The centenary of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11 inevitably raises questions about the United States’ involvement in that conflict, which cost the lives of 50,585 Americans and wounded 205,690.
Many Americans have believed, both at the time and since, that the United States ought not to have fought a faraway foreign war that looked like just the latest of the endemic dynastic quarrels of the European continent, from which the young American republic should have stood aloof. Are they right?
On Jan. 16, 1917, the German foreign minister, Count Arthur Zimmermann, dispatched a telegram to the German ambassador to Mexico City, Count von Eckhardt, about what to do in the event of the United States and Germany going to war as a result of the unrestricted U-boat campaign that Germany was planning, which would inevitably result in the sinking of American shipping.
The Zimmerman Telegram — as it became known — instructed Eckhardt to offer Mexico an alliance against the US, which would restore to it the “lost territory of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”
Germany’s willingness to indulge in such fantasies with Mexico demonstrated her fundamental hostility to the United States, which was more than reciprocated in the American press and public.
The telegram was intercepted by British intelligence, and within six weeks of its publication, President Woodrow Wilson declared war.
The country was surprisingly unprepared; the US Army’s 100,000 troops ranked 17th in the world by size, the same size as the Danish army. It was equipped with rifles, sawed-off shotguns and a few hundred machine guns.
The Army had no tanks or aircraft and only enough artillery and shells for a single, nine-hour barrage. To the US War Department, which had made no attempt to study methods of warfare developed since 1914, America’s most important arm was the cavalry, which of course played no part in the action on the Western Front in Europe.
By contrast, the enemy was honed by three years of combat. “I believe a war is unavoidable, and the sooner the better,” Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff, had said at an infamous War Council in December 1912, two years before the war broke out. Kaiser Wilhelm II fully agreed. Together they had deliberately turned a crisis in Serbia into a world war in August 1914.
But unlike in 1870, when the Kaiser’s grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I had crushed France in the Franco-Prussian War, this time the Germans had no intention of merely annexing a province, exacting reparations and then withdrawing. Kaiser Wilhelm II had ambitions far closer to those of the Third Reich.
As his biographer John Röhl has demonstrated, Wilhelm II demanded nothing short of a German-dominated continent, what the Kaiser himself described as “a United States of Europe under German leadership.” German control from Brest to the Urals would have been the key stage on his road to world domination.
“Jews and mosquitoes are a nuisance that humanity must get rid of in some way or manner,” wrote Kaiser Wilhelm II to a friend in the 1920s. “I believe the best would be gas!”
To have allowed such a man to rule Europe would have been a crime against Western civilization, to an almost equal degree as to have failed to challenge Hitler for the control of Europe 20 years later.
In just over one year, the United States had raised a million-man army and landed it in France, ready to fight. “There is no need to exaggerate the material assistance,” Winston Churchill wrote in his book “The World Crisis” of the help America gave the Allies in 1917-18, but “the moral consequence of the United States joining the Allies was indeed the deciding cause in the conflict.”
Without America, he wrote, World War I “would have ended in a peace by negotiation, or, in other words, a German victory.”
None can doubt or deny the horrors of the Great War, but questioning the merits of the manner in which it was fought is very different from questioning whether it should have been fought at all. Its tactics can be debated; its necessity cannot.
For the United States to have stood aside in 1917, looking only to her own defenses, while the whole European continent fell under the domination of a militarist, aggressive, proto-Fascist Imperial Germany, would only have postponed the final day of reckoning for America itself.
Andrew Roberts is the author of “Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” published by Viking.