Monday, August 24, 2009

The Critical Mistake of WW I

An enlarged edition of John V. Denson's The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories features an article by historian Ralph Raico, "World War I: The Turning Point." David Gordon of the Mises Institute reviewed Raico's contribution today.

Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany and her allies for the war's outbreak. During the 1920s, revisionist historians such as Charles Tansill challenged this view, and by the 1930s a modified revisionist position became the consensus: None of the war's participants wanted a major European war. Miscalculation and botched diplomacy brought it on.

During the 1960s, majority opinion among historians shifted back to the Versailles verdict, due in large part to Fritz Fischer's 1961 work, Germany's Grasp for World Power. Raico staunchly disagrees; Fischer and his followers have not proven their case. Gordon writes:
True enough, the Germans encouraged Austria to deal decisively with Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But to accept a local conflict is not to will a European conflagration, and Germany's policies were no more bellicose than those of the Entente powers. "[T]here is no evidence whatsoever that Germany in 1914 deliberately unleashed a European war which it had been preparing for years" (p. 214).

Whoever bore primary responsibility for the European war, one thing was immediately clear. No valid reason existed for the United States to become involved. To do so would fly in the face of the American tradition of noninvolvement in European power politics.

Sentiment in the United States overwhelmingly opposed involvement, and President Wilson accordingly called for neutrality. "This was somewhat disingenuous, considering that his whole administration, except for the poor beleaguered Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was pro-Allied from the start. The President and most of his chief subordinates were dyed-in-the-wool Anglophiles" (p. 220).

In line with his pro-British bias, Wilson turned a blind eye to the British hunger blockade of Germany, even though it often violated America's rights as a neutral power. At the same time, the president was quick to protest German countermeasures to the blockade, especially submarine warfare. Wilson's partisan policy, combined with Germany's persistence in submarine warfare, led to America's entry into the war in April 1917.

Raico makes clear that American participation in the war had disastrous consequences for liberty. "In fact, 'democracy' was already beginning to mean what it means today — the right of a government legitimized by formal majoritarian processes to dispose at will of the lives, liberty, and property of its subjects" (p. 234).

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