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AMERICA The Last Best HopeVolume II: From a World at War To the Triumph of Freedom 1914–1989
By William J. Bennett
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 William J. Bennett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmerica and the Great War (1914–1921)
All of Europe was a powder magazine in 1914. Secret alliances bred mistrust. And in their mistrust, the crowned heads and cabinet ministers of Europe armed against the terrible explosion they all dreaded, but which they somehow knew was coming. Sarajevo was the spark. Most Americans wanted desperately to stay out of Europe's self-immolation. They remembered warnings from Washington and Jefferson against permanent and entangling alliances. For millions of immigrants, the interminable conflicts of Europe's ruling houses were an unpleasant memory, something they left behind when they raced on deck to hail the Statue of Liberty. As horrified as they were by the Germans' unrestricted submarine warfare, average Americans still viewed ocean travel as a preserve of the rich. Only with the infamous Zimmermann Telegram—wherein the Germans secretly sought Mexico's support in carving up the Southwest U.S.—did Americans opt for war. People enthusiastically cheered the departing "Doughboys." The small but loud opponents of the war—like perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs—soon found themselves facing prison terms for sedition. Americans sang "Over There," and vowed not to come back "'til it's over over there." But war-weariness soon took its toll, as it has with all American wars. Heroism and victory on the battlefield were followed only too soon by frustration and disillusionment at the Paris Peace Conference and deadlock in the U.S. Senate. In the end, the "War to End All Wars" sowed the dragon's teeth of a second and even more destructive world war.
I. "Home Before the Leaves Fall"
The immediate cause of what contemporaries called the Great War was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on 28 June 1914 in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. This autocratic Austrian was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and reformers had high hopes he would bring greater freedom to the millions of Poles, Slavs, Magyars (Hungarians), and German-speaking Austrians who comprised this massive polyglot European Empire.
When Serbian nationalists were implicated in the murders, Austria demanded that Serbia meet stringent terms for the suspects' apprehension and prosecution. Austria was given a "free hand" by her ally, Germany, but Serbia was encouraged to resist by Russia. Russians saw themselves as protectors of the Slavs; and Serbia was a small Slavic nation.
The alliances across European countries created an intricate web. Serbia was supported by Russia, which relied on the support of the French. France had no formal treaty with England, but she did have a decade-long entente cordiale (cordial understanding), something skillfully advanced by the popular and pro-French King Edward VII. A clutch of secret agreements, secret war plans, and secret weapons created a tinder box in Central Europe that threatened the peace of the world. All that was needed for an earth-shattering explosion was a single spark.
The tinder in the box had been amassing for years, thanks to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. In many ways, he was the most important figure in Europe in 1914. A product of royalty's preference for intermarriage, Wilhelm was the grandson of Britain's Queen Victoria. The widowed queen had so many relatives in ruling royal houses she was called "the grandmother of Europe." He proudly wore the uniforms of admiral in the Royal Navy and field marshal in the British army. He thought he knew Britain well, spoke English fluently, and visited his relatives there often. He could and should have been Britain's best hope for peace on the Continent. Instead, he was the greatest threat.
From his earliest days, Wilhelm had been a troubled and troubling child. He was bright, eager, and energetic. But he seemed to have been born with a chip on his shoulder. He was, in fact, born with a tragic birth defect. His left arm was shorter than his right, a fact about which he was deeply sensitive. He tried to conceal it, with some success, by elaborate military capes and long, elegant kid gloves that he always held in photographs. Wilhelm's willfulness terrified even his own parents.
His father was a kindly crown prince, the great hope of millions who wanted a more humane, freer German Empire. They looked to Good Fritz (Frederick) to relax the tight grip in which the Hohenzollern Imperial Household held the nation. Additionally, reformers hoped that Frederick might check the power wielded by the wily Otto von Bismarck. Though Bismarck was nominally subordinate to the German kaiser, he created the German Empire and reaped the prestige; few dared to challenge his authority. Even if he wanted to do so, Fritz barely had the chance. Tragedy struck when he died of throat cancer in 1888, barely a hundred days after becoming Kaiser Frederick III. In short order, young Kaiser Wilhelm II strained his relations with his widowed mother. When she died a few years after her beloved husband, she left orders that her body should be swathed in the British Union Jack before being placed in its coffin.
