Saturday, March 11, 2017

Quick advertisment--two books of interest

We will indeed be dealing with House and Wilson, Wilson and House in the in the next entry.

But to pause for a moment, I would like to suggest my recently updated and retitled book about World War I, The Great War: Western Front and Home Front (Palgrave, 2016). It is an expanded version of my 2003 book on the Western Front.

If you are interested in a historical adventure novel, I have written one of those too. It deals with some deep precursors to World War I, and is set in the British Empire in the 1880s.  It is called Anima and the Goat. You can buy it in a good paperback edition or a Kindle ebook on Amazon.

Also, Anima and the Goat is on sale right now on the huge indie book site, Smashwords.  Smashwords has all important e-Book forms, so you can download in any of those. The "sale" lasts until the end of March 2017. Feel free to write a review of the novel, either on Smashwords or Amazon or BOTH.

(For that matter, thousands of books in e-format are on sale for cheap or free during March at Smashwords. Take a look!)

OK, back to American Intervention in the Great War.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"These Deeply Momentous Things" United States Intervention into World War I (No. 3)

World Power, World Policy, and the United States in 1917

In the early sixties, German historian Fritz Fischer famously raised an intense historiographical controversy by asserting, in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (Bid for World Power), that Germany did in fact bear the major responsibility for starting the First World War, a claim that had long since been discredited as Allied propaganda. The ensuing decades-long "Fischer Thesis Controversy" had its own life and meaning. In terms of the present series about American intervention into the Great War, I bring it up to introduce the conception of explicit "world power" policies as this conception relates to the U.S. entry into the war.

The "Thesis" that spawned the controversy was Fischer's assertion that Germany's guiding elites--much influenced by American naval officer/intellectual Alfred Thayer Mahan as well as other social darwinists--adopted the outlook that marking time was no good in the struggle for national survival of the fittest. Hence, the German elites, according to Fischer, produced a national vision fundamentally altered from Bismarckian Germany's essential conservative pragmatism. That is, they began to discuss "Weltpolitik" (World Policy) as a way for Germany to survive in a world dominated by powerful empires, like those of Britain and Russia. To do this, Germany would have to build a fleet many times larger than its small coastal navy. And the German Empire would go on to do so, after much national discussion, beginning with the passage of the First Navy Law in 1898. In these same terms of great conflict, though, the new navy could only be aimed at the British, who sensed this, made defensive arrangements with the French and Russians, which in turn... all the way to the assassination of the Archduke.

Unlike many acrimonious debates, and in spite of promoting some very one-sided and parti pris historical arguments, the Fischer dispute did actual raise some very useful points. I would argue that the most useful was the recognition--at the end--that most, if not all, of the belligerents had elites doing these kinds of social darwinist calculations and pushing expansive, imperialistic programs based on some idea of the survival of the fittest. The British had in a sense invented such planning long before Darwin, and they were still engaging it in the years leading to World War I. The French were both aggrieved at losing to Germany in 1871 and anxious to prove themselves through overseas empire in the pre-war years. Russian Pan-Slavist aggressive policies before 1914 acted as a kind of social darwinist cover over the old Romanov house rules of expansion. Of course, each of these world power programs was handsomely veneered with benevolent justifications and slogans couched in the language of "duty," "the nation," "liberty and civilization," "God With Us," and the like.

So everyone was in the same game. Let me say here, editorially, that considering the aggressive, expansive origins of the modern state and the rapidly expanding technologies in weapons, transportation, and communications of the late nineteenth century, the only surprise in this scenario comes in the few cases in which we can point to members of elites who were counseling non-aggression, limited governance, individual autonomy, and peace. And there were such individuals and entities among within all of the rising "world powers," even if they were relatively few and far between.

American troops celebrate after capturing a Korean fort, 1871
Certainly, the United States had developed its own scientific and moral rationale for "world power." From a territorial standpoint, of course, the United States expanded massively in the nineteenth century, and where the German wars of unification had left a peacemaking, consolidating Bismarck in charge, the American war of unification seemed to lend a spirit of state-building, moral rightness, and the spread of "American ideals" to the bombastic and self-righteous calls for Manifest Destiny and other world power slogans. And these slogans were hardly empty rhetoric. Seward's Folly of 1867, for example, was no folly, but a bold act of an expansionist Secretary of State. And the complicated expansion of American power into the Pacific that followed the were likewise carefully thought out by American elites (including state-supporting and supported commercial and industrial elites, soon backed and eventually piloted by financial elites).

