While Korea and Vietnam have each been called the Forgotten War, World War I, known then as the Great War, has even less of a place in our national consciousness today. The 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I yielded little in the way of national soul-searching or self-education.
Perhaps this is because the First World War has been eclipsed in our national consciousness by the Second and the atrocities associated with it, including the Holocaust. At the same time, the “lessons” of World War I often cast doubt upon the interventionist lessons we are supposed to derive from the experience of World War II and the American Century that followed. Ultimately, World War I is a powerful testimony against the evils of war and the folly of misplaced idealism.
The Chief Historical Event for U.S. Foreign Policy
A narrative of the Second World War undergirds the interventionist impulse of our entire foreign policy apparatus. The lesson goes like this: America is an exceptional nation, not only because of its political institutions, but also because of its power. It is uniquely able to make the world a better place and is thus the “indispensable nation.”
The American people only reluctantly entered World War I. Afterwards, chagrined by the cost of the war and wary of threats to our sovereignty from the League of Nations, the narrative goes, they foolishly rejected Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to internationalism. This retreat from the international scene encouraged revanchist German nationalism and ultimately led to another European war.
Americans resisted entrance into the Second World War until forced to do so by Japan’s Pearl Harbor attacks. This selfish, short-sighted isolationism not only prolonged the war, but permitted great evils to take place, including the Holocaust. In the wake of World War II, America had assumed its rightful place in the world as a guarantor of human rights and democracy, created NATO to preserve European peace and deter the Soviet Union, and rightly embraced the signal opportunity to impose a New World Order as the sole superpower following the end of the Cold War in 1991.
There is some truth to all of this. Even America First conservatives like me recognize the necessity of U.S. leadership both in World War II and in the Cold War. But when those events were resolved — by victory and a negotiated settlement, respectively — the case for ongoing interventionism largely dissolved. More importantly, the various balance-of-power wars that have characterized most of European history had little relevance for Americans, nor obvious claims of justice in favor of one side or the other.
Should we have picked sides in the Franco-Prussian War, for example? Did the Crimean peninsula matter in 1854? Does it now? Even World War II is over-simplified by interventionists, who airbrush the mass-murderer Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, which exceeded the Holocaust in terms of their death toll.
The Costs of Idealistic Interventionism
In World War I, America’s Anglophile elite picked sides, even though the nation had managed to avoid continental European Wars from 1776 onward. When the United States finally joined the fray, President Wilson could do little to control the petty, revenge-oriented designs of France in particular, whose demand for reparations did much to create the conditions for the Second World War.
The First World War is sometimes blamed on nationalism. But it was less an expression of nationalism than a conflict among competing globalisms, in which French, British, German, or Russian imperial leadership was promoted by each group as the just and inevitable foundation of a future global order, analogs to the American exceptionalism of today.
Anatol Lieven, in his work, “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism,” examined the interventionist rhetoric of the Bush-era neoconservatives. He noted that their version of nationalism described America as having a world-historical mission, echoing the rhetoric of German and French nationalists on the eve of the First World War. Lieven writes, “Germans before 1914 believed that ‘Germany may heal the world’ … the German alone … can be a patriot; he alone can for the sake of his nation encompass the whole of mankind.”
Charles de Gaulle said of France, “There exists an immemorial covenant between the grandeur of France and the freedom of the world,” and that France has an “eminent and exceptional destiny.” This kind of messianic sense of mission solidified each side’s commitment to total victory and blinded them to the prosaic issues at stake, contributing to the slaughter of millions in the trenches of the Western Front.
In this sense, America First nationalism, whether in the 1930s or today, is the opposite of the hubristic, aggressive “idealism” that led France, Germany, Britain, and Wilsonians at home to pursue a war whose scope went far beyond their respective national interests. These expansive views of national purpose were augmented by hair-trigger alliances.
Those transformed what might have been a merely Austro-Hungarian conflict with the Serbs into a global war involving Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, their respective colonial possessions, and eventually the United States. A web of alliances rendered every small conflict everyone’s business. Without irony, we are told by globalists that it is a formula for peace today.
