In the spring of 2015, my undergraduate son and I drove the length of the 1914-1918 Western Front, from the British battlefields in Flanders through the French zone in Champagne and Lorraine to the American cemeteries and monuments: Chateau-Thierry, St. Quentin, Belleau Wood, the Argonne. The nearer we approached the American sector, the fewer tourists shared the sites with us. Under the Menin gate at Ypres—a massive memorial to Britain’s lost—we were jostled among half a thousand men and women, boys and girls. In the overwhelming Meuse-Argonne cemetery, the largest American military burying place in all Europe, we stood alone.

A Twitter follower offered me a memorable explanation of the weak hold of the First World War upon the American consciousness. “Americans prefer the sequel: better villains, bigger explosions.” There’s something to that. But if this earlier war has faded from national memory, its aftermath shapes American culture.

In the United States, the First World War is a rare example—George W. Bush’s Iraq War is another—of a war that became more unpopular after the fact than while it was being waged. The First World War’s horrific human and economic costs, the disappointment of hopes that the war would somehow reform or redeem society, the failure to achieve an enduring peace, the subsequent Great Depression that indicted the liberal world order for which so many Americans believed they had fought, the ensuing collapse of democracy in so many European countries, the slide toward a second world war—the experience of the two decades after the war systematically made mockery of every ideal and hope and promise for which Americans imagined they had joined the fight in April 1917.

Somebody had to carry the blame. But who?

That question would dominate the political debate of the interwar years. The response offered by many postwar critics of President Woodrow Wilson’s war leadership would slow the U.S. response to the rise of Adolf Hitler—and cast an influence over foreign-policy debates into our own time. The criticism continues to this day. From 1918 through the Iraq War, “Wilsonian” is the only word in the American foreign-policy lexicon that remains both a proud boast and a cutting insult.

In the interwar era, blame for U.S. entry into the now-reviled First World War was sometimes assigned to the sinister wiles of British intelligence, sometimes to the financiers at the Morgan Bank, sometimes to the profit-seeking of the U.S. armaments industry, sometimes to the inherent violence of capitalism itself. Between 1934 and 1936, a congressional committee chaired by Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota gained headlines by its investigations of banks, munitions makers, and other so-called “merchants of death.” In their greed, these businessmen and bankers (it was alleged) had unscrupulously duped the good and trusting American people into treading “the road to war,” the title of an accusatory bestseller of the same period.

The former merchants of death got an image overhaul when President Franklin Roosevelt renamed America’s military industries “the arsenal of democracy.” Yet the conspiratorial way of thinking about the origins of wars remained alive. “He lied us into war,” Clare Boothe Luce bitterly remarked of Roosevelt’s policy in 1939-41, although the people who repeated her accusation often overlooked the second half of her sentence, which acknowledged the war’s necessity “because he did not have the courage to lead us into war.”

The conspiratorial account of the First World War was temporarily overwhelmed by the attack on Pearl Harbor. A journalist who lived through both the first and second world wars, Frederick Lewis Allen, marveled that the United States went to war in 1941 “with no enthusiasm and no dissent.” Only cranks now question the necessity to fight and defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But as the United States settled into the long Cold War against the Soviet Union, the isolationist themes of the interwar era were periodically revived. War and conflict were unnecessary—imposed by self-interested coteries and cliques upon a United States that otherwise had no reason to fight.  

To understand why the U.S. fought in 1917, begin by considering the outcome if the United States had not fought. Minus U.S. reinforcements on land and sea, it’s difficult to imagine how the Allies could have defeated a Germany that had knocked revolutionary Russia out of the war.

A U.S. Army gun crew in 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Allied offensive in France (AP)

By the summer of 1917, the Western Allies had exhausted their credit in U.S. financial markets. Without direct U.S. government-to-government aid, they could not have afforded any more offensives in the West. The exhausted Allies would have had to negotiate some kind of settlement with Central Power forces occupying almost all of what is now Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic republics in the east; most of Romania and Yugoslavia in Southern Europe, as well as a bit of Italy; and almost all of Belgium and most of northeast France. Even if the Germans had traded concessions in the West to preserve their gains in the East, the kaiser’s Germany would have emerged from such an outcome as the dominant power on the continent of Europe. The United States would have found itself after such a negotiated peace confronting the same outcome as it faced in 1946: a Europe divided between East and West, with the battered West looking to the United States for protection. As in 1946, the East would have been dominated by an authoritarian regime that looked upon the liberal and democratic Anglo-American West not just as a geopolitical antagonist, but as an ideological threat.

But unlike in 1946, when the line was drawn on the Elbe and the West included the wealthiest and most developed regions of Europe, this imaginary 1919 line would have been drawn on the Rhine, if not the Scheldt and the Meuse, with the greatest concentration of European industry on the Eastern side. Unlike in 1946, the newly dominant power in Eastern Europe would not have been Europe’s most backward major nation (Russia), but its most scientifically and technologically advanced nation (Germany). In other words, the United States would have gotten an early start on the Cold War, and maybe a second hot war, supported by fewer and weaker allies against a richer and more dangerous opponent—and one quite likely to have developed the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile first.

Some “euroskeptic” readers might snort: a German-dominated Europe? That’s what exists now. But while that’s funny to say, it’s not quite true—nor is Angela Merkel’s Germany any kind of equivalent of the kaiser’s. Germany leads Europe today by consent, not coercion. It is a reliable member of, and leading partner in, the larger Western alliance, not a rival and competitor against that alliance. It is a status-quo power, not the jumpy, reckless challenger to the status quo that troubled the peace of Europe from the 1860s to the 1940s. Today’s Europe earnestly seeks to fulfill the vision offered by Wilson in his great “peace without victory” speech of January 22, 1917:

Only a peace between equals can last. … The equality of nations upon which peace must be founded if it is to last must be an equality of rights; … between big nations and small, between those that are powerful and those that are weak. … And there is a deeper thing involved than even equality of right among organized nations. No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property.

That was not the kind of peace on offer from the Kaiserreich in 1917 and 1918.

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I contemplate these might-have-beens to gain a better appreciation for what actually happened.

The question confronting the United States in 1917 was the same question that confronted Americans in 1941, and again after World War II, and now again as China rises: Who will shape world order? The United States and its liberal democratic traditions? Or challengers impelled by aggressive authoritarian ideologies of one kind or another?

American popular memory usually draws a sharp distinction between World War II, on the one side, and the First World War and Cold War on the other. Popular memory emphasizes World War II’s moral attributes, not its strategic purposes. But the popular memory is vulnerable to obvious counter-argument. A struggle against totalitarian dictatorship undertaken in alliance with Joseph Stalin? A fight for freedom that left half of Europe under communist rule? A battle against genocide that ended with the indiscriminate atomic bombing of two Japanese cities? What about the Bengal famine? The internment of Japanese Americans? Racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces? World War II is typically morally validated by inscribing at the war’s center the Jewish Holocaust, a horror in which few of the Allied leaders showed much interest at the time. Many might wish now that the United States and Great Britain had fought to stop the Holocaust, but they didn’t. And they would have fought Hitler just as hard if his racial ideology had somehow not fixated on the Jews.

Americans are susceptible to the belief that their country is somehow not a state like other states: It is either something purer and higher, or something unforgivably worse. If it’s not fighting “to end war,” in the rash phrase often (mistakenly) attributed to Wilson, then it’s fighting for J.P. Morgan and the munitions makers. Yet there was one of Wilson’s genuine phrases that did aptly describe what the issue was in 1917, and what it has been ever since. In his April 2 speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany, Wilson insisted that the “world must be made safe for democracy.”

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Not “democratic”—“safe for democracy.” Wilson wasn’t promising to impose democracy on Imperial Germany. He was promising to defend democracy from Imperial Germany. The First World War had not begun as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Great Britain was not a democracy in August 1914. Tsarist Russia certainly was not. Ditto Japan, Italy, and Romania—all fought for the Entente, none had governments elected by more than a small fraction of the population. Even in France, the most democratic of the original Allies, elected leaders did not fully control the government (never mind that the Third Republic ruled over a vast colonial empire and denied the vote to women).