Almost immediately, in the late 1860s, American naval forces had already projected American power to the mainland of Asia. Korea was the first target. A shadowy filibuster expedition to Korea failed obscurely in the late sixties, whereupon in 1871 an American "punitive expedition" invaded Korean territory. The raid was quite purposely carried out at the behest of Seward's successor, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. The American commander was hard pressed to find a fight but eventually succeeded in provoking a battle between his flotilla and a number of Korean forts. Though the two-day battle was small by most standards, it left much wreckage and over 250 Korean soldiers dead. The justifications were complicated but "humanitarian." (See Gordon H. Chang's account from 2003 in the Journal of American History).

Other significant expansionary efforts in the Pacific came in the efforts to seize Hawaii (beginning in the 1880s and ending with an American coup in 1893) and Samoa, divided between Germany and the United States in 1889, also for humanitarian reasons, naturally. A related piece of this world power policy was the expansion of the U.S. Navy. Just fourteen busy years after the acquisition of Alaska, in 1881, the United States began a continuous expansion and modernization of the Navy. The moderate expansion turned out to be the prelude to the Naval Bill of 1890, which historian Daniel Smith described as "truly epoqual."
So if the Spanish-American War kicked U.S. expansionary activity into high gear, the previous century represented much more of a continuum in that direction than the "isolation" often imagined. American expansion in both the Pacific and in Latin America predated McKinley's prayerful war with Spain. Yet the vast acquisitions of the splendid little war accelerated these tendencies, and its aftermath put the American empire on a footing with the European empires in many ways. And in a parallel to the British and French techniques of financial manipulation and control perfected in the 1880s, the United States engaged in "dollar diplomacy" (shorthand for the politics of big loans and big loan guarantees), which played a continuous role after 1909, with the expanding naval power always hovering in the background. By the time Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, the Empire was extensive and complex, but wholly justified in the public sphere by a range of moralistic and social-darwinist as well as strategic justifications. The Anti-Imperialist League and the jeremiads of its most famous member, Mark Twain, had been drowned out by the (in large part Progressive) arguments for American world power from McKinley to Wilson. Wilson himself--these days seen as a peacemaker--enunciated a policy which emphasized national self-determination and "peace" the world over, but this policy in the end "forced" him to authorize invasions, occupations, or other military interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and finally Mexico (in 1914 and again on a much larger scale in 1916).

U.S.S. Denver landing force in Nicaragua, 1912
Hence, in the larger view, by the time Europeans were killing each other by the ten thousand in Flanders, Picardy, East Prussia, Serbia, elsewhere, the United States--by now the most materially powerful country in the world--had developed habits of projecting its power across much more extensive distances. And these distances were far more daunting and difficult than the week-long ocean voyage from New York to Le Havre which was now standard.

So, clearly, there were multiple vast plans for world power among the great powers of the earth. Indeed, to the European great powers, we can add not only the United States, but Japan, which joined the war on the Entente side on August 25, 1914. The Japanese government declared war on the Central Powers on the condition that Japan could seize all German possessions and territorial leases in China and the whole Pacific. In the weeks after joining the Entente's Great Crusade for Civilization, Japan snapped up much of German-controlled Shandong province in China and numerous island possessions of Germany.

When Lenin and his friends called the Great War an imperialist war, they were not wrong. Readers will no doubt have apprehended that many of the parts and pieces of these multiple plans were mutually exclusive, even among powers on the same side in the conflict. And these factors of long-term world policy planning affected military strategies as well as long-term diplomatic considerations. In particular they were critical in the timing and manner of entering the war for all belligerents.

This short background to the American version of world power is necessary to understand the nature of some very personal decisions made to intervene in the conflict in Europe. The decision revolves around the intimate relationship of the American President and his "alter ego," Colonel House, the subject of the next installment of this series.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"These Deeply Momentous Things" United States Intervention into World War I (No. 2)

Realities of Continued Stalemate

This short piece continues series on some "Deeply Momentous Things"--that is, American intervention in the First World War. As the first installment has shown in a general way, the background of the war among Europe and its extensions (Canada, Australia, etc.) is crucial to understanding how the United States would eventually declare war on the Central Powers. More specifics on this issue will help us understand just what the might of the United States meant to the warring powers.

