within Beveridge’s mind rang critics who noted the incongruity of embracing “free institutions” while ruling foreign people. To this, Beveridge gave a ready, if unconvincing, answer. “The opposition tells us,” he began, “we ought not rule a people without their consent.” But, he said, this applied “only to those who are capable of self-government.” Giving the Filipinos independence, he joked, “would be like giving a razor to a babe and telling it to shave itself.” Having sloughed off his critics, Beveridge further justified American rule over the Philippines in less idealistic terms, claiming that it would provide the United States with the foreign markets it allegedly needed for its alleged surplus goods.

But it was to the supposed duty to rule the Filipinos for their own good that the imperialists most self-righteously clung. America could not give independence to the Philippines, Beveridge said, because “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty and civilization.” Imperialism was, the interventionists cynically claimed, the moral thing to do.

To Americans concerned with preserving honor and tradition, the arguments for ruling the Philippines were morally vacant. Two months after Beveridge’s speech, the Anti-Imperialist League was formed to serve as an engine of opposition to the interventionists. Member of the anti-imperialist movement, wrote historian Robert Beisner, “were members of the old upper-middle and upper classes, conservative in social outlook… They took for granted that they could speak for the American conscience.” Funding for the League came from prominent businessmen, including steel magnate Andrew Carnegie who at one point offered to buy the Philippines for $20 million. The League’s president, George Boutwell, was a longtime Republican politician who departed from the imperialist progressives within his own party. Boutwell asked, “Is it wise and just for us, as a nation, to make war for the seizure and government of distant lands, occupied by millions of inhabitants who are alien to us in every aspect of life, except that we are together members of the same human family?”

Boutwell’s fellow Republican George Hoar thundered against the interventionists’ claim that it was America’s duty to rule Filipinos, exclaiming,

You have no right to impose on an unwilling people your Constitution and your notions of freedom. When you say that freedom as we conceive it and not as the people of the Philippines conceive it, shall prevail, and that if it does not we are to force it on them at the cannon’s mouth, I say that the nation which undertakes it will encounter the awful and terrible rebuke, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy.’

Anti-imperialist Bourke Cockran said that “the grounds on which [imperialism’s] advocates support it are puerile, inconsistent and dishonest…” He said he opposed imperialism

because it is cowardly to invade the rights of the weak while respecting those of the strong; because it would divorce the American flag from the American Constitution by sending one where the other cannot go; because it is a policy of inconceivable folly from a material point of view, and a policy of unspeakable infamy from a moral point of view.

Over all this opposition, the imperialists prevailed. By early 1899, American soldiers were again at war, this time with Aguinaldo’s revolutionaries – and this war would not be so easily won. For more than three years American forces fought a war of subjugation in the Philippines, ironically resorting to the same inhumane tactics that Americans had gone to war with Spain over. Americans tortured Filipino soldiers and civilians alike, often using a tactic known as the “water cure,” in which water was forcibly poured down a victim’s throat, ballooning his stomach, which was then beaten with fists and clubs until he gave the Americans the information they wanted. American soldiers burned villages, set up concentration camps and shot civilians, all in an attempt to pacify the Filipino independence movement.

By 1902, the United States had secured its rule over the Philippines, but at a loss of over 4,000 soldiers. Losses on the Filipino side were much worse. While a cholera epidemic complicates calculating precisely the number of Filipinos who died as a direct result of the war, over 200,000 Filipinos died during it. The deaths of nearly 20,000 Filipino soldiers and at least 30,000 civilians can be directly attributed to the war. The interventionists’ idealism should have also been a casualty of war, but somehow managed to come out unscathed. Hoar, recalling the interventionists’ promises, eulogized the war by saying

We crushed the only republic in Asia. We made war on the only Christian people in the East. We converted a war of glory to a war of shame. We vulgarized the American flag. We introduced perfidy into the practice of war. We inflicted torture on unarmed men to extort confession. We put children to death. We established reconcentrado camps. We devastated provinces. We baffled the aspirations of a people for liberty.

The break with tradition at the turn of the century would have far-reaching consequences. New enemies waited ominously on America’s new horizons.

The Great War

Less than two decades later, the United States participated in an even more spectacular failure of progressive foreign policy ideas, World War I. The Great War not only killed soldiers on an unprecedented scale, it destroyed the social and political structure of Europe and, in the process, foreshadowed even more violenct conflicts to come.

