Did Woodrow Wilson Engage in the Education of Strategic Judgment?

In asking us to consider alternative histories of American responses to the Great War, Walter McDougall provides a splendid model of what the strategic theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, called “critical analysis.” Said the famous Prussian war college professor, it is not enough to complain that the results of a particular strategic decision were bad. One must also look at the alternatives. “Critical analysis is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed, but of all possible means—which first have to be formulated, that is, invented. One can, after all, not condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative.”[1] Only when we know the alternatives can we decide whether any strategy was a bad strategy. Sometimes we have to accept the lesser of two, or the least of many, different evils. No strategy is free of costs or risks; wisdom is about picking the most effective at a level of cost and risk one can accept.

Professor McDougall suggests four possible strategic alternatives for the United States in the Great War:

1) The US might have remained neutral and let the European powers settle the conflict.

2) The US might have engaged in a limited naval war at sea, which is the option Professor McDougall appears to prefer.

3) The US might have gone much further and entered the ground war on the continent to maintain the balance of power, i.e., prevent German hegemony in Mitteleuropa (central Europe), which was perhaps just the first stage in its transformation into a Weltmacht, a world power able to challenge the British and the United States around the globe.

4) The United States might have done what it did under President Wilson: enter the war in pursuit of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations.

Professor McDougall does not spell out the criteria for preferring any one of these options, but in the spirit of Clausewitz, let these constitute a beginning. What political objectives would the US pursue and what strategies would it implement to achieve them? What would have been the “theory of victory,” aka, vision of cashing in the strategies to achieve the objectives? How might adversaries, neutrals, and possible allies react to each different course of action? What would have been the costs and risks of each option? How feasible were each of the options?

Clausewitz taught at the world’s first war college, the Kriegsakademie in Prussia. He drilled critical analysis of previous wars to his students, future staff officers and commanders, so they would not become prisoners of events. Even if we cannot change the past, Clausewitz considered the habit of asking these questions essential to education of strategic judgment. It begins as an imaginative act, which is why some historians do not like it, but asking “what if?” questions guards against the fatalism Alexis de Tocqueville associated with “democratic historians,” who ascribe all causation to abstract forces beyond the ability of any one individual to influence or control.[2] That kind of history is inimical to human freedom, but to be a useful aid to judgment, alternative history must also be critical, that is, able to distinguish better from worse according to at least the criteria stated above. As the “critical analysis” spreadsheet appended below indicates, each of the options Professor McDougall mentions was within the realm of possibility; the question now becomes which was best?

Wilson’s War

Let us stipulate that everything Professor McDougall says about the folly, if not “madness,” of President Wilson is correct. The costs and risks of President Wilson’s approach were too high, perhaps especially in their long-term damage to American civic values, and his objectives were infeasible. His policy and diplomatic strategy, especially in peace negotiations, were bound to sow chaos in Europe and elsewhere, with the collapse of Austria-Hungary establishing the conditions, and the “war guilt” clause of the Versailles Treaty providing the motive, for Germany to attempt to dominate the European continent one more time, in another world war. Not every one of the horrors Professor McDougall describes as a consequence of President Wilson’s crusade was inevitable; nor was each predictable, but American intervention was a condition that sowed seeds for them all, including the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

The Neutrality Option

That is terrible, so we should look at a different option Americans might have pursued during the Great War: remain neutral. Instead of embracing the “heretical” social gospel of Wilsonian progressivism, follow the old-time political religion of Washington’s Farewell Address. Recognize that Europe had a set of interests distinct from those of the United States. Refuse to let love of any country, like Great Britain or France, or hatred of another, like Germany, bias American policy. True policy was to steer clear of the wars of Europe, lest the United States import its many, many evils: militarism, growth of executive power and the national security state, arms races, loss of civil liberties, and endless wars.

