U.S. Entry Into World War I: Lessons One Hundred Years Later

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
John Milton Cooper

Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin; Author, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, and Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations

Jennifer Keene

Professor and Chair, History Department, Chapman University; Author, Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America, and World War I: The American Soldier Experience; President, Society of Military History


One hundred years ago this month, the United States declared war on Germany and thereby entered World War I. Experts discuss why the United States entered "the Great War," the consequences it had for American society and foreign policy, and what lessons it holds for Americans going forward.

LINDSAY: Hello, everyone. I am Jim Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I want to welcome all of you to today’s event, “U.S. Entry Into World War I: Lessons One Hundred Years Later.” This meeting is part of the Council’s Lessons From History Series, which is made possible through the generous support by David M. Rubenstein.

Now, I want to remind everybody that today’s meeting is on the record. It is also being livestreamed over the internet on CFR.org. So everyone who’s watching us via the miracle that is the internet, welcome. Also, remember, since this is on the record, anything you say can and possibly will be used against you. (Laughter.)

It is my great pleasure to introduce the three distinguished historians we have with us here today to talk about World War I. You all have compete bios, and so I’m not going to go through everything our panelists have written over the course of their distinguished careers. But I do want to briefly introduce them, and we’ll sort of go from my immediate right at least geographically or locationally, not necessarily in the other way, across the board.

And let me begin by introducing John Milton Cooper. He is professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written widely on late 19th century, early 20th century history. His books include “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography,” and “Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations.”

Next to Professor Cooper is Professor Jennifer Keene. She is professor and chair of history—of the History Department at Chapman University. She is also president of the Society of Military History. She, too, has written widely, written quite a lot on World War I. He books include “Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America,” as well as “World War I: The American Soldier Experience.”

And at the far side of the panel is my good friend and colleague Jay Winik. Jay is the historian-in-residence here at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a bestselling author. I’m sure you’re familiar with his books, which includes “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” as well as “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History.”

So please join me in welcoming John, Jennifer, and Jay. (Applause.)

Now, we’re here to talk about World War I, which is obviously a very large, very complex topic. We also have limited time. So I’m going to try to march all of our panelists quickly through all of the big issues, and I apologize if we don’t get to all of the questions one might get to in a conversation like today.

So let me begin. We’ll begin at the beginning. And let me start, perhaps, with you, John. And a hundred years ago this month, the United States declared war on imperial Germany. But by that time, Europe had been fighting the war for almost two-and-a-half years. When the war first broke out, in August 1914, then-President Woodrow Wilson immediately declared the United States neutral in that fight. The United States remained on the sidelines of the war even after the so-called rape of Belgium; that was the brutal German invasion/occupation of Belgium. Remained on the sidelines after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, a cruise ship. More than 1,200 civilians died, including 128 Americans. It remained on the side after the epic 1916 Battles of Somme and Verdun. It remained on the sidelines even after evidence of German-sponsored sabotage in the United States. So the question, I guess, is: Why didn’t the United States enter the war earlier?

COOPER: Well, first of all, if you’ll forgive me, I think you’ve just asked a very loaded question—(laughter)—which is I think the assumption behind it—and correct me—is that we should have. You know, kind of what you ticked off there, you know, why weren’t we in there?

And I think one thing we have to do, looking at World War I, is try to—not to look at it through the lens of World War II. And so much of it is, well, if we’d had a president named Roosevelt then, he would have gotten us in just the way the other one did the second time around. Well, you could parse that quite a bit. In fact, we were out—we didn’t enter World War II any sooner, or maybe too much sooner than we did. So the apple and the orange are not—well, they’re not so comparable.

The lens that Woodrow Wilson and most Americans looked at World War I through was our early experience, obviously. And the United States, by that time, had fought in two other European wars earlier: the American Revolution was a European war—we played France and Britain off against each other—and the War of 1812. And the War of 1812 was what Wilson was worried about as the precedent. And he, as a historian, and like most historians, thought that it had been a mistake; that we had been forced into a war that we shouldn’t have gone into, and fought on the wrong side as well. and that’s what he wanted to avoid.

By the way, he—for our most highly educated president, Wilson could also be surprisingly superstitious. He was worried that because he and Madison were the only two graduates of Princeton who’d ever become president, that history would repeat itself. So that’s—(laughter)—yeah. Colonel House has it in his diary. He pointed that out.

The war, when it first broke out, reinforced—really, what it did was reinforce American—the American sense of exceptionalism. That’s the term we use now, but that’s what they did, is how different we were from the Old World. And the American ambassador in London said I thank heaven for the Atlantic Ocean. But it was more than geographical separation; it was moral separation, that we were so different from them.

The great turning point in terms of bringing the war home to America was the Lusitania, quite right. But the reaction to that—by the way, I think—I liked—I liked the book “Dead Wake.” I thought that was very good, except it ended on a false note. He ends—he ends with—Larson ends with “remember the Lusitania.” Well, there’s no “remember the Lusitania” cry around there then. In fact, we were talking earlier that the New York newspapers pooled their resources and asked every editor in the country to cable in her/his opinion as to what we should do, and they got a response rate of a thousand. That’s about as close as we have to a real public opinion poll. And out of that thousand editors—I always like to do this in my class, to say let’s have a guess as to how many you think of the thousand said we should go to war. The answer—I never got anybody who came close, because the answer was six. Not 6 percent; six.

So there clearly—I mean, the world war had been reported almost obsessively in the American papers. We knew very well what was going on there. We knew quite rightly what carnage there was on the Western Front, and we didn’t want to get into it. So getting in earlier I don’t think was an option, except in 1916 when Wilson did threaten the Germans with a break if they didn’t rein in the submarines, and they did.

