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Should the U.S. Have Entered World War I?



100 years ago today, the United States entered World War I. The historian Michael Kazin argues that this was a disaster. I don’t per se disagree, but I’m not really comfortable with the reasons.

How would the war have ended if America had not intervened? The carnage might have continued for another year or two until citizens in the warring nations, who were already protesting the endless sacrifices required, forced their leaders to reach a settlement. If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.

The foes of militarism in the United States had tried to prevent such horrors. Since the war began, feminists and socialists had worked closely with progressive members of Congress from the agrarian South and the urban Midwest to keep America out. They mounted street demonstrations, attracted prominent leaders from the labor and suffrage movements, and ran antiwar candidates for local and federal office. They also gained the support of Henry Ford, who chartered a ship full of activists who crossed the Atlantic to plead with the heads of neutral nations to broker a peace settlement.

They may even have had a majority of Americans on their side. In the final weeks before Congress declared war, anti-militarists demanded a national referendum on the question, confident voters would recoil from fighting and paying the bills so that one group of European powers could vanquish another.

Once the United States did enter the fray, Wilson, with the aid of the courts, prosecuted opponents of the war who refused to fall in line. Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, thousands were arrested for such “crimes” as giving speeches against the draft and calling the Army “a God damned legalized murder machine.”

The intervention led to big changes in America, as well as the world. It began the creation of a political order most citizens now take for granted, even as some protest against it: a state equipped to fight war after war abroad while keeping a close watch on allegedly subversive activities at home.

I certainly agree that the U.S. entering World War I led to a lot of disasters internally, including the crack down on political liberties and radicalism, as Kazin discusses, plus the rise of national prohibition, the closing of immigration in the years after the war, and the Red Scare. And I don’t really think the U.S. entering the war really accomplished much at all, except for killing a lot of Americans but probably also saving the lives of more Europeans. But on the international stage, I am less comfortable with this. First, we can’t know that the U.S. not entering the war would somehow have led to a more equitable peace agreement if the Allies had eventually won. While I suppose we can argue that World War II would not have happened precisely when and where it happened and that it’s really hard to imagine a situation more disastrous than that of Hitler, we also can’t know if it would have been that much better and if you believe, as I do, that individual events are not often all that determinative, probably something like a second world war probably would have happened at some point, with unknown consequences. Moreover, Kazin completely leaves out the Russian surrender after the revolution, which could have led to a German victory and a lot of bad consequences. And how many people might have died if there wasn’t a total victory? Would this have just been the latest of a series of seemingly endless wars?

In short, Kazin makes way too many assumptions about the impact of U.S. intervention on the international stage, even as I largely agree with him about domestic impacts.

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