This is part 2 in a series. Read part 1 here.
Even John Maynard Keynes, who was a British Treasury official at Versailles, could see that the Carthaginian Peace Treaty confected there would only sow the seeds of economic breakdown in Germany and throughout much of warn-torn Europe.
In his famous tract, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes rightly foresaw the disaster ahead:
The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe, nothing to make the defeated Central Powers into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new states of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of solidarity amongst the Allies themselves; no arrangement was reached at Paris for restoring the disordered finances of France and Italy, or to adjust the systems of the Old World and the New.The Council of Four paid no attention to these issues, being preoccupied with others – Clemenceau to crush the economic life of his enemy, Lloyd George to do a deal and bring home something that would pass muster for a week, the President (Wilson) to do nothing that was not just and right. It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it as a problem of theology, of politics, of electoral chicane, from every point of view except that of the economic future of the States whose destiny they were handling.
What a use could be made of the Treaty of Versailles. … How each one of the points of that treaty could be branded in the minds and hearts of the German people until sixty million men and women find their souls aflame with a feeling of rage and shame; and a torrent of fire bursts forth as from a furnace, and a will of steel is forged from it, with the common cry: “We will have arms again!”
So Woodrow Wilson has a lot to answer for because he is the father of the Carthaginian Peace that broke the world at Versailles. But the matter is far greater than just Wilson’s Folly of leading the US into war in April 1917.
His reasons for doing so are all the more important. Wilson’s 14 Points and his “make the world safe for democracy” slogans were essentially the original and incipient vision of the Indispensable Nation.
Ironically, therefore, the false idea that triggered the whole train of 20th century events, which then mid-wifed the American Empire, is now used to justify the continuing disorder and mayhem that it has unleashed upon the world.
Accordingly, Wilson’s own “war guilt” is a mighty stain, extending to most of the wars of the 20th century. That’s because America’s wholly unjustified entry into a war that was already over prolonged the original Old World catastrophe for decades to come.
So doing, it first fostered the 1000 year flood of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, and from that the Indispensable Nation folly that continues to bedevil the entire world.
The Great War – Europe’s Folly With Blame For All
In this context, it is essential to recall that the Great War was about nothing worth dying for and engaged no recognizable principle of human betterment; it was not the case of a short-run necessity that inadvertently gave rise to a later, greater evil.
Among the cast of characters who broke the world in the summer of 1914 there were many blackish hats, but no white ones. The onset of the Great War, in fact, was an avoidable calamity issuing from a cacophony of political incompetence, cowardice, avarice and tomfoolery.
In part, you can blame the bombastic and impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm for setting the stage with his foolish dismissal of Bismarck in 1890; his failure to renew the Russian reinsurance treaty shortly thereafter (which forced the Czar to ally with France); and his quixotic build-up of the German Navy after the turn of the century (which turned much of English opinion against Germany).
Likewise, you can blame the French for lashing themselves to a war treaty that could be triggered by the intrigues of a decadent court in St. Petersburg where the Czar still claimed divine rights and the Czarina ruled behind the scenes on the hideous advice of Rasputin.
Similarly, you can censure Russia’s foreign minister Sazonov for his delusions of greater Slavic grandeur that had encouraged Serbia’s provocations of Austria after Sarajevo; and you can also castigate the doddering emperor Franz Joseph for hanging onto power into his 67th year on the throne and thereby leaving his crumbling empire vulnerable to the suicidal impulses of General Conrad’s war party.
So too, you can indict the duplicitous German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, for allowing the Austrians to believe that the Kaiser endorsed their declaration of war on Serbia; and pillory Winston Churchill and London’s war party for failing to recognize that the Schlieffen Plan’s invasion through Belgium was no threat to England, but an unavoidable German defense against a two-front war on the continent.
But after all that – you most especially can’t talk about the defense of democracy, the vindication of liberalism or the thwarting of Prussian autocracy and militarism.
The British War Party led by the likes of Churchill and General Kitchener was all about the glory of empire, not the vindication of democracy.
So, too, France’ principal war aim was the revanchist drive to recover Alsace-Lorain. The latter was mainly a German speaking territory for 600 years until it was conquered by Louis XIV in the 17th century, and then forcibly re-acquired by Germany after its humiliating defeat of the French in 1870-1871.
