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American History for Truthdiggers: A Savage 'War to End All Wars,' and a Failed Peace

“Over There” (1917), with its patriotic lyrics and rousing melody, was a rallying cry for Americans in World War I.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 22nd installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 22 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21.

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“Over there, over there, /  Send the word, send the word over there. /  That the Yanks are coming, /  the Yanks are coming … /  We’ll be over, we’re coming over, /  And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.” —An excerpt from George M. Cohan’s song “Over There”

America wasn’t supposed to get in the war. When the country finally did, it was to be a war “to end all wars,” to “make the world safe for democracy,” one in which, for once, the Allies would seek “peace without victory.” How powerful was the romantic and idealistic rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, America’s historian and political scientist turned president. None of that came to pass, of course. No, just less than three years after the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, the working classes of the United States would join those of Europe in a grinding, gruesome, attritional fight to the finish. In the end, some 116,000 Americans would die alongside about 9 million soldiers from the other belligerent nations.

Today, the American people are quite comfortable with the mythical sense of their role in the second of the two world wars. The Nazis had to be stopped at all cost; the Japanese had deceitfully attacked our fleet; and—in the end—America saved the day. The U.S. thus became, as a popular T-shirt proclaims, “back-to-back” world war champs. Still, most of the citizenry knows little about the First World War, which was once called the Great War. The issues involved and the reasons for fighting seem altogether murky, messy even. So, as a simple patriotic heuristic, Americans tend to frame the First World War as a prelude to the second. Not simply in the sense that one led in some way to the next, but that the German enemy was equally evil in each—that the kaiser in 1917 was only slightly less militaristic than Adolf Hitler in 1941. Germany’s race for world domination, we vaguely conclude, really began in the second decade of the 20th century and wasn’t fully thwarted until 1945. None of that is strictly true: The kaiser’s government was far more complex than that of Nazi Germany, for example, and a German sense of guilt over the war was more collective in 1914 than 1939—but the legend of the war and America’s role in it can more easily be simplified by use of this mental shorthand.

In reality, Europe blundered into war because of a mix of absurd factors that undergirded the entire nation-state and imperial system of the day: jingoistic nationalism, the race for Asian and African empires, a destabilizing series of opposing alliances, and the foolish notion that war would rejuvenate European manhood and, of course, be swift, decisive and brief. Instead, technological advances outran military tactics and the two sides—Germany, Austria and Turkey on the one hand and Britain, France and Russia on the other—settled in for an incomparably brutal war of stagnation and filth. Unable to win decisively on either front, both sides dug in their men, artillery and machine guns and fought bloody battles for the possession of mere meters of earth. It was to be the war that ultimately “finished” Europe, destroying the long-term power of the continent and ultimately shifting leadership westward to the United States. Not that any of this was clear at the time.

Europe lost an entire generation, killed, maimed or forever psychologically broken by the war. Many Europeans lost faith in the snake oil of nationalism and turned away from the standard frameworks of monarchy or liberal democracy. Some found solace in socialism, whereas others doubled down on ultranationalism in the form of fascist leaders. Despite 9 million battle deaths—a number unfathomable when the war began—WWI solved little and sowed the seeds for the European cataclysm of 1939-45. It is an uncomfortable truth, especially for the United States, a nation that tends to see itself as being at the center of the world; the U.S. played mostly a late, and bit, part in the drama across the Atlantic. However, the populace believed its own propaganda, crafted a myth of American triumphalism and learned all the wrong lessons from the war. Instead of being a “war to end all wars,” the Great War turned out to be just the beginning of American interventionism—the pivot toward the creation of today’s fiscal-military hegemonic state. And it didn’t have to be that way.

Getting In: Wilson Takes Us to War

A 1916 campaign button for the re-election of Woodrow Wilson. Within weeks of his second inauguration, the president, declaring “[t]he world must be made safe for democracy,” would successfully ask Congress to approve U.S. entry into World War I.

