Condensed Version of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Regnery Publishing, Inc. 270 p.
Compiled and Edited by
Dr. Jimmy T. (Gunny) LaBaume
Chapter 9: World War I
To this day, historians continue to debate which country bore the greatest responsibility for this terrifying and brutal conflict. Whatever the answer, it didn’t make a whit of difference to Americans at the time. No American interest was at stake nor was its security threatened. Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to be neutral yet, at heart, he was pro-British.
Germany’s supposed violation of Belgian neutrality (German troops passed through on their way to France), became a symbol of barbarity and militarism for the Allies. The fact is, however, that Belgium was not neutral. It had agreements with both France and Britain. The German troops simply wanted safe passage and agreed to compensate for any damage or victuals consumed on the way through.
Propaganda in wartime? It can’t be!
The Allies won a public relations victory with propaganda about widespread atrocities committed by the Germans. After the war, it was well established that the atrocities were largely fabricated but the damage was done. Many Americans absorbed the message that Germany was evil incarnate and needed to be crushed.
Starving civilians is against the law
The real atrocity was Brittan’s deliberate attempt to starve the Germans with a naval blockade—a blatant violation of the generally accepted norms of international law.
Only Britain considered food intended for civilians was not contraband. In that spirit, Germany expected their submarine policy to be accepted as well.
The Germans strike back
Germany announced on February 4, 1915 that it would retaliate against the illegal British blockade.
The British decorated their ships with the flags of neutral countries and had the crews don civilian clothing to lure the German submarines to the surface, where they would be destroyed. Thus, both the British and the Germans (in retaliation) were guilty of violating the rights of neutral nations.
Wilson’s response to German submarine warfare
Woodrow Wilson refused to draw any connection between German submarine warfare and the British hunger blockade. The German government would be held strictly liable for American losses on the high seas.
According to British propaganda, its ship Falaba was sunk by a German U-boat without warning. But, the fact is that the German captain had given three warnings and had fired only after a British warship had appeared. Plus, the Falaba was carrying 13 tons of ammunition. Nevertheless, Wilson sent a note to the Germans spelling out his policy to protect American citizens sailing on ships flying belligerent flags.
Wilson’s double standard
The double standard in Wilson’s treatment of the British and the Germans contributed to uS involvement in the war. The crux was Wilson’s refusal to see that there was a relation between the British irregularities and German submarine warfare.
Obviously, bringing the united States into the war was a British aim. And Churchill later wrote that his policy was intended to subject the U-boat to a greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of drowning neutral crews.
The sinking of the Lusitania
The German government had published warnings in major newspapers not to book passage on the Lusitania Then, on the morning it was to set sail, they issued an alert cautioning that travelers were sailing at their own risk. Passengers ignored the warnings.
A submarine attack was scarcely considered by the Royal Navy or the ship line. Further, the assumption was that, if it were indeed hit, there would be ample time for evacuation. But, the torpedo that hit the ship did an unexpected amount of damage and she went down quickly. Some have attributed this to the ammunition that was on board.
After firing the first shot, the German submarine captain held back from firing a second. He was likely waiting for the ship to be abandoned before firing again. But, within 15 minutes he could see that the ship was in serious trouble. He could not bear to fire the second torpedo and turned away.
It would be senseless to whitewash the attack. But, by the same token, it is difficult not to convict the British of extreme recklessness.
The American reaction was intense. But, hardly any newspaper editorials actually advised war. Wilson drafted a stern note to Berlin, the consequences of which frightened Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan reminded Wilson that over 5,000 cases of ammunition had been on board. He also noted that an agreement to end submarine warfare in exchange for an ending of the starvation blockade had been accepted by Germany but rejected by Britain.
But Bryan’s efforts were to no avail. Wilson sent another note to Berlin declaring that Americans “now had the right to expect immunity from attack as they traveled aboard the armed ships of a nation at war.” No other neutral power had ever proclaimed such a doctrine. Convinced that he was part of an administration bent on war, Bryan resigned. Robert Lansing replaced Bryan and was far more sympathetic to Wilson’s pro-British stance.
Britain continued to tighten the blockade. All American protests to Britain were submerged in verbiage with deliberate purpose—to insure that controversy continued and to leave questions unanswered. All this was necessary to leave the country free to act (even illegally) when it entered the war.
American officials to Wilson: the right to travel through a war zone on belligerent ships isn’t worth dying for
Wilson kept up the diplomatic pressure to a degree that alarmed congressmen and other prominent Americans.
A comparison of Wilson’s policy toward travel in Mexico and travel to Europe is instructive. With regard to Mexico, Americans were warned that they “traveled at their own risk.”
The Sussex pledge
The Sussex did not have the usual markings of a passenger ship. It looked like a warship. The German captain suspected it was a mine layer and fired. It was a mistake and the Germans would have made reparation. However, Wilson demanded that they abandon submarine warfare completely. In the resulting pledge (in 1916) Germany made a major concession. They would not sink merchant ships, armed or unarmed, without warning and without saving the people aboard. This, in effect, gave the enemy merchant ships the opportunity to shoot first.