From the beginning, World War I was a convoluted mess of preexisting hatreds, sociopolitical trends, entangling alliances and territorial envy. The war was touched off by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Empire heir Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 by a Serbian terrorist and Slavic nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Austria-Hungary’s response – first, an ultimatum to Serbia to desist subverting Austro-Hungarian authority, followed by a declaration of war – sent political dominoes tumbling all across Europe.

Europe’s system of alliances was probably the greatest contributing factor to the war’s spread from a localized conflict to a world war. Austria-Hungary and Serbia were each allied with a larger power – Austria-Hungary with Germany, Serbia with Russia – who both viewed the conflict as a proxy for their mutual animosity. After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized its armies, which in turn led Germany to declare war on Russia. Russia, however, was also allied with France, which was still nursing a grudge against Germany for its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The French, then, saw the expanded conflict as an opportunity for retribution against the Germans and planned to oblige a Russian request to attack Germany from the west. Seeing the French mobilization, Germany, which had long feared a two-front war, launched a preemptive strike aimed at France. But its invasion route went through neutral Belgium, which provided an excuse for Great Britain – which in addition to harboring resentment towards Germany’s growing economic might had a secret agreement with the French to fight Germany – to enter the war on France and Russia’s side.

The Path to Intervention

Avoiding entanglement in this kind of imbroglio was exactly the point of America’s traditional foreign policy. In the republic’s early years, its leaders proclaimed that America had no interest in the Old World’s seemingly unending squabbles over territory and pride. Certainly nothing in World War I was an obvious threat to American interests.

While American sympathies were with the Allies – Britain, France and Russia –  popular sentiment did not favor American participation in the war, in spite of a propaganda onslaught by the British. Early in the war, the British cut the underwater lines of communication that ran between Europe and the United States, ensuring in those days before radio that what Americans learned about the war would be filtered through a British prism. Soon after came reports of atrocities in Belgium where, it was claimed, the Huns were bayonetting babies, chopping off children’s hands and raping women.

This propaganda helped inflame American opinion against the Germans, even though there was no evidence that the most licentious stories were true. Yes, the Germans had killed civilians in Belgium, but the depiction of German soldiers as frenzied maniacs were unsubstantiated. Most of the “eyewitness accounts” to the worst atrocities, wrote historian Thomas Fleming, “came from Belgians who had fled to England” and its propaganda mill, hardly a source of unbiased information. Conversely, a group of American journalists reported after touring Belgium that the stories of German atrocities were “groundless as far as we are able to observe.” Ironically, the worst claims of German atrocities in Belgium closely mirrored actual Belgian atrocities in the Congo at the end of the 19th century, in which ten million Africans died.

In April 1916, President Woodrow Wilson gauged the effectiveness of British propaganda by quietly feeling out public support for joining the war. Wilson found sentiment against the war high enough that he made “He Kept us Out of War” a slogan in his reelection campaign that fall, even remarking that American policy should put “America first,” the very phrase that progressives of the next generation would decry as isolationism.

In reality, American neutrality was illusory. The United States supplied the Allies, extended them loans and conducted diplomacy in a way that clearly disadvantaged Germany. Wilson protested German submarine attacks on British merchant shipping, ignoring that British merchant ships were often heavily armed and carrying war materiel in defiance of international law. Wilson’s objections eventually elicited a promise from Germany to restrict submarine attacks, which were in part a response to a British starvation blockade of Germany, which also violated international law. The British starvation of German civilians, however, was never protested with the same ferocity as the submarine attacks, causing Wilson’s own secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, to ask “Why be shocked at the drowning of a few people if there is to be no objection to starving a nation?”

As a result of the ongoing blockade and an increasing awareness that the United States was not neutral, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. Since Wilson, over the objections of people within his own government, had refused to ban American shipping from the war zone, American ships became inevitable victims of German attacks. To Wilson, this constituted an unacceptable violation of American sovereignty, but casualties in these isolated attacks numbered fewer than the Americans killed in Mexican bandit Pancho Villa’s raids into American border states in 1916.

In early 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, suggesting an alliance between the two countries should the U.S. enter the war. This message was intercepted and decoded by the British, who showed it to American officials. To interventionists, here was proof that Germany was an imminent threat to the United States, but these concerns were overwrought. The Zimmerman note reflected Germany’s belief that America was already preparing to enter the war, and was an attempt to find an ally in that event. Given Germany’s predicament in Europe – mired in costly war and plagued by domestic crises – Germany’s offer to Mexico of financial aid and territorial gain were so far-fetched that even the Mexican government, beleaguered by a revolutionary war of its own, didn’t find them appealing.

