Magazine article The Spectator

Over Here but Overdue

Magazine article The Spectator

Over Here but Overdue

Article excerpt


The Penguin Press, L20, pp. 494

It is not at all clear why Gary Mead chose to write this book. For ten years he was a reporter with the Financial Times, and he has written an illustrated guide to South Africa. But this seems to be his first historical work. The subject is certainly of great interest, and one can agree with him that `we need to understand how and why America became involved' in the first world war, what form the involvement took, and how much it contributed to the outcome.

Unfortunately Mead's approach to the subject is prejudiced and flawed. He accepts without a hint of criticism the traditional American view that the United States entered the war for idealistic reasons, `to extricate Europe from its mess'; and that having effectively done so its soldiers `wished to forget the truculent, snobbish, and ultimately ungrateful British and French allies they left behind'. These propositions are largely mythical. They ignore the true origins and significance of the war; why it had to be fought and how it was won. Such myths created the psychology of isolationism in America which helped to make another world war inevitable, and continue to distort understanding of the struggle which dominated the early part of the last century.

Mead says that President Woodrow Wilson decided to enter the war `at a time when there was no obvious immediate threat to US interests'. In fact the threat to America's vital interests was palpable from the start, and by April 1917 was so acute that even Wilson had to act. He had delayed long enough. In May 1915, when the Lusitania was sunk with the loss of 124 American lives, he proclaimed that his country was `too proud to fight' (an odd sort of pride). Throughout the following year - the year of Verdun and the Somme, and of Jutland - he cherished the hope that the European belligerents would exhaust each other and that he would then be able to step in to broker a `peace without victory'. Only after the Germans launched their unrestricted U-boat campaign in early 1917 did he face reality, and even then he hesitated for several weeks.

Moreover, he and his country came into the war as only limited participants. War was declared on Germany, but not until December on Germany's principal ally, Austria-Hungary, and never on her other allies, the Ottoman empire and Bulgaria. The United States did not condescend to become an ally of those fellow democracies which had been fighting at great sacrifice for over two years, but merely a `cobelligerent' or `associated power'.

Under Wilson's leadership America's attitude was neither realistic nor honourable. It was strikingly different from that of the United States' continental neighbour, the self-governing Dominion of Canada, which entered the war at once and contributed more than its share (as did Australia and New Zealand, countries even more distant from Europe). In 1914 Germany was a menace to freedom everywhere, as a formidable military power with a militaristic ethos which might, unless checked, have conquered the entire Eurasian landmass. It also had an immensely powerful fleet (far larger and more powerful than in 1939), which was challenging the Royal Navy for control of the sea. …

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