LINDSAY: My question was perhaps loaded, but in a slightly different way, I think, than you presumed. I mean, I think part of the importance of understanding World War I is exactly that question of sort of what the expectations were for American foreign policy going forward, at the initial assumption the United States was not, as it would be today, to enter the war. But I also note there were a number of provocations along the way, and there were divisions in the United States over entry into the war. Maybe you can sort of talk us through some of those, Jennifer.

KEENE: Well, and this I think is a—is a great sort of addition to what John said. Who are the American people in 1914? And one of the things that Woodrow Wilson, in his neutrality remarks, is very concerned about is the fact that if a—that this war could tear America apart domestically because we, in fact, have many recent immigrants that come from the nations in Europe that are at war. And so you could see right away different ethnic groups lining up. There are reports of fights breaking out on street corners in New York City, where, you know, you’ll have Austria-Hungarians and Germans facing off against Italians and French. And so this sense that America has to also learn what it means to be American, and being American means staying out of these disputes that could, in fact, end up causing civil disobedience or civil unrest in the United States, is really, really important.

But I would—I would argue that in the—in the period of neutrality, we have to be careful about what the official position of the government is and the way that Americans behave, because one of the important things that happens in the period of neutrality is that Americans financially get involved in the war in two distinct ways. One I think is very well-known, and that is that J.P. Morgan becomes a purchasing agent for the British government in 1915 in the United States. And so the United States is underwriting, both through its finances and through material, a lot of the allied war effort.

But the second part is to not underestimate the amount of humanitarian aid that flows to Europe from Americans. Herbert Hoover organizes relief for Belgian civilians. Jewish Americans are very concerned about what’s going on on the Eastern Front, especially the reported pogroms being committed by the Russian army. And so a lot of these immigrants, they don’t forsake their concerns with their—with their relatives that are still in the homeland, but they tend to channel that aid through humanitarian efforts rather than pushing Woodrow Wilson to enter the war on one side or the other.

And that period of neutrality, in a sense, gives Americans the freedom to help both sides, to express sympathy for both sides. And that’s what, of course, we see lost the minute that America actually declares war against Germany.

LINDSAY: Jay, was that policy of neutrality equally felt by the participants in the war?

WINIK: In what sense?

LINDSAY: Well, the United States said it was neutral, but obviously from the German point of view that neutrality seemed to be favorable toward the British and the French, and aimed against them.

WINIK: Well, I think that’s right.

But what I wanted—I wanted to take a minute just to kind of back up a little bit on what both John and Jennifer said about the context of why we didn’t enter the war. One of the things that I’d like to say about this is that going to war in Europe’s wars, and the (Holocausts ?) of Europe’s wars, was simply not in the DNA of America. If you recall, we had George Washington, in his great Farewell Address, he warned against getting involved in the entangling alliances of Europe. And then Thomas Jefferson also repeated that same warning against the entangling alliances of Europe.

And we had a couple of experiences beyond what John mentioned that really kind of colored how we thought about war and plunging into the maelstrom of Europe’s wars. We had the quasi-war with John Adams early on in the republic. And there was some militancy in America about getting involved, but by and large most Americans felt this is not something we should do.

And then we had two other wars that profoundly affected and shaped how we looked at the world. The first was the French Revolution. And in the French Revolution, we saw a war that started out just simply in France, and then it swept the continent and it became marked by the emblem of the guillotine. And this was something Americans looked at with real revulsion, and they thought we don’t want to get involved in this.

And then, finally—you don’t hear about this often, but it certainly plays and colors the picture of how Americans thought about getting involved in the war—and that’s the American Civil War. I mean, that was the greatest war we had fought at the time. And to give you a little bit of context on that, Abraham Lincoln, when he re-provisioned Fort Sumter and the war began, he really thought it might be a four-month skirmish. Instead, it became a deadly four-year war costing some 620,000 lives. And that was something that really colored Americans.

So, while I think it’s a good and important debate about whether we could have or should have gotten in earlier—and I might dissent a little bit, saying perhaps there was a little bit more running room, that he could have sort of gotten in earlier—but it would—it meant that we had to overcome habits of our very beginning and our very way of being.

LINDSAY: But can I get you to answer my question about—(laughter)—because the Germans perceived U.S. neutrality, in fact, as hostility; that we had allied ourselves with the British and the French, because the British navy controlled the sea lanes, we had loans going to the British and the French, we were sending them materiel and food. Essentially, none of that could reach the Germans.

WINIK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: We had so-called tilted neutrality, I think, is a term often used.

WINIK: Right. Well, I think it was tilted neutrality, and I think that serves—I don’t think we really need to say more than that.

LINDSAY: OK, fair.

COOPER: Well—go ahead.

KEENE: I was just going to say that Germany could be annoyed that America was helping the allies, but to call America out on that and bring America into the war earlier was not going to benefit Germany either. I mean, the last thing they, in fact, wanted was America to enter the war. And when they resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, it’s with the—the German navy is basically promising the army that we will prevent the American army from ever getting overseas, that submarine warfare will be so effective that even when America enters—and, of course, it’s going to take them a year to get their act together—they will never get enough materiel and troops over here to make any decisive difference. And it’s that promise from the navy that actually encourages Germany to—you know, to push the envelope.

COOPER: Let me add to what Jennifer said about the submarine because we got into that war because—against Germany because of the submarine. They used the submarine. When they used the submarine, they did the only thing—the only thing that could have involved us in war with them, because we were cut off from them. Britannia ruled the waves. Not only the German navy, but all German merchant shipping was swept off the seas. Neutrality was tilted because that’s the only—the allies were the only ones that we could sell to. The Germans—a lot of financiers in New York— Kuhn, Loeb and a number of German-American financiers—would have been delighted to sell to the Germans, but they couldn’t because they couldn’t get the stuff to them.

The Germans, I think they made two huge blunders with the submarine. The first of all was using it in the first place.

LINDSAY: It was a new technology. It was not—people weren’t accustomed to this.

COOPER: Oh, right. And what you have on the side—I’m sorry, Jennifer, I’ll poach on your subject—

KEENE: It’s OK. It’s OK.

