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While America Sleeps
Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today
By Donald Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan
All rights reserved.
The Brave New World
At five in the morning of November 11, 1918, German and Allied representatives formally signed the Armistice, which came into effect at eleven o'clock that day. The Armistice ended the fighting, but it did not end the war. For almost a year after its signing, the wartime Allies, England, France, the United States, Italy, and others, wrangled among themselves and with the Germans over the terms of the peace treaty that concluded the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. The Treaty of Versailles was not signed until June 1919, and was not ratified by all the powers (except the United States, which never ratified it) until January 1920. Even then the war was not "over," for Versailles established peace only between the Allies and Germany — peace with Turkey and Austria was still further delayed.
World War I destroyed the international order from which it had originated in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The writing and signing of peace treaties did not restore that order, nor did it establish a new order. The peace merely ratified the abolition of the old way of doing things and the destruction of four great empires, the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German, upon which the old order had been based. If the victorious powers wanted a new order and a new stability, they would need to create it and see to its preservation.
Before the war a precarious balance among five great powers — Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia — had been the basis for European peace and stability. In November 1918, there could be no "balance." Only Britain and France retained their former strength, and the war had destroyed both their rivals, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and their former ally, Russia. The United States had appeared as a major player on the international scene, and the British and the French placed great hopes on an Anglo-Franco-American alliance to guide the world toward a new stability. Those hopes proved to be misplaced, however, for America rapidly withdrew from the international scene, refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to remain involved in Europe in any meaningful way.
November 1918 saw the dawn of a new epoch in Europe of a nature unparalleled in European experience. The "balance of power" is so deeply rooted a concept in European history that it continues to pervade our thinking even today, when no balance has emerged in the world. It dominated the thinking of British politicians throughout the interwar period, even when, as in the early 1920s, it did not exist and the form it might take was unclear. There was no rival power to balance Great Britain and France, and, despite foolish talk of Anglo-French antagonisms, those two states were so closely bound in their mutual interests that they could not in any way "balance" each other. For the first time in centuries, a European order (which included Asia, the Middle East, and Africa) had to come into existence based not on the "balance of power" but on some other principle. November 1918 was a unique and fleeting moment in history when a great power with global vision could take the lead, guiding the international community in the direction it saw fit. Was there any power that could take that lead in 1918?
Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia were devastated. The United States would soon choose isolation. France could not play the role of international leader after the war. It continued to be fixated on the German problem, the fact that with its greater rate of population growth and greater industrial capacity, Germany must inevitably eclipse France's military power, given time. France saw the solution to this problem only in the creation of an international order that would prevent Germany from ever again rising to threaten France. French politicians and the French people had some interest in the world outside of Europe, and they were satisfied to make gains that could be secured easily and cheaply, but they were not willing to invest significant resources in the maintenance of general peace and order. France's worldview was too Eurocentric and too circumscribed even in Europe to allow it to take the leading role in creating a new international order.
Britain was the only power with the inescapable need and the ability to do so. The war brought a vast mobilization of the power of the British Empire. With a strength, including all reserves, of 733,000 soldiers in August 1914, the British army had received more than 8.5 million recruits in the four years of war. On the day the Armistice was signed, more than 1,794,000 British soldiers were serving in France alone. The power of the British Empire had never been tapped to such a degree.
In contrast to the French effort, which was concentrated on the eastern frontiers of France (although numerous French forces served elsewhere as well), the British army had fought the Entente's foes on three continents and many fronts. British troops were in France, Belgium, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, European Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, the Caucasus, and Russia. During the war, Britain had promised independence or various forms of protection to many small states and peoples. Because of its worldwide interests and its capabilities, Britain alone of the victorious powers could take the lead in creating a new global order.
