The Meaningless Catastrophe of 1914-18
Joseph R. Stromberg
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
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
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
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
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
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 theOpen 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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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