Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Tragedy of America’s Entry into World War I | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on November 26, 2019

Hence there were fervent supporters of American entry into the war from American industrial and financial quarters, as well as some voices in the political class, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, the “John McCain of his day” regarding his “all war, everywhere” bellicosity


This week some 80 world dignitaries including Presidents Putin, Trump, and Chancellor Merkel are gathering in France to mark the culmination of year-long remembrances of the centenary of the end of “the Great War” on November 11, 1918 – later labeled and known to every American high school history student as World War I. While at least 17 million people, including more than 116,000 Americans, died in this war — and millions more were wounded, gassed, or maimed — it’s a conflict widely misunderstood today. Indeed, because of World War II’s size and scope, cultural influence, and greater media coverage and capture, the First World War is often called “the forgotten war.”

Yet it was a cataclysmic event in its own right that both foreshadowed more intense and violent warfare in the 20th century, and fueled the growth of gargantuan central government in the United States. Most crucially, however, it was a war that should never have been fought — its causal origins and assignment of guilt for same are still a hot topic of debate a century later, a fact that alone attests to its superfluity — and one that, in any case, the United States should never have entered. These are disturbing theses about the war that will not be remembered by any of the global elites in Paris this weekend, but given the lessons for today, Americans should learn about them so as to demand of their Beltway solons wiser policy choices in the future. What follows is a short summary of America’s involvement in the war and lessons for today.

Origins of the Conflict in 1914

When the United States declared war on Germany following strong majority votes in both houses of Congress and the impassioned speech of President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session on April 2, 1917, he asserted that America must fight in the European war “to make the world safe for democracy.” This was a mere five months after Wilson had won re-election in 1916 via a slogan of “He kept us out of war.” 100 years later, though, there’s still no clearly-enunciated explanation of what it means to create safety for democracy. Later history would prove, however, that this goal — whatever it meant — was most certainly not achieved by the victorious Entente or their associated power and late entrant, the United States.

Nonetheless, when Count von Metternich convened the Congress of Vienna in November 1814 to settle long-simmering disputes in Europe following the  Napoleonic wars, little could he have guessed that precisely a century later his august project would crash forever upon the shoals of boiling Balkan nationalism. Metternich’s Concert of Europe had, in fact, been durable and substantial: after 1815 there had been only minor-but-contained skirmishes across Europe in the 19th century: the formation of the Second French Republic after the liberal revolution of 1848, the Franco-German War of 1871 that flipped Alsace-Lorraine, and the consolidation of German and Italian nation-states. The British, meanwhile, were extending their empire into the far reaches of Asia and Africa. But after victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, there would be no sizable war in the heart of Europe for another century.

Across the continent as a whole, then, the 19th century was one of general peace and ever-increasing material wealth for the masses, thanks to increasing economic integration and its attendant gains from trade.  The rule of law, protection of property rights, a sound monetary framework, and the unleashing of entrepreneurial energies, thanks to patient capital, had spread across the continent and built a civilized order. It was, said the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises later, the Age of Liberalism , and marked by the broad cessation of warfare and its attendant impoverishing taxation and destruction.

The First World War that ended this widespread peace and prosperity was, therefore, an appalling tragedy. In the end, some 65 million troops were mobilized (including 4.7 million Americans), there were more than 20 million casualties including civilians, and the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires were destroyed. Meanwhile the victorious British and French empires peaked and were effectively bankrupted. The British needed a century to pay off its war loans. Many national boundaries were redrawn, and activist high-tax/interventionist governments replaced laissez-faire regimes everywhere.

American Entry into the War in 1917

However, initially with the advent of hostilities in 1914, President Wilson attempted to steer a neutral course. There was no discernible reason for America ever to become involved in a European land war, and the United States traded with — and had immigrants from — all countries in the conflict. Following a longstanding foreign policy that had first been enunciated by Wilson’s foremost predecessor, George Washington, the American position on the Great War remained, as always, “Friend of Liberty everywhere, Guarantor only of our own.” Critics called it “isolationist,” but the American people in near-unanimity sought to steer clear of the massive conflict across the Atlantic Ocean.

Tensions rose in May of 1915 with the sinking of the merchant cruiser Lusitania by a German U-boat, killing 128 Americans, among others. While there was an outcry against Germany over such unrestricted submarine warfare, the German government had in fact taken pains to warn American passengers via advertisements in major east coast media, and indeed the Lusitania was carrying contraband, and hence was a legitimate target of war. In any case Mr. Wilson was able to get the German government to restrict its operations and let a specified number and type of American ships pass through to England, and in spite of a few other minor incidents, the President cruised to re-election in November 2016 via the campaign war-cry of “He kept us out of war.”

By the end of 1916, however, things looked bleak for the Triple Entente (the alliance between Britain, France, and Russia). Russia was in trouble in the east and riddled with revolutionary fervor. The western front, while stabilized, would be bled by increased and more powerful German thrusts should Russia quit the war, as increasingly looked likely. The French and British, racked by losses in Turkey and higher casualties on their German front than the Germans, were beginning to fear an inability to continue to finance the war effort. The Italians were stalemated. The Allies increasingly saw one big solution to their plight, and it lay across the Atlantic.

