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World War I

Mises Daily: Monday, May 17, 1999 by

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I. Background

Joseph Schumpeter wrote that "capitalist society was on its way to creating a new civilization all its own when it was overtaken by the meaningless catastrophe of 1914-18, which put its world out of gear." The Treaty of Versailles held Germany guilty of plotting war. Some historians disagree and let Serbia, Russia, France, and Britain share the blame.

During the "long peace" from 1815 to 1914, Christian liberal European society showed many signs of advancing civilization. Liberalism and industrialization brought about unprecedented material progress. A.J.P. Taylor writes: "In 1914 Europe was a single civilized community.... A man could travel across the length and breadth of the Continent without a passport until he reached... Russia and the Ottoman empire. He could settle in a foreign country for work or leisure without legal formalities..... Every currency was as good as gold...." (No "Euros"!) Civilization itself was a casualty of World War I.

But why this bout of "decivilization"? One cause was colonial rivalry. More important was the "Eastern Question," that is, who would profit from Ottoman retreat from Europe? Russia and Austria stood to gain-or lose-the most.

After creating a powerful and industrializing German federation which threatened Europe's "balance of power," Bismarck worked to prevent war. He reconciled Austria, maintained friendly relations with Russia, and got along as well as possible with France. He worked against Germany's "encirclement" by France and an ally-to prevent a two-front war. After Bismarck's dismissal in 1890 by the impulsive young Kaiser Wilhelm II (a crowned TR), German policy drifted into the encirclement Bismarck feared.

Bismarck's successors neglected Russia, giving France an opening. With one reliable ally (Austria), Germany now faced a two-front war. Britain, the most successful empire, felt "isolated," and a minority of the cabinet, abetted by staff officers, made undertakings with France unknown to Parliament and the public. Two blocs stood poised for war. Military expenditures had grown 300% from 1870 to 1914. Would idiots put all this to use?

The spark came from the Balkans. Russia cloaked its ambitions in Panslavism--its duty towards its fellow Slavic Christians. The Serbian Kingdom--whose political style was assassination tempered by monarchy--wanted Greater Serbia at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Russia encouraged Serbia, and Serbian officials encouraged Serbian terrorists in Bosnia (foolishly annexed by Austria). The assassination--by these nationalists--of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort at Sarajevo on July 28, 1914, threatened general war. Only brilliant statesmanship might have restricted the ensuing war. Unfortunately, that was in short supply. There would be no localized Austro-Serbian War.

Germany wrote its famous "Blank Check" to Austria. Finding Serbia's answers inadequate, Austria mobilized. Russia, encouraged by France, began mobilizing. Every army's planning assumed that if Russia mobilized its colossal forces, it would use them. Germany asked Russia to stop, and this failing, declared war. German strategy called for a quick defeat of France, so German forces could mass against Russia. This would mean crossing through Belgium, whose neutrality the powers guaranteed. Belgium's plight gave British leaders an excuse to implement their quasi-alliance with France. Italy stayed out until bribed by the Allies, but the decrepit Ottoman Empire joined Germany and Austria. Civilization as Europe had known it ended in August 1914.

II. The Slaughter House Takes Form

The war in the West was one of "movement" for about a month. The German offensive stalled across northern France and in Belgium. (The Eastern Front saw movement, if only because the Germans pushed Russian forces further and further east. The static Western Front came to symbolize the whole mad business. Armies sat across from one another behind barbed-wire trenches. The "strategy" and "tactics" followed on both sides were insanely wrong: ritualized infantry advances into machine-gun fire, after massive artillery barrages which were supposed to "soften up" the enemy" but never did.

Machine-guns fired 600 rounds per minute; crossfire made them even more lethal. The outcome was sheer slaughter: the "industrialization" of war. Modris Ecksteins writes: "...[C]asualties had been staggering.... Total French losses by the end of December were comparable with the German, roughly 300,000 killed and 600,000 wounded or missing." It was a surreal madhouse in a "cubist" war. A whole generation was driven half-mad by "shell-shock," advances into certain death, and commanders whose only answer was four more years of the same. (Out of this experience came "fascist man.") War had been a part of civilization; now it threatened to destroy it.

