War Is A Lie: The War To End All Wars

This is the next installment in the War Is A Lie series from Historydojo. Please find the first installment here.

President Woodrow Wilson went to Congress on DATE to demand a declaration of War against Germany. In his speech before both houses he declared the following:

…We are accepting this challenge of hostile purpose because we know that in such a government, following such methods, we can never have a friend; and that in the presence of its organized power, always lying in wait to accomplish we know not what purpose, there can be no assured security for the democratic governments of the world…

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.[1] 

In this speech we can see very clear two important elements of World War One. We see the reason why the United States is joining the war effort. We must fight “to make the world safe for democracy.” We also see why the United States is not joining the war. We desire no material compensation.

It is a curious thinking for Wilson to mention the things that the United States is not hoping to achieve in the war. It begs the question why a President would mention these non-mission critical elements of the war, just as he was asking for the government to authorize entry into one of the biggest errors in human history.

As historians it is important that we examine the time period of these remarks, as they will offer to us context to better understand them. At the time of this speech, the United States was one of the last nations not embroiled in the war. The First World War had been raging in Europe and around the world for almost three years, and millions of young men had died irrelevant deaths on the battlefield.

The American public was not ignorant of world affairs, either. The carnage on the French battlefields of Somme [2] and Verdun [3] were well known and wildly unpopular. The American public wanted nothing to do with World War One.

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The Lusitania

The United States had already been attacked as well. Even after the sinking of the cruse line The Lusitania in 1915, the American public wanted no part of revenge. The attack on a civilian ship was considered an outrageous act by Germany, and one which President Wilson had promised a quick response.

 

He vowed to warn Germany not to do anything like that ever again, in a strongly worded letter he would send directly to the German Kaiser, Wilhelm. Indeed, he sent the message, but more American merchant ships were sunk by German U-Boats.

It is hard to imaging this historical context today. After 9-11, it was inconceivable that President George W. Bush would send a letter to Osama Bin Laden, demanding that he never fly airplanes into American cities ever again. If that had been his response, I doubt Bush would have remained president very long. The American people were bloodthirsty for revenge after the 9-11 attacks. Inaction would have been unacceptable to a nation bent on violence. Unfortunately, this reaction was exactly what the 9-11 attacks were designed to elicit from the United States.

In the case of the repeated attacks upon American shipping in the Atlantic, Wilson did nothing of significance. The reason for this is the obvious lesson that World War one presented. The wasted lives and treasure that the war represented meant that the American public would not support sending American boys to fight and die in France in a futile war for empire. Wilson, facing a reelection campaign in 1916, surely knew the American public and did not want to risk any chance of defeat.

1916-he-kept-usWilson even campaigned on his inaction in response to attacks on American lives. His slogan for the election of 19616 was “He kept Us Out Of War.”

So in 1916, after his reelection, Wilson went to Congress and asked that we go into war. This sudden reversal surely had something to do with the fact that he would never run for office again,. While not yet limited by amendment to the Constitution from running for a third term, Wilson was aware of the tradition that American presidents did not serve beyond two terms.

His re-election in 1916 meant that President Wilson was safe to betray the American voters.

The reasons it is accurate to describe this as a betray and a lie is in the reason Wilson gave for why the United States suddenly had non choice but to go to war in Europe. Wilson offered the infamous Zimmerman telegram as evidence. This telegram was intercepted from the German foreign minister en route to the Mexican government. The British had intercepted it and presented it to the Americans in hopes of enlisting their entry into the war on the side of the Allies. (It worked.)

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The Zimmerman Telegram

But the telegram is dubious evidence of reason for war. The Telegram was an offer of support from Germany to Mexico if the Mexican government would attack the United States on behalf of Germany. The threat of a Mexican attack was more compelling to Wilson in 1916 than repeated attacks by Germany had been ion 1915.

The evidence of a Mexican threat is harder to believe when you consider that the United States and Mexican had already fought a war, and the United States was easily able to defeat Mexico.

Since 1848, the United States had seized half of Mexican territory, invaded unhindered many times after that. Even under Wilson administration, General Pershing and the U.S. Army had invaded Mexico to capture and kill the popular rebel Pancho Villa. The ability of Mexico to defend itself from American aggression was little to none. The threat of an attack on the Southern U.S. was therefore not credible.

Furthermore, the absence of any real attack by Mexico after the telegram was discovered also undermines the reasons for entering the war. And, not to be forgotten, was the absence of any request by Wilson to declare war against Mexico, or even invade Mexico to defend against this imagined Mexican threat.

If Germany was asking Mexico to attack the United States, it is like Russia asking Trinidad and Tobago to attack the U.S. today. It is a laughable threat, and not one that was legitimate to send the U.S. to war.

But the evidence for why Wilson might want to go to war is closer aligned with the reasons he stated were the reasons the U.S. was not going to war.

The lie is obvious on its face when one considers the economic interests of the United States in supporting an Allied victory in the war.

The investments that were at stake of never being repaid if France and England surrendered to Germany meant that the elite would be losing too great a sum. Therefore the working class needed to be mobilized to defend the threat to the wealthy and the powerful. This cause could not be promoted as a war for the wealthy, however, as no mother would sacrifice her son in defense of profits and power. Patriotic duty needed to be used to inspire the uneducated to fight for a system that did not serve them.

Consider the evidence offered by the historian Howard Zinn.

In 1897, private foreign investments of the
United States amounted to $700 million dollars. By 1914, they were
$3.5 billion…
With World War I, England became more and more a market for
American goods and for loans at interest. J.P. Morgan and Company
acted as agents for the Allies and when, in 1915, Wilson lifted the ban
on private bank loans to the Allies, Morgan could now begin lending
money in such great amounts as to both make great profit and tie
American finance closely to the interest of a British victory in the war
against Germany.

The economic gain that the war represented before the United States declared war made the declaration essential when those gains were in doubt. Therefore, in order to secure profit and not peace, dividends and not democracy, the War to End All Wars was just another war for profit and power.

The lie remains the same, however.

The lie of all wars remains, we have been attacked, therefore we must go to war.

In this case, it was the Mexicans. Be afraid, Wilson warned, the Mexicans are coming!

American losses in World War I were modest compared to those of other belligerents, with 116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded of the 4.7 million men who served.  Britannica


[1] Wilson’s War Message To Congress,  https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson’s_War_Message_to_Congress

[2] Battle of the Somme, BBC

[3] Battle of Verdun

[4] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, New York:
HarperCollins, 1980. Howard Zinn is a historian and activist who is best known
today as the author of A People’s History of the United States, a book that tells
American history from the perspective of minorities, women, and poor people,
and that is very critical of the United States government.

 

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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