But the pledge was conditional. Germany expected Wilson to pressure the British to abandon their hunger blockade. Wilson accepted the concession and refused the condition. In other words, his policy of “neutrality” was to hold one belligerent accountable but do next to nothing about the other.
British merchant ships were armed. It was absurd to demand that a submarine give warning and expose itself before attacking. International law recognized armed ships not as peaceful vessels but as ships of war that could be destroyed. On all counts, it was ridiculous to insist that submarines give notice before attacking an armed ship.
By early 1916, it was clear that the British would not agree to disarm their merchant ships. Lansing and Wilson went on record that the British could legitimately arm their merchant ships with “defensive” weapons and insisted that such ships be treated as peaceful vessels entitled to notice from a submarine before it fired.
Congressmen: Americans travel on belligerent ships at their own risk. Wilson: No way—they have a right!
A nonbinding resolution was introduced into Congress calling for the president to warn Americans not to travel aboard armed ships. The contention that they do so at their own risk was a sensible and popular position. Wilson used all the influence and threats at his disposal to defeat the resolution.
He appealed to the interests of “humanity” in opposition to German submarine warfare. On the other hand, Britain’s starvation policy was “absolutely not inhuman.”
The Germans make one last push
By January 1917, the starvation blockade had taken a terrible toll on German civilians. The military persuaded German leadership that unrestricted submarine warfare was necessary. Their belief was that they could sink enough enemy shipping to win the war before America could send an expeditionary force.
It is difficult for historians who try to claim that Wilson was a peace lover who tried to keep America out of the war to explain what Wilson did next. In a complete break with tradition, he called for arming merchant ships with uS Navy guns and manning them with Navy crews with instructions to fire on any submarine.
Why did Wilson favor war?
A nation participating in the war would have a seat at the peace table. European powers, left to themselves, would produce a vindictive and unworkable peace. This ignored the historical fact that the Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815 worked out exclusively by European powers had produced a peace that lasted for a full century.
Wilson goes to war
In his speech calling for war, Wilson argued that the uS would be fighting for great moral principles against autocracy. He (erroneously) believed that democracies were less warlike. He also spoke of submarine warfare as “a war against all mankind.” This claim was not confirmed by later wars. In WWII, no one from either side would call the practice a “war against mankind.”
He also promised that America’s treatment of its ethnic Germans would prove that the uS had no quarrel with the German people—only its government.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. German-Americans were harassed and demonized.
The peace conference: The disaster Wilson pretended not to notice
Wilson issued his Fourteen Points in January 1918. He believed that the outlined principles should inform the peace settlement and spoke of a “peace without victory”—i.e. the victors would seek no unjust aggrandizement. Further, his League of Nations would put an end to war once and for all.
But diplomatic wrangling at the peace conference took away all hope for a “peace without victory.” Wilson was so wedded to the idea of a League of Nations that all the British and French had to do in order to get him to abandon all of his other points was threaten not to join.
Ignorance, inconsistency, absurdity
Wilson ‘s principle of national self-determination, intended to give national minorities nations of their own, wound up creating more minorities. For example, Czechoslovakia contained three million Germans. This would later be exploited by Adolf Hitler who appealed to self-determination to justify annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudenten region.
Wilson was far from consistent in applying the principle of national Self-determination. Portions of German-speaking Europe were parceled out to Poland, Italy and France.
Other aspects of the treaty enraged the Germans. Instead of general disarmament, the treaty sought only to disarm Germany. The amount of reparations was not spelled out and would not be settled until years later. The bill would take decades, even centuries, to repay. German honor was impugned by the war guild clause, which suggested that Germany alone was responsible for the outbreak of the war. Germany could not accept that she alone was guilty—pointing to the hunger blockade.
Opponents say we can’t police the world!
Wilson had to persuade the…Senate to ratify the treaty. He insisted that the American people were in favor of it but the reality was different. Huge crowds rallied against it.
The primary source of contention was the League of Nations —in particular Article 10, which obliged members to preserve the territorial integrity of other member states. This requirement eroded American sovereignty. Opponents of the treaty were not necessarily “isolationists,” as supporters of neutrality are often misleadingly described. They simply argued for written guarantees that Americans would have the right to decide when and where they would take action. But Wilson remained convinced that any watering down of Article 10 would be fatal to the League.
“Bizarre” and “wild-eyed”: The Wilsonian program
Wilson accused his opponents of ignorance or malice, even when all they wanted was to ensure the integrity of American sovereignty. His mental instability was perhaps reflected in his increasingly grandiose portrayals of a treaty that amounted to a repudiation of so many of his own principles. For example, he said: “The Treaty of Versailles is an unparalleled achievement of thoughtful civilization.”
Wilson refused to accept the treaty as revised by the Senate, urging his supporters to vote against it. They did and it went down to defeat.
Setting the stage for World War II
Wilson persuaded himself that the Kaiser was the epitome of evil and that abolishing constitutional monarchy would lead to a more peaceful world.
As it turned out, the punitive Treaty of Versailles was a major contributing factor to World War II. The German people detested the treaty which enabled Hitler to appeal to their patriotism and honor.