COOPER: I think you have there an early example of the fascination with military technology, the new magic weapon that’s going to be able to win it for you, win it for you at very little cost to yourself and huge cost, of course, to the adversary. Air power, I think, would be a similar kind of chimera in World War II.

The Germans—first of all, they only had 30 operational submarines when they did it. They could only—they could only have 10 of them out at the time. How many torpedoes did they carry—did each sub carry?

KEENE: Oh, yeah, I’m not sure.

COOPER: I don’t know. I mean, a dozen or something like that?

KEENE: Not many. Yeah, not many.

COOPER: And this was supposed to—and the German enthusiasm was saying: This will cut—this will cut the allied sea lanes and so forth. I once said, it’s like sending 10 sharpshooters out with rifles to try to cut down—cut off the traffic on a big interstates highway. I mean, that’s what they were trying to do. Then when they did go in for unrestricted submarine warfare, when they decided to go all out for that, they were willfully ignoring the fact that—you mentioned finances. The allies had run out of money in the United States. They were broke. The only way that they were going to be able to continue that was to have a—frankly, to have us enter the war on their side. They needed so much money so fast from us that they—and what that was going to do—a financial crisis was going to accomplish much of what the Germans thought they could do with the submarine, which is cutting off this overseas lifeline of supplies to Britain. I mean, that was—they were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

WINIK: Yeah, I mean, I want to make one quick point about this. I mean one of the things we say is that this—Barbara Tuchman wrote a marvelous book called “The March of Folly.” And folly really describes many of the actions undertaken by the Germans. You know, at the beginning of the war, the Kaiser, he triumphantly boasted—he said: Our men will be back by the falling leaves of autumn. And of course, that never happened. I mean, it was—it was more like what Sir. Edward Grey said when he looked out and he said—

LINDSAY: British foreign minister.

WINIK: The British—thank you—the British foreign minister. And he said: The lights are going out all over Europe, and I fear they shall not be lit for a long time again. So Germany made one mistake after another mistake, and they brought this upon themselves.

LINDSAY: John, you mentioned the issue of the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. That comes in early February, but Wilson doesn’t go to Congress for two more months. You’ve written a biography of Woodrow Wilson. I think it’s safe to say you know a lot about Woodrow Wilson. Explain why it was and sort of what the mental state of the president was in those months leading up to his request to Congress.

COOPER: Well, Wilson had just unveiled his—begun to unveil his grand design for peace, which was the peace without victory speech in January—January 22nd, 1917. He wanted to see basically a stalemate, a compromise peace, which then would be followed by setting up a League of Nations which we would join, we would guarantee this. And what he saw was this was just being blasted away by the Germans. He was searching around. He didn’t want to get into the war. He saw this undoing those things.

And as both Jennifer and Jay mentioned, the consequences at home—Wilson bared his soul to the editor of The New York World, off the record, about predicting what would happen in this country—what would happen abroad and in this country if we went into the war. The most eloquent argument against going into the war came out of the mouth of the man who took us in. I mean, he did not want to get into the war. And he was searching around. We tried our neutrality—tried it briefly. And he could see that that just wasn’t going to work. That had the disadvantages of war without any of the advantages of maybe helping to shape the peace.

LINDSAY: Well, he was also being sharply criticized by people like Theodore Roosevelt for not being willing to be more forward leaning.

COOPER: That’s interesting. I once got—I once got reproved by Walt Rostow because I compared this to what—you know, in the Johnson White House they were more afraid of the hawkish critics than they were the dovish critics. Well, the doves were actually started—those terms come from the ’60s, but they applied very well there. There was a wonderful cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt with his blazing six-guns on one side, and William Jennings Bryan with a birdcage and a dove in it on the other, Woodrow Wilson standing in between. So the hawk and the dove were already around.

The dovish criticism, the anti-interventionist sentiment, was much stronger—was always much stronger. It didn’t get as much attention because you got Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, the eastern establishment. But the anti-interventionist sentiment was much stronger, even there was still 50 votes in the House against going into the war.

KEENE: And I think—I was just going to say, I think that one of the things that we don’t pay a lot of attention to anymore in class division in America. But at this time, that’s a very important component of the anti-interventionist argument. So for everybody in the eastern area that’s for war, you have many people in the South and especially in the Midwest, who look at the control of Wall Street—which is something that there’s been a lot of insurgency against in the populist movement in the late 19th century—even something like Lusitania.

This is not an era where anybody who’s an ordinary American expects to be traveling to Europe. So the question—on a luxury liner. It’s not that much—and in some parts of the country, there’s not that much sympathy because there’s the arguments that, well, why did you get on a ship and head into the war zone? I mean, what did you think was going to happen? And if you decide to do that, you take that risk. And why should the country get pulled into war because you’re an idiot? (Laughter.) And so it’s—(laughs)—and this is a very, you know, strong argument in parts of the South and the Midwest. And this antiwar sentiment will persist.

I was at an event yesterday at the Pentagon. And we were—in the panel we were talking about 1917. And one of the stories there Bob Doughty was talking about, the French army in 1917 where they had terrible mutinies. And he said in that—in that year, they don’t even publish the numbers of men who refused to comply with conscription. And the basic numbers around that had been about 2 percent. And so then there’s this question mark, the idea.

So I said, well, guess what? Guest what—I guessed what number, too—guess what the American percentage was of men who never—who refused to comply with Selective Service? And he’s thinking, well, you know, 5, 6 percent, that’s probably pretty high. But it was 11 percent, which is really high for the number of people. And that’s throughout the war—once you’re in and you’ve got the whole country mobilized. So the point is that that sentiment doesn’t completely evaporate ever in American society.