European leaders on both sides hoped to change the dynamic of the war in January 1917. Certainly from a technical military standpoint, 1916 represented a highly complicated and progressive experimentation with methods of war that would break up the stalemate. In answer to a question posed in the first installment--who was winning at the end of 1916--if I had to choose the side that had the upper hand in December 1916, I would probably choose the Central Powers by a nose.

In December 1916, Field Marshal Haig, Commander of the British forces on the Western Front, sent in an extensive report to his government on the just completed Somme Campaign. The Somme battles had advanced the Allied line in some places, but had never come close to a breakthrough. And the losses of both British and French units were appalling. Yet Haig declared the Somme campaign a victory in that it had achieved the wearing down of the Germans and the stabilization of the front.

Yet even with Haig's report in hand, British statesmen and diplomats were not as optimistic. The Field Marshal's optimism could not hide the fact that the Somme advance had been at best shallow, and that the Germans still held onto nearly as much of France as they had before. And significantly, the Central Powers were killing Entente troops at a faster rate than the Allies were killing the Germans and their Allies. For every two deaths on the side of the Central Powers, three Entente soldiers were dying.

And there were more concrete signs of distress. In East Central Europe, recently acquired Entente partner Romania faced an Austro-Hungarian, German, and Bulgarian force which had besieged and captured the Romanian capital, Bucharest. The great Brusilov Offensive against the German and Austro-Hungarian armies was an enormous success at its beginning, and almost certainly took pressure off the French defenders at Verdun, in France. But the offensive tailed off with counterattacks that were costly and worrisome. And there were in addition, the enormous losses to the Brusilov fighters, upwards of a million dead, wounded, and captured. In Russia, rumblings of demoralization--including the plot which would end in Rasputin's murder in December 1916--emerged as hunger and depletion accompanied deep winter. In retrospect, the Brusilov Offensive planted the seeds of Russia's revolutionary collapse the following year--which would no doubt have tipped the balanced sharply in favor of the Central Powers had the United States not intervened.

Elsewhere, it is true, things were going somewhat better for the Russians and the British in fighting the Ottoman Empire by December 1916 and January 1917, but many British  leaders thought they were looking at the real crisis of the war a hundred years ago. Hoping to bring every kind of weapon to bear in the midst of this depressing and murderous year, British leaders departed from their slogan of "business as usual" in a variety of ways. Great Britain had already adopted conscription a year earlier in January 1916, though not quite in time to supply replacements for the inevitable losses in the coming offensive operations on the Somme and elsewhere. On the diplomatic front, it was in 1916 that the British government began a process that would end by promising overlapping parts of the Ottoman Empire both to the future "king of the Arabs" and to Jews across the world as a future homeland. At the same time, British propaganda designed to influence the United States to enter the war heightened dramatically. Charles Masterman's War Propaganda Bureau in London worked on the "American question" with newspaper subventions in the United States, speaking tours, increased distribution of the famous Bryce Report on German atrocities in Belgium, and in other ways.

One crucial example of non-traditional attempts to break the impasse was the starvation of German civilians resulting from the British Blockade. In place since late 1914, the Blockade kept even neutrals from delivering food and other essentials to Germany. Before the Blockade was lifted in 1919, somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 German civilians would die from starvation and from the effects of nutritional shortages on other conditions. Adding indirect deaths influenced by nutritional privation adds many more to the total (see the excellent analysis of the Blockade by David A. Janicki at as well as Ralph Raico's detailed review of the classic book on the subject by C. Paul Vincent).

The dynamics of the Blockade intensified among the belligerents the importance of future American decisions. In order to survive the war, Britain had to control the seas. In order to survive the war, Germany had to eat. But at the same time, Germany had to avoid bringing the world's most powerful economy into the conflict. Unlimited submarine warfare was the most likely way to break the Blockade and eat. But German statesman expressly feared that this step would bring the United States into the war.  (See the minutes of atop-level German meeting on the issue of unlimited submarine warfare from August 1916.)

