It has been nearly a century since the end of the First World War. While the conflict receives less attention and glamorization in Hollywood and popular culture than its successor, it is arguably the most significant event of the twentieth century, setting the stage for a myriad of other conflicts and upheavals in the years following the war. In Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa, the Great War would have far-reaching consequences that continue to shape the modern world. Woodrow Wilson—in the form of the direct and indirect consequences of his actions as president, as well as his broader ideological influence—owns a legacy of warfare and militarism that afflicts our country to this day.
J.P. Morgan and Other Pro-War Business Interests
Wilson won the 1916 presidential election on a platform of neutrality in the war that was then raging in Europe, a position reflected in American public opinion at the time. Indeed, Wilson maintained a position of non-intervention for some time, declaring in a 1914 message to Congress that the United States “must be neutral in fact as well as in name” and “impartial in thought as well as in action” in the war. “It is a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us,” he said in another speech just after the conflict began.
This would not last, however, as Wilson betrayed his promises and entered the war in 1917. A combination of Wilson’s own partiality to the British, the Lusitania incident, pressures from a coterie of influential pro-war businessmen, and the advice of Wilson’s closest advisor, “Colonel” Edward Mandell House, would all contribute to the president’s decision to enter the war. Among the most influential of those wealthy business interests was J.P. Morgan—the corporate financier, industrialist, and railroad magnate—and his numerous partners and associates. Morgan’s influence would be significant in crafting U.S. foreign policy during the First World War.
Wilson himself had personal connections to the Morgan empire, sitting on the board of the Morgan-controlled Mutual Life Insurance Company, and had received favors from the wealthy financier and others in the Morgan ambit. William Gibbs McAdoo, Wilson’s son-in-law who would later serve as his Treasury Secretary, was bailed out by Morgan as a failing businessman in New York. With Morgan’s help, McAdoo would be set up as president of the Hudson and Manhattan railway until his appointment in the Wilson administration. A main sponsor of Wilson’s election campaign, moreover, was George W. Harvey, head of the Morgan-financed Harpers and Brothers Publishing Company (Rothbard 17).
At a time of major decline in America’s highly subsidized railroad industry, Morgan’s several dozen railroad companies were beginning to lose money. This slump may have provided the impetus for Morgan to get involved in the war effort, as it offered great potential for financial gain. Soon after the war began, Morgan would secure his position as the monopoly underwriter for French and British war bonds in the United States, and became the fiscal agent for the Bank of England, the British central bank. Morgan was also heavily involved in financing American munitions, and would become the chief organizer of French and British war purchases. Between 1915 and 1917, J.P. Morgan’s export department negotiated over $3 billion in contracts to the two Allied nations (Rothbard 18).
In December of 1914, the National Security League (NSL) was established, a nonprofit institution that, in addition to denouncing opponents of the war as “traitors” and “spies,” advocated U.S. entry into the war, conscription, and a large military buildup. Headed up by a who’s-who of establishment business interests, the NSL would be influential in lobbying Wilson to get involved in the conflict. The NSL’s leading figures included Morgan partners George W. Perkins and Robert Bacon; Simon and Daniel Guggenheim of the wealthy copper family; Henry Clay Frick of Carnegie Steel; munitions producer T. Coleman DuPont; Judge Gary of U.S. Steel; Henry L. Stimson, a protégé of Eli Root, Morgan’s personal attorney; former president Theodore Roosevelt; and, of course, J.P. Morgan himself (Rothbard 20).
The aforementioned Edward House, who was not really a colonel and who never held any official position in the Wilson administration, also helped greatly to guide Wilson into the war. House, an Anglophile and Wilson’s most intimate confidant, even advised British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to exaggerate England’s difficulties in the war in order to put pressure on Wilson to enter the conflict (Rothbard 21). “Secretly defying the President, House uncritically supported Britain’s war effort,” wrote historian Justus Doenecke in his book Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry Into World War I. “More significantly, he committed his nation, under certain conditions, to enter the conflict on the Allied side” (Doencke 302).
Making the World Safe for Democracy?
