April 2017 marked the 100 year anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering the First World War. A PBS special, an op-ed in the New York Times, and a special Time Magazine edition seemed to be the highlights of this important centenary. Contrast this to the speeches, remembrances, and special events in Europe in 2014 (the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war) which isn’t surprising given that the war was fought in Europe (western and eastern Europe primarily) and many more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than American. They’re still finding live shells buried in the farm fields France and Belgium so even 100 years later, the war isn’t really over. Yet, the anti-climax of the U.S. anniversary was a bit disturbing given that this war in my opinion shaped U.S. and global politics, the military-industrial complex, and technology’s trajectory more than anything else in the 20th century.
I was also disturbed by the underlying sentiment in the PBS special and Time articles that made Germany the aggressor, the instigator, the problem, and the U.S. the hero and the liberator. This is WWI we’re talking about, not WWII. It didn’t start because of German aggression. This was a war of Empire and the desire of all Empires was to expand their power and influence. The British Empire was the dominant world power both militarily and economically at the time, and it was doing anything and everything to keep that power. From their perspective, Germany which was building its navy and trying to increase its influence in the world economy was a serious threat. To them. (A good book to shake your perspective of Britain as the “good guy” is found in the Hidden History; The Secret Origins of the First World War.)
All sides were culpable.
But what if the U.S. hadn’t played favorites and loaned millions and sold millions in war goods to France and Britain and thus prolonged the war. Once the stalemate was realized by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, in 1915, peace talks might have made headway if Britain and France hadn’t been backed by the U.S. Or what if a more equitable peace would have been brokered by the belligerents had the U.S. not joined at the end of the war. Who’s to say that Hitler wouldn’t have risen to power and a WWII would not have happened? Unfortunately, we can’t run those experiments. So we will never know.
What we do know is that President Wilson and the U.S. caved in at the Treaty of Versailles whether it was due to Wilson contracting the influenza and affecting his capacities as proposed in The Great Influenza or for other reasons. He reneged on his “Peace without Victory” adage, and gave in to France’s demands. The Treaty punished the Germans in ways that destroyed their economy and morale. One thing that many historians do agree on is that the Treaty was a disaster and invariably led to the rise of Hitler, fascism, and WWII. So maybe that’s the real reason, popular history still likes to blame WWI on the Germans, so that we, Americans, French and British, can disavow our own influence and impact in the creation of an even more devastating second world war.
I just wish we could learn to live in peace.