Britain's war aims developed during the course of the war, moreover, seemed to point the way to such a role. In 1916, Prime Minister Asquith declared that Britain's chief object in the war was "to ensure that all the States of Europe, great and small, shall in the future be in a position to achieve their national development in freedom and security." To this end, he declared that Britain would insist that the peace be based upon a redefinition of European boundaries to accord with national identities. David Lloyd George, who succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916, added that the principle of nationalism should be extended to the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently the British added the provision that an international agency should be established to help preserve order after the peace treaties had been signed. The famous Fourteen Points that President Woodrow Wilson presented to the Allies and the Germans as the basis for the Armistice were little more than the war aims of Great Britain laid out in greater specificity. By the time the fighting had ended on the Western Front, Great Britain, in conjunction with America and France, had declared that it had fought this bloodiest of all wars in order to create a wholly new international order based on the principle of nationalism, guaranteeing the freedom and security of all states to develop in peace and secured by an international organization of states, the League of Nations. It was no accident that these goals and this arrangement would best serve Britain's chief postwar needs: to preserve the new international arrangements without another resort to major war. On November 11, 1918, Britain had the need, the ability, and the stated aim to organize the world in such a way as to ensure its continued peacefulness and its own continued security and prosperity. It remained to be seen if it had the vision and the will.
The immediate priority for Britain's leaders in the months following the Armistice, however, was not the restoration of the world order, but the restoration of order and normality at home. In the electoral campaign after the armistice, Prime Minister Lloyd George, in effect, promised to end conscription entirely and to speed up the demobilization process as much as possible. The army of 3.5 million in being on Armistice Day shrank to 800,000 by November 1919, and to 370,000 by the following November.
The war was over, and it was necessary and appropriate to reduce those forces considerably, but that did not provide any guide to how fast the armed forces should be demobilized or what their final peacetime strength should be. It is easy to sympathize with the feeling that it was time to "bring the boys home," but Britain demobilized at a dangerous pace, too rapidly and too fully. The peacetime armed forces that it ultimately decided to maintain were too small to accomplish its declared aims and to meet its real needs. As we shall see, British leaders never fairly took up the challenge of seeking to shape a favorable international order, but by failing to maintain adequate military forces, they forfeited their fleeting chance to do so. Britain lost the opportunity to guide the world in a direction that could have preserved the peace on which its own security depended. Instead, it helped create the conditions in which disorder, conflict, and, ultimately, fascism and war could incubate. Why did Britain evade its responsibilities? Why did it miss its chance?
Britain's leaders lacked a vision of Britain's future place in the world, and, therefore, of any strategy to attain and keep it. The Prime Minister might assert that Britain sought a world with boundaries based on nationality, with the security and freedom of states great and small guaranteed and supported by the League of Nations, but what did that mean for the British army, the Royal Navy, and the recently created Royal Air Force? How large were the forces needed to defend those boundaries, to protect that security, and support the League? Where should they be deployed? As the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Sir Henry Wilson frequently noted that it was impossible to determine the appropriate speed and scale of the demobilization until it was known what the demobilized army would have to do. The government had to begin by establishing a strategy for national security and a military policy before serious thought could be given to the permanent size and deployment of the armed forces.
Lloyd George failed to produce such a policy because he was preoccupied with other matters. For him, demobilization was the critical issue. After the election of 1918, Lloyd George turned to the Peace Conference, which ended on June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the seven months following the Armistice, therefore, the Prime Minister was so thoroughly preoccupied that there was no time to formulate any coherent national security strategy.
But how could Lloyd George negotiate the peace treaty without a clear security strategy? It is likely that he did not wish to have any clear strategy, because any version that might have emerged would surely conflict with his domestic political objectives. He wanted to reduce the armed forces as much as possible and to ensure that conscription was ended. He also wanted to pursue negotiations for international arms limitation accords and to establish the League of Nations. He hoped that the League might replace Britain in its traditional role of keeper of the balance of power, and he did not see, or, perhaps, refused to recognize, that Britain must take the lead if League actions were to be effective, which required that its armed forces be ready and able to enforce League decisions. He believed "that there would have to be, of course, an efficient army to police the Empire, but [he] looked forward to a condition of things with the existence of a League of Nations 'under which conscription will not be necessary in any country.'" In this nearest thing to a statement of national security strategy, Lloyd George showed that he saw the League, not Britain and its allies, as the maintainer of international order; the British armed forces would serve only as the police force of the British Empire. He wished to turn away from international responsibilities and to concentrate on the home front. Instead of serving as an important instrument in preserving the peace, the League would serve as a screen meant to conceal Britain's unwillingness to do what it must.