The First World War was a horrifying display of mass murder and human suffering, an early demonstration of the destructive potential of modern weaponry. In the first three months of the war, Britain’s army was nearly wiped out. The German and British governments kept their casualty figures under wraps; they were too excessive to share with the public (Zinn 78).
In one battle during the summer of 1916, British General Douglas Haig ordered 11 divisions, or around 110,000 men, to leave their trenches and storm the German line. Twenty-thousand men were killed in that offensive, and 40,000 wounded. In early 1917, Haig would be promoted to Field Marshall (Zinn 79).
By the spring of 1916, the French military was plagued by mutinies; the soldiers were no longer willing to fight and die en masse. Out of 112 divisions, mutinies would occur in 68 of them (Zinn 80).
The battles of the Somme and Verdun, each resulting in nearly 1 million casualties, perhaps best illustrate the colossal waste of life and wealth of this war. This should have been the only reason necessary to keep American boys out of the conflict, but Wilson effectively chose to serve big business and British imperial interests over those of the American people.
The president would devise a rationale for the war based on the protection of democracy and freedom, but this cannot stand up to the most basic scrutiny. Most of the Allied powers—among them Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium—were, in fact, not democracies, but repressive imperial and colonial states, many with poor human rights records. Belgium’s King Leopold II, for example, instituted a reign of terror in the Congo that killed up to 8 million Congolese, nearly half of the country’s population.
“[I]n a very real sense Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see,” wrote sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois in a May 1915 article in the Atlantic Monthly (Zinn 82). Du Bois explained that the war had its roots in the imperial ambitions of both the Allied and Central Powers. This was no war for democracy.
Moreover, even the United States at this time was not a paragon of freedom, especially after America’s entry into the conflict. In direct violation of the U.S. constitution, harsh measures were taken against opponents of the war.
Some conscientious objectors were deemed “insincere” by a Board of Inquiry established by then Secretary of War, Newton Baker, and military tribunals sentenced 17 to death, 142 to life in prison, and 345 to forced labor in penal camps (Shenk 62).
In June of 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act. The law ostensibly prohibited spying, but it contained a clause which threatened to impose up to 20 years in prison upon “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces […] or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S.…” (Zinn 85).
Two months after the bill was signed into law, a man named Charles Schenck was arrested in Philadelphia for distributing pamphlets that criticized the war and conscription, describing them as unconstitutional and “a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street.” Schenck was sentenced to only six months in jail, but others would face much harsher penalties (Zinn 85).
In 1918, socialist leader Eugene Debs was also arrested on the basis of the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” Debs said in the speech that got him arrested. “And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles…” (Zinn 87).
Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but would serve 32 months before he was pardoned by President Warren Harding in 1921. In the meantime, Debs ran for president from his cell as “Prisoner 9653” and received nearly 1 million votes.
Some 2,000 people would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, 900 of them imprisoned (Zinn 88). The New York Times and other prominent American newspapers helped to repress wartime dissent, urging readers to report seditious speech to the government (Zinn 90).
Anarchist writer and speaker Emma Goldman sums up the absurdity of the idea that America could wage a war for the sake of democracy:
“Verily, poor as we are in democracy how can we give of it to the world? […] [A] democracy conceived in the military servitude of the masses, in their economic enslavement, and nurtured in their tears and blood, is not a democracy at all. It is despotism…” (Zinn 93).
Goldman would be arrested for her opposition to the draft, and she was ultimately deported to Russia in 1919.
A Chain of Events
With the help of Edward House, a committee of scholars and historians known as “the Inquiry” was secretly established in late 1917 to craft the post-war settlement in Europe. The Inquiry’s recommendations shaped the Versailles Treaty, which would impose economy-wrecking war reparations on and dismember the territories of the Central Powers (Rothbard 22).
Economist and historian Murray Rothbard summarizes the far-reaching consequences of U.S. intervention in the Great War and the Versailles Treaty:
“American entry into World War I in April 1917 prevented negotiated peace between the warring powers, and drove the Allies forward into a peace of unconditional surrender and dismemberment, a peace which, as we have seen, set the stage for World War II. American entry thus cost countless lives on both sides, caused chaos and disruption throughout Central and Eastern Europe at war’s end, and the consequent rise of Bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism to power in Europe. In this way, Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war may have been the single most fateful action of the twentieth century, causing untold and unending misery and destruction. But Morgan profits were expanded and assured” (Rothbard 23).