Most Americans were horrified by the brutality of trench warfare in Europe and thanked God for the Atlantic Ocean. A majority in the U.S., due to cultural and linguistic ties to Britain, favored the Allies. Still, another segment of the population, German-Americans and the viscerally anti-British Irish-Americans, tended to favor Austria and Germany. So, while President Wilson advised the people and his government to be “neutral in fact as well as in name … impartial in thought as well as action,” genuine neutrality was always a long shot. One of the problems was Wilson, himself, who began to see the war as an opportunity for the United States to lead “a new world order.” If he could do so as a peaceful arbiter, so be it; if it required America’s entry into the fields of fire, well, perhaps that couldn’t be avoided.

Only William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s first secretary of state and a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, could be considered a truly neutral voice in the Cabinet. “There will be no war as long I am Secretary of State,” the legendary firebrand thundered upon joining the administration. He felt obliged to resign barely a year later, and the U.S. slid toward war. Of course the U.S. had never been strictly neutral. Close economic ties with the Allies ensured that. Rather than embargo both sides or demand that Britain open its starvation blockade of Germany to U.S. trading vessels, Wilson’s government exported hundreds of millions of dollars in goods annually to the Allied nations and funded some of their  debts. In just the first eight months of the war, U.S. bankers extended $80 million in credits to the Allies, and then, after Wilson lifted all bans on loans, U.S. financial interests would float $10 million per day to Britain alone! By the end of the war, the Allies owed $10 billion in war debts to the U.S., the equivalent of some $165 billion in today’s dollars. Indeed, the U.S. economy had by 1917 come to rely on Allied war orders. How would Wall Street recover these debts if not through Allied victory? And how could the bogged-down Allies defeat Germany without the promise of American troop reinforcements?

Furthermore, Wilson acquiesced to Britain’s blockade of Germany. He told Bryan it would be “a waste of time” to argue with Britain about the blockade, but this made the U.S., in fact if not in name, a partner of the Allies. German officials, with some sound logic, protested that the U.S., if truly neutral, would condemn a British blockade that starved European children. Wilson remained silent.

“Without Warning!,” a 1917 cartoon in the Evening World Daily Magazine, depicts a sword rising from the sea to destroy a U.S. merchant vessel. Above the waves can be seen part of a German helmet. Such cartoons proliferated after the sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania in 1915.

His voice was quite clear, however, on the subject of German submarine warfare against Allied (namely American) shipping. Though the German navy had been built up in the decades before the war, its battleships and cruisers were still no match for the combined Anglo-French fleets. Therefore, in order to stymie the blockade and attrit the Allied supply lines, the Germans turned to submarine or “U-boat” warfare. Indeed, at certain points during the war, the German U-boats nearly brought the Allies to their logistical knees. It was only American distribution that kept Britain, in particular, afloat. The German government spent much of the conflict at war with itself over whether or not to sink American merchant ships supplying the Allies. One can, after all, understand the German predicament: Allied naval power was isolating the Central Powers and the Americans were economically allied with Britain and France!

When, however, a German sub sank the British luxury liner Lusitania in May 1915, killing more than 120 U.S. citizens, there was a great outcry from Americans. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, always a reliable war hawk, called the attack “murder on the high seas!” He was still a popular figure, after all, so his demand for war in response to German “piracy” was a serious matter. It turned out the Lusitania, traveling from the United States to Britain, was carrying 1,248 cases of three-inch shells and 4,927 boxes of rifle cartridges. The British had put the American passengers at risk as much as the Germans did. In response, in one last plea for “real neutrality,” Secretary Bryan called for calm and stated, “A ship carrying contraband, should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack—it would be like putting women and children in front of an army.” When Wilson failed to sufficiently curtail warlike rhetoric, Bryan tendered his resignation. With him may have gone any real chance at U.S. neutrality.

The British, to be fair, had also contravened America’s “neutral rights” throughout the war. They upheld the blockade, denied the U.S. the ability to easily trade with Germany, and even went so far, in July 1916, as to blacklist 80 U.S. companies that allegedly (and legally) traded with the Central Powers. Furthermore, key immigrant communities in the U.S. were appalled by Britain’s forceful put-down of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rebellion for independence and the subsequent execution of rebel leaders. Wilson, weak protestations aside, gave in to London at every turn.

