What If America Stayed out of World War I?   Leave a comment

We all know the story we were taught in school – the United States entered the fray of World War I on the side of Britain and secured peace and democracy for Europe and the world. Then Americans demanded their government withdraw from the world stage, which sabotaged the peace efforts and lead to Hitler coming to power.

Image result for image of woodrow wilsonBut is that really what happened? Was Woodrow Wilson really a brilliant leader who didn’t want to go to war until it became absolutely certain that our intervention was necessary?

World War I was an expensive war fought with new-fangled weapons. Millions died in heavy artillery barrages. By 1916, the British and French were running out of money and could no longer renegotiate their loans. They could not continue to prosecute war against Germany for much longer.

We are told t hat the United States had been neutral up to this point and that U-boat attacks on our merchant fleet is what finally drove us to choose a side. But is that true?

I’m not a professional historian, but I am a fan of history books. I didn’t stop reading them when I got my degrees. It was during that continuing education in my living room that I learned stuff that the public schools definitely don’t bother to teach us.

In January 1917, European leaders were ready for the war to end. Germany had fought England and France to a standstill. From a technical military standpoint, 1916 featured complicated and progressive experimentation with methods of war that would break up the stalemate. Germany might have been slightly closer to winning the war in December 1916, but that would have been splitting hairs.

In December 1916, Field Marshal Haig, Commander of the British forces on the Western Front, sent in an extensive report to his government on the just completed Somme Campaign. Allied lines had advanced in some places, but hadn’t come close to break through, but casualties had been appalling. Yet Haig declared the Somme campaign a victory because it had worn down of the Germans and stabilized the front.

Haig’s report didn’t make British statesmen optimistic. The Somme advance had been shallow, and that the Germans still held onto nearly as much of France as they had before. Significantly, the Central Powers were killing Allied troops at a faster rate than the Allies were killing the Germans. For every two deaths on the side of the Central Powers, three Allied soldiers were dying.

Meanwhile, Romanian soldiers in Eastern Central Europe were faced with an an Austro-Hungarian, German, and Bulgarian force that had captured Bucharest. Although they might have taken some pressure off the Western front, they’d suffered enormous losses. In Russia, people were hungry and demoralized and the edge of revolution, which would have tipped the balance of power sharply in favor of the Central Powers had the United States not intervened.

Meanwhile, the Great Britain had already adopted conscription in January 1916. On the diplomatic front, the British government began a process that would end by promising overlapping parts of the Ottoman Empire both to the future “king of the Arabs” and to Jews across the world as a future homeland, which has consequences into our own time. At the same time, British propaganda aimed at influencing the United States to enter the war heightened dramatically. Charles Masterman’s War Propaganda Bureau in London worked on the “American question” with articles in the United States newspapers, speaking tours, increased distribution of the famous Bryce Report on German atrocities in Belgium, and in other ways.

One crucial example of non-traditional attempts to break the impasse was the British blockade resulting in the starvation of German civilians. In place since late 1914, the blockade kept even neutrals from delivering food and other essentials to Germany. Before it was lifted in 1919, somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 German civilians died from starvation and the effects of malnutritional.  See Ralph Raico’s detailed review of the classic book on the subject by C. Paul Vincent.

In order to survive the war, Britain had to control the seas. In order to survive the war, Germany had to eat. At the same time, Germany had to avoid bringing the United States as world’s most powerful economy into the conflict. Unlimited submarine warfare was the most likely way to break the blockade and eat, though German statesmen feared this step would bring the United States into the war.

Ending the war seemed out of the question. Both sides desired any help they could get, but both sides had turned down offers of mediation, truce, and negotiations because they wanted to gain territory and not have to pay financial obligations.