Pressures thus were mounting on Mr. Wilson to join the fray. The British, as they were to do again after 1939, mounted a broad effort to entice America into their war via propaganda such as alleged German battlefront atrocities in Belgium. Further, tens of billions of (2018-equivalent) dollars had been loaned to Britain and France by New York banks such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan (which had major European offices in London and Paris, and thus led American capital raising efforts for these belligerents), in at least five times the amount lent to the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary): should Germany win the war, these loans to the western powers could not be recouped. American armaments makers and industrial producers such as Bethlehem Steel or DuPont, many of which had suffered during the 1913-14 recession in the United States, loved the advent of war. Exports to Britain and France quadrupled between 1914 and 1917.1

Hence there were fervent supporters of American entry into the war from American industrial and financial quarters, as well as some voices in the political class, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, the “John McCain of his day” regarding his “all war, everywhere” bellicosity….

Wartime Conduct of the Wilson Administration and the Advent of Big Government and Central Planning

Although most Americans were inflamed with a sense of patriotic fervor when reminded of the Lusitania (from 23 months earlier!) and then became enraged at news of the Zimmermann Telegram, U.S. entry into the war was not uncontroversial. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had already resigned his cabinet position in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, fearing a tilt toward the British via war finance. Bryan had recommended to Wilson right away in 1914 that American loans or exports to belligerents be forbidden as a way to shorten the war. This counsel was ignored. Well-known Leftist and progressive Randolph Bourne publicly broke with Wilson over the war. He was one of many who did so. And there were also critics from what would today be called small-government libertarian types, most prominently H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun.

This is of interest today because while the war effort went well enough once American soldiers and Marines were on the ground fighting in France, there were pockets of protesters in the United States. The protestors saw no logic to our fighting wars on behalf of European belligerents, with all of whom we had friendly commercial relations before the war, and none of whom represented any threat to us. It is an historical parallel to current era American wars in the Muslim world, and earlier wars in east Asia.

Domestically, historian Ralph Raico reports that the war ushered in central planning on a massive scale not seen since the Civil War, whose controls and federal dictates were easily surpassed in 1917. Congress passed the National Defense Act, for example. It gave the president the authority, in a time of war “or when war is imminent,” to place orders with private firms which would “take precedence over all other orders and contracts.” If the manufacturer refused to fill the order at a “reasonable price as determined by the Secretary of War,” the government was “authorized to take immediate possession of any such plant and to manufacture therein such product or material as may be required” for the war effort. The private business owner, meanwhile, would be “deemed guilty of a felony.”

Once war was declared, the power of the federal government grew at a dizzying pace in all sorts of directions. The Lever Act, for example, passed on August 10, 1917, was a law that, among other things, created the United States Food Administration and the Federal Fuel Administration: this put the federal government in charge of the production and distribution of all food and fuel in the United States. President Wilson reached into all corners of American life for the sake of the war effort via price controls and monetary manipulation, as well as such direct actions as banning beer sales (and this right before Prohibition).

Some of the Wilson Administration’s conduct was shameful. For example, in an effort at control of public opinion that would make Josef Goebbels proud, some 850 citizens were prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts between 1917 and 1919, with many jailed for having the temerity to question the logic behind the war. Most famous of these was the former Socialist candidate for President Eugene V. Debs, who was fined and given a 10-year jail sentence – at age 63 – after a June 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio wherein he decried American involvement in a war that was of no consequence to us or our national security; Debs further criticized the use of a conscript/slave labor army to prosecute the war. He was given early release by President Harding at Christmas 1921 and met at the White House the next day. But in a cold, damp, dark federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Debs had contracted tuberculosis, sending him to perhaps an early death in 1926.

Further, Wilson set up a propaganda office immediately after the declaration of war, called the Committee on Public Information. This was a government-staffed propaganda agency charged with message control of the media (viz. putting “spin” on war news) to sustain morale in the U.S., to administer voluntary press censorship, and to develop propaganda abroad. This entity eventually comprised 37 distinct divisions. These included the Division of Pictorial Publicity which employed hundreds of artists to create graphics with patriotic themes, or to incite fear and hatred of Germans.

Mr. Wilson also had one of his cronies, Albert M. Briggs, set up the American Protective League (APL), an organization of 250,000 private citizens that worked with federal law enforcement agencies during World War I to identify suspected German sympathizers. Its mission was to “counteract the activities of radicals, anarchists, anti-war activists, and left-wing labor and political organizations.” In other words, it was a giant “army” of snitches, sort of a benign Gestapo. One victim was a man named Taubert in New Hampshire who received a sentence of three years in prison for saying out loud and in public that World War I was a war “for J.P. Morgan, and not for the people.” He meant the was was being fought to recoup Morgan’s war loans to the British and French, and pad the bottom line of the capitalist class…

Let us be starkly clear in our closing thought: America went to war 100 years ago for no good reason, and certainly not for the “general interest” of national security. Instead, President Wilson wanted war for the sake of narrow special interests contained in what President Eisenhower was to later call the “military-industrial- congressional complex.” This panoply of overlapping Beltway groups or individuals, coupled with the “ruling class elite” who toil in Manhattan boardrooms, is still alive and well today. These groups can all do great things on their own, legitimately on behalf of the American people, as the case may be. But never again should an American soldier or Marine be asked to die, face down in the mud, thousands of miles away from the borders he is paid to defend, for anything less than a lethal threat to our national security. Nor should hard-pressed American taxpayers foot the bill for the wars of others. THAT is the primordial lesson of World War I, which reverberates through time and still resonates today.

On the occasion of the centennial of the second most brutal human conflict of all time, we salute all who died on all sides, and as Americans express our respect to the American war-dead. Yet at the same time, knowing the history of this and similar conflicts, one feels nothing but contempt for Woodrow Wilson and his fellow politicians. The foreign policy of a free and great commercial republic should anywhere and everywhere be: champion of liberty for all; vindicator only of our own.

Be seeing you

The Christmas Truce | Jacobin

The Christmas Truce. Never to be repeated.



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