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The Roots of World War II

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It is commonly thought that the 20th century witnessed two world wars. It would be more accurate to say that the century had but one world war — with a 21-year intermission. To put it another way, World War II grew out of World War I; indeed, it was made virtually inevitable by it. More specifically, a case can be made that World War II was a result of American intervention in the First World War.

Counterfactual history is a risky endeavor. But the events that followed America’s entry into World War I strongly suggest that had President Woodrow Wilson permanently “kept us out of war,” as his 1916 presidential campaign slogan boasted, the conditions that produced World War II would not have been sown.

The Great War began in August 1914. America did not enter the war until April 1917. By that time both sides were exhausted from years of grinding warfare. There is ample reason to believe that had nothing new been added to the equation, the belligerents would have agreed to a negotiated settlement. No victors, no vindictiveness.

But it was not to be.

The messianic President Wilson could not pass up what he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help remake the world. As historian Arthur Ekirch writes inThe Decline of American Liberalism , “The notion of a crusade came naturally to Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, imbued with a stern Calvinist sense of determinism and devotion to duty.” He was goaded by a host of Progressive intellectuals, such as John Dewey and Herbert Croley, editor of The New Republic, who wrote that “the American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure.”

On the other side, the opponents of war understood what, ironically, Wilson himself pointed out in private just before asking Congress for a declaration of war: “War required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front. We couldn’t fight Germany and maintain the ideals of Government that all thinking men shared.”

Wilson was right. Within months, the United States had conscription, an official propaganda office, suppression of dissent, and central planning of the economy (a precedent for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal).

While Wilson said the United States was going to war to make the world safe for democracy, he in fact entered for the less lofty principle of making it safe for American citizens to sail on the armed ships of belligerents. Regardless, what matters here is the effect U.S. intervention had on the war.

Aside from the general exhaustion of the warring nations, a major development was occurring to the east. The war had caused great hardship in Russia. Food was in short supply. Workers went on strike, and housewives marched in protest. Army regiments mutinied. In March 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, and when his brother refused the throne, a provisional, social democratic government was set up in Russia. As historian E. H. Carr wrote, “The revolutionary parties played no direct part in the making of the revolution.”

Despite the people’s revulsion, Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government stayed in the war at the insistence of the Allies and Wilson, who by then had sent American boys to Europe. When Lenin returned to Russia from Zurich, he made his Bolsheviks the one antiwar party in the country. This gave Lenin the opportunity to become the world’s first communist dictator. An earlier negotiated settlement would have eased the Russians’ misery and probably averted the second revolution. Lenin immediately accepted Germany’s peace terms, including territorial concessions, and left the war. (Toward the end of the war, the Allies invaded the new Soviet Union, ostensibly to safeguard war materiel. The invasion created long-lasting distrust of the West.)

Thus, the first likely consequence of U.S. prolongation of the war was the Bolshevik Revolution (and the Cold War). Communism — its threat of worldwide revolution and its wholesale slaughter — was a key factor in the rise of the European despotism that sparked World War II. (Had the Bolsheviks come to power anyway and Germany had won the war, Germany would have thrown the communists out.)

Entry of fresh American power gave the advantage to the Allies, and Germany signed the armistice in November 1918. Before allowing that, Wilson, in the name of spreading democracy, demanded that the Kaiser go. The president thus was responsible for the removal of what would have likely been an important institutional obstacle to Hitler and his aggressive ambitions.

The armistice set the stage for the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles. Article 231 of that Treaty — the infamous war guilt clause — said:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Germany was to become an outcast nation on the basis of its war guilt. The problem was that Germany was not uniquely guilty. World War I was the product of a complex political dynamic in which nations other than Germany — Russia and France, for example — played important roles. Nevertheless, Germany was branded as the perpetrator.

The victors imposed crushing reparations on Germany for the cost of the war. That was contrary to Wilson’s original, nonpunitive program (The Fourteen Points) and to the prearmistice agreement with Germany. But at the peace conference, he acquiesced to England and France in order to achieve his dream of a League of Nations. Adding to the humiliation was the Allied occupation of the Rhineland and the tearing away of German-speaking areas in order to reconstitute Poland and create Czechoslovakia. Moreover, the treaty nullified German control in the East, which Lenin had conceded, removing what would have been a formidable barrier against Bolshevism.

Not all the hardship resulted from the treaty. During the war the Allies imposed a starvation blockade on Germany. Due to French insistence, that blockade remained in place until the treaty was signed in June 1919. The German people were made to watch their children starve for six months after the guns fell silent. The blockade killed an estimated 800,000 people.

In the 1920s, many people — Germans and others — would call for revision of the unjust treaty. But no one in a position to do anything about it heeded the call. Can one imagine ground more fertile for the growth of the poisonous vine called Nazism?

The second likely consequence, then, of U.S. prolongation of the war was the rise of Nazi Germany.

Other consequences can be speculated on. For example, Murray Rothbard has argued that the Federal Reserve System engaged in a prolonged postwar inflation of the money supply in order to help Great Britain restore its prewar gold-Pound relationship. That inflation led to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Perhaps if the United States had refrained from entering the war, and if a negotiated settlement had been reached, the Fed would not have felt obliged to assist Britain in achieving its unrealistic aims.

We can now do an accounting of the likely consequences of U.S. intervention in Europe: communism in Russia (and everywhere else it later reverberated), Nazism in Germany, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II (not to mention the Cold War and the growth of the American leviathan).

No one would suggest that Woodrow Wilson foresaw those consequences and intervened anyway. But the intelligent men who warned that war would lead to revolution and totalitarianism were vindicated. The war critic Randolph Bourne observed that “it is only ‘liberal’ naivete that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it.”

And what if U.S. forbearance had not permitted a negotiated settlement and Germany had won the war? Aside from the fact that Wilson’s closest adviser, Col. E. M. House, saw no threat to the United States from a German victory, we can best answer that question with another question: Who would not trade the events of 20th-century military and political history for the Kaiser?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.