Meanwhile, the one obvious solution to the war--namely, ending it--seemed out of the question. Both sides desired any help they could get, but both sides had turned down offers of mediation, truce, and negotiations, all of these attempts foundering on the acquisitive territorial aims and financial obligations of one belligerent or the other.

One important note: the weather impacted home and battle fronts. The winter of 1916/17 was one of the coldest in memory. The impact on the hungry German home front was immense--this was the terrible "turnip winter," so-called because turnips were about the only home-grown food available to many. But the soldiers on all sides found the cold almost unbearable as well, misery in the trenches and encampments did not bode well for the future will to fight in any army.

Quite clearly, momentous American decisions were crucial to the future course of the war.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"These Deeply Momentous Things": United States Intervention into World War I (No. 1)

"These Deeply Momentous Things"
United States Intervention into World War I

     Introduction--The Great War in Late 1916

     In this month of December 2016 we are moving toward the hundredth anniversary of direct American intervention into the Great War in April 1917. This intervention became one of those pivotal aspects of the conflict that the Great War a kind of motor of modern world history, a war that altered everything it touched and everyone who touched it.
Brusilov Soldiers
     Over the next few weeks, I want to comment on the usual aspects of Wilson and House, "neutrality," and U-boats, but I also want to connect some episodes and trends of this piece of history that are less often seen as context to the decisions and the process of American intervention. Context, I hope it will be seen, is essential.

First, some points about the fighting itself. A hundred years ago at this time, the terrible battles of 1916 were over or winding down: Verdun, the Somme, the Brusilov Offensive, to name the biggest. The losses to both Entente and Central Powers were scarcely imaginable: over a million and half soldiers died in these three campaigns alone. The most prolific killer was artillery. These expensive big guns and their expensive shells really defined the war as it had developed by late 1916. In all three of these major offensives, artillery saturations, walking barrages, and various other new artillery techniques were at the core of nearly all tactical plans. At the same time, accelerated production was required to supply these armaments, putting still more strains on the already groaning fiscal systems of the belligerent governments. These and other costs of the war mounted as both British and French used up the loans negotiated and renegotiated since the fall of 1914.
     Who was winning in December 1916?
     Arguably, the real losers were simply all normal individuals in the populations of all belligerent countries. The state itself was winning. More on this issue later.
     But the question of which side was winning is still an important one to ask. It certainly merits its own post in this series of informal historical reflections. Many historians have tried to address this issue, including me in my recently expanded and revised book, The Great War: Western Front and Home Front (1916).

     At the outset, one thing is quite clear. However we evaluate Woodrow Wilson's actions and motives, he was absolutely right in his April 1917 War Message to Congress: the vast network of processes involved in American intervention represented "deeply momentous things."

Friday, July 1, 2016

A hundred years ago, British units (alongside a smaller French force) attacked the Germans on an eleven-mile wide front in Picardy, straddling the Somme River. The attack was the attempt to break through on the Western Front, and in accordance with emerging artillery doctrine and practice, the German lines were saturated with shells for a week in advance. But when the artillery stopped to allow the British to attack, the Germans raced out of their deep dugouts, manned their machine guns, and mowed down the British attackers. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers died on this day, July 1, a hundred years ago.
Many historians of World War I today argue that this battle was a kind of victory, since it kept the Germans from breaking through at other places. Or that it showed that the Allies could mount a huge assault. Or that it was part of "learning curve" in the process that finally won the war for the Allies. 
It certainly was in many ways a triumph for the state in the abstract. It represented the ability of the modern state at best to gamble the lives of hundreds of hundreds of thousands, at worst to waste them, in an attack that was only marginal in terms of its potential success. True, the Somme Campaign eventually made some headway: the German were pushed back as much a few hundred yards by November, in a few places more.  All of these gains, however, would be wiped out at the latest in the 1918 German Spring Offensive, another success of the modern state in inducing "sacrifice" among the masses.
The First Day of the Somme Battle was a human disaster.  But the state, after a few years of trying to sweep this affair under the carpet, now uses the episode as an example of "sacrifice," not state incompetence or callousness.

Here's to the memory of the 20,000 British subjects along with the few thousand French and Germans who died in this frenzy of state power. From whichever side of No Man's Land, they were tough, determined, and uncomplaining. The state didn't deserve them.