LINDSAY: Can I draw a little bit on something related to that, which is it’s relatively easy to declare war, but then you then have to fight it. The United States, certainly throughout the 19th century, had a tradition of a very small standing peacetime army. Now you’re talking about fighting a war 3,000 miles away, not by land but over a sea. As I understand it, President Wilson made it very clear to General Pershing, the commander of the American expeditionary force, that he wanted the American forces to play a significant role in settling the war because he wanted to have leverage when it came time to negotiate the peace or perhaps set the terms of the peace. So how did the United States go about building an army for the war?

KEENE: So this is what—a very interesting aspect about the First World War that really makes it, I think, a turning point in American history, which is that right from the very beginning of the conflict we decide to raise the majority of our armed forces through a draft. We had used drafts before, but they had really tended to come mid-conflict when volunteering had fallen off and you would sort of use it as stick, and the carrot would be you volunteer and get a bonus. But what’s interesting about Selective Service is that Wilson wants to be very careful not to give the impression that in fact America’s unwilling to go to war and the only way you can create an army is by forcing them to fight.

And so they, in a sense, rebrand the draft as something called Selective Service. This is when this notion comes into be. And the idea is that every man at draft-eligible age has to register. They all register on the same day, out in public. And then you will be selected to serve in the Army. And those who are not selected in the Army are expected to serve the war effort at home. And it’s this idea of emphasizing service, selectivity, the honor of serving in the military. And although I just—I just said there’s a very high evasion rate, on the other hand it is a successful system. They do successfully raise an army of over 4 million men during the war, very quickly, and get there in time to make a contribution to the victory.


WINIK: And then, you know, one thing that can be said is when the Americans finally got there, they didn’t fight for very long. It was really a handful of months, although I think the figure of men lost was, what, 117,000?

KEENE: It’s about 112,000, but about half of those are deaths from the flu, from disease.

WINIK: Right, there are other—there are other types of casualties. But there is real kind of bluster to the Americans. When Pershing arrived and he set foot on European soil he said: Layfette, we are here. Of course, invoking the great Marquis de Layfette, who was so critical to helping America during the Revolutionary War. And then at one point in, I think, the Battle of the Argonne—and this might be apocryphal, but I think it’s just as likely that it was true—the Americans were stymied at one point and somebody suggested retreat and one Marine said: Retreat? Hell, no. We just got here.

LINDSAY: Yes, John.

COOPER: Jennifer described what I would call the miracle of mobilization. I mean, we went from—what was it—it wasn’t even half a million in the whole—

KEENE: No, it was about 300,000, including National Guard troops, yeah.

COOPER: Yeah, no, the whole shebang—to over 4 million. In some ways, from Wilson’s point of view of wanting to shape to the peace, the war ended too early, because if that war had gone on much longer, it would have looked a lot more like World War II. They were planning a crossing at the Rhine early in 1919. The bulk of the fighting in Germany then was going to fall to us, the Americans. What’s more, the British had perfected tanks—begun to perfect tanks. They had also—they were the innovators—the innovators of World War I. They had also perfected bombers—planes that had a longer cruising range and carried payloads. The war of movement had resumed, just as we got there. You know, the trench stalemate was over and it was the war of movement. And that was going to be our war. It was going to look a lot more—although, if you look at 1944 and ’45, and you look at that fighting in Germany, Wilson—the 14 points saved us, really—saved an awful lot of lives.

LINDSAY: Jay, you want to jump in here?

WINIK: Yeah, just one thing. I mean, I think it’s worth pointing out that one of the things we have to talk about when we talk about World War I and its lessons for today is the fact that—remember how this war began. It began with the almost the innocuous shooting of a—of a minor archduke. And because of a set of interlocking alliances, it created this conflagration that really swept the globe. And near the end of the war, as John was talking about, one of the things we also can’t forget is that it swept away the Russian czardom. The czar abdicated. The Bolshevik revolution began. They pulled out of the war. And this shows the face of war, the carnage of war, the unpredictability of war. So that’s another calculus that we have to think about when America decides whether to enter the war and how to shape the peace.

LINDSAY: Jay, you used a word I want to build off of, which is lessons.


LINDSAY: Presumably we read history, study history, not just for the stories, but we’re hoping it can provide us some lessons or guidance. So I guess I’ll ask each of you to answer the following question: What would you take to be the lesson of the American entry into World War I? Can I start with you, John?

COOPER: I think—I am, I guess, known as an admirer of Wilson’s. And I make no apology for that. Not quite as much of one as Scott Berg, I think. But something I am very critical of him about is when we got into the war, he neglected his role as educator in chief. He did not give enough time—now, granted, he had, obviously, a lot of other things on his plate as commander in chief. But he didn’t really try enough to communicate to the American people his—he had a very complicated—I don’t like the word nuanced, but it does apply here—nuanced view of why we were fighting and what we were fighting for. He even said in his war address: I have the same objects in mind as I did on January 22nd last. In other words, he was fighting, in a sense, for—to win a compromised peace. He didn’t want to smash the Germans. He made that very clear several times.

He was trying to—and this is a very complicated thing to do. And he really—instead, he let George Creel loose, he let a lot of other people loose—

LINDSAY: George Creel was the head of the Committee of Public Information, almost a propaganda arm.

COOPER: Sorry, right. Right, our domestic propaganda, right. He let that loose. And he realized that he had not done enough. In fact, he had a big speaking tour planned for September 1918. He was going to go out. And, you know, you might say that’s a bit late. But better late than never. But then the Germans sued for the armistice. And that aborted that effort. But if you’re going to get into a war without a Pearl Harbor or a Fort Sumter or something like that, then be very clear about making your objectives clear to the American people. And that’s something that he didn’t do enough of.

LINDSAY: Jennifer.

KEENE: Well, I would say that when people ask about lessons of World War I, I like to sort of change the question a little bit and speak about the relevancy of the First World War for our present day. It’s interesting to me that because it happened 100 years ago now we say, oh, we should talk about World War I because it happened 100 years ago, which is—well, why? Just because it happened 100 years ago, is that really make it worth thinking about today? So I think it is worth thinking about today, not because of the accident of the calendar of 100 years ago, but because if we look at the First World War, we can see that people then were facing a lot of the same dilemmas that we are facing.