For Wilson, however, Germany’s submarine attacks and the Zimmerman note were what he needed to justify his preexisting desire to enter the war, a desire not so much to end the war as to guide the peace. Wilson’s attitude, reported reformer Jane Addams, was that “as head of a nation participating in the war, the president of the United States would have a seat at the peace table…” Such a seat, he predicted, would enable him to turn World War I from a typical European conflict into a war to end war, a war to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Declaring War

Wilson, armed with this irrational idealism, asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany on April 2, 1917. Wilson told his audience,

we shall fight for the things that we have always carried in our hearts – for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

Political realities made an immediate mockery of Wilson’s ambitious agenda. In his quest to liberate the world, Wilson was proposing an alliance with Britain and France, the world’s foremost imperial powers. Wilson’s war for democracy was to be waged alongside Britain, which was simultaneously quashing an independence movement in Ireland. Opponents of intervention, wrote Fleming, seized on this inconsistency, saying that

The idea of war to make the world safe for democracy was…absurd, with England as a U.S. ally. Had the British shown the slightest interest in extending democracy to Ireland, to Egypt’s millions, to India’s hundreds of millions? Tens of millions of Great Britain’s own citizens were denied the right to vote by the oligarchy that ran the country. The other countries in the war, Italy and Japan, were monarchies. Only France and newly baptized Russia were democracies…

But only a small number of non-interventionists, led by Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette, opposed Wilson, who was granted his war by crushing majorities in both houses of Congress on April 6, 1917.

Winning the War, Losing the Peace

Despite the declaration of war, some Americans – including Wilson himself – believed that the United States could help win the war without actually sending troops to Europe. Such naivete ignored the realities of the war, which had begun in the summer of 1914 with optimism on all sides only to quickly deteriorate into a bloody stalemate. The Allies had halted the German advance into France, but were not able to drive the German army back. By the time the United Stated declared war in the spring of 1917, both sides had suffered enormous losses. Millions of soldiers on both sides had been sacrificed to gain little ground, and no decisive victory was in sight. Both the Allies and the Central Powers were dealing with morale problems in the military and unrest at home.

The American declaration of war, then, was a godsend for the Allies, who found a negotiated peace with the Germans almost as distasteful as outright defeat. British and French commanders immediately planned to supplement their depleted forces with fresh American troops in an effort to stave off defeat. When General John Pershing arrived in France to take charge of the gathering American forces, U.S. Ambassador William C. Sharp remarked, “I hope you have not come too late.” French general Philippe Pétain voiced identical concerns.

America’s lack of preparedness delayed the arrival of American troops in significant numbers for a full year after the declaration of war, by which time Germany was conducting a final offensive aimed at ending the war before the Americans could affect the final outcome. But by the spring of 1918, American doughboys were arriving in France at a rate of 10,000 a day at a time when the Germans were drafting young boys and old men to replace their losses. The American troops were inserted into the fray, where they helped halt the German advance. With their offensive a failure, top German generals told Kaiser Wilhelm II that the war was lost. Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918.

With the Allied victory, Wilson had his seat at the peace table. Ever the idealist, Wilson’s vision for the peace was contained within his Fourteen Points, which he had announced in January 1918. Wilson’s points, which espoused lofty ideals like open diplomacy and national self-determination, had been expected by the Germans to form the basis of peace talks, an expectation which had been a factor in the German decision to surrender. Both Wilson and the Germans were foolish, however, to believe that the Fourteen Points would have any significance to the other Allied countries. In retrospect, it should have been clear to Wilson that historical animosities and old-fashioned land grabs would guide Allied objectives during peace talks.

And indeed they did. In the peace treaties that formally ended the war, German colonies were divided among the Allied powers, including the granting of Germany’s Pacific colonies to the Japanese, who in turn demanded even more territorial concessions in China. The British and French divided Middle Eastern territories gained from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, creating in the process local animosities towards the West which have still never fully gone away. Most ominously, the Allies foisted heavy financial penalties and military restrictions on the Germans while forcing them to accept full responsibility for the war. The peace terms, developed in secret and without German involvement, were so harsh that they nearly caused Germany to begin the war anew.