But this option is not free of difficulties. What form would American neutrality take: strictly impartial or neutral under international law as a non-belligerent but favoring one side over the other? Strict impartiality risked that England and France, which by 1917 were exhausted by the war, with England’s treasury empty and French soldiers engaged in mutiny on the Western Front, might have lost to Germany. Should the United States have been willing to accept that risk? Advocates of remaining neutral may be too optimistic about German behavior if Germany had won the war on the Western Front. German terms against Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk in 1917 were extremely harsh and contributed to both mass starvation and the success of Bolshevism in Russia.[3] This would have happened no matter which of the four options the Americans picked. If the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk is any evidence, German (and perhaps also Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman terms) were likely to have been at least as harsh against Great Britain and France (not to mention many vulnerable minorities). A harsh peace on German terms would thus have sown the seeds for future conflict, with the difference that Germany would have been able to dominate the European continent. And if Germany won, the great question would have to be who would govern in Germany?

True, Germany had begun to develop weak parliamentary institutions. German liberals might have defeated challenges from the right and the left and established a German-dominated customs union somewhat like the European Union today, but there is no guarantee that would have happened and no guarantee even German liberals could have resisted the temptation for reparations and domination of Europe. The nationalist-right in Germany was not yet like the Nazi-right, but it might have triumphed over the German liberals, social democrats, and communists. Or perhaps worse, the communists, who were well organized, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, might have triumphed over them all. We cannot know, but we must ask whether either of these outcomes was an acceptable risk: a communist Germany, perhaps allied with Russia, or a right-nationalist Germany with largely unaccountable political and military leaders? Either version of post-war Germany in control of Europe would have been a nightmare, not least of all because German scientists, who led the world in chemistry and physics, might have pioneered nuclear weapons ahead of England and the United States.

The Limited Naval Engagement Option

So let us consider a third option: a limited naval war to uphold American neutrality rights at sea by combatting the German submarine threat. This is a “limited liability” option. The United States needed to calibrate its objectives and limit its commitments to the minimum necessary to achieve them, thus avoiding responsibility for the chaos that ensued at the end of the war and protecting American norms and institutions from the dangers of “total war.” Variants of this option appear frequently today among those who would like the United States to practice “selective engagement” and “off-shore balancing” to avoid long term commitments on the ground overseas, and they are frequently right.[4] Yet, no matter how attractive this option might seem today, it is not free of difficulties for the Great War. The United States was not prepared for anti-submarine warfare; its admirals had been reading too much Mahan and discounted the dangers of commerce raiding.[5] If the United States fought German submarines all by itself, it was going to suffer heavy losses, at least initially. Alternatively, it might have cooperated with England and France against German submarines, which would have reduced losses, but increased the danger of a slippery slope drawing Americans into a continental war. Most importantly, there was no guarantee the great powers would have reached a compromise peace while the United States diddled at sea. Truth be told, American intervention in the Great War may have been decisive, but more for economic than strictly military reasons. England and France were bankrupt. Without American financing and supplies to England and France, Germany probably would have won with all the dangers of German hegemony listed above.[6]

The Balance of Powers Option

Entering the ground war to balance against Germany was probably the best option. As Professor McDougall notes, this was former President Theodore Roosevelt’s preferred course of action. Granted, Roosevelt was sometimes a loose cannon; he was also an ardent imperialist who may have damaged American institutions and norms at least as much as Wilson. Yet his objectives were more calibrated, less radical, and thus, more feasible than Wilson’s: force Germany to give up its bid for European hegemony. This did not require a humiliating “victors’ peace” (nor did Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which promised peace without victors). Fighting to maintain the balance of power did not require sowing the seeds of future conflict with demands for war reparations. It probably would have been harder to sell at home than Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, but it would have avoided much of the hypocrisy of that position.

Gaining bargaining leverage for negotiations, not merely with Germany, but also with England and France, might have required going further militarily into Germany, as the American ground forces commander, General Pershing proposed.[7] Compelling the German military to accept defeat would have denied the likes of Ludendorff and others after the war the opportunity to claim that civilians (and Jews!) had stabbed the military in the back; it would also have increased American casualties. However, such an offensive did not require a destabilizing regime change in Germany (though a defeated Germany was bound to face demands for political reform from its own people). Sustaining the balance in Europe did not require a League of Nations to enforce the peace terms, but it did require a long-term American commitment to the peace of Europe.