John mentioned one. You know, if you have some expansive goals to remake the world through war, is that really very realistic? Is that—are you really just raising your expectations too high? But another one that I often point to is the difficulty in the First World War of balancing the demands for national security with civil liberties, because one of, of course, the things that the Wilson administration does is clamps down immediately on dissent. So, while we have this free debate in the neutrality period of the war, once the war happens that’s not possible anymore. We have the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act. Now, clearly we want to stop sedition as well. I mean, we don’t stop espionage. So how do we actually balance that?

And the third thing I would say is that Woodrow Wilson articulates principles about democracy that in many ways have shaped the minds of Americans in the 20th century in terms of what their aspirations are for their domestic democracy as well as their role internationally. A lot of people latch onto Wilson’s ideas, people he didn’t expect to really take his words the way they did. Female suffragists, civil rights movement in the United States, anti-colonial movements abroad—these people heard Wilson say this is a war to spread democracy. And they were like, OK, do you mean it? And that’s not really the people he was talking to. (Laughter.) But they took it and they built on it. And that, in many ways, became the vision that they aspired to throughout the 20th century in terms of these important social movements.

So even rhetoric, you know, can develop a life of its own. And in that sense, I always argue that Woodrow Wilson is one of the most important people to understand in the 20th century.

COOPER: By the way, just on the point of rhetoric, what he said in the war address is: The world must be made safe for democracy. This guy was the most punctilious stylist we’ve ever had in the White House. He would not have used passive voice unless he meant it. Now, it’s a very—he had a very limited—much more limited, down-to-Earth vision than I think he’s credited for.

KEENE: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

COOPER: And he did not coin the term self-determination. It never appears in the 14points.

KEENE: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. But people latch onto these ideas, right?

COOPER: Of course, of course. Sure, sure. They did, right. Right.

KEENE: They say: This is what we take you to mean. And that’s the—you lose control. I guess that’s the thing.

WINIK: But he did have an expansive vision of galvanizing the American people, and not simply going into war just to remake the balance of power.

KEENE: Absolutely.

WINIK: He wanted to make a better world and a world safe for democracy. And there was a linage from that, frankly, you could say to George W. Bush’s second inaugural, where he espoused some of the same kind of theories.

COOPER: You know, I think William Kristol corrected that, Jay. He said that that kind of democracy spreading and advancement goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, not—that’s the one he used there, not through Wilson.


LINDSAY: I was going to ask you about lessons. Did you have anything more you wanted to add, Jennifer?

KEENE: Of course, I could say more. But I won’t. (Laughter.)

WINIK: Let me say three quick things about lessons, because this is really—the lessons, I think are deep and they’re profound, and they’re something that all of us who think a great deal about foreign policy and us at the Council, this is something that matters to us a great deal. The first thing is leadership, the second thing is intervention into conflicts, and then the third is shaping the peace. Now, on leadership, I still think it’s worth pondering, when a president is faced with outrages, even if he has public opinion going against him—and I would say the same is the case not only for Woodrow Wilson, but it was the same for FDR, it was the same for Abraham Lincoln—how do you shape public opinion and galvanize the American people to do something that you feel at some point is going to be necessary? And that’s the task of leadership in warfare.

Now, the second—the second lesson, I think, is the question of intervention. One of the things we have to think about, and one of the things we see, is had America not intervened in World War I, who knows what the results would have been? It would have been wildly unpredictable. America became the dominant place and the dominant superpower on the world stage, even as the Cold War was about to begin with the Bolsheviks.

So America is an indispensable force. Intervention is necessary. But is it always helpful? Well, we’ve seen in Iraq it can create instability. We saw in Vietnam it was perhaps ill-timed, and talked about “March of Folly.” So the lessons are—they can be straight, but they can also be windy, and they’re not always clear.

And the final lesson—and I think it’s as important as warfare—is the peace, is how to shape the peace. Now, obviously, I wrote about this a lot in terms of the reconciliation at the end of the Civil War in my book April 1865. But God knows, if it ever were important, it is important when you look at the end of World War I.

We had a Treaty of Versailles which was seen as punitive by the Germans. And because it was seen as so punitive, there was no healing. There was no real reconciliation. And in many ways, that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, who used it as a propaganda tool, and it led to the rise of the Nazi Party and then the 20 years’ crisis and then World War II.

So these are profound questions about what lessons to take, and it’s something for all of our statesmen to ponder. And they’re not always direct, but they’re important.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Jay.

At this time I’d like to bring the rest of the room into the conversation. Let me remind everybody once again that this meeting is on the record. I would ask for you to wait for the microphone, to please stand, state your name and affiliation. And in the interest of time, because I see a lot of hands starting to go up, I ask everybody to keep their questions short. And I’m going to ask my panelists if they can keep their responses short as well.

We’ll go here right to the front of the room. Gardner.

Q: Thank you. I’m Gardner Peckham with Prime Policy Group.

I don’t believe I heard you mention the Zimmermann Telegram as a reason why we got involved in the war. How much credit do you give that as another reason beyond unrestricted submarine warfare?

COOPER: Not a lot. It—

LINDSAY: Maybe you should say what the Zimmermann Telegram is, for people who are not up on—

COOPER: That’s the German—

LINDSAY: —pilfered cables.

COOPER: That’s the German offer to Mexico to come into the war. If they came into the war on their side, they would recover their lost provinces—Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. They didn’t mention California. (Laughter.)

That caused a sensation, sure. And certain papers, like the Chicago Tribune, converted to intervention. But as well as we can tell—again, we’re in the pre-public-opinion-poll stage—as near we can tell, it didn’t change very many minds.

LINDSAY: OK. Go all the way to the back of the room. Ellen. If someone could bring Ellen a microphone, I would appreciate it.