Initially, Germany promised no further surprise attacks on passenger vessels and American merchant ships, but as the war ground on, German Chancellor Theobald Bethmann-Hollweg faced a decision between submission, on one hand, and utilizing the U-boats to their fullest, on the other. Fatefully, it turned out, the German military forced Hollweg’s hand and Berlin declared “unrestricted submarine warfare” in early 1917. This was not the only affront to American prestige. In late February 1917, the British leaked a German message—the famous Zimmerman telegram—seeming to offer an alliance with Mexico and the potential for the Mexicans to “reconquer its former territories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Despite the truth that Washington had, indeed (probably) illegally conquered the region and turned northern Mexico into the Southwest United States in the 1840s, Americans were in no mood for subtleties, and anti-German sentiment exploded across the country. It was to be war.

Still, this outcome was never inevitable. Germany sought not to conquer the world, but to win—or at least honorably extract itself from—a stagnant and costly European war. Nor should the reader give in to the (mostly false) notion that Germany was an authoritarian, brutal Nazi-like dictatorship, while the Allies were liberal democrats. Austria was a dual monarchy, but Germany had a mixed government with a royal kaiser but also a parliament and one of the most progressive social welfare systems in the world. Besides, Russia—a key country in the Triple Alliance—was perhaps the most backward, largely feudal, monarchy on the planet. Furthermore, as the famed progressive Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin reminded Americans as he cast a vote against Wilson’s April 2, 1917, call for war, Britain and France possessed their own global empires. In that sense, the U.S. merely sided with one set of flawed empires over another. La Follette exclaimed on April 4th that “[Wilson] says this is a war for democracy. … But the president has not suggested that we make our support conditional to [Britain] granting home rule to Ireland, Egypt, or India.” The man had a point.

Nevertheless, Wilson’s request for a war declaration passed the Congress and mobilization began. The president stood before the legislature and claimed the U.S. “shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest to our hearts—for democracy … for the rights and liberties of small nations. … We have no selfish ends to serve.” Wilson was only formalizing a millenarian message he had been spreading for years. In 1916, in a speech one historian has called “at once breathtaking in the audacity of its vision of a new world order” and “curiously detached from the bitter realities of Europe’s battlefields,” Wilson declared that America could no longer refuse to play “the great part in the world which is providentially cut out for her. … We have got to serve the world.” And so it was, whether in the interest of “serving the world,” or backing its preferred empires and trading partners, the U.S. would enter its first war on the European continent. It would not be the last.

Over There: America at War

The United States may have been an economic powerhouse holding most of the financial cards in the deck, but its military was woefully unprepared for war on the scale of what was being waged in Europe by 1917. Though some limited preparations began with the 1916 National Defense Act—which gradually raised the size of the regular Army to 223,000 men—the U.S. military remained tiny (only the 17th largest worldwide) compared with those of the belligerent nations. After all, the combined German and French fatalities at a single battle—Verdun in 1916—exceeded the total dead of the U.S. Civil War, still the bloodiest conflict in American history.

Meanwhile, the Germans nearly won the war before the U.S. could meaningfully intervene. After the 1917 Russian Revolution turned communist, the new Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin, made a humiliating peace with Berlin. The Germans now shipped dozens of divisions westward and attempted one last knockout blow against the British and French on the Western Front. And, since President Wilson and the leading U.S. Army general, John J. Pershing, insisted that American soldiers fight under an independent command, it took many extra months to raise, equip and train an expeditionary force. It took more than a year before the U.S. could muster even minimal weight at the front. Nonetheless, the British and French lines (just barely) held in early 1918, and the infusion of 850,000 fresh, if untested, American troops helped make possible an Allied summer counteroffensive that eventually broke the German front lines.

It was all over by Nov. 11, 1918 (once called Armistice Day, now celebrated as Veterans Day in the U.S.), when the Germans agreed to an armistice in lieu of eventual surrender. Still, when peace came, the German army largely remained on French soil. There was no invasion of Germany, no grand occupation of the capital. The end was nothing like that of the next world war. To many German soldiers and their nationalist proponents at home, it seemed that the army had been sold out by weak civilian officials—especially the socialists (and Jews) in the government. This belief, along with the later insistence by the Allies on a harsh retributive treaty at Versailles, sowed the seeds for the rise of fascism, ultranationalism and Hitler in 1930s Germany.