The Fallout from the Versailles Treaty

As Donald Kagan has observed, the Versailles Treaty promised immediate assistance to France from the victorious powers if Germany attacked it again. The British version of the Treaty made England’s commitment to France contingent on the United States making the same commitment. When the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, England was no longer obliged to aid France, which was left alone against Germany, while the disintegration of Austria-Hungary created a power vacuum for Germany to fill in Central Europe. Had the Senate ratified the Versailles Treaty, another Great War, the Holocaust, and the Cold War might have been avoided not because of the League of Nation’s novel ideals of collective security, but rather because of some old-fashioned security commitments in a much less ambitious multi-lateral security system, a proto-NATO to contain Germany.[8]

Great wars tend to be about the shape of the international order. Durable peace settlements, like the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the so-called “long peace” after the Second World War, usually require making the defeated parties stakeholders in the new international order.[9] Whereas the Versailles system sowed salt in the wounds of Germany, something like a Marshall Plan from the United States to Europe, including Germany, eventually, once the French, British, and Americans saw their interest in it, might have built a consensus among the great powers to preserve the peace at almost any cost. All this would have been a significant departure from Washington’s Farewell Address, but it would not have been as radical a departure as the League of Nations, which was unnecessary to this alternative peace enforcement strategy. And a little deterrence could have gone a long way toward preventing militarism and preserving American civic norms and institutions. Just enough American commitment to make deterrence credible might have made the massive mobilization that came in World War Two and the Cold War “military-industrial complex” largely unnecessary. Yes, this is reading history backwards, through the lens of the post-World War Two system, but it is legitimate to do so because those who built that system were learning from the perceived mistakes of making peace at the end of World War One. This alternative history, or alternative future, was not impossible at the end of the Great War, though it was unlikely on Wilsonian terms, especially if he refused to compromise. Even if the Senate had rejected the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, an American security guarantee to France might have been enough to deter another world war.

True, if the United States had entered the ground war in Europe to maintain the balance of power, it would have experienced at least some of the social costs American entry into the Great War produced at home. But not all of those costs were inevitable; some like the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 were self-inflicted wounds. These might have been avoided had cooler heads prevailed.

War and Republican Liberty

As Hew Strachan has documented brilliantly, we like to think that we direct war — that we are in charge of it, though often it becomes in charge of us.[10] Its dictates and wild passions make it an incubator of tyranny, so it is not at all surprising that the age of “total war” was also the age of modern totalitarianism. Fear that war would undermine republican government at home is why the American Founders usually wanted to avoid it so far as possible, though how to do so effectively is, or ought to be, a matter of great debate. Humility about our ability to predict, much less control, what happens in war is therefore essential to critical analysis of the alternatives. Not much beneath the surface of Professor McDougall’s essay is a powerful indictment of self-righteous pride in Woodrow Wilson and his successors, the pride that goes before a fall because it refuses to consider more than one option.  One check on that kind of hubris is the sort of alternative history Professor McDougall invites us to engage in because it compels us to acknowledge that there are usually multiple options to address a strategic problem and before any option is implemented, it is rarely more than well informed guess work. Although my own preferred, least of all evils course of action for the United States in the Great War is different from Professor McDougall’s, he supplies a model of critical analysis which is no less appropriate for citizens and policymakers than it is to military officers. Indeed, without such critical analysis, I fear we are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. And trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1984), 161.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (Harper and Row, 1969), 493-96.

[3] Bernadotte E. Schmitt and Harold C. Vedeler, The World in Crucible, 1914-1919 (Harper and Row, 1984), 198.

[4] Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation of U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell University Press, 2014).

[5] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: the U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford University Press, 1993), 64-82.

[6] Hew Strachan, The First World War (Viking, 2004), 228.

[7] David R. Woodward, Trial by Friendship: Anglo American Relations 1917-1918 (University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 213, 220

[8] Donald Kagan, The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (Anchor Books, 1995), 297-98.

[9] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Touchstone, 1994), 81.

[10] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2013).