Only Germany’s internal chaos prevented this. The German economy had been decimated by the war to the point that there was a real threat of a socialist or communist revolution in Germany, just as there had been (with German help) in Russia. Worse, the British had maintained its blockade of Germany even after the armistice, starving thousands of German civilians in an attempt to force acquiescence with Allied demands.

Herbert Hoover, who had heroically saved millions of Europeans from starvation during the war, protested the continuing blockade, and earned scorn from British and French leaders in the process. British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who Fleming said, “favored letting the Belgians starve and blaming the Germans” called Hoover “a son of a bitch” for his efforts to get food to European citizens. French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, when informed that German civilians were on the brink of starvation, failed to see the problem, glibly responding, “There are twenty million Germans too many.”

Germany, to save its polity, reluctantly agreed to the Allies’ peace terms, but did so under protest. The retributive peace treaty would not be forgotten. Indeed, German resentment of the peace terms would in the years to come make Germany a fertile environment for radicals. This was clearly no just peace. It was, in fact, no peace at all.

Wars Beget War

The Spanish-American War and World War I were both departures from America’s traditional foreign policy. The old policy, the mostly progressive advocates of both interventions claimed, was outdated and unbefitting a great nation. But neither war fulfilled the progressive promises of glory and enlightenment that would follow American military victory. Instead, the ultimate result of both wars was to make future conflicts more likely.

The immediate effect of the Spanish-American War was not the immediate liberation of all the victims of Spanish rule. Rather, it was the transfer of the imperialist burden from Spain to the United States. This not only meant that Americans would now crush rebellious subjects just as Spain had, but that it would enter into a new arena of world politics from which it had, in its non-interventionist past, been free.

After the American subjugation of the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt, now president, encouraged the rise of Japanese power in the Pacific, believing that it would counterbalance Russian power and protect American interests in China in the process. This belief in Japan as a trustworthy defender of American interests would prove no more accurate than Roosevelt’s predictions that the Spanish-American War and World War I would result in glory, peace and honor. Historian Joseph Stromberg remarked that, “When, in the 1930s, the Japanese declined to be the stalking horse for the Americans’ Open Door, Franklin Roosevelt must have regretted his cousin’s line of attack.”

Not only did the United States encourage the rise of Japanese power, its acquisition of territories in the Pacific made conflict with the burgeoning Japanese empire ever more likely. As the Japanese increasingly mimicked the Europeans who had colonized Pacific lands, American possessions in the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii became looming threats to Japanese militarism. It was these Pacific possessions, and not the American continent, that would be Japan’s target in December 1941. Indeed, besides a few experimental bombs that fell in America’s Pacific Northwest, the American mainland was safe from Japanese aggression during World War II. Pearl Harbor, which Japan never tried to occupy, was over 2,000 miles away from America’s West Coast. The small Japanese forces that occupied parts of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska were closer to their homes in Japan than they were to the contiguous United States. American imperialism in the Pacific had exposed the country to attacks that would have been impossible had it minded its own business in 1898.

Historian John Lukacs wrote that “one may…speculate that had Hawaii remained a Pacific kingdom the tragedy at Pearl Harbor or perhaps even a Japanese-American war might not have occurred…” Bill Kauffman carried the analysis further, writing, “If the anti-imperialists had carried the day, and no American flag had ever flown over Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, or any other mass of land in the Pacific, it’s tough to discern any reason why the United States and Japan would have gone to war in 1941.” Journalist John T. Flynn wrote in 1944, “We are at war, and we are at war in Asia because we possessed the Philippine Islands.” Because of this, Flynn believed “The Philippines turned out to be a very bad bargain…”

Similarly, World War I led eventually, perhaps inexorably, to another, more gruesome conflict. That World War II was a result of World War I is now commonly accepted by historians, even if they differ on the degree of causality. What is undeniable is that the Great War and the false peace that followed created and exacerbated the social and political upheaval that gave rise to the dual tyrannies of fascism and communism, which in turn launched World War II.

So disruptive was World War I that diplomatic historian George Kennan wrote that “World War II seemed really so extensively predetermined” as a result. He explained,

All the main elements of the tragic situations [which gave rise to World War II] – the sickness and impatience of Germany, the weakness of Eastern Europe, the phenomenon of [communism] in Russia, and the weakness and debility in France and England – all these things took their origin so clearly in the period of 1914-1920 that it seems to be here, if anywhere, that the real answers [about the causes of World War II] should be sought.

