Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Oil portrait

by Virginia True


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From War in the Twentieth Century, Willard Waller, editor, Dryden Press, 1940, 71-82; reprinted in The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues, Volume 2, Sidney Fine and Gerald S. Brown, editors. Brown McMillan 1961, 308-16.


The United States and the First World War

Harry Elmer Barnes 

We now consider the forces, factors, and personalities which brought the United States into the First World War.

The United States could not have been more perfectly set up for neutrality than it was in July and August, 1914.  President Woodrow Wilson was a lifelong and deeply conscientious pacifist.  His convictions in this matter were not emotional or impressionistic, but had been based upon deep study and prolonged reflection.  Moreover, he was married to a woman noted for pacific sentiments and firm convictions on such matters.  She strongly backed up her husband in his pacific beliefs and policies.  As Secretary of Stale, we had in William Jennings Bryan the world’s outstanding pacifist.  His pacifism was notably courageous; he was willing to stick by his guns even in the face of malicious criticism.

Moreover, Wilson was almost uniquely well informed as to the essentials of the European situation before war broke out in the summer of 1914.  He had sent his personal representative, Colonel Edward M. House, to Europe to study the international situation and to report to him upon it.  Whatever his later mistakes, Colonel House sized up matters in Europe with almost perfect sagacity and understanding in May, 1914.  He concluded his observations with the statement that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany.”

If one were to summarize, as briefly as this, the outcome of the years of scholarly study since 1918, with respect to responsibility for the World War, a more perfect estimate and verdict than Colonel House’s phrase could not be rendered in the same number of words.  Further, the Colonel pointed out that, whatever the Kaiser’s emotional shortcomings, he wished for European peace.  On the other hand, he stated candidly that George V of England was “the most pugnacious monarch loose in these parts.”

When war broke out, President Wilson’s statements were a model of neutral procedure.  He issued a formally correct neutrality proclamation and went on to exhort his countrymen to be neutral in thought as well as in action.  There is no doubt that he was completely neutral at heart in August, 1914.  Less than three years later, however, in April, 1917, he went before Congress and told its members that “God helping her,” this country could do no other than make war on Germany.  Moreover, he returned from the Capitol to the White House and made statements to his secretary,
Joseph P. Tumulty, indicating that, at the time of his war message, he had so far changed his attitude that he could not believe he ever had been neutral.  He cited with approval an article by the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian stating that Mr. Wilson had always been sympathetic with the Allies and had wished to throw this country into war on their side just as soon as circumstances would permit.

We shall first briefly consider some of the reasons why Wilson altered his point of view, since no other set of circumstances could alone have forced us into the war, if Wilson had not been favorable to our entry by the spring of 1917.

First and foremost, we must take into account the fact that Wilson’s intellectual perspective was predominantly Anglo-Saxon.  He had little knowledge of, or sympathy with, continental European culture and institutions.  His great intellectual heroes were such English writers as John Milton, John Locke, Adam Smith and Waiter Bagehot.  He did his graduate work in the Johns Hopkins University Seminar under Herbert Baxter Adams, where the “Anglo-Saxon Myth” reigned supreme.  Wilson was a persistent student and admirer of the English constitution and frankly regarded the British system of government as superior to our own.

Then Wilson had in his cabinet and among his ambassadors men who were intensely pro-English or pro-Ally in their sympathies.  Such were Secretaries Lindley M. Garrison and David F. Houston.  Waiter Hines Page, our ambassador in London, was even more intensely pro-English than Wilson.  Indeed, he frequently went to such excesses as to annoy the President.  When Bryan was succeeded by Robert Lansing, the most crucial post in the cabinet went to another vehemently pro-English
sympathizer.  The biases of Page and
Lansing made it difficult to pursue forthright diplomacy with Great Britain.

Another major difficulty lay in the fact that President Wilson and Secretary Lansing did not formulate and execute a fair and consistent line of diplomatic procedure.  They had one type of international law for England and the Allies, and quite another for Germany.  They all but allowed Great Britain to run wild in the violation of international law and of our neutral rights, while they insisted on holding Germany “to strict accountability.”

England started out in 1914 by making a scrap of paper out of the Declaration of London governing contraband in wartime.  Next, we proceeded to allow her to make use of armed belligerent merchantmen as if they were peaceful commercial vessels.  England violated our neutral rights far more extensively between 1914 and 1917 than she did before the War of 1812, even to the point of flying the American flag.