III. War-Making and State-Making

The outbreak of war had saw some surprises. Socialists followed their flags and not the workers movement. People volunteered in droves. Pre-war writers of militarist drivel share the blame for the war's initial popularity, e.g., J.A. Cramb of Queen's College, whose Germany and England (published in June 1914 ) agitated against Germany and ends on a Homeric note, with Odin "looking serenely down upon that conflict, upon his favorite children, the English and the Germans, locked in a death-struggle, smiling upon...the heroism of [his] children" in an Anglo-German war.

As casualties grew by the thousands--soon to be millions--the belligerent powers chose to fight on rather than rethink the war. Both sides beamed propaganda at their own people and neutrals. The Allies were much better at it. Rulers everywhere framed ambitious "war aims." This was not a uniquely German trait "proving" Germans had wanted war.

The war saw massive state-building at the expense of civil society, individual liberty, and free markets. Each state "planned" its economy. To justify the sacrifices, governments promised new social programs. (Death now, equality later?) "War socialism" became the order of the day. Labor leaders served on economic planning boards. Inflation hid the war's monetary costs. Germany's command economy impressed exiled Bolsheviks, who had no idea what "communism" would look like. The war dragged on. By early 1917 the Allies leaders worried about "losing" it (as if it wasn't already a dead loss). They needed a new friend with bags of money and a huge industrial base.

IV. The Archangel Woodrow and U.S. Intervention

While murder and madness reigned overseas Americans followed the peaceful, boring, and inglorious pursuits of the marketplace: capital formation,wealth creation, and mass production for mass markets. Some few aspired to regulate this economic activity for self-serving and ideological reasons; some-ex-Professor Woodrow Wilson among them-longed for a more active U.S. overseas role which would enhance state power. Some, including Senator Lodge, Teddy Roosevelt, and Wilson, were committed to the Open Door imperialism dating from 1898. Some Americans made money on the Old World's folly-like banker J.P. Morgan, an important source of credit for France and Britain. U.S. manufactures, including munitions, went to the Allies in huge amounts-because the British blockade of Germany prevented trade with the Central Powers.

Britannia "waived the rules" and rewrote the rules of naval warfare to screw down its starvation blockade of Germany. Britain searched all neutral shipping on the theory that their goods might really be going to Germany's war effort. (Here they could quote Secretary Seward, who employed the same theory when defending Lincoln's blockade of the South.) Britain broadened the concept of contraband.

This led to weak protests from the United States; weak because top officials in the Wilson administration (with the exception of Bryan, the Secretary of State) shared the British viewpoint. Robert Lansing , Secretary of State after Bryan's resignation, later admitted it had been a game: "Everything was submerged in verbosity...with deliberate purpose. It...left the questions unsettled, which was necessary in order to leave this country free to act and even to act illegally when it entered the war." Ambassador Page, in London, could have been British ambassador to the U.S. The mysterious Colonel House, Wilson's right hand man, was a committed Anglophile.

The great American majority favored neutrality. Midwestern "Germans" whose forebears fled nineteenth-century Europe to avoid war and conscription were a force for peace. (The same could be said of Scandinavian-Americans in the same states.) Irish Americans opposed fighting for Britain. This factor led pro-English "100 per-centers" like the Teddy Roosevelt to howl about "disloyal hyphenates" but "regular" Americans held the same views at a time when locally controlled schools still taught a "patriotic," republican version of the American Revolution (with the British as villains). Americans knew who Benedict Arnold was.

Pro-Allies were concentrated in the political-economic elites of northeastern states (and many Southerners sympathized with Britain). Cultural ties helped pro-English elements portray the war as the peaceful democracies' fight--including the Tsar?--against the autocratic Central Powers. Social democrats and corporatists saw war as an opportunity for new government inroads into American life. New Republic writers were great boomers of U.S. intervention.

V. Wilson's Views and Character

As a politicized post-millennial Protestant who favored generalized state intervention, Wilson was part of the problem. He intervened more in Latin America than his predecessor, "Dollar Diplomacy" Taft, and spoke of "the righteous conquest of foreign markets." He favored a "liberal capitalist" world run by Anglo-Saxon powers. ( "Anglo-Saxonism" was the opiate of northeastern intellectuals and a would-be Transatlantic elite.)