Additionally, the winter of 1916/17 was one of the coldest in memory. The Germans were starving, but the soldiers on all sides found the cold almost unbearable. Misery in the trenches and encampments did not bode well for the future will to fight for either army.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States had been expending west (and north into Alaska), but had by now reached its continential limits and had been advancing into the Asian sphere. Colonel Edward Mandell House had played a central role in choosing and grooming Woodrow Wislon to become a presidential candidate. House became an intimate friend of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s chief of staff, Joseph Tumulty, testified to this close relationship, as did dozens of others. Ultimately, House would become a special roving emissary of Woodrow Wilson in Europe from 1914 onward. Through a large private network of highly influential friends, House’s influence on American intervention in World War I not exaggerated. So who was this very important American?

House was a Texan. His father was an early immigrant to the state, making a fortune as a blockade-runner during the American Civil War. Edward Mandell House was born in 1858 in Houston and attended elite secondary schools in England and the northeastern United States. Eventually, he ended up at Cornell University. When his father died in 1880, House returned to Texas and took over management of the family fortune of $500,000 (equivalent of $11 million dollars today). That didn’t put him in the same league as the individuals he would soon be associating with. Involved in banking and railroads, House crossed paths with the J.P. Morgan more than once, and many other leading individuals of the day. He left business for politics, but his aim was to work behind the scenes, to influence politics rather than leading as a figurehead. The real power often rests with the man behind the curtain.

In Texas, House backed a gubernatorial candidate in 1890. Surprisingly, for all House’s railroad and oil connections, he chose the “trust-busting” populist Democrat “Big Jim” Hogg. Governor Hogg appointed him an honorary state “Colonel,” a designation which House adopted proudly. The Colonel masterminded the elections of four Texas governors, then headed East just after the turn of the century to seek out a national candidate to groom for President.

House had collected a very large circle of wealthy individuals, including many in the rarefied world of J. P. Morgan. He combined an introverted public view and amazing social skills, including a very sharp sense of humor.

By the time he entered politics, House had begun to embrace Progressivism, a doctrine of “efficiency and wise leadership” which was informed by the Positivist doctrine of French sociologist Auguste Comte. Progressivism became a widespread political movement in American lifeand the world. In America, it emanated from and came to characterize the wealthy and wise men of “efficiency” and “capital,” chiefly from the Northeast. The Colonel wrote a novel in 1912, Philip Dru, Administrator, wherein the protagonist would reshape the government of the United States, freeing it for reform by freeing it from the corrupt and ignorant element of an elected legislative branch, a constitutional element Comte himself saw as roadblock to “Positive” administration.

Woodrow Wilson, an academic Progressive who had been a one-term governor of New Jersey, had served as President of Princeton, but entered New Jersey state politics, after leaving Princeton under heavy criticism for his high-handed reform of the curriculum and direction of the institution. He was condemned by many as a self-righteous, authoritarian leader who hated compromise. Upon a first “delightful visit” in late 1911, House wrote to a confidant, “He is not the biggest man I ever met, but he is one of the pleasantest and I would rather play with him than any prospective candidate I have seen.”

House and Wilson were opposites in many ways. The non-religious Texan admirer of heroic frontier men of violence and the Presbyterian minister’s son whose life was circumscribed by a long line of church ladies. House, who reveled in recounting the practical jokes of his youth designed to belittle and control those around him, and Wilson, whose humor was of the quietest, most conventional kind. House, whose diary and letters universally groan with gourmet meals in the best restaurants with wine flowing, and the abstemious Wilson, who ate and drank little, preferring a quiet family circle.

Yet the two men had much in common. Historians note that both were outsiders in terms of national politics, late-comers to the Progressive political movement, middle-aged Southerners, and admirers of “vigor” and efficiency in individuals and government. Both men admired Great Britain with passion. They were both extremely ambitious to “go down in history.” Both House and Wilson embodied those Comtean, Positivist elements of Progressivism that relied on the certainties of social science as a means of ruling. The great project of the Progressive movement was the efficient organization of the world though the power of the state upon the liberties of the individual. Both House and Wilson consistently put their faith in wise men who would lead rather than merely represent the people.

After House helped get the one-term Governor elected President in 1912, a Washington insider asked the new President about House’s apparent authority to make political commitments about the future. Wilson replied:”Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one.”

Working behind the scenes, House ramrodded the new administration’s legislation implementing the Federal Reserve and much else. His communications with “the Governor” (as he continued to address his presidential friend) were always flattering, always indirect, always purposeful, and full of sage advice. His role in managing William Jennings Bryan was especially important. He gained Bryan’s endorsement of the election, persuaded Wilson to appoint him Secretary of State, kept the unpredictable but powerful populist off balance, and arranged for him to be isolated from the President’s inner circle.

With Wilson’s agreement, House roamed Europe with the full authority of the President’s intimate and special emissary, meeting with kings, prime ministers, intellectuals, and others, “planting the seeds of peace.” The Colonel was a supreme political operative in the United States, but knew European international politics a little, and the craft of diplomacy not at all. Historian Walter Millis suggested that for all the “seeds” the Colonel planted with European leaders, none of them had the least chance of germinating.

Then war broke out in August 1914. House concentrated on putting Woodrow Wilson in a position to mediate the terrible war raging in Europe. Theodore Roosevelt had brokered the end to the much less extensive Russian-Japanese conflict of 1904-5 and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Both House and Wilson considered Wilson far greater than Roosevelt.

President Wilson immediately proclaimed American neutrality. Wilson’s Secretary of State, populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, assumed that traditional neutrality would also preclude financial support of one side or the other by American big business and financial interests. Bryan tried to keep the United States on good terms with all countries by promoting treaties of friendship and conciliation.

Truthfully, any mediation by Wilson would come with supplies of money, arms, ammunition, food, and other necessities of war. The Germans seemed tempted to take up Wilson’s mediation offers at several points. Wilson felt he made progress in mediation in the coming months, even after more U-Boat sinkings of armed civilian vessels in designated zones. In the spring of 1916, he pressured the Germans to drop their unlimited submarine warfare program.

In spite of increasing talk of “preparedness” and anti-German sentiment in the United States, Americans weren’t interested in seeing their country intervene directly in the war. The election of 1916 focused on “he kept us out of the war” even as Wilson was meddling in European affairs and funding both sides of the war.

Three months before the Lusitania sinking, House met in London with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, and made an amazing commitment. The Colonel had vague instructions from Wilson to persuade the British to lift the blockade, but House defied the President and committed his nation, under certain conditions, to enter the conflict on the Allied side.

A vast number of Americans were of German heritage and had no stomach to fight their cousins. The Midwest, especially, seemed unwilling to go to war, and much of the socialist left, anarchists, and populists, as well as many peace-oriented religious and social groups, opposed the war, but most American Progressives and much of Wall Street had ties to Britain,. The Wilson Progressives remained firm in their allegiance to Britain, as did the bankers themselves, many of whom had affiliate banks in London and Paris. From 1914 onward, British agents offered monetary awards to newspapers across the United States in exchange for war news and opinion favorable to the Allies.

Bryan had been appointed by Wilson reluctantly and only as repayment for Bryan’s support in the 1912 election. He had little influence on the President and his populist anti-imperialism had little support from a chief executive who aimed at a new kind of American expansiveness and a revamped, American-led organization of the world.

Hence, Bryan’s denunciation of the British blockade of Germany had little effect, and nobody listened after the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Among the 1198 dead were 128 United States citizens. The torpedoing of the Lusitania reoriented America to war. The German Embassy in Washington had taken out ads in 50 American newspapers warning Americans that the liner would be entering a zone of war, and that any vessel flying the British flag would be “liable to destruction” in those waters. The blockade of Germany constituted a war against civilians. Although the British government denied that the ship was carrying armaments, underwater archeological research and archival evidence has since shown that the Lusitania carried a very large load of armaments, including four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured .303 Remington bullets.

At the State Department, Bryan argued that the United States should use the Lusitania as part of a diplomatic offensive to persuade both British and Germans to cease their brutal warfare against civilians, steering the Germans from their ruthless unlimited submarine war, the British from their unrelenting, starvation blockade, but with House making increasingly specific promises to Allied leaders, and persuading Wilson in the same direction, arguments against the blockade fell on deaf ears.

“Why be so shocked by the drowning of a few people, if there is to be no objection to starving a nation?” Willian Jennings Bryant in his resignation letter of June 1915[

State Department Counsel, Robert Lansing, replaced Bryan as Secretary. Lansing, an international lawyer of wide experience had gotten along with Bryan but had confidentially harbored strong pro-intervention sentiments. Lansing’s nephew was the rising star John Foster Dulles, who at only 27 in 1915, he was a member of the influential international corporate law firm Sullivan & Cromwell which had worked closely with the J. P. Morgan interests since the early 1880s. Lansing immediately recruited his nephew for negotiations to secure Latin American aid in the coming war–a year and half before the United States entered.

Wilson had ridden to power on rhetoric against Wall Street, but the new Secretary’s Wall Street connections are an important part of the decision-making that led to American intervention and his alter ego was closely associated with these same “interests.” How do these dots connect?

Woodrow Wilson was the hub for all those connections. Although he had strong opinions of his own, he could be swayed by “expert” advice. In the Positivist mode outlined by Auguste Comte and Edward House, Wilson saw himself as heroic philosopher king, hopeful of using the war and the peace to reform the world system. From 1914 to 1916, although he thought a lot about intervening directly, Wilson saw his role as that of World Mediator–the lonely leader who would bring peace through the systematic and scientific reorganization of the world through knowledgeable bureaucrats. The flattery of House, Charles R. Crane, and other educated, wealthy men of affairs and intermediaries between Wall Street and the government, he became increasingly willing to accept the indirect suggestions and advice of the financial elite he had thundered against during his early political years. He saw them as experts in their fields. The Morgan financial empire became the conduit of both massive American loans to the Allies in 1915 and of massive Allied purchases of American war matériel thereafter. Separately, the J. P. Morgan Empire and other international financial interests saw the war as an opportunity massively expand the whole pre-war pattern of imperial finance.

The whole issue of “world power” had a clear impact on decisions leading to war. In the weeks before the United States declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917, Wilson would mourn the fact that America’s entry would put financial interests in the saddle again, but Wilson’s Progressive measures had done much to keep high finance intimately involved in foreign policy decisions. After Wilson’s election, the international bankers had refined the jargon of the expansionist “dollar diplomacy” of pre-Wilson years, learning to speak Wilson’s Progressive language. In particular, they learned to justify measures favorable to them in the name of efficiency and bold leadership.

One perfect example of this process was the Federal Reserve System (1913), which the leading bankers of Wall Street constructed, and for which Wilson initiated the supporting legislative measures. Colonel House and others played vital intermediary roles, selling the Federal Reserve to Wilson as a social reform for efficiency of government. Part of the appeal for Wilson the ease with which the Federal Reserve System would produce a fiscal “flexibility” that would ease administration projects. That flexibility would eventually apply to wartime. Wilson paid for the 1916 invasion of Mexico by using the other new 1913 boon for Federal finance, the income tax, both by raising taxes and by pushing through the Revenue Act of 1916. The Act was designed to make sudden tax hikes more palatable for voters by introducing what one historian has called a “highly progressive” element. Yet in 1917, Wilson would see the advantages of money manipulation through the Fed for fighting a much larger and more important war.

On the Wall Street side, during the period from the outbreak of the war in Europe until American entry, the financial and business circles of J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers, Jacob Schiff, Kuhn, Loeb & Co, and their affiliates saw in the war the opportunity to replace British and French investments and loans throughout the imperial world. These plans represented a sea change in the distribution of funds within the future “developing world,” but they also represented a reliance on close cooperation with the crusading visions of Wilson’s administration.