When all was said and done, the U.S. had suffered just 116,000 of the 9 million battle deaths of the war. Despite collective American memories of Uncle Sam going to the rescue, an honest reflection requires admission that it was Britain and France—which together had suffered roughly 2 million dead—that won the war for the Allies. The U.S. was a latecomer to the affair, and while its troops helped overrun the German lines, Berlin was cooked as soon as its spring offensive failed in 1918. The United States had hardly saved the day. It was a mere associate to Allied victory. Such humility, though, tends not to suit Americans’ collective memory.

Over Here: War at Home and the Death of Civil Liberties

An ad encouraging Americans to buy war bonds to help defeat the “Hun,” a pejorative term for Germans.

The war that Wilson claimed was being waged to make the world “safe for democracy” forever changed and restricted American civil liberties. It strengthened a fiscal-military federal state that shifted to a war footing. Every single facet of Americans’ lives was now touched by the hand of federal power. First off, the war required a mass military mobilization. The era is often remembered for its intense public patriotism, but, when only 73,000 men initially volunteered for the military, the government brought back conscription for the first time since the Civil War and drafted nearly 5 million men from 18 to 45 years old. Some noted progressives got carried away with the idea of federal power and regulation. “Long live social control!” one reformer enthusiastically wrote. Another wing of anti-war progressives wasn’t so sure. The longtime skeptic Randolph Bourne—who noted with distaste that “[w]ar is the health of the state”—worried that most progressives were allying themselves with “the least democratic forces in American life.” He concluded, “It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.” And, throughout history, so often they have been.

The government first sought to control the economy and ensure that American business was placed on a war footing. The War Industries Board (WIB) regulated the production of key war materials through a combination of force and negotiation with the “captains of industry.” Though the WIB quickly transitioned the U.S. to a war economy, one the organization’s own leaders, Grosvenor Clarkson, described the potential dark side of such a system: “It was an industrial dictatorship without parallel—a dictatorship by force of necessity and common consent which … encompassed the Nation and united it into a coordinated and mobile whole.” Additionally, Wilson’s government needed to get control of the country’s proliferating labor unions to ensure a smooth economic war machine. His National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) attempted to mediate disputes between capitol and labor. It never really worked. Strikes continued and even grew throughout the war years, and the NLRB—with the backing of police, militia and federal troops—worked overtime to quash workers’ demands. The result was a sense of national need over individual freedom. George Perkins, a top aide to financier J.P. Morgan, caught the mood when he exalted that “[t]he great European war … is striking down individualism and building up collectivism.” It would do so in industry, and also in culture and politics.

Though waves of patriotism and anti-German anger swept the nation, many Americans—especially the ethnic Irish and Germans and a broad swath of Midwesterners—remained skeptical of the war. Furthermore, this was an era of strong socialist (anti-war) power in American politics. The Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, the former union leader Eugene Debs, had, after all, won nearly a million popular votes. As surprising as this sounds at present, 1,200 socialists held political office in the United States in 1917, and socialist newspapers had a daily readership of some 3 million citizens. For all his external rhetoric about peace, liberty and democracy, President Wilson wasn’t taking any chances at home. He and his congressional supporters delivered a propaganda machine and civil liberty curtailments unparalleled in the annals of American warfare. Indeed, Wilson was obsessed with sedition and disloyalty, warning, “Woe be to the man or group that seeks to stand in our way. …” And he and his Congress were willing to back up such threats with action.

A campaign button for Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1920. Though he ran from federal prison he received over 900,000 votes.