People might have learned from Wilson's Mexican intervention. Asserting the right to pick other nations' rulers, he sent 15,000 soldiers into Mexico but withdrew them early in 1917 after poisoning U.S./Mexican relations. Ambassador Page defended Wilson's mania. Asked by Sir Edward Grey if the U.S. would "keep this up 200 years," Page replied that the U.S. could "shoot men...until they learn to vote and to rule themselves." He added--of the British--"A [Negro] lynched in Mississippi offends them more than a tyrant in Mexico."

Wilson could not comprehend opposition to his notions. He sent many men to die for his abstractions H.L. Mencken called him "a pedagogue gone mashugga" who saw words "race across blackboards like Marxians pursued by the polizei...." Once Wilson decided to improve the world, it came to him that he must lead America into the war. Then, absurdities like "making the world safe for democracy" and "a war to end war"--along with the Open Door--made sense as a coherent program.

VI. "Freedom of the Seas" Gives Wilson His Excuse

Britain's blockade called forth German countermeasure--the U-boat. Weakly protesting British activities, the Administration held Germany "strictly accountable." Secretary Bryan resigned in June 1915 rather than sign an especially strong note to Germany. Since U-boats did sometimes take the lives of neutral powers' citizens who ignored German warnings to travelers, more emotion attached to their actions. The northeastern press took up the cry, while ignoring the Allied starvation blockade.

Britain had converted luxury liners into "auxiliary cruisers." The Lusitania was carrying munitions. Those who sailed had a choice-something denied those Americans sent to the trenches over "freedom of the seas." Borchard and Lage write that "there was no precedent or legal warrant for a neutral to protect a belligerent ship from attack by its enemy because it happened to have on board American citizens." Wilson's "freedom of the seas" was futile self-deception, and propaganda--leading straight to intervention.

The election of 1916 was an exercise in bipartisan collusion. Wilson co-opted the anti-war majority as the man who "kept us out of war." The Republicans obscured the issue. Every time their candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, warned against war, GOP hierarchs had Teddy Roosevelt attack Wilson's "pacifism" and weakness. Hughes got the message, Wilson got re-elected, and northeastern Republicans got their war by sacrificing the election.

The pro-war press and the "preparedness" zealots were making headway. The starvation blockade continued and Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. The Zimmermann Note added to the situation and revealed--shocking some people--that if you move towards war, the power affected will think about fighting you.

On February 3, 1917, Wilson severed relations with Germany. War fever raged. On April 2, he asked for war. A handful in Congress--mostly midwestern and western Progressives--spoke against it. Fifty Congressmen voted against the war, including Jeanette Rankin, Majority Leader Claude Kitchen, and Meyer London (the only Socialist). Six Senators voted No: Gronna, Lane, Norris, Stone, Vardaman, and LaFollette. Stone told a colleague his reason: "I won't vote for this war because if we go into it, we will never again have this same old Republic." With war declared, big-city newspapers began accusing critics of "treason."

Wilson had his crusade. Since some day the autocratic Germans might block access to the foreign markets, real losses, now, for real Americans, were compatible with the U.S. elite's definition of U.S. well-being. Absent the Open Door strategy and ideology and with two oceans between America and any "threat," the argument for intervention was pitifully weak or non-existent.

VII. Crusade for Humanity and Dictatorship of the Reformers

Congress quickly passed the most repressive "espionage" and "sedition" laws since those which provoked the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-99. No "spies" were caught, but Americans lost their freedom. Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet writes: "I believe it no exaggeration to say that the West's first real experience with totalitarianism--political absolutism extended into every possible area..., with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings--came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson." Mass conscription rushed into law and all resistance was crushed.

The government's reign of terror against "pro-Germans" targeted all who doubted the cause. So many snoops helped that H.L. Mencken suggested medals. Numbskull "criminal anarcho-syndicalism" laws and loyalty oaths passed. The mildest criticism of the war, our noble allies, and the cause became criminal. Eugene V. Debs went to jail. Free speech ceased; censorship reigned. Prominent intellectuals proudly did state propaganda. Prohibition came in to "conserve" grain and sugar. The War Industries Board, which "rationalized" the economy, became the working model of formal corporatism (inspiring later New Dealers).