Kennan continued,

The equilibrium of Europe had been shattered. Austria-Hungary was gone. There was nothing effective to take its place. Germany, smarting from the sting of defeat and plunged into profound social unrest by the breakup of her traditional institutions, was left nevertheless as the only great united state in Central Europe. Russia was no longer there, as a possible reliable ally, to help France contain German power. From the Russian plain there leered a single hostile eye, skeptical of Europe’s values, rejoicing at all Europe’s misfortunes, ready to collaborate solely for the final destruction of her spirit and her pride. Between Russia and Germany were only the pathetic new states of [Eastern] and Central Europe, lacking in domestic stability and the traditions of statesmanship – their peoples bewildered, uncertain, vacillating between brashness and timidity in the exercise of the unaccustomed responsibilities of independence. And to the other side of Germany were France and England, reeling, themselves from the vicissitudes of the war, wounded far more deeply than they themselves realized, the plume of their manhood gone, their world positions shaken.

“Truly,” wrote Kennan, “this was a peace which had the tragedies of the future written into it as by the devil’s own hand.”

It is unlikely that Lenin, Stalin and the communists would have risen to power in Russia if not for the war, had Czar Nicholas not joined it and the provisional government which followed his abdication not insisted, with Allied prodding, on continuing it. Nor is it likely that Hitler and the fascists would have gained power in Germany if not for the peace, particularly the Versailles Treaty and its attendant German resentment.

But even if Hitler had ascended to power, his rule would have been counterbalanced by other nations if the political structure of Europe not been thrown into such disarray. World War I and Wilson’s Fourteen Points unraveled the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, wrote historian James Kurth,  “the independent successor states which followed it were too small and too hostile toward each other to fill the vast power vacuum that was created when the Empire collapsed.” The fall of Austria-Hungary, Kurth believed, “opened the doors to the Nazi conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia, [and] Poland in 1938–39; to German domination or invasion of Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia in 1940–44; to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941; and to the Holocaust in 1941–45,” not to mention the Soviet hegemony over Central and Eastern Europe that followed World War II.

Ascertaining America’s role in this calamity with any degree of certainty is difficult. What is undeniable is that Woodrow Wilson’s promises of a war for democracy, of an end to totalitarianism went unfulfilled. Despite all his idealism, Wilson was powerless to stop, and ultimately joined, the vengeance and greed of the victorious Allies. Indeed, Wilson was repeatedly outmaneuvered by European politicians as they held hostage the one idea that he would not abandon, a League of Nations. It was to preserve the League that Wilson acquiesced in every cynical and vindictive stipulation that the Allies imposed on the defeated Central Powers. The seat at the peace table which formed Wilson’s ultimate rationale for war, the one bought with the lives of over 100,000 American soldiers, might as well have been an empty chair.

Worse still, it is plausible to conclude that had the United States not intervened in World War I, the peace that followed would have been quite different. The millions of dead soldiers, the millions more maimed, the faltering morale of soldiers and civilians alike would have likely combined to create an irresistible impetus on both sides to end the war on mutually agreeable terms. Germany had suggested peace talks as early as 1916, but the English and French had resisted, hoping that America’s false neutrality could be transformed into full belligerence against their enemies. It was this expectation, combined with American material support, that allowed Britain and France to avoid peace talks with Germany and continue the war. Had the United States been truly neutral, wrote Fleming, “the Allies would have been forced to abandon their goal of the knockout blow. The war might have ended in 1916 with a negotiated peace based on the mutual admission that the conflict had become a stalemate.”

For those who say that a negotiated peace would have constituted a German victory and judge such a development unacceptable, Fleming responded that “A victorious Germany would have had no need of political adventurers such as Adolf Hitler.” Instead, the Allies’ intention to crush the Kaiser’s Germany, made possible by American intervention, paved the path for far worse political developments.

The United States intervened in World War I when it had no national interests in doing so. It expended sweat and blood to win a victory for imperialists who, having won one war, launched themselves headlong into the task of creating the circumstances that would foster the development of another.

Whatever can be said in favor of the Spanish-American War and World War I, it cannot be argued that they made the world a better place. Democracy was no safer, liberty no closer to attainment. At best, these wars failed to achieve their stated objectives. At worst, they sowed the seeds of World War II.

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography