"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.
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."