Q: Thanks, Jim. Ellen Laipson, the Stimson Center.

I wanted to just briefly mention the story of Henry Stimson stepping down as secretary of war to serve in an artillery battalion in France. I wondered if, at the time, that was seen as heroic or sentimental or foolish and whether there were any other senior American officials who wanted to experience the war.

COOPER: Stimson was no longer secretary of war. He’d gone out with the Taft administration. He hadn’t been secretary of war since 1913.

Q: But he served in France—

COOPER: Yes, he did.

Q: —and then he came back and served in the government again. I thought there was a connection between the two.

COOPER: Later. He was Philippines—first he’s governor general of the Philippines. He goes to Nicaragua. And then he becomes secretary of state under Hoover.

Q: Yes.

COOPER: So he was out. But, yes, he did. Yeah.

Q: Were there others who wanted to experience the war, given how short the involvement was?

KEENE: Yeah. Well, I’ll just take this, because I get asked this a lot, especially by my students, who kind of have more of a Vietnam War image in their head that, of course, the draft was only going to take working-class people, so the educated must be avoiding. And, of course, this was completely different than the First World War. You had already had many men from Ivy League schools who had volunteered and already gone over to fight with the French and the British armies. They were sort of, in a sense, leading the way. And you definitely had men resigning from political positions, from businesses.

This was one of the things that the Wilsonian administration feared happening, because they had seen that happen in Britain, that, in fact, your best and brightest rush off and, you know, want the adventure, want the patriotism. Out of patriotism they go. But then who’s left to run these agencies, to run these businesses, to run the government? You need these people there.

So, in a way, the Selective Service system, but giving you an exemption—and you could wear a pin that you were, you know, legally exempt—gave people a pass to stay in these jobs and still be perceived as patriotic, because that’s what total mobilization required.

COOPER: But you didn’t mention the most famous would-be volunteer of all.

Q: Theodore Roosevelt.

COOPER: Theodore Roosevelt.

KEENE: Yeah, Theodore Roosevelt. (Laughs.)

COOPER: Roosevelt went hat in hand to Wilson; said please, Mr. President, will you let me raise a division? And the point Jennifer made about why it would strip them out—every ambitious officer in the Army was clamoring to get into the Roosevelt division, including Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower, West Point Class of 1915. And the War Department said this will just play havoc with any kind of orderly raising of the Army.

LINDSAY: OK, Michael, right here.

Q: Mike Mosettig.

I know we’ve filled a room here at CFR with people interested in this. But essentially, World War I remains a blip on the American consciousness. I once had a deputy national security adviser fall out of his chair when I told him that we lost as many military casualties in World War I as we did in 10 years in Vietnam.

Is it because there was television in Vietnam, or what? Why does World War I barely register on the general American consciousness?

LINDSAY: Jay, you want to take a crack at that?

WINIK: I do, but I’m not sure—I’m not sure of the answer. You know, in the publishing world they say if you want a bestseller, write about the American Civil War. Don’t write about World War I. So there’s something about how it hasn’t—it has not seeped into the public consciousness.

But I guess I would say kudos to the Council on Foreign Relations for holding this event—(laughter)—because World War I really is—it’s a titanic battle. It’s a titanic war. All the major issues we think about matter—deaths, the carnage of war, the face of war, war escalation, the role of America in the world, how to shape the peace. All these things are brought by World War I. And World War I was the edifice that sort of shaped the rest of the century, including, of course, World War II.

So, for those of you who say it doesn’t matter, I expect you to spread the gospel. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: Jennifer, you want to jump in?

KEENE: I was just going to add that World War I was not forgotten by the generation that experienced it. And I’d like to say that World War I is the war that’s hidden in plain sight. Washington, D.C. is a perfect example of this. There are monuments all over the place, and not just official monuments. There’s a big push now to put a World War I monument in Pershing Park, saying we don’t have one. But we do have one. It’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That’s what that is. That is a World War I memorial. That was a huge moment when that was erected. And it, you know, opened a major international disarmament conference.

I was at Dupont Circle walking around and I walked past an apartment building, Chateau-Thierry. That’s the name of the apartment building. That’s a major battle that Americans fought in the First World War. Every community has World War I monuments. It’s just that Americans forgot. But the generation didn’t forget. I think World War II overshadowed it.

And World War I can’t—isn’t the good war. It doesn’t have that feel-good narrative to it. When you say why’d we get in, nobody can give you a good answer. What did we accomplish? An even worse good answer, or not a satisfactory answer. And so we like wars to have clean narratives, and this war doesn’t have that.

COOPER: Think about what this war gets called in different parts of the English-speaking world. In Britain or anywhere in the commonwealth, it’s called the Great War. That name never caught on here, because it hasn’t been our great war.

KEENE: No. It was the European war. That’s right.

WINIK: And it was also called the war to end all wars.

COOPER: No, that—that’s—Wilson never said that. H.G. Wells—

WINIK: He should have. (Laughter.)

COOPER: No, he should not have. H.G. Wells said it, and Lloyd George picked it up.

LINDSAY: Go right here, sir.

WINIK: I didn’t say Wilson said it.

LINDSAY: Larry, they’re going to bring a microphone to you.

Q: Let’s assume that Germany had not started unrestricted submarine warfare and the United States had not gotten into the war, which I think all of you are inclined to believe. Had that not happened, we would have not entered into the war.

Then the question I have for you is what would the likely result of the war have been? Isn’t it almost inevitable, if not very likely, the Germans would have won? And what would the result in Europe have been? And how would we have encountered that? How would that look—have looked to us?

LINDSAY: Who wants to take a crack at the counterfactual?

OK, John.

COOPER: Yes, Germany would have won. All you have to do is look at 1917, at this catalogue of Allied disasters, and with—culminating in Russia leaving the war. Add to that a financial crisis that would have, at best, severely crimped and interrupted the flow of supplies to the Allies. To me, that’s a recipe for their defeat.

