This is the fourth entry in a debate between Michael Kazin and John M. Cooper over the United States' entry into World War I, which began one hundred years ago this month. Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is writing a book about American opponents of World War I. Cooper is the author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.
Michael Kazin compliments me for “having enormous faith” in what Woodrow Wilson might have done if certain events had taken a different turn, particularly if World War I had lasted longer and if the president had not suffered his stroke. Actually, I do not think it takes much of an act of faith to imagine better outcomes if those things had gone otherwise. A longer war with a bigger American role in victory could not have failed to enhance this country’s bargaining leverage. As matters stood, the French were able to impose a punitive armistice for which they claimed sole credit (as anyone who visits the railway car at Compiegne can read on their hideous monument). Furthermore, having withstood the Germans’ last massive offensive largely, though not entirely, before many Doughboys arrived, they and the British could minimize the American contribution. No one can know whether Wilson might have dampened the anti-dissent hysteria at home, but, as he indicated to his attorney general in the fall of 1918, he wanted to make a stab in that direction.
On the matter of his stroke, it takes no act of faith to believe that a healthy Wilson, in reasonable command of the political skills he had repeatedly demonstrated during six years in the White House, could not have helped make things turn out better. Bringing enough senators around to approve the peace treaty and League membership might have been beyond his reach, but there was room for maneuver and bargaining if the president could have played his part. Nor does it take an act of faith to believe that he would stopped Attorney General A. Mitchall Palmer from mounting his Red Scare. “Palmer, don’t let this country see red,” Wilson said to him—sadly, after the fact.
Returning Kazin’s compliment, I think he shows enormous faith in what the world would have looked like if the United States had stayed out of this war. A German triumph may have been “no sure thing,” but it is hard to see how the Allies could have avoided defeat. What shape, then, would a German-dominated Europe have taken? Kazin seems to think that the Socialist Party’s sway in a victorious Kaiserreich was a sure thing, but would that have come to pass in a nation where the military-aristocratic complex had become more firmly entrenched than ever?
Defeat in 1918 unquestionably poisoned the politics of the Weimar Republic, and I agree with Kazin that without it Hitler would probably never have risen from obscurity. But would either Germany or other nations have been immune to the viruses of fascism and racialist nationalism? Being on the winning side did not immunize Italy and Japan against those infections. One likely result of a German victory might have been the defeat of the Bolsheviks in Russia, but before we relish that possibility think about what a chilling effect that would have had on later anti-colonial movements. Or consider how in later decades Gandhi might have fared in a German-dominated India or Mandela in a German-reinforced Boer South Africa.
Finally, as a person of faith, Kazin lays down a luminous moral dictum—“to lead a bitterly divided nation into a war of choice is never a good idea.” Like most such maxims, this one tends to evaporate in the real world. This country has fought only two wars when it was not bitterly divided: In 1898 we had John Hay’s “splendid little war” against pushover Spain and after Pearl Harbor we fought our “good war”—which has misled us into expecting unanimity and bipartisanship as the norm.
Whether a war is one of choice or necessity depends mostly on who is interpreting it. Plenty of people in 1917 believed this was a war of necessity, and neutrality would have carried its own costs, such as almost certain curtailment of overseas shipping, attacks on our ships and citizens, and unappeased, raging wrath from war hawks in the Theodore Roosevelt camp. Our ideal standard, World War II, was not a war of choice in Europe because Hitler declared war on us after Pearl Harbor—but only after FDR had chosen to pursue a hostile course less and less short of war. In the Pacific, Pearl Harbor provided the perfect occasion to jump on the bandwagon, but the much-despised “revisionists” of that era were not wrong to point out that we had made hostile and provocative moves toward Japan. Unlike Kazin and like Wilson, I think moral maxims about wars of choice are like siren songs, seductive to the ear but muddling to the mind when making momentous decisions.