By the time Wilson delivered his “safe for democracy” war message, however, the war had taken a new form. Britain would emerge from the war as a country in which all adult men voted, and soon adult women too. Russia was racked by a revolution that would overthrow the tsar. The smaller, neutral nations of Europe—notably Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden—democratized during and after the First World War. The nations that gained independence as a result of the war—the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Poland—were organized as democracies at least at the start. The British dominions—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—already had universal male suffrage; after the war, the dominions gained the full sovereignty that confirmed them as self-ruling governments. Italy and Japan too would experiment—tragically briefly—with liberal democracy in the early 1920s. Newly republican China would declare war on Germany in August 1917.

Meanwhile, the Central Powers receded from democracy during the war. Before 1914, Germany and the Habsburg Empire could display elected national legislatures, but these legislatures exerted little control over the actions of government and during the war years lost what little influence they had. Where the Central Powers organized new governments—notably in Ukraine—they instituted authoritarian or military regimes. Most notoriously, the German authorities subsidized Vladimir Lenin in exile, and then provided him safe conduct to destroy Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the spring and summer of 1917.

Had the Western Allies lost the First World War, European democracy would have failed the test that American democracy surmounted in the Civil War: the test of survival in the competition between nations and regimes.

The United States too was a very imperfect democracy in 1917. In particular, black Americans lived under a system of caste oppression and routinized violence not very different from that meted out to German Jews in the first four or five years of Hitler’s rule. Racist ideologies held sway not only in the rural and ill-educated South but on the faculties of prestigious universities, in the upper reaches of the federal civil service, in learned societies. Racist ideas were contested, but it was not foreordained that they would be rejected.

Human beings admire winners. In the year 1940, when democracy looked a loser, Anne Morrow Lindbergh hailed German fascism as “the wave of the future.” Had Imperial Germany prevailed in 1918, there would have been many to argue that Otto von Bismarck’s vision of the future—“iron and blood”—had decisively triumphed over Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

An Austrian postcard depicts representatives from what would later become the Allied Powers at the mercy of their opposition. (Museum of Hungarian Military History / Wikimedia)

The great American hope is that the country can win a final victory over dangerous enemies and then never think about the external world ever again. When that hope is balked, when the Armistice does not deliver eternal peace and self-balancing security, many Americans blame themselves: If the external world is recalcitrant, America must have provoked it. Self-accusation is as American as self-assertion—and as based on illusions. America has acted as it has over the past century not because it is so good or so bad, but because it is so rich, so visible, and so strong. America’s strength sways world politics even when it is not exerted: Any aggressive illiberal power must fear the United States as the ultimate potential check on its aspirations. So it was with Germany in 1917. So it is with Iran today.

The kaiser’s generals reckoned that the planet was not big enough both for their ambitions and American power. Americans for a long time hoped otherwise, but their adversaries saw more clearly—and forced the issue. That has happened again and again in the century since. It is happening again now, and will continue to happen so long as the American state holds the power advantage it has held since 1917.

Not always fully consciously, not always perfectly presciently—but consciously and presciently enough—the best American minds of a century ago perceived what was at stake in 1917. They imagined a better world—and the hostile world they would confront if they failed. Their efforts went largely wrong in the years after 1918. The ensuing frustration brought odium on the whole project. But those of us alive today have the advantage of knowing more of how the story developed. We should have more sympathy for the difficulties faced by those who had to start the job without guide or precedent, including the guide or precedent of somebody else’s previous errors.

At present, too, many worry whether this world is safe for democratic societies challenged by the aggressive and illiberal. Today, too, American motives are mixed, as human motives usually are. A better understanding of history can at least emancipate Americans from the isolationist polemics that caricatured the why and the how of U.S. entry into the First World War. Such understanding will protect Americans from the dangerous illusions that such polemics inculcated in the 1930s, after Vietnam, and now once more again.

This article has been adapted from remarks David Frum delivered on June 1 at the Library of Congress as part of a British Council and BBC World Service event series on World War I. Frum’s essay will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s The Essay: World War 1 Round the World on June 30 and also on The War That Changed the World: U.S.A. and Isolationism on the BBC World Service.