In 1917-18, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts. In a sweeping violation of Americans’ constitutional rights, for example, the Sedition Act declared illegal “uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the United States government or the military.” Apparently, this applied to any criticism of the draft. Thus, when Eugene Debs spoke critically, and peaceably, about the war outside a conscription office, he was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Standing before the judge at his sentencing, Debs made no apologies, asked for no leniency and uttered some of the most beautiful words in American history: “Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. … I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs was not alone. Some 900 people were imprisoned under the Espionage Act—which is still on the books—and 2,000 more were arrested for sedition, mainly union leaders and radical labor men such as members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies.” Appeals to the Supreme Court failed; all branches of government, it seemed, were complicit in the curtailment of standard civil liberties. Interestingly, the now aged Espionage Act was used extensively by the Obama administration to charge journalists, as well as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. What’s more, over 330,000 Americans were classified as draft evaders during World War I, and thousands of them, mostly conscientious objectors, were forced to work in wartime prison camps, such as the one at Fort Douglas, Utah, for the duration. Finally, even the mail was restricted, with the postmaster general refusing to deliver any socialist or anti-war publications and materials.

Wilson also needed a government propaganda machine to drum up support for the war, especially among apathetic Midwesterners, socialists and so-called hyphenated Americans. He found his answer in the Committee for Public Information (CPI), which, led by the journalist George Creel, employed social scientists and greatly exaggerated German atrocities to motivate the public. The CPI employed 75,000 speakers and disseminated over 75 million pamphlets during the war years. One social scientist bragged that wartime propaganda was designed to create a “herd psychology,” and philosopher John Dewey referred to the methods as “conscription of thought.” Fact, it seemed, was secondary to results, and the preferred outcome was a united, anti-German public ready to fight and die both in the trenches abroad and for “patriotism” at home.

Not all Americans were willing to acquiesce to this state of affairs, and some wrote critically of the wartime climate in the United States. One Harvard instructor complained, “With the entry into the war our government was practically turned into a dictatorship.” Furthermore, the journalist Mark Sullivan maintained that “[e]very person had been deprived of freedom of his tongue, not one could utter dissent. … The prohibition of individual liberty in the interest of the state could hardly be more complete.” The effect fell worst on German-Americans and Southern blacks.

John Meints, a German-American who farmed in Minnesota, is shown after being tarred and feathered in 1918. The vigilantes who brutalized him were celebrated in the press, and no one was ever prosecuted.

The problematic results of all this were altogether predictable. Hypernationalist Americans, treated to lies and exaggerations about their German enemies, began to take matters into their own hands and to police “loyalty” at home. Across the country, 250,000 citizens officially joined the American Protective League (APL) while many more joined informal militias. APL members opened mail and bugged phones to spy on suspected “traitors.” These excesses also infected the culture and language in a number of ludicrous ways. German-sounding words were Americanized or renamed. Hamburger became Salisbury steak, sauerkraut was changed to “liberty cabbage” and the German measles was rechristened the “liberty measles.” (One is reminded of french fries being renamed “freedom fries” when France refused to back the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.)

Such farce aside, the actions of the APL and unofficial militias quickly got out of hand and often turned violent. Americans suspected of disloyalty were taken to public squares and forced to kiss the flag or buy liberty bonds. Others were brutally tarred and feathered or painted yellow. One German-American, Robert Prager, was hanged by a mob in Illinois. In response to the incident the supposedly liberal Washington Post reported, “In spite of the excesses such as lynching, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country.”

African-Americans also, predictably, suffered during the war, both in terms of humiliation and physical attacks. The famed civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois predicted at the start of the war that “[i]f we want real peace, we must extend the democratic ideal to the yellow, brown, and black peoples.” That proved to be a bridge too far. In the Army, blacks served in segregated units and, ironically, found wartime France much more hospitable and egalitarian than the American South. Many never returned home. Those who did so returned to a country beset with race riots. Dozens of blacks and others were killed in riots in Chicago, East St. Louis and 25 other cities. At the same time, a new manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan—now concerned with not only blacks but immigrants, Jews and Catholics—grew in numbers. This expansive version of the Klan operated publicly and even controlled many political offices during the period. Lynching exploded across the South: 30 black men in 1917, 60 in 1918, 76 in 1919—including 10 war veterans, some still wearing their uniforms. It seemed that the American South could not bear the sight of “uppity” blacks returning home as “men” wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army.

