This year marks the centenary of the First World War. Even after a hundred years there are some basic lessons of that war that have yet to be learned.
Number one: When someone declares war on you–guess what, you’re at war. For many Americans, it is a mystery why we got involved in the war in the first place. It shouldn’t be. Germany de facto declared war on the United States when it resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. As Theodore Roosevelt fumed in March of that year, Germany “has sunk our ships, our ports have been put under blockade…. If these are not overt acts of war then Lexington and Bunker Hill were not overt acts of war….[D]uring the last two years the Germans have killed as many, or almost as many, Americans as were slain at Lexington and Bunker Hill; and whereas the British in open conflict slew armed American fighting men, the Americans whom the Germans have slain were women and children and unarmed men going peacefully about their lawful business.” President Woodrow Wilson might have muddied the waters with his preachments about making the world safe for democracy (which was not the issue), but TR had it right. We were already at war before President Wilson reluctantly conceded the fact in April 1917.
Which brings us to the second lesson: in foreign policy weakness begets contempt. It is a myth that masses of arms, a congeries of treaties, or the military mobilization schedules of the major powers of Europe made war inevitable. No, it was the weakness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (more on that in a moment) that plunged Europe into war, and it was the punyness of America’s armed forces and the cravenness of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy that encouraged the Germans to treat the prospect of America’s entry into the war with contempt. After a German u-boat sank the luxury liner the Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,195 passengers and crew, including 95 children and 124 Americans, Roosevelt accused President Wilson and his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan of being “morally responsible for the loss of the lives of those American women and children….[Wilson and Bryan] are both of them abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it.” Two years later, the German jackboot kicked Wilson in the pants once too often, with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann telegram inviting Mexico to invade the United States as an ally of Germany.
The third lesson: We’ve all heard the bromide that says “Our diversity is our strength.” Interestingly, no historian has ever applied it to the highly diverse Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its diversity, indeed, is generally viewed as having been fatal. During the war, German officers famously quipped that being allied to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was like being shackled to a corpse.
Fourth lesson: General Douglas MacArthur, himself a veteran of World War One, in which he earned seven silver stars, was right: “In war there is no substitute for victory.” He might have learned that lesson from the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, who thought the First World War ended too soon, saying of the Armistice, “We shouldn’t have done it. If they had given us another ten days we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it….The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated….What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked. Had they given us another week we’d have taught them.” Among those absorbing Pershing’s lesson might have been Adolf Hitler.
And finally, the ultimate lesson is the one taught by Cicero long before World War One: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” The First World War is the war that made the modern world, the war that began the American century, a war that would not have been won without America’s decisive intervention, a war that was the formative influence on American leaders like MacArthur, Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, and George S. Patton. It is a war about which Americans should know much more.
H. W. Crocker III is the author most recently of The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I