[lit-ideas] Isolationism vs. entering WW I

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 16 May 2008 09:06:24 -0700

Does America have a "grand strategy"?  I've read some historians who argue
that it does; although it doesn't always realize that it does.  It isn't
necessary to have a Grand Strategy "Plan" drawn up and means established to
implement it, and it may not be recognized for what it is until years later.
For example, I grew up hearing about "Manifest Destiny," but who really
subscribed to that idea?  The farmers who moved across the country were
interested in free or cheap farmland.  Politicians were worried about the
major nations of the world establishing counter nations on the North
American continent.  Their Grand Strategy was getting there before Britain
or France or Germany could.  That supported the idea of Isolationism which
was  the real grand strategy.  Let those Europeans fight amongst themselves
to their hearts' content because we are invulnerable over here in North
America with no one to challenge us.

Michael Lind in The American Way of Strategy writes that Isolationism was a
viable "grand strategy" as long as there was a balance of power in Europe,
but as soon as that balance was destroyed, America would no longer be able
to afford its isolationism.

On page 88, Lind writes, "For half a century after 1914, most historians
agreed that the great powers of Europe tragically had stumbled into an
avoidable war.  However, research in Imperial German archives in the 1960s
revealed the truth: the Kaiserreich had deliberately launched a preventive
war against Russia and its ally France, out of fear that growing Russian
military power would soon make German dreams of European domination
impossible to realize.  On December 8, 1912, in a secret meeting from which
civilian policymakers were excluded, the Kaiser and his top military
officers decided to plan a war against Russia and its allies.  In order to
prepare the German Navy for war with the British Fleet, Admiral Tirpitz
asked for 'postponement of the great fight for one and a half years.'
Almost exactly one and a half years later, the 'great fight' began."

. . . 

"Imperial Germany was committed to a radical program of conquest and
territorial expansion in Europe that differed little from that of Hitler's
National Socialist regime a generation later.  According to Chancellor
Bethman Hollweg in his secret 'September Program' of 1914: 'France must be
so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time.
Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany's eastern
frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.  The
German Chancellor was fond of the word 'vassal': 'At any rate, Belgium even
if allowed to continue to exist as a state, must be reduced to a vassal
state, must allow us to occupy any militarily important posts, must place
her coast at our disposal in military respects, must become economically a
German province.'  From Belgium, Germany would be able to blackmail Britain
permanently by threatening an invasion or blockade."

For the above, Lind references David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer, Who
started the great war in 1914?which I read last year.  Fromkin's interest
was in placing blame.  Lind's interest is in the transition of America's
"grand strategy" from isolationism to the adding of itself as a necessary
ingredient to Europe's "balance of power."   Would it have been safe for the
world if America had refrained from entering World War I?  Lind says it
would not have been.  

Germany did have a strategy for keeping the US from interfering with its
European plans.  Here is an example: [page 90] "Mexico had long played an
important role in Germany's anti-American strategy.  When, in 1907, Mexico
agreed to let Germany establish coaling stations on its coasts, William
Buchsel, chief of staff of the German admiralty, declared that this would be
'a thrust . . . into the very basis of the Monroe Doctrine.'  The Kaiser
speculated about turning Baja California into a German colony.

"The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 became a proxy war, in which the
United States supported the Mexican leader Venustiano Carranza against his
rivals General Victoriana Huerta and Pancho Villa who received aid from
Imperial Germany.  By World War I, the navies of the great powers had
completed their conversion from coal to oil.  This made Mexico, which
provided on quarter of the world's oil supply, as important as Saudi Arabia
later would be.

. . . 

"Wilson explained to one of his political allies that [Germany] wishes an
uninterrupted opportunity to carry on her submarine warfare and believes
that war with Mexico will keep our hands off her and thus give her liberty
of action to do as she pleases on the high seas.  It begins to look as if
war with Germany is inevitable.  If it should come - I pray God it may not -
I do not wish America's energies and forces divided, for we will need every
ounce of reserve to lick Germany.'" [the source for this is Joseph Patrick
Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson as I Knew Him, Doubleday Page & co., 1921]

. . . 

"On February 17, 1917, the German foreign minister sent a telegram to the
German ambassador in Mexico, which the British obtained and revealed to the
American people.  The 'Zimmerman Telegram' read: 'We intend to begin
unrestricted submarine warfare.  We shall endeavor to keep the United States
neutral.  In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of
alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together,
generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is
to recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.' "

. . . 

'The threat of a German victory in World War I provoked Woodrow Wilson's
fear that America's democratic system would be subverted by the huge
military buldup that the United States would require to protect itself from
the German hegemon.'  In Wilson's own words to his adviser Colonel Edward M.
House, 'if Germany won it would change the course of our civilization and
make the United States a military nation . . .'

"In April 1917 the United States entered World War I in order to save the
American way of life, not from a German conquest of the United States, but
from the need to sacrifice American liberty in order to preserve American
independence in a world dominated by Imperial Germany by constructing a
regimented Fortress America.  A generation later, for the same reason, the
United States went to war with Germany again."


I do have problems with the acceptance of some of this - at least a
whole-hearted acceptance.  I have no doubt that some in the German High
Command wanted exactly what Lind says they wanted, but the German High
Command was not unified and the Kaiser wasn't even unified in his own
thinking.  It seems a bit rash to take a few comments (albeit more than the
one comment Paul Fussell provided about the cause of Germany's collapse) and
conclude that there was unified agreement.

On the other hand, what Lind argues as the German "grand strategy" in World
War One is consistent with the German grand strategy in World War Two.  That
counts heavily in favor of at least concluding that the position described
above was an enduring one in the German High Command.

As to Wilson's fear that we will lose our way of life if we are well armed,
he lived in an era when being well armed meant having huge armies.  The huge
numbers involved in WWI are staggering.  I agree with Fussell that we should
never do that again, but technology makes it unnecessary to do that again.
The number of men used to defeat Saddam Hussein's army would have been
sneered at as woefully inadequate in Wilson's day.  And Wilson probably
would have approved of Bush's telling the American people not to worry about
our little war "against terror."  Instead of worry, let them go shopping.

Lawrence Helm
San Jacinto

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