Bismarck, known as the Iron Chancellor, was no democrat and no lover of peace. He had goaded the foolish Napoleon III into a war and had smashed the French army with a lightning thrust. He had proclaimed the German Empire in the Versailles Palace's famed Hall of Mirrors in 1871. But Bismarck was also shrewd, careful, and deeply aware of his country's strengths and weaknesses. "The great questions of the day are not to be settled by majority resolutions," he said, "but by blood and iron." Equally cynical and cautious, Bismarck maintained a close alliance with Europe's other autocrats—the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary and the Romanovs of Russia. Thus, he wisely avoided what every German dreaded, a two-front war.
Because Chancellor Bismarck had sided with the Union during America's Civil War, he was generally popular in the United States. Former President Grant's visit to Bismarck in Berlin was lauded at home. Americans chuckled over the chancellor's pithy sayings. "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America," he once said. Another gem attributed to him: "The Americans have contrived to be surrounded on two sides by weak neighbors and on two sides—by fish!" But Bismarck was less popular with Wilhelm.
Soon after he ascended the throne that Bismarck had created, Kaiser Wilhelm decided to dispense with his services. He resented the aging Bismarck's attempts to restrain him. He intended to be unchecked ruler of Germany. After all, kaiser is German for "caesar." So, in 1890, Wilhelm forced Bismarck into retirement.
Ridding himself of Bismarck in 1890, the thirty-one-year-old kaiser with the bold upturned mustache became the master of Germany. Britain's humor magazine Punch published a cartoon showing the crowned kaiser looking complacently over the railing as the steady old Bismarck descended the ladder of the ship. "Dropping the pilot" was the title of the famous cartoon. They little knew that Wilhelm II would put the German ship of state on a fatal collision course with the British Empire; in dropping the pilot, he also dropped the chancellor's more prudent policies.
Wilhelm had read The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. This important book by American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan had deeply impressed not only the German ruler, but it was also devoured by such naval power theorists as Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The leaders of the Imperial Japanese Navy translated Mahan's great work as early as 1896.
Bismarck had realized that Britain would take alarm if Germany ever amplified the power of its huge armies by building a great blue-water navy. Throwing Bismarck's caution to the winds, Wilhelm in the early 1900s raced to build a powerful fleet of dreadnought battleships and ordered every German warship to carry a copy of Mahan's masterpiece. The threat to Britain's historic isolation from European wars prompted intense fears in England—seen in the huge success of a work of popular fiction, When William Came, a title that reflects the English form of Wilhelm's name. This 1913 story showed the English that Kaiser Wilhelm might use his mighty High Seas Fleet to bring an overwhelming army across the English Channel. Imaginary though that threat proved to be, the brisk sales showed that the British people truly feared invasion.
Wilhelm's throwing his weight around did not stop with building a navy. Bismarck never challenged Britain or France in the race for overseas colonies. Not so Wilhelm. Soon he was trying to grab colonies in Africa and the Pacific. He demanded Germany's "place in the sun." His rough handling managed to alienate his cousin, Tsar Nicholas. In response, Russia soon concluded an alliance with France. The watchword for the kaiser's rule was weltmacht oder niedergang ("world power or decline"). It explains the constant pushing and shoving of Wilhelm and his military chiefs that made peace so precarious for a full quarter of a century before the final outbreak of war in 1914.
Americans, shielded by three thousand miles of ocean from the kaiser's bluster, initially felt unconcerned about his militarism and his frequent saber-rattling. The interference of the German fleet with Commodore Dewey's Philippine operations in 1898 came as a rude shock. So did the kaiser's meddling in Latin America in the early Roosevelt years. But we had Teddy's Big Stick to keep us safe.
At the turn of the new century, Americans tended to view Kaiser Wilhelm II with a mixture of distrust and amused contempt. A 1903 poem published in Harper's Weekly reveals the attitude:
Kaiser, Kaiser, shining bright
You have given us a fright!
With your belts and straps and sashes,
And your upward-turned mustaches!
And that frown so deadly fierce
And those awful eyes that pierce
Through the very hearts of those
Whom ill fate has made your foes.
Kaiser, Kaiser, Man of War
What a funny joke you are.
Readers recognized the satire on William Blake's line "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright." When the clash in the Balkans finally came in 1914, Wilhelm relied on his English family connection to avert war with Britain. He sent his brother, Prince Heinrich, to speak to King George V, their first cousin through their grandmother, Queen Victoria. The king said that he hoped Britain would stay out of any continental war. The kaiser mistakenly took that to mean the king would determine British policy. "I have the word of a king," he boasted. Wilhelm apparently learned nothing from his mother or grandmother about the British system of governance. Britain was (and is) a constitutional monarchy. Foreign policy is made by the cabinet, not the Crown.