Hence, high finance was forging closer and closer ties with an activist state driven by the visions of Wilson and House for efficient Progressive world management. The result would be top-down leadership with American organizers of the world, both colonial and non-colonial. Fears that Britain might lose the war in early 1917–discussed in an earlier essay–opened up the vista of supplanting Britain as the world’s banker, but with more efficiency, coordination, and control by the United States.


Wall Street dominance relative to the war during the “neutrality” period is fairly straightforward. The stalemate of the Western Front had hardly set in before France and Britain began to realize the need for more funds. The Shell Crisis following the Western Front Battle of Neuve Chapelle (March 1916), during which the British failed to exploit their victory owing to lack of shells, made the issue of armaments shortages public and acrimonious. The French and British immediately applied for loans from the J. P. Morgan banking group. The United States approved, over the objections of Secretary of State Bryan just before he resigned. The loan structure was worked out between spring and fall, and the result was a loan of half a billion dollars (1915 dollars) with two billion more to follow before the war was over.

Moreover, the anti-Wall Street administration of Wilson okayed the appointment of J. P. Morgan, Jr., as Allied purchasing agent. Trade disruptions during the first months of the war were drastic: the British Blockade of Germany cut American exports to Germany from $169 million to just a million. But business with the Allied powers soon replaced these lost orders many times over.

The election of 1916 forms the backdrop to the declaration of war. Woodrow Wilson had won the election of 1912 comfortably, but against two opponents, one of them Theodore Roosevelt. Democratic prognosticators were much less sure of a shoe-in for 1916. For all the hue and cry of “Americanism” and “preparedness” that emerged in late 1915 and in 1916, Wilson led a country which would not have supported intervention except in the case of a direct assault by one side. The President had calmed the Lusitania uproar in his famous “too proud to fight” speech, and the crisis passed when the Germans agreed to put a halt to unrestricted submarine warfare. Running on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson carefully advertised himself as a man of peace (people just ignored that the United States invaded Mexico with 10,000 troops in March 1916).

Wilson defeated Charles Evans Hughes by only three percentage points. In the Electoral College, things could have gone either way — the President won some crucial states by tiny margins. In the end, the Electoral College vote would be 277 to 254. If, for example, Hughes had won Kentucky, which Wilson won with 51.9 percent, the election would have gone to Hughes.

Winning the race, Wilson achieved his own political “New Freedom.” He no longer needed to answer to the public’s anti-war sentiment. Britain seemed in disastrous shape. Wall Street was fully integrated into the Allied cause. Many American elites desired and actively promoted intervention, seeing entry into the war as fulfillment of their particular cause or goal. By the time the Germans decided to reinstate unlimited submarine war against secretly armed British civilian ships once more, (February 1, 1917) a whole structure of military expenditures, extensive redefinition of “neutrality,” and an amazing increase in the level of shipments to the Allied powers were in place. In February 1917, the British handed over an intercepted cable from the State Secretary of the German Foreign Office, Arthur Zimmermann, offering an alliance with Mexico against the United States should the US declare war on Germany. The Germans had already announced that they would resume submarine war on ships carrying supplies to the Allies, including neutral carriers, and in the next weeks, five American ships were torpedoed.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for a declaration of war against the German Empire, in order “to make the world safe for democracy.” Wartime Allied propaganda had Americans believing the Germans were solely guilty, and that the conflict was a war for democracy, when the most autocratic country in Europe, Russia, was on the Allied side. Remember, there was no Internet back then to fact-check the propaganda.

It used to be known when my parents were young that the United States had not been “forced” to go to war. American intervention led to higher death tolls and a settlement that unhinged the world. In light of this knowledge, Wilson’s decisions seems misguided and wrong.

In the run-up to World War II and then after, American historians re-interpreted Wilson as the Man of Peace who was forced to war. The forty days before American entry into the war were tempestuous. Once the Germans announced resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, on February 1, 1917, Wilson became increasingly bellicose, preparing bill after bill that aimed at military expenditures and “preparedness” and carrying measures of war security, even war hysteria, that anticipated wartime repression, spying, and information control.