In his memoirs, the Prime Minister asserted that "the policy of reconstruction which I sketched out ... is the most comprehensive, thorough, and far-reaching ever set before the country by any political leaders." He continued:
The formation of a League of Nations, reduction of armaments (including the abolition of conscription), self-government for India and Ireland, the housing of the people as a national and not a local undertaking, larger opportunities for education, improved material conditions, the prevention of degrading standards of employment, the control of drinking facilities, the development of the resources of the country in such a way as to avoid the waste which had dissipated and depressed them, improved agricultural and transport conditions, measures for securing employment for the workers of the country — these were some of the reforms I indicated. ... Our policy was summed up in a phrase which in a perverted form became historic: "What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in."
In sum, Lloyd George thought that the end of the war and the establishment of the League of Nations would allow him and the nation to turn their attention inward, to correct the failures and flaws in the British body politic, to mend the holes in Britain's social fabric. The only real threats to Britain had been destroyed; the signing of peace treaties would put an end to an ugly chapter of the world's history. It was time to "make victory the motive power to link the old land up in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before," and in doing that, "There is no time to lose."
It was true that there was no time to lose, but not in the way that Lloyd George thought. Britain's moment in history was fast slipping away. In the aftermath of the World War, with America retiring and Britain predominant, Lloyd George had the chance to make the world a safer and more secure place, his repeatedly stated goal. But with every day that went by, the situation slipped more and more out of his control, and by mid-1919 Britain's role in the world became almost completely reactive. The chance to create a stable new order came quickly and passed unheeded.
The failure to develop a coherent national security strategy led to a dangerous divergence between foreign and military policy. New and old responsibilities and old, sometimes ancient, assumptions about Britain's interests drove a confused foreign policy. Military policy, on the other hand, was driven by the Cabinet's determination to reduce military expenditure to as low a level as possible. The development of the force structure of the armed services, their size and organization, did not result from an evaluation of the military forces required by the nonexistent national security strategy. It became, instead, a game in which the Treasury and the Cabinet sought to press the Chiefs of Staff to accept lower force strengths and budgets than they thought appropriate, while the Chiefs fought to convince the Cabinet and the Parliament that they needed more. The pressure of a daily changing international scene drove foreign policy while the pressure of budget-cutting drove military policy. There was nothing to ensure that the two policies were mutually supporting, and so they were not.
The formation of Britain's military policy in 1918 was decentralized and occasionally chaotic. Since there was no central ministry of defense, the individual services set their own agendas and made their own plans independently of one another. Their policies were placed before the Cabinet and the Parliament by the Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Eric Geddes. In the end, the Prime Minister had the predominant role, always constrained by the fact that he had to be able to get his budget through a Parliament that was not eager to spend a lot of money on defense.
In the first few years after the war, the services made several independent attempts to define a national military strategy to serve as a context for their force structure and budget proposals. Not all of these attempts were narrowly self-serving. In a December 1918 discussion strikingly reminiscent of the current defense debate in the United States, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Frederick Sykes, noted, "In writing this paper I am faced with the fundamental question as to whether armaments more or less on pre-war lines will continue or whether the future forces of sea, land and air will have a semi-police semi-commercial basis." The Prime Minister had already decided that the primary purpose of the armed forces would be to police the empire, but Sykes gently questioned the wisdom of that decision:
It seems improbable that for some years there will be a great war between first-class powers. It seems equally unlikely that there will be a satisfactory league of nations other than that which perhaps may be possible between the British Empire, America and France. In any case there will be a period of deep-seated disturbance throughout the world. The Commonwealth, which has carried the greater share of the responsibilities of civilisation during the war, must continue to bear them into more stable times.
Excerpted from While America Sleeps by Donald Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan. Copyright © 2000 Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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