When the United States declared war on April 6th, 1917, it insured a German defeat. American money and men made the crucial difference in 1918, forcing the Germans to sue for peace.
Today we remember the end of that war, which used to be called Armistice Day. But the peace was short-lived. The horrors of Communism and Nazism which followed the Allied “victory” should force us to wonder whether the United States made the right decision.
I don’t think it did. Here are three reasons why America should have stayed out of World War I:
1. An Unsatisfactory Peace - Without American intervention, the British, French, and Russians would have been forced to negotiate an end to the war in 1917, for all the warring parties were exhausted. The French Army had been savaged at Verdun. This provoked wide spread mutinies, making French offensive action in 1917 impossible. The British Army had been mauled at the Somme and German submarines were taking a heavy toll on British shipping. Russian military reverses had brought that nation to the brink of revolution.
But Germany was in terrible shape too. The German army had suffered huge losses at both Verdun and the Somme, and the British blockade was starving the German civilian population.
President Woodrow Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of War.” If he had followed up on his victory by convening a peace conference, the British and French would have had no choice but to accept. Both nations were completely dependent on American loans and armaments.
The outlines of an American-led peace settlement in 1917 would probably have looked something like this: a German withdrawal from France and Belgium in return for a dominant position in Eastern Europe. This would have amounted to a qualified German victory.
That may seem rough, but it seems far preferable to what actually followed the German defeat of 1918, namely, Communist revolution and Nazi counter-revolution. Intervention in 1917 virtually insured a second war and a permanent American military presence in Europe. All of that might have been avoided.
2. A Bloated Government - The First World War entrenched big government in the United States. Prior to the war, the revenues of the federal government had never exceeded $762 million. After the war they were never less than $8 billion.
The IRS is now a permanent part of each American’s life thanks to World War I. To finance the war, the federal government dramatically raised taxes on middle incomes. As a result, the income tax became the primary source of federal income, replacing consumption taxes and tariffs.
To pursue the war, the federal government also intervened in all aspects of the economy. It nationalized the railways, took over all international trade, and controlled the price of wheat. Businessmen who might have objected to government intervention now learned how to profit from it. Historian Robert Higgs sums it up: “Among the war’s most significant legacies was a heightened politicization of the nation’s economic life.”
3. The Needless Loss of Life - American troops attacked in human waves and were slaughtered. The American Commander, General John J. Pershing, wanted to keep his army out of battle until 1919. He needed all of 1918 to train and equip it. This plan had a clear strategic conception: a large, fresh, and well-trained American army would break through the German line, march to Berlin, and impose a peace settlement.
But the German offensives during the Spring and Summer of 1918 forced him to throw American troops into the line to prevent the collapse of the British and French. They went in as human waves and the casualty figures show it. The largest commitment of American forces occurred from the end of July 1918 through November 11th. In roughly three months American forces suffered around 175,000 casualties. That is higher than casualty rate of the Civil War.
We are still living with the negative consequences of the Armistice of November of 1918. If the United States had stayed out of World War I, then the world of 2018 might have looked very different, and perhaps much better.
[Image Credit: Soldier on the left is the author's grandfather, John Edward Lord, who served in the 72nd Field Artillery; Elliott family photo.]