In any event, German autocracy was already on its last leg as betokened by the arrival of universal social insurance and the election of a socialist-liberal majority in the Reichstag on the eve of the war; and the Austro-Hungarian, Balkan and Ottoman goulash of nationalities, respectively, would have erupted in interminable regional conflicts and nationalist fragmentation, regardless of who won the Great War.
In short, nothing of principle or higher morality was at stake in the outcome.
No Threat Whatsoever To The Security Of The American Homeland
The war posed no national security threat whatsoever to the US. And that presumes, of course, the danger was not the Entente powers – but Germany and its allies.
From the very beginning, however, there was no chance at all that Germany and its bedraggled allies could threaten America. And that had become overwhelmingly true by April 1917 when Wilson launched America into war.
In fact, within a few weeks, after the Schlieffen Plan offensive failed on September 11, 1914, the German Army became incarcerated in a bloody, bankrupting, two-front land war. That ensured its inexorable demise and utter incapacity in terms of finances and manpower to even glance cross-eyed at America on the distant side of the Atlantic moat.
Likewise, after the battle of Jutland in May 1916, the great German surface fleet was bottled up in its home ports, where it became an inert flotilla of steel that posed no threat to the American coast 4,000 miles away.
As for the rest of the central powers, the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires already had an appointment with the dustbin of history. Nor need we even bother with any putative threat from the fourth member of the Central Powers – that is, Bulgaria?
Beyond the absence of any threat to homeland security from Germany and the Central Powers, Wilson’s twin pretexts for war on Germany – submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram – were not half what they are cracked-up to be by Warfare State historians.
As to the first item in Wilson’s casus belli – the so-called freedom of the seas and neutral shipping rights – the story is blatantly simple. In November 1914, England declared the North Sea to be a “war zone”.
So doing, it threatened neutral shipping with deadly sea mines; declared that anything which could conceivably be of use to the German army – directly or indirectly – to be contraband that would be seized or destroyed; and announced that the resulting blockade of German ports was designed to starve it into submission.
In retaliation a few months later, Germany announced its submarine warfare policy designed to the stem the flow of food, raw materials and armaments to England. It was the desperate antidote of a land power to England’s crushing sea-borne blockade.
Accordingly, there existed a state of total warfare in the northern European waters.The traditional “rights” of neutrals swiftly became irrelevant and were disregarded by both sides.
Indeed, in arming merchantmen and stowing munitions on passenger liners England was blatantly hypocritical and utterly cavalier about the resulting mortal danger to innocent civilians. That was exemplified tragically by the 4.3 million rifle cartridges and hundreds of tons of other munitions carried in the hull of the Lusitania, when it was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in May 1915.
Likewise, Germany’s resort to so-called “unrestricted submarine warfare” in February 1917 was brutal and stupid, but came in response to massive domestic political pressure during what was known as the “turnip winter” in Germany. By then, the country was literally starving from the English blockade.
Before he resigned on principle in June 1915, Secretary William Jennings Bryan got it right. Had he been less diplomatic and rephrased his famous Democratic convention speech of 1896 he would have said never should American boys be crucified on the cross of Cunard liner state room. Especially, not so that a few thousand wealthy plutocrats could exercise a putative “right” to wallow in luxury while knowingly cruising into harm’s way.
As to the Zimmerman telegram, it was never delivered to Mexico at all. It was actually only an internal diplomatic communique sent from Berlin to the German ambassador in Washington, who had labored mightily to keep his country out of war with the US.
As it happened, this draft communique was intercepted by British intelligence in February 1917, which sat on it for more than a month – waiting for an opportune moment to incite America into war hysteria.
Contrary to the mainstream history books, therefore, the so-called Zimmerman bombshell was actually the opposite of what it is cracked-up to be. Rather than a threatened aggression against the American homeland, it was actually an internal foreign ministry rumination about approaching the Mexican president regarding an alliance and the return of territories in the event that the US first went to war with Germany
And exactly why would such a defensive action in the face of a potential attack be all that surprising – let alone a valid casus belli?
After all, did not the Entente (England, France and Russia) bribe Italy into the war with promises of large chunks of Austria? Did not the hapless Rumanians finally join the Entente when they were promised Transylvania?
Likewise, did not the Greeks bargain endlessly over the Turkish territories they were to be awarded for joining the allies? Did not Lawrence of Arabia bribe the Sherif of Mecca with the promise of vast Arabian lands to be extracted from the Turks?
Why, then, would the Germans – if forced into war by Washington – not promise the return of Texas to Mexico in return for joining its cause?