The Press Infects the Country with War Fever
The press had much to do with war fever. The war was supposed to be the “war to end all wars” and to “make the world safe for democracy,” but the rhetoric falls apart under scrutiny. The British monarchy was hardly less democratic than the German Empire. And the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, if not democratic, a citadel of civilization and multinational peace.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Americans were angry and cynical about exaggerated German atrocities that were endlessly played up by the “yellow press.” We were treated to similar false atrocity stories on eve of the Gulf War in 1990, where Saddam’s troops were accused of yanking babies from incubators in occupied Kuwait.
In spite of the many cases where such stories turn out to be false and exaggerated — including Georgia Libya, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia — there has been little hesitation to invoke the specter of a “Second Holocaust.” This powerful symbol of the evils of inaction is meant to silence critics, and it often succeeds, not least because of the one-dimensional view of history where events prior to World War II are dismissed, if not forgotten altogether.
The Costs of War Are Usually Very High
Bill Kristol and others criticized President Trump for his failure to visit a World War I cemetery, but his America First policy more fully exhibits the traditional American sentiment of avoiding unnecessary wars that do not implicate national survival. By contrast, his critics only seem to view these memorial events as an opportunity to celebrate the very militarism that leads to such conflicts.
World War I was extremely costly. The death toll of American soldiers (116,516) was nearly twice that of the Vietnam War. In spite of America’s ability to tip the scales in favor of the Allies, the American people were reluctant afterwards to supervise a European peace, not least because the Treaty of Versailles lacked justice in the eyes of many Americans.
Republican Sen. William Borah of Idaho spoke in opposition to the post-war peace treaty and its establishment of the League of Nations: “The [League] is in conflict with the right of our people to govern themselves free from all restraint of foreign powers. … A real republic cannot commingle with the discordant and destructive forces of the Old World.”
In the wake of World War I, the American people were in much the same mood as they were following Vietnam and the disastrous Iraq War. Unfortunately, our ostensibly educated elites have fewer and fewer reference points in making decisions about complex matters. Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic, and Vladimir Putin have each been described preposterously as the “next Hitler.” Not every troublesome foreign leader is Hitler; indeed, almost none are. The Kaiser certainly was little worse than Clemenceau.
Complex and Contradictory Lessons
World War II was the biggest war in mankind’s history and will, God willing, remain so. Hitler’s Germany, unlike Saddam’s Iraq or Milosevic’s Serbia, had not only the will, but also the ability to conquer Europe and the civilized world. While the post-war Soviet Union was similar in this regard, potential conflicts with today’s Russia or an economically ascendant China lack the ideological and world-historical dimensions of World War II and the Cold War. We face, rather, ordinary frictions between great powers, which America wisely avoided prior to World War I.
It is unfortunate that our historical memory is so shallow that only a single historical example is brought to bear on any contemporary foreign policy decision. For the elite, it’s 1939 all the time. For them, the lessons of history consist of a single lesson: European appeasement and America’s short-sighted isolationism fueled Hitler’s expansionist designs.
Even if this is true, history is complex. The lessons of 1939 should be tempered by other lessons, including those of 1914. These include the subtle evils of globalist ideology, jingoist propaganda, and hair-trigger alliances, which combined to set off the powder keg that was the First World War. More recent events provide additional cautionary lessons, such as the ill-fated Vietnam War and the overly ambitious War in Iraq. Like World War I, these cases show that wars often last longer, cost more, and achieve less than interventionists promise.
The First World War is a profound testament against war, showing both its ability to defy our plans and its incredible destruction. While war is sometimes necessary, World War I warns us not to reduce complex historical lessons into facile axioms, such as the need to “resist aggression.”
World War I undoubtedly exhibited the gallantry of the American soldier, the idealism of the American people, and the impressive potential of American industry. But it was fundamentally a costly and unnecessary mistake.