Wilson came to believe, however, that Great Britain was fighting for civilization and that so trivial a thing as international law must not be allowed to stand in her way.  Wilson’s Attorney-General, Thomas W. Gregory, tells of the rebuke which the President administered to certain cabinet members when they protested over the flagrant British violation of our neutral rights:  “After patiently listening, Mr. Wilson said, in that quiet way of his, that the ordinary rules of conduct had no application to the situation; that the Allies were standing with their backs to the wall, fighting wild beasts; that he would permit nothing to be done by our country to hinder or embarrass them in the prosecution of the war unless admitted rights were grossly violated, and that this policy must be understood as settled.”  Bryan protested against our unfair and unneutral diplomacy and ultimately resigned because he could not square his conscience with it.

Secretary Lansing admits in his Memoirs that he made no real pretense of holding England to the tenets of international law.  He tells us that after the sinking of the Lusitania he thought we should be fighting on the side of the Allies and that he was determined to do nothing which would prove embarrassing to us when we later took up our position as a military comrade of the Allied powers.   He persisted in this attitude, even though he was honest enough to write after the war that in 1917 we had as good, if not better, legal grounds for fighting Britain as for fighting Germany.

Ambassador Page even went so far as to collaborate with Sir Edward Grey in answering the protests of his own government, an unparalleled procedure which, when revealed, outraged even so pro-Ally a journal as the New York Times.

We thus encouraged and perpetuated the illegally extensive British blockade, which provoked the German submarine warfare.  In time, we made war on the latter, though it was our unneutral diplomacy which contributed, in large part, to the continuance of both the British blockade and the German submarine activities.  Wilson was deeply affected by the criticisms to which he was subjected by prominent Americans sympathetic with the Allies and in favor of intervention on their side.  He was stung by the famous speeches of Theodore Roosevelt on “The Shadows of Shadow Lawn,” and by the latter’s reference to Wilson’s diplomatic statements as examples of “weasel words.”  He was particularly annoyed by the statement of Elihu Root that “first he shakes his fist and then he shakes his finger.”

On the other hand, Wilson was human enough to take note of the praise which was showered upon him by the press when he made a bellicose statement or led a preparedness parade.  This contrasted sharply with the bitter criticism he evoked when he made a statesmanlike remark, such as that a country might be “too proud to fight,” or that the only desirable peace would be “a peace without victory.”

Wilson was also profoundly moved by the British propaganda relative to German atrocities and territorial ambitions.  This was particularly true after Lord Bryce lent his name to the prestige and veracity of the propaganda stories as to German savagery.  Of all living Englishmen, Bryce was probably the man whom Wilson most admired and trusted.  When Bryce sponsored the propaganda lies, Wilson came to believe that they must have a substantial basis in fact.  This helped on his rationalization that England was fighting the battle of human civilization against wild beasts.

Personal matters also played their role in the transformation of Wilson’s attitude.  His first wife died and a strong pacific influence was removed.  He then courted and married a dashing widow who was sympathetic with the Allied side and friendly with Washington military and naval circles.   She was also bitterly resentful of the criticism to which Wilson was subjected on account of his refusal to be stampeded into intervention.  She appears to have wished him to take a stronger stand for intervention.  The domestic influence on the President was, thus, completely transformed in character as a result of his second marriage.  The publication of Mrs. Wilson’s Memoirs does not make it necessary to modify this statement.

When, as an outcome of these various influences, Wilson had been converted to intervention, he rationalized his change of attitude on the basis of a noble moral purpose.  As he told Jane Addams in the spring of 1917, he felt that the United States must be represented at the peace conference which would end the World War if there was to be any hope of a just and constructive peace.  But Wilson could be at the peace conference only if the United States had previously entered the World War.

It is still asserted by many writers, such as Professor Charles Seymour, that the resumption of submarine warfare by Germany was the sole reason for Wilson’s determination to enter the war on the Allied side.  But we know that he had been converted to intervention long before January, 1917.

A year earlier, he had sent Colonel House to Europe with a plan to put us in the war on the side of the Allies if Germany would not accept peace terms obviously unfavorable to her.  But even such peace terms for Germany were rejected by the British leaders, who felt sure of American aid anyway and were determined to crush Germany.  Yet this British rebuff did not lead Wilson to lose heart in his efforts to put this country into the war.

His next step was taken in this country.  Early in April, 3 1916, Wilson called into consultation Speaker Champ Clark of the House of Representatives and Congressional leaders Claude Kitchin and H. D. Flood, and sounded them out to see if they would support him in a plan to bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies.  This was the famous “Sunrise Conference” described later by Gilson Gardner in McNaught’s Monthly of June, 1925.  These men sharply refused to sanction any such policy, and Wilson allowed the campaign of 1916 to be fought out on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”  Wilson did not dare to risk splitting the Democratic Party over entry into the war before the campaign of 1916 had successfully ended.  The existence of the “Sunrise Conference” has been fully verified by Professor A. M. Arnett in his scholarly book on Claude Kitchin.

