Politics & Prose November 2006

War Disposes

Soon the last of the "doughboys" of 1917-1918 will be gone. What did America's entry into the Great War achieve?
More
chart
The author's father, 2nd from left,
aboard the USS Mount Vernon.
Click here to see a larger photo.

In 1918 they numbered 4.7 million; now, a Veteran’s Day survey conducted by the Scripps-Howard News Service found, only twelve remain. Since the youngest, Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, (who lied about his age to join the Army) is 105, 2007 will likely see the passing of the last American veteran of World War One. My father, John J. Beatty, served in that war; he is the second head-bandaged sailor on the left seen in the photo at right. A German U-boat had just torpedoed his ship, the USS Mount Vernon, in the Bay of Biscay, killing thirty-six of his crewmates, the war’s highest toll of casualties for a single Navy vessel. The Mount Vernon, a former German ocean liner converted into a troop transport, seen in this photo, did not sink; the torpedo blew a hole in her port side but left her boilers intact. Behind the protective smoke screen laid down by the destroyer seen distantly in the photo below, it returned to Brest, the American base in Brittany, under its own steam.

smoke screen
The smoke screen laid down by the destroyer. Click here to see a larger photo.

My father joined the Navy to stay out of the Army—not to "make the world safe for democracy," nor win a "peace without victory," nor create a post-war "concert of nations" that would secure "the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments" and protect "the rights and liberties of small nations" and establish perpetual peace upon a "universal dominion of right." Those were President Wilson’s war-redeeming goals. For them, he told a joint session of Congress on April 5, 1917, called to hear his request for a declaration of war, he had led "this great peaceful people into war, the most terrible and disastrous of wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance…." He ended his speech, often ranked with Lincoln’s second inaugural, on a note of heart-breaking idealism: "To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other."

Unlike the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who lost a son in the war, or the opposition leader Bonar Law, who lost two sons, Wilson did not spend his family’s blood in the "war to end all wars." The 114,000 U.S. dead and 205,000 U.S. wounded spent the blood. Wilson’s idealism was heartbreaking because their sacrifice, like that of the U.S. troops dying and suffering today in Iraq, was worse than in vain. Rather than peace without victory, U.S. intervention assured a victory without peace. Rather than end war, it sowed history with the "most terrible of all wars."

History can hinge on sequence. Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, making targets of U.S. merchant vessels, caused Wilson to break diplomatic relations with Germany in February and eventuated in the mayhem he described in his address to Congress: "Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board…. Even hospital ships…have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle…." The sinking of three American ships in that spree of destruction provoked the United States to abandon the neutrality it had observed since August 1914 and take what Wilson presciently termed "the tragical step" of joining the Allies in the war against Germany. But suppose, Winston Churchill hypothesized in The World Crisis 1916-1918, the first Russian Revolution—the one that overthrew the Tsar—had occurred in January, 1917 instead of in March: then Germany might not have unleashed its submarines against neutral shipping and the United States not have gone to war. "Had we been able to foresee in Germany the Russian revolution," Alfred von Tirpitz, the German admiral who built up the Kriegsmarine, wrote in his memoirs, "we should perhaps not have needed to regard the submarine campaign of 1917 as a last resort. But in January, 1917 there was no visible sign of the revolution." Revolution brought about Russia’s withdrawal from the Tsarist war, which meant Germany could transfer divisions from the Russian to the Western Front, where their added weight might achieve the same result as the submarine campaign—"break the Allied backbone"—without its potentially fatal risk, U.S. intervention.

 "If the Allies had been left to face the collapse of Russia without being sustained by the United States," Churchill further contended, "it seems certain that France could not have survived the year, and the war would have ended in a peace by negotiation." Writing in 1927, the man who had been First Lord of the Admiralty during the first year of the war labeled such a peace "a German victory." But from our contemporary perspective, what would have occurred without U.S. intervention looks more like a peace of exhaustion, a peace without victory, perhaps mediated by a neutral United States.

Our view of peace in 1917 depends on knowledge then unavailable to Churchill—the consequences of the victory without peace wrought by the punitive Versailles Treaty of 1919. By 1936, Churchill had a more somber sense of these consequences. Instead of bad luck for Germany, he had come to see Wilson’s "tragical step" as a world-historical catastrophe. "America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War," he said in an interview that year with the New York Enquirer.

If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the Spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany. If America had stayed out of the war, all these ‘isms’ wouldn’t today be sweeping the continent of Europe and breaking down parliamentary government, and if England had made peace early in 1917, it would have saved over one million British, French, American, and other lives.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Nations of the World: Unite!"
A collection of Atlantic articles from 1919 to 1923, debating the idea of a League of Nations.

Reflecting the hopes of the liberal peace movement that had taken on mass dimensions since 1914, the philosopher John Dewey wrote that U.S. intervention in the war would open a rare moment of "plasticity" in human affairs, one moldable to the "liberal internationalist" vision of peace through a League of Nations spelled out in Wilson’s famous "Fourteen Points" of 1918. But, addressing "war to end war" liberals like Dewey, the radical essayist Randolph Bourne asked, "If the war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?" The war proved too strong for liberal hopes and Wilson’s intentions. To get the Allies to agree to his League, Wilson had to agree to their Treaty with its reparations, its "war-guilt" clause, its imperialist "mandates." Wilson’s liberal friends abandoned the League because it came wrapped in the Treaty while his Republican enemies in Senate rejected the Treaty because it came wrapped in the League. "What more could I have done?" Wilson put it to the historian William E. Dodd in a 1921 interview. "I had my back to the wall. Men thought I had all the power. Would to God I had had such power."

In his admirable To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, Thomas J. Knock observes that in campaigning for the League at home, Wilson "posed two alternatives to his audiences—disarmament through the League or the eventuality of a national security state." Going it alone in the world, the United States would have "to be physically ready for whatever comes"—to rely on a vast military establishment and a "militaristic organization of government" backed by a "system of intelligence" and with "secret agencies planted everywhere." The security state would transform the president from "a representative of the civil purposes of this country … into a commander in chief, ready to fight the world." Cruel to Wilson’s dreams, history has vindicated his presentiments.

Submitting the treaty for ratification to the Senate, Wilson hailed the League as "the indispensable instrumentality for the maintenance of a new order." Plaintively he asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" If the League went down, Wilson said on the fateful speaking tour he embarked on in September 1919 to drum up support for the League, he would "feel compelled" to address the men who had borne the battle—men like my father, dead these twenty-five years, and the twelve "doughboys" still among us—with "mortification and shame," and tell them, "You are betrayed."

You fought for something you did not get. And the glory of the armies and the navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread which lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.
coffins
Honor guard for the 36 men killed in the torpedoing of the USS Mount Vernon. Click here to see a larger photo.

Wilson delivered that apparently extemporaneous eloquence before a luncheon audience in St. Louis on September 5, 1919, one year nearly to the hour after a U-82 fired a torpedo into the port side of the USS Mount Vernon. My father never forgot the funeral service held on the dock at Brest for the dead seen in the photo above, the rows of flag-draped coffins and his captain weeping and the "tears soaking his blouse."

Photos courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In