On this date 95 years ago, America set aside its isolationist heritage and, for better or worse, became a full-fledged member of the international oecumene. It was on April 2, 1917, that President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany. The sympathies of most Americans long lay with Britain and the Allies. Two and a half years after the first shots were fired, few harbored any illusions that American neutrality was anything but naïve wishful thinking. By the first week of April, a virtual state of war had existed between the United States and Germany for at least a month.
Two years into the Great War, Germany was being strangled by an unrelenting blockade imposed by Britain. Unwilling to defy the British blockade, American trade with Germany and the Central Powers was practically nonexistent. The situation was the reverse when it came to Britain. From 1914 to 1916, American exports to the United Kingdom nearly quadrupled.
It was this trans-Atlantic lifeline that Germany sought to bring to an end when it commenced unrestricted submarine warfare. In the previous five months, German submarines or saboteurs were responsible for destroying 15 American merchant vessels, resulting in 70 casualties. German diplomatic ineptitude inflamed an already volatile situation in late February, when Britain intercepted a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary proposing that Mexico should join in an offensive alliance against the United States in the event the Americans should declare war on Germany.
March of 1917 was perhaps the month that determined the fate of twentieth century Weltpolitik. It was the month when America accepted the inevitability of joining the European fray. The biggest news of all came mid-month, when the Russian Revolution swept the czar from power. With the end of the autocratic Romanov dynasty, the Great War seemed to have morphed into an ideological conflict of representative democracies against medieval repression. Americans applauded the events in far away St. Petersburg, unconcerned that the turmoil there could evolve into something even more repressive than what it had replaced.
In England, news of America’s entry into the war was met with jubilation. The Stars and Stripes flew next to the Union Jack atop the Palace of Westminster. In Berlin, the mood was far gloomier. 300,000 workers were on strike. The Kaiser was becoming more and more impotent as Germany assumed the mantra of a military dictatorship under generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg. That process intensified with America’s entry into the war, bringing a new sense of urgency bordering on panic to Germany’s military leaders.
That’s not to say Germany was impotent this late in the war. Far from it. Germany’s submarine warfare increased in its devastation. U-boat sinkings reached nearly a million tons in the two months following America’s declaration of war. Germany still possessed more military muscle than France, which was teetering on the brink of collapse following a disastrous offensive the second half of April. In the course of two weeks, 250,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded for just 500 yards of real estate. The real question now was whether America’s military impact might have come too late to prevent a French and Italian surrender. That was surely in General Ludendorff’s thoughts as he initiated a series of offensives late in 1917 and early 1918.
Students of history have long debated what would have happened had Germany not provoked America’s entry into the war with its unrestricted submarine warfare. Would the United States have still been pulled into the war by other means? Assuming a negative answer to that question, would Germany have managed to outlast its continental enemies? Or would the shortages of food and materiel force a German surrender even without the presence of American doughboys? I have my doubts about that. I suspect Germany would have outlasted France and Italy. If those countries left the battlefield, I suspect London would have been forced to reach a settlement recognizing German dominance on the continent in return for British control of the seas.
Ultimately, a settlement of that sort would have proved temporary. Nationalism in the Balkans and the Mideast could not be permanently stifled. Lenin, and Stalin after him, would have still ruled Russia. Once Stalin consolidated his hold on power, surely he would have looked at the nationalistic turmoil on Russia’s western border as an opportunity for Russian imperial ambitions. Further east, England could not prevent the rise of Gandhi in India, and its colonies in Africa still would have demanded their independence within one or two generations.
A stalemate peace in late 1917 or 1918 would have left unresolved too many sources of instability to be very long lasting. But the wars that would have inevitably commenced by mid-century would have looked a lot different than the Götterdämerung of 1939-1945. While there probably would have been a Stalin, there would not have been a Hitler, at least not a German one. France might be a different story. I can easily imagine a revanchist France looking for a new Napoleon, a French version of Hitler, perhaps, complete with Jewish or North African scapegoats on whom to lay blame for the disaster of 1917. As for Italy, there may have been a Mussolini, but he may have sought a benefactor and protector in Paris instead of Berlin.
Ultimately, I think America’s entry into the World War I was a short-term benefit to democratic governance in the world. Its long-term impact, I fear, may have been at least as negative as it was positive. Without America’s direct involvement, there would have been no Versailles Treaty. Without Versailles, there would have been no Hitler. No Hitler, no Holocaust. No Hitler, no German-Japanese alliance, or at least none that would have been so brutally threatening to civilized society. No German-Japanese alliance, no Hiroshima or Nagasaki. No Cold War? No Korea or Vietnam?
I am far too jaded to suggest the world would have avoided all the horrors of the 20th century if only America had managed to stay out of the First World War. There surely would have been enough residual hatred and resentment to bring about plenty of bloodshed within a generation or two. Still, I think the 20th century would have developed far differently than it actually did. Would the carnage of the mid-20th century have been as intense? What of American isolationism? Just how long could America pretend to live apart from affairs on the opposite side of the globe? I don’t know the answers to these questions. There probably isn’t much value in even asking them. But it is certainly an interesting exercise to ponder them.