The news of these measures found a public almost, but not quite, ready for war. The Midwest and West were largely opposed to American entry. Many of the populist remnants, and indeed the agrarian and anarchist socialists rejected participation in the war since it was a war of the kind of “interests” Wilson had long railed against. The war was extremely unpopular among Irish immigrants and their children and among immigrants whose national origin was in the lands of the Central Powers. Then, too, a large number of women’s associations rejected the war for a variety of reasons, as did Christian pacifists. Though many Progressives were in fact much more openly bellicose than Wilson himself, a number of Progressive intellectuals and activists opposed American intervention vehemently, including public intellectual Randolph Bourne and social theorist and activist Jane Addams.

Politically, a small remnant of anti-intervention congressmen fought a desperate battle in the last weeks before intervention. Among them, Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, a Progressive himself, was foremost. “Fighting Bob” was the leader of Senate opposition to President Wilson’s nearly complete departure from neutrality after the 1916 election. In particular, La Follette organized a coalition of Senators who opposed Wilson’s Armed Ship Bill, sent to the Senate in late February 1917. The bill proposed arming American ships carrying war goods to Europe, asserting the rights of the neutrals to sail into war zones with full rights of the sea, including the right to engage hostile ships. To La Follette and his colleagues, “The Armed Ship Bill Meant War,” and La Follette used this phrase in a position pamphlet published in late March 1917. La Follette charged that the administration tactic was to flood Congress with very large appropriations bills so close to the end of the session that Congress would never have time to deal with all of them with sufficient attention. As La Follette described it, “In the last hours of the 64th Congress, all of these bills [arrived], including finally the Armed Ship Bill, which reached Congress 63 hours before its recess and claimed sweeping discretionary power involving warlike acts.”

This small band of Senators organized a filibuster that defeated the passage of the Armed Ship Bill in early March 1917. The President, who rarely took opposition well, branded the Senators as a “little group of willful men” who, “representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” If Wilson was wrong in assessing motive and wisdom, he was right in that they were certainly in the minority. Both parties had now become war parties. Henry Cabot Lodge and other prominent Republicans demanded an immediate declaration.

From London, Ambassador Page informed Wilson that British gold reserves were nearly exhausted: “Perhaps our going to war is the only way in which our present preeminent trade position can be maintained and a panic averted.”

Wilson’s closest advisors had long since advised war. Wilson spoke with Colonel House on March 27 and asked if he should address Congress and ask for a declaration or simply declare a state of war and request “the means to conduct the conflict.” House advised the non-Constitutional route. On March 29, Wilson put the whole proposition of war to the Cabinet, which unanimously supported intervention. Some of the cabinet officers hoped to limit intervention to naval and supply assistance, and some even to financial aid. Wilson called a joint special session of Congress for April 2. The New Jersey governor had originally been chosen by House and others in part because he was a fine orator. In the biggest speech of his life, he pulled out the stops.

America, Wilson said, had been forced to war by the German submarine campaign on civilian ships, whether armed or not. During the course of this, Germans had killed Americans. He did not mention that these American ships were sailing through a designated war zone, or that many of them were carrying supplies and armament for the Allied powers.

Wilson outlined a series of war measures to be taken immediately, including the introduction of conscription to enlarge the army to 500,000, increasing loans and subsidies to the Allies while reorganizing society for war.

No doubt by the time Wilson began his speech, most national representatives had already made up their minds. The Senate voted for the declaration on April 4. Only six voted against: La Follette, Harry Lane, George Norris, William J. Stone, Asle J. Gronna, and James K. Vardaman. Eight senators abstained. The war resolution passed in the House at three in the morning on April 6. The vote was 373 to 50.

The United States was at war … for better or worse.


Posted May 8, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in History, Uncategorized

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