America's Forgotten War

Article excerpt

The war that did the most to transform the world for the worse was formally settled 80 years ago. Not World War II, which employed greater destructiveness, exhibited greater cruelty, and slaughtered greater numbers of people. But World War I, which birthed World War II, along with the greatest of the totalitarian delusions-communism, fascism, and Nazism. Yet the Great War, as it was originally called, is largely forgotten in America.

Today the United States celebrates Veterans Day on November 11, which replaced the original Armistice Day. But when Americans think of veterans they think of Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. Not so in Europe. There World War I continues to loom large.

As it should. The Triple Entente, with which America was allied, had won when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918. But as the Versailles peace conference, which opened in January 1919, proceeded throughout the spring, the Western powers managed to lose the peace. Tens of millions in the next generation would pay for their mistakes.

And the Europeans continue to fight leftover issues of the war. For instance, last November French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin suggested rehabilitating army mutineers who had been executed during a massive soldiers' revolt in 1917. President Jacques Chirac sharply rejected Jospin's idea, however, citing the negative reaction from surviving veterans. Yet at the same time the British government allowed relatives of soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion during World War I to hold a ceremony at the Cenotaph, Whitehall's monument to the war dead

To the extent that Americans know anything about the war, they probably think of supposed idealist Woodrow Wilson leading the fight to make the world "safe for democracy." This was pure cant. Instead, Wilson was dedicated to reforming the entire world and would have a chance to do so only if he headed a belligerent power. His high-flown rhetoric disguised the fact that he had allied America with one militaristic bloc against the other.

While Germany helped bring on the war by isolating itself and adopting a hair-trigger mobilization plan, it was not bent on war. German diplomacy after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was maladroit and stupid, not malicious.

France, in contrast, was aggressively revisionist. It wanted to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1871 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (which had been started by France). This required not just war between France and Germany, but a European-wide conflict, since France alone could not defeat Germany.

Austria-Hungary, Germany's ally, was also a status quo power, desperately seeking to avoid internal collapse. In contrast, Italy, which eventually joined the Entente, desired Austro-Hungarian territory; Russia hoped to gain influence in the Balkans at the expense of Vienna.

Most important, the blood-stained Serbian regime, built on the brutal murder of the king and queen of the previous dynasty in 1903, wanted to break apart Austria-Hungary in order to build a greater Serbia. In fact, it was the Serbian-supported assassination of Austria-Hungary's heir apparent that lit the fuse of the war. The contending alliance systems acted as transmission belts of war for all of the major European powers.

After the deaths of some ten million people, all the contending nations' goals looked downright frivolous. Washington's formal justification for war was its desire to protect the right of Americans to travel on armed British merchantmen carrying munitions through a war zone.

The celebrated Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, carried just such a mixed cargo of babies and bullets. …