Wilson famously worried about wartime intolerance. He then ordered it. Hysterical "super-patriots" took up the post-war "Red Scare" and joined the so-called Ku Klux Klan. The Pledge of Allegiance to the state sprang from wartime "nationalist" hysteria. (Under the Old Republic, we felt no need for such recitations.)

VIII. The War Carried to the Foreign Enemy

While the war against America raged on, the military effort took shape. Americans from all walks of life were homogenized and repackaged for life in a bureaucratized mass "democracy." Soon enough, they were slogging around in France, enjoying the death, destruction, and mindless "strategy" familiar to French, British, Canadian, and Australian troops. America's battlefield deaths were low--at 130,000--if pointless deaths for politicians can ever be "low."

The real U.S. contribution was financial and industrial. America was an "associated" power--so Wilson could feel independent of old-world wiles. Whatever the U.S. was called, the money tap ran full, and U.S. industry tipped the delicate balance (worsened when revolutionary Russia left the fray). Then Germany, starved and weary, brought its remaining forces westward. Austria and the Turks were on their last legs. American materiel saved the Allies from peace negotiations.

"War of movement" returned in early 1918 by accident and because of the hollowness of the German forces. The Kaiser abdicated; German Communists prepared to repeat Lenin's Russian coup. With the home front in collapse and their armies exhausted, the German commanders asked for an armistice. The Allies kept up their starvation blockade for another four months after the armistice of November 11, 1918. Wilson left for Europe to hawk his "fourteen points."

We cannot go over the tale of Wilson's disillusionment. Agents of all nationalities besieged him--in hopes of profiting from his windbagging about "self-determination." He saw their points but not those of Ireland or Indo-China. Wilson's advisors added to this bad counsel. Lloyd George and Clemenceau whittled Wilson's plans away, leaving him with a treaty certain to be revised--probably by war--and the fantastic "peace-keeping" League of Nations for his comfort. Charles A. Beard summed up Wilson's "creed" thus: "[E]verything in the world is to be managed as decorously as a Baptist convention presided over by the Honorable Cordell Hull; if not, we propose to fight disturbers... nearly everywhere...."

IX. Popular Repudiation of Wilson's War to End Peace

The Great War extended British and French power, at a catastrophic cost. It replaced Tsarism with the evil Soviet despotism. Revolutions broke out in Europe and provoked the fascist reaction. Austria yielded to new states which could never accommodate national realities. Permanent western intrusion--complicated by Balfour's Declaration--into the Arab world followed the Ottoman collapse. The one-sided Versailles Treaty, signed by Germany at gunpoint, "secured" all this.

In America, general revulsion set in. An anti-war coalition emerged which included many former "war liberals." The Senate's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles reflected this. It is crucial to understand the debate because so many legends surround it. Supposedly, the "immature" American people thwarted the League's prospective good deeds in a fit of "isolationism," selfish withdrawal from the world, and run-away capitalism. (These two legends about the 1920s--laissez faire and "isolationism"--prop each another up.)

The fight actually involved three groups: 1) Wilsonians, standing for Open Door Empire and cooperation with Britain and France to sustain it; 2) "Unilateral" Open Door imperialists like Senator Lodge, opposing entangling commitments; and 3) Laissez faire liberals and anti-imperialists, led by Borah of Idaho, sympathetic to self-determination even for those ruled by Britain. The last two groups combined defeated the Treaty, but says William Appleman Williams, lumping them together has "crippled American thought about foreign policy for 40 years."

X. Rethinking War

"Revisionist" literature of the 1920s questioned U.S. participation in the war. Americans resolved not to take that ride again. It was this frame of mind and not "proto-fascism" which led Americans to fight entry into the Great War's sequel in 1939-1941. Whatever the popular mood, U.S. policy-makers pursued the Open Door program unilaterally in Latin America and as far away as China. Worse luck, Wilson's ideological ghost returned again in FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, preaching from both gospels-Open Door and World Philanthropy.
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Joseph Stromberg is an adjunct scholar with The Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies. This article originally ran in The Rothbard-Rockwell Report.


See also Anti-War Links.