Wilson was convinced after the failure of the “Sunrise Conference” that there was no hope of getting the country into war until after the election. The sentiment of the nation was for peace. If he was elected as an exponent of peace and then went into war the country as a whole would believe that he had done his best to “keep us out of war.” He would have a united country behind him. Hence, he and Colonel House sent Governor Martin Glynn of New York and Senator Ollie James of Kentucky to the Democratic National Convention at St. Louis, in June, 1916, with instructions to make keynote speeches emphasizing Wilson’s heroic efforts to keep us out of war.

Thus was fashioned the famous slogan “He kept us out of war,” which reelected Woodrow Wilson to the presidency almost a year after Colonel House, following Wilson’s directions, had declared that: “The United States would like Great Britain to do whatever would help the United States to aid the Allies.” The campaign and election of 1916 were very really a referendum on war, and the people voted against war. This is illuminating as an illustration of the fallacy that a war referendum, such as the Ludlow Amendment would, by itself alone, suffice to keep us out of war, but the election of 1916 does offer definite proof that Wilson was not pushed into war by popular demand.

The influence exerted by American finance upon our entry into the World War has been revealed in Ray Stannard Baker’s Life and Letters of Woodrow Wilson, in the volumes of the Nye armament investigation, and in Professor C. C. Tansill’s America Goes to War.

At the outset, the international bankers were not by any means all pro-Ally.  Some, like the Morgan firm, were pro-British, and had been for years, while others, like Kuhn, Loeb and Company, manned chiefly by men of German derivation, were pro-German.  But the financial interests of all the bankers soon came to be pro-Ally, for credit and loans to Germany were discouraged, while large loans were presently being made to the Allied powers.

On August 15, 1914, at the beginning of the war, Bryan declared against loans to any belligerent, on the ground that credit is the basis of all forms of contraband.  President Wilson backed him up.  For the time being, this position did not operate seriously against the Allies, for the balance of trade and investment was against the United States, and the Allied countries could pay for their purchases by canceling the debts owed abroad by Americans.  This situation took care of matters for a few months.  But Allied war purchases became so great that, by the autumn of 1914, there was a credit crisis.  The National City Bank addressed Robert Lansing, then Counselor of the State Department, on this matter on October 23, 1914.  Short-term credits to European governments were advocated.  Lansing talked the matter over with President Wilson at once, and the latter agreed that the government would not interfere with such an arrangement.  This information was transmitted orally to Willard Straight of J. P. Morgan & Company at the Metropolitan Club in Washington on the same night.

Shortly afterwards, H. P. Davison of the Morgan firm went to England and signed a contract to become the British purchasing agent in America.  A similar contract was soon made with France.

The short-term loans sufficed for some months, but by the summer of 1915 Allied buying had become so extensive that the bankers saw that they must float loans here for the Allied countries if the latter were to continue to buy American munitions on a large scale.  So they made strong representations to Colonel House and to the Secretary of the Treasury, W. G. McAdoo.

On August 21, 1915, McAdoo wrote a long letter to President Wilson, pointing out that great prosperity had come to the country as a result of the sale of munitions to the Allies, but that this prosperity could not continue unless we financed it through open loans to the Allies—i.e., selling Allied bonds in our own financial markets.

On September 6, 1915, Secretary Lansing argued similarly in a letter to President Wilson, stressing the crisis that faced American business if the earlier ruling of Bryan and the President on American loans to belligerents was not rescinded.  Colonel House supported this position.  McAdoo and Lansing won their point.  On September 8, 1915, Wilson assented to loans and the Morgan firm was once more given oral information.  Very soon, the first public loan, the $500,000,000 Anglo-French loan, was floated.

The formal loans to the Allies—over $2,500,000,000 in all—financed their purchases for a little over a year, but their buying was so heavy that even the great investment banking houses could not take care of their needs.  By January, 1917, the Allies had overdrawn their credit by nearly $500,000,000.  Only Uncle Sam could save the great banking houses and the Allies.  And Uncle Sam could help only if the United States were at war with Germany.  We could not, as a government, lend money to a belligerent, unless we were at war with its enemy.