Why The Great War Was Effectively Over When Wilson Intervened
In any event, by the end of 1916 the expected “short war” was long ago a faded delusion. What existed at that point was a guaranteed military stalemate, mutual political exhaustion and impending financial bankruptcy among all the European belligerents.
To be sure, Europe had almost gotten its “short war” when the German “Schlieffen Plan” offensive brought its armies within 30 miles of Paris during the first weeks of the war. But the offensive bogged down on the Marne River in mid-September 1914. Within three months thereafter, the Western Front had formed and coagulated into blood and mud. It soon became a ghastly 400 mile corridor of senseless carnage, unspeakable slaughter and incessant military stupidity that stretched from the Flanders coast and then across Belgium and northern France to the Swiss frontier.
The next four years witnessed an undulating line of trenches, barbed wire entanglements, tunnels, artillery emplacements and shell-pocked scorched earth that rarely moved more than a few miles in either direction, and which ultimately claimed more than 7 million casualties on the Allied side and nearly 5 million on the German side.
If there was any doubt that Wilson’s catastrophic intervention converted a war of attrition, stalemate and eventual mutual exhaustion into Pyrrhic victory for the allies, it was memorialized in four developments during 1916 that preceded the US declaration of war.
In the first, the Germans wagered everything on a massive offensive designed to overrun the french fortresses of Verdun. These historic defensive battlements on France’s northeast border had stood since Roman times, and had been massively reinforced after the France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
But notwithstanding the mobilization of 100 divisions, the greatest artillery bombardment campaign ever recorded until then, and repeated infantry offensives from February through November 1916 that resulted in upwards of 400,000 German casualties, the Verdun offensive failed.
The second event was its mirror image – the massive British and French offensive known as the Second Battle of the Somme. The latter commenced with equally destructive artillery barrages on July 1, 1916 and then for three month sent waves of infantry into the maws of German machine guns and artillery. It too ended in colossal failure, but only after more than 600,000 English and French casualties including a quarter million dead.
In between these bloodbaths, the stalemate was reinforced by the above mentioned naval showdown at Jutland. That battle cost the British far more sunken ships and drowned sailors than the Germans, but also caused the Germans to retire their surface fleet to port and never again challenge the Royal Navy in open water combat.
Finally, by year-end 1916 the German generals who had destroyed the Russian armies in the East with only a tiny one-ninth fraction of the German army – Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff – were given command of the entire war effort.
Presently, they radically changed Germany’s war strategy by recognizing that the growing allied superiority in manpower, owing to the British homeland draft of 1916 and mobilization of forces from throughout the Commonwealth, made a German offensive breakthrough well nigh impossible.
The result was the Hindenburg Line – a military marvel of awesome defensive impregnability. It consisted of a checkerboard array of hardened pillbox machine gunners and maneuver forces rather than mass infantry on the front lines and also an intricate labyrinth of highly engineered tunnels, deep earth shelters, rail connections, heavy artillery and flexible reserves in the rear.
It was also augmented by the transfer of Germany’s eastern armies to the western front in 1917. That gave it 200 divisions and 4 million men on the Hindenburg Line.
Needless to say, this fantastic assemblage of defensive capabilities precluded any hope of Entente victory. By 1917 there were not enough able-bodied draft age men left in France and England to overcome the Hindenburg Line, which, in turn, was designed to bleed white the allied armies led by butchers like British General Haig and French General Joffre until their governments sued for peace.
Thus, with the Russian army’s disintegration in the east and the stalemate frozen indefinitely in the west by early 1917, it was only a matter of months before mutinies among the French lines, demoralization in London, mass starvation and privation in Germany and bankruptcy all around would have led to a peace of exhaustion and a European-wide political revolt against the war-makers.
Wilson’s intervention thus did turn an impossible stalemate into an unwarranted victory for the Entente. It was only a matter of time before Washington’s unprecedented mobilization of men and material during the balance of 1917 flooded into the battlefields of France and turned the tide of war the following year.
So Wilson’s crusade did not remake the world, but it did radically re-channel the contours of 20th century history. That is, by giving rise to the Entente victory and the disaster of Versailles it unleashed the once in a thousand years aberration of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism that flowed therefrom.
David Stockman was a two-term Congressman from Michigan. He was also the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House, Stockman had a 20-year career on Wall Street. He’s the author of three books, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back, and the recently released Great Money Bubble: Protect Yourself From The Coming Inflation Storm. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.