The war’s end also broke the back of the then-powerful American Socialist Party. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the U.S. government helped foment a veritable “Red Scare,” an illogical fear of all speech and action on the American left. One observer noted, “Not within the memory of living Americans, nor scarcely within the entire history of the nation, has such a fear swept of the public mind. …” During the scare, which reached a peak in 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer created the General Intelligence Division, led by a young and zealous J. Edgar Hoover (later the longtime head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation). In the federal counterattack that followed, 4,000 supposed “radicals” were arrested, and hundreds were stripped of their citizenry and shipped to the Soviet Union. It was the death knell not only of American socialism but also of the more liberal and skeptical brand of progressivism. Randolph Bourne would see the future clearly in the midst of the war. “It becomes more and more evident that, whatever the outcome of the war, all the opposing countries will be forced to adopt German organization, German collectivism, and [to indeed shatter] most of the old threads of their old easy individualism,” he wrote, continuing on to say that “[Americans] have taken the occasion to … repudiate that modest collectivism which was raising its head here in the shape of the progressive movement.” Bourne was right: Progressivism—for now—was dead. It, along with 116,000 American men and a handful of American women, was killed by the war.

Men like Eugene Debs and Randolph Bourne, along with other skeptics, were ahead of their time. They realized a universal truth that applied then as well as now. Things are lost in war—freedom, liberties, individualism. Some are never recovered. That, along with battlefield triumphs, must define the American experience in the Great War.

The Seeds of the Next War: Wilson, Versailles and the Road to WWII

The manner in which the First World War ended helped sow the seeds for a second world war. Though Wilson personally brought his sense of America’s special destiny to the peace conference at Versailles, France, and despite his wide popularity among the masses of Europe, he was unable to craft the treaty and postwar world he desired. Indeed, his idealistic, and perhaps naive, sense of American duty and interventionism, which has ever since been labeled “Wilsonianism,” has never really left the scene in America. The realpolitik-minded Allied leaders of Britain, France and Italy were in no mood for lectures on democracy and human rights from Mr. Wilson. Given his personal popularity, and America’s latent power, they appeased him to some extent, but that was all.

Even though he stayed in Europe for six full months, Wilson’s preferred peace would not come to pass. Despite the romantic liberty-rhetoric of his so-called Fourteen Points, the president was forced to accede to the Allies on key elements that would poison the well of peace. Germany, in the “war guilt” clauses of the treaty, was held solely responsible for the outbreak of war. Berlin was also saddled with a crippling war debt and forced to compensate the victorious Allies with territory and enormous sums of cash for decades to come. Adolf Hitler would play on Germans’ (sometimes legitimate) grievances regarding these matters to rise to power decades later. So much for “peace without victory.”

On issues of colonialism, too, Britain and France were never willing to play ball. They sought perpetuation and even expansion of their empires (at the expense of Germany, of course) in Asia and Africa. So died Wilson’s promises of a war for the “rights of small nations.” Britain and France carved up the old Ottoman Empire and redrew lines in the Middle East that to this day contribute to disorder and civil war. When the Allies rejected Japan’s proposal for a “racial equality” clause in the treaty, the ministers of that nation—a member of the Allied war against the Central Powers—nearly walked out. Eventually they did leave, with lasting resentments that would come back to haunt the U.S. and the other Allies in the Pacific.

Many representatives from colonial nations had placed an enormous amount of trust in Wilson. Never trusting the tainted imperial governments of Britain and France, these unofficial peace delegates hoped that Wilson’s Fourteen Points would save them. A young French-educated Vietnamese man named Ho Chi Minh was unable to even gain entrance to the proceedings. He would not forget, and 40 years later emerged as an anti-colonial guerrilla leader. Furthermore, when it became clear that the European colonies would not receive postwar home rule, riots and protests erupted in India, Egypt and China. Observing this, and commenting on the failures of the Treaty of Versailles, a young library assistant named Mao Zedong—later the leader of China’s communist revolution—protested, “I think it is really shameless!”

Russia, because it was communist, was excluded from the conference. In fact, in an episode lost to U.S. (but not Russian) history, 20,000 U.S. troops joined many more other Allied soldiers in an occupation of parts of Russia, backing the non-communist “White” Russian armies in their failed attempt to overthrow “Red” power. The Soviet government and its successor state, the Russian Federation, now led by Vladimir Putin, would never forgive the West for this perceived transgression.