Germany—Michael Kazin and I actually had a little debate in The New Republic three years ago.

LINDSAY: Michael’s a professor of history at Georgetown.

COOPER: At Georgetown. And he also had, a couple of weeks ago, a piece in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, Five Myths of World War I. Michael says that if we hadn’t gotten in, it would have been a stalemate and Europe would never have the Third Reich and all the rest of that.

Being on the winning side did not inoculate Italy against fascism. Of course the German defeat played a huge role in Hitler, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. But what it would have been—a German-dominated Europe would have been very bad news for us. And some president at some point was going to have to deal with that.


Q: Tom Davis. I’m a senior fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association.

I was just mentioning to Carter Ham, interesting—that organization was formed in October 1919 as the Army Ordnance Association at Aberdeen, because we actually never got any heavy equipment for the U.S. Army to Europe to fight this war. It was French SPADs and French tanks and Harry Truman’s 75-millimeter French Howitzer.

The question I had is a little bit off the path of what you’re talking about. I did a dissertation years ago, and I wonder if anything has happened since then. It was about the ramifications of World War I as it applied to the Middle East. And it was essentially a whole series of things, as you all well know, that went on in the Middle East—the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration. And Woodrow Wilson himself even, trying to sort out what his thoughts were, organized this King-Crane Commission that he sent over there in 1919.

But it seems like so many of the things that we’re wrestling with today in the Middle East go back to either what one could describe as British diplomatic lack of coordination or British diplomatic duplicity, one of the two.

Do any of you have any ideas about how exactly the British efforts in the Middle East might—was there any grand strategy to them, or were they simply taking tactical steps to try to get through day to day, given, John, what you’ve described as their (serious/Syria ?) situation?

LINDSAY: Do you want to go again? Or you—which—

KEENE: Well, I was going to say that one of the things that—the Middle East at this time—you know, there was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and what to do with its territories, not an issue that you can galvanize much American interest around except as it came to two things. One was the Balfour Declaration. And, of course, there are many Zionist groups in the United States that the idea that there was now going to be a homeland in Palestine, that became something to really reinforce their commitment to the war, the idea that this could be accomplished.

And the second was what had happened to Armenia, because there was a lot of publicity about the Armenian genocide in the United States. And, in fact, America was supposed to take Armenia as a mandate. And you see correspondence from Wilson saying that, in fact, he believes that the Americans owe that to the Armenian people. But as Americans reject the Versailles peace treaty and this whole idea of getting involved in sort of splitting up that territory and really taking control of someplace in the Middle East, obviously, that doesn’t happen.

But I think that a lot of the general—the specifics of that—this is not where we fought. It’s not where we believe we have national-security interests at the time. So it’s not something that most people are really focused on. They’re much more focused on what’s going on in Eastern Europe as a result of the Versailles peace treaty.

WINIK: The one other thing I would add to that is that, remember, we’re at the end of World War I. We saw not only the close of a war but the sweeping away of empires. We saw the sweeping away of the Ottoman Empire. We saw the sweeping away of the Russian empire. And so, in that sense, the Middle East was sort of ripe for being redrawn. And it was the beginning of a process, not the end of a process. And it’s something that we live with to this day.

COOPER: You said British duplicity. Don’t leave the French out. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: We’ll go over here.

Q: Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association.

In 2002, George W. Bush introduced the idea of preventive war into U.S. security doctrine. I assume 100 years ago the idea of attacking first did not have legitimacy among the American public. So I wonder, did the fact that it was Austria invading Serbia and Germany invading neutral Belgium, did that play a role here? Or was it all very minor in comparison with submarine warfare and so forth?

COOPER: Belgium. In terms of opinion, not necessarily wanting to get in but American opinion, Belgium—I’m sorry to put it this way, but Belgium gave the Germans a PR black eye here that they never got over. They just—somehow you talk about propaganda and all this stuff, British propaganda. The Germans had a much better-financed and organized propaganda organization effort here in the U.S., and it just didn’t get the traction.

Britain, by the way, blew it too with Ireland. In other words, that tended to make Easter Rising 1916 kind of, well, maybe they’re both bad. You know, there’s not much to choose between them.

KEENE: I think, in a sense, Germany was probably the power that had preventative war on its mind the most at the time in terms of, you know, as they’re trying to figure out what to do in reaction to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, there is the sense that is better now. We’re in the best position now to make these attacks and solidify our position as the leader of Europe, because if we don’t do it now, all we’ll see is an increasingly strong Russia, which had begun a new mobilization plan, and now they’re allied with France. This is only—our situation will only get worse over time. This is the moment to strike. So I think that they were the ones that were sort of acting in that notion of preventative war.

WINIK: You know, let me say one quick thing about this notion of preventive war. It’s actually—it’s a richer and more complex and murkier subject than most people realize. And typically what we see throughout history is that the American habit was to manipulate the other side into a point where war became inevitable.

I mean, if you think about what Abraham Lincoln did when he re-provisioned Fort Sumter, he knew exactly what was going to come, but he just wanted to make sure that the South fired the first shots. And it’s interesting the phrase he used to describe it. As he put it, and then the war came. And that was typically the way Americans treated wars.

LINDSAY: Go here, sir.

Q: Thanks for a fascinating discussion. Rust Deming at SAIS.

My question is, you talked about the private—efforts by private Americans to aid the allies. Was there a parallel effort by German-Americans? And how bad was the tension in our society between German-Americans and Anglo-Americans as things moved forward?

COOPER: Yes. There was an effort—the German community in this country was very well organized. There was an umbrella organization called the German-American Alliance. Its chief public-policy objective before World War I was to fight Prohibition. Just think about the names of the great breweries. And it was financed largely by the breweries.

