Wilson’s Great War

Read part 1 and part 2

The Great European 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 Berlin’s 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 homeports – 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. 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,Wilson’s pretexts for war on Germany – submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram – are 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 – and the traditional “rights” of neutrals were irrelevant and disregarded by both sides.

Indeed, in arming merchantmen and stowing munitions on passenger liners, England was 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, and long after Germany had taken ads out in east coast newspapers warning Americans not to embark on its fatal voyage.

Likewise, German 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 starving from the English blockade – literally.

Before he resigned on principle in June 1915, Secretary William Jennings Bryan got it right. Had he been less diplomatic he would have said never should American boys be crucified on the cross of Cunard liner state room – so that a few thousand wealthy plutocrats could exercise a putative “right” to wallow in luxury while knowingly cruising into in harm’s way.

As to the Zimmerman telegram, it was never delivered to Mexico at all. It was actually only an internal diplomatic communiqué 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 communiqué 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 an 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?

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 Sheriff of Mecca with the promise of vast Arabian lands to be extracted from the Turks?

Why, then, would the Germans – if forced into war with the USA – not promise the return of Texas?

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 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 will 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 – giving it 200 divisions and 4 million men on the Hindenburg Line.

This 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 Entente 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.

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 1000 year flood 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 and TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.