In July 1914, only days after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the world breathed a sigh of relief as the kaiser went on his annual three-week cruise in the fjords of Norway. It seemed he was disengaging from the mounting crisis between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and their allies. His magnificent 380-foot, 4,280-ton yacht Hohenzollern looked like a giant white swan gliding silently over Norway's dark, cold waters that summer. But this peaceful image was deceptive. While the kaiser cruised these placid waters, the air was electric with radio traffic to and from the vessel. The tinder was now aflame.
Given the nature of Europe's web of alliances, the kaiser virtually guaranteed a world war in 1905 when he approved the military plan of General Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the Imperial General Staff. According to the Schlieffen Plan, German soldiers would have to smash into Belgium and drive deep into France, knocking France out of any future war before France's Russian allies could be mobilized in the East. "Let the last man on the right brush the [English] Channel with his sleeve," it was said of the Schlieffen Plan.
Wilhelm carelessly exposed Germany to the dreaded two-front war through his own unskillful diplomacy and his regular threats to his neighbors. Further, Wilhelm seemed oblivious to the fact that the Schlieffen Plan involved violating Belgian neutrality, which Germany as well as Britain had guaranteed for a century. Britain had not clearly warned Kaiser Wilhelm that violating Belgium's neutrality would mean war. In fact, none of the Powers knew exactly what Britain's response would be if Germany marched across Belgium en route to France.
Twenty years later, Wilhelm would tell British historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett that he never would have invaded Belgium if he had known that such a move would incite Britain to war. Subtle hints and diplomatic nuances were wasted on Wilhelm. If ever there was a case for Big Stick diplomacy, it was here.
Why did Britain fail to put the kaiser on notice with an unambiguous warning? To have announced well in advance that any violation of Belgian neutrality meant war with Britain might have deterred the impetuous Wilhelm. American Chesterton scholar Dale Ahlquist points to the answer in the autobiography of the noted British writer, G. K. Chesterton. Britain's ruling Liberal Party was very dependent on a small group of Manchester millionaires to finance its political campaigns. Several of these prominent industrialists were also religious pacifists (as was Andrew Carnegie in America). There was no chance that Britain would abide such clear aggression, suggests Chesterton, but the Liberal Party government could not publicly say so for fear of losing its purse. Chesterton was very close to the Liberal Party leaders of his day, and his testimony deserves serious consideration.
Many later would claim that Britain gave insufficient warning to the Germans. This, however, gives too little attention to the reckless conduct of Germany for the previous twenty-five years and ignores the basic fact that aggressor nations have no right to expect hand-sitting by their neighbors.
The kaiser assured his ally that Germany would stand by Austria-Hungary "through thick and thin." Don't worry about Russia, he told the Austrian ambassador. Russia is "in no way prepared for war."
Backed by Wilhelm II, the Austrians rejected Russia's urgent plea for negotiations, even as the German military High Command was pressing the Austrians for war in response to the assassination. Cousin "Nickie," Russia's tsar, desperately wrote to Cousin "Willy," the kaiser, to "beg" him to restrain Austria. Lying, Wilhelm wrote he was doing his utmost to hold his ally back. Similarly, Berlin rejected Britain's call for a Four-Power conference.
As July closed, Germany filled the telegraph lines of Europe with cabled ultimatums—to Russia, to France, to Belgium. A leading member of the British cabinet, Winston Churchill, was the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was responsible for the readiness of the British fleet. He worried that the Powers were sliding into war. "I wondered whether those stupid Kings and Emperors could not assemble together and revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance."
Hell was closing in. Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. With the mutual declarations of war, Churchill cabled the Royal Navy: "Commence hostilities against Germany."
The invasion of Belgium did everything to justify the name Hun that the kaiser had given his troops in 1900. As early as 5 August, General von Moltke admitted that "our advance into Belgium is certainly brutal." He was right. The German army murdered women and children in the towns of Andenne, Tamine, Seilles, and Dinant, over two hundred civilians in the first days of war. The University in Louvain was burned and pillaged. The senseless destruction of this "Oxford" of Belgium, with its priceless medieval books and tapestries, was denounced by scholars throughout the world as "a crime against civilization."
Excerpted from AMERICA The Last Best Hope by William J. Bennett Copyright © 2007 by William J. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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