Still, President Wilson hoped that the new League of Nations—the deeply flawed precursor to the United Nations—would achieve what the basic contours of the treaty could not. Wilson took these matters personally and embarked on a nationwide tour of American cities to sell the treaty and league to a citizenry (and Congress) increasingly skeptical of international involvement. Wilson asked the people, “Dare we reject it [the treaty] and break the heart of the world?” But Americans did reject it, as would their representatives in the Senate, where it lost by seven votes. The U.S. would sign a separate peace treaty with Germany and declined to join the now-weakened League of Nations. By this time Wilson, having suffered strokes—including a final one that paralyzed half his body—was nearly an invalid. His advisers and wife would keep his medical condition a secret from the American public, remarkably, nearly to the end of his second term.

Perhaps a more equitable, or Wilsonian, peace treaty would have assuaged German shame and avoided the rise of Hitler. Beyond that, one must wonder whether a swift, limited German victory—along the lines of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)—might also have avoided the catastrophe of Hitler and the Second World War. And then there is the matter of America’s “retreat” from Europe after declining to join the League of Nations. Could U.S. involvement and leadership have avoided the rise of fascism and outbreak of conflict in Eastern Europe and the Pacific? In truth, these questions—counterfactuals really—are unanswerable. Still, they are important to consider. What is certain is that Allied imperialism survived for 40 to 50 years, leading to outbreaks of left-leaning guerrilla wars in the 1950s and ’60s; European nationalism remained a major factor, contributing to the rise of its most extreme form, fascism; and American “Wilsonianism” emerged from the war as a still powerful force in U.S. foreign policy, guiding a full century’s worth of (ongoing) American worldwide military interventionism.

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Historians continue to argue whether the Great War was the culmination or the death knell of progressivism. In a sense it was both. Indeed, the use of an activist, empowered federal government to rally the populace and control the people that World War I personified was always the dream of one strand of progressives. Yet, in the end, we must conclude that war—and its domestic excesses—destroyed the foundation of the progressive movement. The citizenry had tired, temporarily at least, of big government and federal interventions at home and abroad. The progressive push for a stronger, European-style social democracy withered just as swiftly as the Treaty of Versailles itself. In the election of 1920, the Republican Warren G. Harding swept to victory on a platform of a return to “normalcy,” and two straight conservative, business-friendly Republican administrations followed. As the progressive warrior Jane Addams had warned when the U.S. entered the war, “This will set back progress for a generation.” How right she was.

Those three presidents—Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—would, it must be said, keep the U.S. out of any major international war, but they would also crash the economy and dismantle the social safety net, paving the way for the Great Depression. And though the policy of “isolationism,” which actually personified the views of George Washington and more than 150 years of American tradition, briefly flourished between the wars, it would eventually become a pejorative term. When war again brewed in Europe, partly because of the way the Allies mishandled their “victory” and negotiation of the “peace,” most Americans and their leaders were able to fall back on their comfortable myth of the U.S. having “saved the day” in 1917-18. Forgotten were the last war’s horrors, the domestic excesses of the warfare state, and the once prevalent (if vanquished) anti-war movement that had flourished not 30 years in the past.

Americans believe their own lies—the lies they are told and those they themselves craft. And the U.S. has failed to see through its falsehoods about the Great War even though a century has passed since it ended. Its sense of messianic destiny and unparalleled accumulation of military power is such that—as the world celebrates (or mourns) the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I—the U.S. alone still views that conflict in heroic terms. Americans, at least the 1 percent willing to volunteer to go to a war and the numerous policymakers ready to send them off, still stand ready, as the song said, to go “over there.” Only now everywhere is over there and American hubris appears to know no bounds. And, one could argue, it all began with the fictions we told ourselves about America’s experience in World War I—and more’s the pity.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• George Herring, “From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776” (2008).
• Jackson Lears, “Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920” (2009).
• Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).
• Michael McGerr, “A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America” (2003).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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