For several years before American involvement, neither side had any obvious advantage; the conflict was stalemated (Powell). Without U.S. intervention, it is possible, even likely, that the warring powers would have been forced into negotiation. Instead, the consequences of a decisive Allied victory not only created the ideal political and economic conditions in Germany for the rise of the Nazi Party, but also planted the seeds for upheaval in the Middle East with the establishment of the French and British Mandates and the territory-divvying Sykes-Picot agreement.
The Nazis came to power in 1933 and within a few years the Second World War was on, which, in brief, would result in an empowered Soviet Union. That would be the impetus for the next series of American wars and interventions: the Cold War.
Despite its moniker, the Cold War was very hot. Beginning in 1949 in Syria, the U.S. government embarked on a decades-long crusade of covert regime change operations for the sake of fighting communism (i.e. for “democracy”) and other geopolitical objectives. From 1949 to the fall of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. carried out or attempted no less than 40 regime change operations abroad, often resulting in years of violence and political turmoil in the affected countries. China from 1949 to the early 1960s; Albania from 1949–1953; Iran in 1953; Guatemala in 1954; Costa Rica in the mid-1950s; Syria (again) from 1956–1957; Egypt in 1957; Indonesia from 1957–1958; Iraq in 1963; North Vietnam from 1945–1973; Cambodia from 1955–1970; Laos in 1958, 1959, and 1960; Ecuador from 1960–1963. The list goes on and on, and it continues to grow (Blum).
Indeed, the Cold War stopped in 1991, but the Cold Warriors didn’t. One particularly war-happy group is known as the “neoconservatives,” a movement originally comprised of former anti-Stalin leftists and Troskyites-turned-conservative. Self-fancied “hard Wilsonians,” the neocons have pushed for virtually every recent American war or intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere since the end of the Cold War. They intend, at least nominally, to spread U.S.-style democracy to the target countries, a Wilsonian project through and through.
The next string of conflicts was kicked off with the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq. President Bill Clinton would keep that war on a simmer with sanctions and intermittent bombing until it was drastically re-escalated by the Bush administration in 2003, possibly the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history. Bush invaded Iraq in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, after the declaration of the “War on Terror.” Unlike prior conflicts, this is not a war with a single country or with a defined military objective; the War on Terror is global, perpetual and ubiquitous.
The Terror War has spread into at least Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Mali, and continues to expand in the Middle East and Africa. President Barack Obama bombed at least seven countries during his two terms, heavily assisted Saudi Arabia in its ongoing slaughter in Yemen, armed rebels in Syria who fight alongside al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants, and led a NATO regime change operation in Libya that’s thrown the country into chaos. As Commander in Chief, Obama dropped 26,000 bombs in 2016 alone. The United States maintains hundreds of overseas military bases and continues to spend an ever-greater portion of GDP on its military, already more than the world’s next seven largest military budgets combined. These trends appear set to continue.
Obama embraced a foreign policy outlook that is a close cousin of neoconservativism: liberal interventionism. It, like its cousin, is markedly Wilsonian, but it is perhaps a “softer” variety.
As we have seen in this rapid sweep through the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson’s decision to intervene in World War I would unfold into nearly 100 years of unbroken war. While America arguably began its imperial project with the Spanish-American War of 1898, it was Wilson who provided the ideological rationale for unbridled militarism and interventionism. Wilsonianism set American foreign policy down the path to Empire.
The centennial of America’s entrance into WWI has come and gone, but we have failed to internalize its lessons. As world leaders continue to joust for geopolitical superiority, massive conflict looms large over hotspots such as Syria, the South China Sea and Ukraine. We can only hope that, sooner or later, those in positions of power will recognize the futility and destructiveness of perpetual war. If they don’t, it may ultimately spell the downfall of our civilization. Among many others, Woodrow Wilson will be one to blame.
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