Most people would agree that World War I (1914-1918) was a turning point in world history. The U.S. entered the war in 1917. Our participation gave the Allies much-needed military help, and Germany eventually gave up in November of 1918. Had we not entered the war, Germany might have won, or the two sides might have struggled to a tie.
Ties have a bad reputation for most people, however. “A tie is like kissing your sister,” as the famous saying goes. I’ve always favored “A tie is like kicking your sister,” but then I have always considered that a tie can be a reasonable and acceptable outcome in many situations, including a war. A tie, like kicking your sister, has its attractions. Perhaps a tie in World War I would have permitted the Allies and Germany to look around at what they had done to each other, and say, “Maybe this was not such a good idea after all.” Maybe World War II could have been avoided.
Lots of people, who are not fond of ties, and who are convinced of the wisdom of U.S. interventions here and there and everywhere, are very glad that the U.S. entered the war. We “made the world safe for democracy.” In fact, our entry into the war was one of the most fateful errors the U.S. has ever made–for us and for the world at large.
Thomas Fleming wrote a brilliant and well-researched book of 543 pages showing how foolishly the U.S. acted in entering that world historical event, and he recounts some of the consequences. That book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (2003). I read the book many long years ago, but only now I’m giving a brief report here.
Thomas Fleming was an historian and a novelist. He wrote over 40 books in a productive writing career. He died at the age of 90 (b. July 5, 1927–d. July 23, 2017). He is one of those writers who operated well under the line of great fame, while at the same time diligently accomplishing a great deal. This is only the second of his books which I have read. The other was very good also. Illusion starts off very well with its first four words: “The Illusion of Victory” is an excellent summary. Most people are still able to convince themselves that World War I was a victory for the U.S. Fleming shows how and why it was a defeat.
While Woodrow Wilson was the chief architect of our foolish intervention in World War I, he had plenty of help. When it came time to declare war on Germany, the Senate and the House of Representatives did their manful worst. (Remember those quaint times when we still needed a declaration of war before we sent young people off to die and to kill for the elite scum running this country? Yes, there was such a time in our history.) The Senate vote was 82-6 in favor of war, the House of Representatives vote 373-50. So Woodrow Wilson had help.
Remember William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-defeated Democrat candidate for president? His finest hour came during the run-up to our involvement in the war. He was secretary of state under Wilson. He bravely tried to keep us out of the war.
“Like most Midwesterners, Bryan viewed the Great War as an outbreak of European insanity from which the United States should distance itself.” (p. 69)
‘When the Lusitania was sunk, William Jennings Bryan was one of the few Americans who resisted the hysteria whipped up by Wellington House and its American mouthpieces. Citing the Lusitania‘s cargo manifest, which listed the ammunition as well as material for uniforms and leather belts in its cargo, he told Woodrow Wilson: “A ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack–it would be like putting women and children in front of an army.”‘ (p. 70)
Wilson ignored Bryan. Then, rather than sign Wilson’s proposed second note to Germany which Bryan thought foolhardy, “Bryan resigned, accurately predicting that Wilson’s policy was certain to embroil the United States in war with Germany.” (p. 70) Imagine that–a person in the government standing on principle and resigning rather than going with the flow. We could use a few million people with that kind of integrity.
Woodrow Wilson was just flat wrong in his insistence that American citizens could sail wherever they wanted without consequences. Common sense alone should tell us that.
“invalidated by time and experience is Wilson’s insistence that American citizens had a right to travel on British ships in the war zone, ignoring repeated warnings by Germany that this was a very dangerous thing to do. No such right exists or ever has existed in the history of naval warfare. Nor did U.S. merchant ships have an absolute right to sail into the war zone declared by Germany around the British Isles.” (p. 80)
It is fascinating to note that England’s Winston Churchill was helping get the U.S. into World War I, just as he was later to do in helping get us into World War II.
‘Winston Churchill’s correspondence as first lord of the admiralty offers evidence that getting the United States into the war on Britain’s side was a major consideration. He urged the British government to offer the cheapest possible insurance rates to neutral shippers: “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” The more neutral “traffic,” the better, Churchill insisted. “If some of it gets into trouble, better still.”‘ (p. 67)
(Hopefully someday someone will write a book detailing how Winston Churchill has been the most disastrous non-American in American history.)
Woodrow Wilson was a professing Christian. His life is proof that professing Christianity is no guarantee that one thinks and acts like a Christian. The key to the man’s character was his arrogance. Arrogance mixes well with ignorance, only if you are trying to attain disaster.
Robert La Follette spoke eloquently in the Senate, in trying to keep us out of World War I. Some few years later, he wrote a very insightful evaluation of Woodrow Wilson:
‘”I sometimes think the man has no sense of things that penetrate below the surface. With him the rhetoric of a thing is the thing itself. He is either wanting in understanding or convictions or both. Words–phrases, felicity of expression and a blind egotism have been his stock in trade.”‘ (p. 477)
Fleming gives us a summary of some of the cost in lives and misery, which resulted from our involvement in World War I. (Completely leaving aside for the moment the bad historical consequences which followed.) Some of the costs included: 50,300 U.S. doughboys killed, 198,059 wounded, 62,668 died of disease, almost 1,000 suicides, 41,000+ shell-shock victims (many hospitalized for the rest of their lives) (p. 307).
This brief review only scratches the surface of the excellence of The Illusion of Victory. I marked and underlined many portions. If you are willing to face the truth that the U.S. can be wrong and can bring disaster to other people as well as to ourselves, Illusion will be a book you will respect and from which you will learn. I am happy to say that it can be obtained for a reasonable price on the Internet. Today I saw several copies for sale, at least one of which was a hardcover, for $6.00 total (sales tax extra).