The German embassy took it over right at the beginning of the war, and then they started pushing the proposal for an arms embargo, that we wouldn’t sell arms to anybody, which is one of those things that sounded like a great idea but violated all the rules of international law. In other words, if they could come and get it, you can sell it, period. And it so happened, yes, the allies were the only ones who could.

But there was a very well-organized campaign for that. Oh, yeah, they were definitely tried to help.

LINDSAY: Did you want to speak about the—

KEENE: I was just going to say that one of the problems, though, was for them to actually get their aid to Germany. This is where—this is where the British blockade, Britain severing the transcontinental cable lines, that even sending money became difficult. And so there was—there were a lot of similar aid efforts, because German-Americans made a good point, which is that, you know, you’re all bent out of shape about the Lusitania, but what about the German children who are starving as a result of the German—of the British blockade, that isn’t this targeting civilians? How can we say—

LINDSAY: Food was used as a weapon.

KEENE: That’s right. Food was being used as a weapon. And so, you know, OK, we can lament the death of women and children when a passenger ship has sunk, but you’re ignoring the far greater cost that German—that’s being inflicted upon the German people. That was just a rhetorical propaganda battle they didn’t win, but they had an argument to make.

WINIK: And remember, there was a real campaign against German-Americans. When one looks at what one might see as the treatment of Muslims today, or after 9/11, I mean, German-Americans were really suspect. Even sauerkraut, I believe, was called liberty cabbage.

KEENE: Yeah, after we entered the war.

WINIK: Towns around the United States that had German names changed. Berlin, Iowa became Lincoln, Iowa. I will note that my grandfather grew up in a German neighborhood in The Bronx. The day after they declared war, he never spoke German again.

KEENE: Oh, interesting. Interesting, yeah.

LINDSAY: We’ll go right up here. Odeh.

Q: Odeh Aburdene, the Capital Trust Group.

Professor Cooper, you said Wilson was not a good educator in terms of educating the American people about World War I. When you look at the war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, were the presidents who were involved in these wars good educators or no?

COOPER: No. No. No. There’s no—one thing there, too, which—Wilson’s—if you go back to 1912, and the greatest campaign we’ve ever had—ever had—was him versus Theodore Roosevelt, because essentially it’s two men expounding political philosophies and philosophies of leadership. T.R.’s—T.R.’s is inspiration, evangelism, preaching. He was, by the way, probably almost certainly a religious skeptic, but never mind.

On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson, who is the son, grandson, nephew, son-in-law of Presbyterian ministers, that’s not his model. His model is, not surprisingly, education, that what you want to do is educate the public, which he also sees as a two-way process. The public will educate the leader as well.

So, to me, that’s what I just see as a terrible failure on his part. And, as I said, he recognized this and was going to take steps to try to remedy it—belated steps.

KEENE: And I would just point out that his propaganda committee was called the Committee on Public Education.

COOPER: Information.

KEENE: Information. But they—Committee on Public Information, but this idea that information will educate you into the correct way to think about the war.

COOPER: And they deliberately kept the word propaganda out of it.

KEENE: Yeah.

LINDSAY: We have time for one last question. Before I take the question, I want to remind everybody this meeting has been on the record.

I’m going to go to Charlie. And if you could keep your question short, I’d appreciate it.

Q: Charlie Stevenson, SAIS.

The war marked the beginning of the administrative state in this country. Besides Selective Service, what were the successes and what were the failures?

LINDSAY: Who wants to take a crack at that?

KEENE: Well, I think that when we think about the administrative state, some people think about the security state. They think about the way in which surveillance was certainly dramatically increased after the First World War as a result of expanded Department of Justice activities. We have the FBI coming into existence. We have this idea that we need to be—you know, public safety sort of depends on a federal investigative apparatus.

We gain a lot of experience in terms of mobilizing the economy. There’s the national takeover of the railroads, for instance. There’s a food administration that launches probably the most significant propaganda campaign of the war in terms of trying to use peer pressure in local communities to get people to conform. And so you can see that kind of state structure percolating even into local committees.

These things are seen as analogies, which the New Deal builds upon the future. So you can certainly see that idea of the capacity of the federal government to really effect changes in how people live their daily lives, that being a lesson learned from the past.

And then again, I wouldn’t underestimate the way in which the modern army comes into being as a result of the First World War. In the Civil War, 90 percent of men are combatants. In the First World War, it’s down to 40 percent. You’re building a large bureaucratic institution, and that institution comes into being as a major component of the state as well. So there’s no doubt that the First World War is an important moment of state building.

LINDSAY: Jennifer, on this question of surveillance, how much of it was a function of deliberate government policy, and how much of it was sort of social norms and communities essentially intruding on people who chose to dissent?

KEENE: I think that it’s a combination of both. There’s no doubt that at the first—at the beginning of the First World War, the federal government did not have the capacity to undertake the kind of surveillance it wanted to—it wanted to. It could not have enforced the Espionage Act without help from Americans. And if you look at these files, they’re just full of letters from people on their community ratting each other out. I mean, you know, you didn’t buy Liberty bonds. And this person said—you know, refused to salute the flag.

So there’s this sense of if you’re not with us, you’re against us. And people are—people are afraid. They’re concerned about winning this war. And the idea that there has been dissent—how can you trust people who still continue to speak out against the war? All of these become the elements.

So it becomes a shared enterprise. And I think that’s important to recognize, because a lot of times we look at wars and say, well, the state gets so much power. But I think it gets so much power because we give it to them. We enable that. We’re asking the state to exercise that kind of power. I think if there was really strong opposition on the part of most Americans, I’m not sure that it could be quite so successful.

WINIK: But that was continuing a thread rarely seen since the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams—

KEENE: Absolutely. Yeah.

WINIK: —stretching to what happened post-9/11 today.

LINDSAY: I think on that note we’re going to end. I ask the room to join me in thanking John, Jennifer, and Jay for an excellent set of remarks. (Applause.)

Thank you, everybody.


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