Just at this time the Germans renewed their unrestricted submarine warfare.  The United States could now be led into the war, and the bankers would be repaid.  They were repaid to the last cent.
 When the war was over, Mr. Thomas W. Lament, of J. P. Morgan and Company, stated the facts relative to the attitude of his firm toward the World War and the belligerent powers:

At the request of certain of the foreign governments the firm of Messrs. J. P. Morgan and Company undertook to co-ordinate the requirements of the Allies, and then to bring about regularity and promptness in fulfilling these requirements.  Those were the days when American citizens were being urged to remain neutral in action, in word, and even in thought.  But our firm had never for one moment been neutral: we didn’t know how to be.  From the very start we did everything we could to contribute to the cause of the Allies.  And this particular work had two effects: one in assisting the Allies in the production of goods and munitions in America necessary
to the Allies’ vigorous prosecution of the war; the other in helping to develop the great and profitable export trade that our country has had.

Most American industrialists naturally shared the attitude of the bankers.  Since England controlled the seas, our sales were mainly to the Allied powers.  We wished to see the Allies continue the war and win it.  Upon their purchases depended most of our sales and prosperity, and upon their success and solvency depended the prospect of their being able to pay us in the end.  The trade in munitions carried us from a depression in 1914 to boom years in 1915 and 1916.

By abandoning his neutral financial and industrial policy in favor of the Allies, President Wilson made it possible for the Entente Powers to enjoy an enormous advantage over the Central Powers in getting war supplies.  The only way for the Central Powers to overcome it was to resume unlimited submarine warfare and try to sweep from the seas the ships that were carrying these supplies to the Allies.

It was our unneutral financing of the Allies that led to the resumption of German submarine warfare, and it was the resumption of this warfare which furnished the “incident” that enabled the war party in this country to put us into the conflict.  It is, thus, perfectly clear that economic and financial pressure was the crucial factor which led us into war in 1917.

But no one need hold that President Wilson was moved primarily by any tender sentiments for the bankers.  Both McAdoo and Lansing argued that it was essential to American prosperity to finance the Allies.

It was this general consideration of continued prosperity in 1915-16 and the relation of this to the prospects of the Democratic Party in the election of 1916, rather than any direct banker pressure on the White House, that bore in on Wilson’s consciousness in the late summer of 1915, when he let down the gates to financing the Allies.

Yet, it is downright silly to contend that the bankers had no influence on Wilson’s policy.  If he did not listen to the bankers himself, he did listen very attentively to those who did heed banker pressure, namely, McAdoo, Lansing and House.

The active campaign for American preparedness and intervention was engineered by leaders of the war cult in the United States, such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, Henry Cabot Lodge, “Gus” Gardiner, and the like.  They led in the preparedness movement, the Plattsburg camp episode, and other steps designed to stimulate the martial spirit in America.  The newspapers warmly supported this movement because of the circulation appeal which preparedness material supplied.

While there were notable exceptions, the majority of our newspapers were pro-Ally and pro-interventionist.  Many of them were honestly sympathetic with the Allies. Others were deeply influenced by Allied propaganda.  Some were heavily subsidized by the Allies.  Still others were bought outright by Allied interests.  Moreover, the Allies supplied all American newspapers with a vast amount of war-news material always favorable to the Allied cause.  The newspapers also had a natural affinity for the bankers and industrialists who were their chief advertising clients.  Finally, the newspapers were not unaware of the enormous circulation gains and increased advertising revenue which would follow our entry into the World War.

In the matter of propaganda the Allies had a notable advantage.  They controlled the seas, the cables, and other means of communication.  The Germans had only one crude and temporary wireless contact with the United States.  Further, Allied propaganda was far better organized and more lavishly supported.  It was also much more adroit than the German.  As a result, a majority of Americans were led to believe in the veracity of the great batch of atrocity lies relative to the German invasion of Belgium, submarine warfare, and the like. This was particularly true after Lord Bryce put the force of his name and prestige behind the authenticity of such tales.  Lord Northcliffe, who was in charge of British propaganda, in moments of unusual candor, stated that the Americans proved more gullible in such matters than any other people except the Chinese and called us “a bunch of sheep.”

The ministers of the gospel also joined heartily in the great crusade to put us into the World War. Lining up behind such a stalwart as Newell Dwight Hillis, they preached a veritable holy war.   They represented the Allies as divinely-anointed promoters of international decency and justice and the Central Powers as the servants of evil and the agents of savagery.

The net result of all this was that we entered the World War in April, 1917.  We did so, even though there was no clear legal or moral basis for our so doing.  If there ever was an instance in which the facts were clearly in accord with a neutrality policy it was in the spring of 1917.  We should have fought both Germany and Britain or else neither.  But the country went into war, with most of the citizens of the United States feeling that our self-respect and national honor demanded it.  No other course seemed open to us.

Posted March 9, 2008