David Frum’s new essay in The Atlantic is a welcome contribution to the ongoing counterfactual discussion of the origins and consequences of World War I. Not only is its analysis creative and provocative, its publication in such a prominent journal further confirms the growing popularity of counterfactual speculation.
Frum’s essay seeks to affirm the legitimacy of U. S. involvement in World War I as a means of critiquing of the foreign policy philosophy of isolationism and defending that of interventionism. He dismisses the many interwar critics of America’s intervention in the First World War, who conspiratorially claimed it was an unnecessary war promoted by the financial interests of arms dealers, by showing how much worse the course of history would have been for the U. S. had the nation not become involved in the conflict.
In other words, Frum’s essay adopts a classic stance of embracing a nightmare scenario in order to justify history as it really transpired. Or as he puts it: “Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I contemplate these might-have-beens to gain a better appreciation for what actually happened.”
“To understand why the U.S. fought in 1917, begin by considering the outcome if the United States had not fought. Minus U.S. reinforcements on land and sea, it’s difficult to imagine how the Allies could have defeated a Germany that had knocked revolutionary Russia out of the war.”
“By the summer of 1917, the Western Allies had exhausted their credit in U.S. financial markets. Without direct U.S. government-to-government aid, they could not have afforded any more offensives in the West. The exhausted Allies would have had to negotiate some kind of settlement with Central Power forces occupying almost all of what is now Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic republics in the east; most of Romania and Yugoslavia in Southern Europe, as well as a bit of Italy; and almost all of Belgium and most of northeast France. Even if the Germans had traded concessions in the West to preserve their gains in the East, the kaiser’s Germany would have emerged from such an outcome as the dominant power on the continent of Europe. The United States would have found itself after such a negotiated peace confronting the same outcome as it faced in 1946: a Europe divided between East and West, with the battered West looking to the United States for protection. As in 1946, the East would have been dominated by an authoritarian regime that looked upon the liberal and democratic Anglo-American West not just as a geopolitical antagonist, but as an ideological threat.”
“But unlike in 1946, when the line was drawn on the Elbe and the West included the wealthiest and most developed regions of Europe, this imaginary 1919 line would have been drawn on the Rhine, if not the Scheldt and the Meuse, with the greatest concentration of European industry on the Eastern side. Unlike in 1946, the newly dominant power in Eastern Europe would not have been Europe’s most backward major nation (Russia), but its most scientifically and technologically advanced nation (Germany). In other words, the United States would have gotten an early start on the Cold War, and maybe a second hot war, supported by fewer and weaker allies against a richer and more dangerous opponent—and one quite likely to have developed the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile first.”
This last section may represent something of a stretch – it violates the minimal rewrite rule of counterfactuals – but the larger point is well taken: a defeat in World War I would have weakened the credibility of democracy and vindicated that of authoritarianism on the world stage.
“There was one of Wilson’s genuine phrases that did aptly describe what the issue was in 1917, and what it has been ever since. In his April 2 speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany, Wilson insisted that the “world must be made safe for democracy.”
“Not “democratic”—“safe for democracy.” Wilson wasn’t promising to impose democracy on Imperial Germany. He was promising to defend democracy from Imperial Germany. The First World War had not begun as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Great Britain was not a democracy in August 1914. Tsarist Russia certainly was not. Ditto Japan, Italy, and Romania—all fought for the Entente, none had governments elected by more than a small fraction of the population. Even in France, the most democratic of the original Allies, elected leaders did not fully control the government (never mind that the Third Republic ruled over a vast colonial empire and denied the vote to women).”
“By the time Wilson delivered his “safe for democracy” war message, however, the war had taken a new form. Britain would emerge from the war as a country in which all adult men voted, and soon adult women too. Russia was racked by a revolution that would overthrow the tsar. The smaller, neutral nations of Europe—notably Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden—democratized during and after the First World War. The nations that gained independence as a result of the war—the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Poland—were organized as democracies at least at the start. The British dominions—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—already had universal male suffrage; after the war, the dominions gained the full sovereignty that confirmed them as self-ruling governments. Italy and Japan too would experiment—tragically briefly—with liberal democracy in the early 1920s.”
“Meanwhile, the Central Powers receded from democracy during the war. Before 1914, Germany and the Habsburg Empire could display elected national legislatures, but these legislatures exerted little control over the actions of government and during the war years lost what little influence they had. Where the Central Powers organized new governments—notably in Ukraine—they instituted authoritarian or military regimes. Most notoriously, the German authorities subsidized Vladimir Lenin in exile, and then provided him safe conduct to destroy Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the spring and summer of 1917.”
“Had the Western Allies lost the First World War, European democracy would have failed the test that American democracy surmounted in the Civil War: the test of survival in the competition between nations and regimes.”
“The United States too was a very imperfect democracy in 1917. In particular, black Americans lived under a system of caste oppression and routinized violence not very different from that meted out to German Jews in the first four or five years of Hitler’s rule. Racist ideologies held sway not only in the rural and ill-educated South but on the faculties of prestigious universities, in the upper reaches of the federal civil service, in learned societies. Racist ideas were contested, but it was not foreordained that they would be rejected.”
“Human beings admire winners. In the year 1940, when democracy looked a loser, Anne Morrow Lindbergh hailed German fascism as “the wave of the future.” Had Imperial Germany prevailed in 1918, there would have been many to argue that Otto von Bismarck’s vision of the future—“iron and blood”—had decisively triumphed over Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
One need not agree with Frum’s defense of the U. S campaign in Iraq and larger “war on terror” (which he has explored counterfactually in earlier essays) to appreciate his concluding statement underscoring the importance of American involvement in global affairs.
As he correctly and un-moralistically puts it:
“Not always fully consciously, not always perfectly presciently—but consciously and presciently enough—the best American minds of a century ago perceived what was at stake in 1917. They imagined a better world—and the hostile world they would confront if they failed. Their efforts went largely wrong in the years after 1918. The ensuing frustration brought odium on the whole project. But those of us alive today have the advantage of knowing more of how the story developed. We should have more sympathy for the difficulties faced by those who had to start the job without guide or precedent, including the guide or precedent of somebody else’s previous errors.”
“At present, too, many worry whether this world is safe for democratic societies challenged by the aggressive and illiberal. Today, too, American motives are mixed, as human motives usually are. A better understanding of history can at least emancipate Americans from the isolationist polemics that caricatured the why and the how of U.S. entry into the First World War. Such understanding will protect Americans from the dangerous illusions that such polemics inculcated in the 1930s, after Vietnam, and now once more again.”
All in all, Frum’s essay represents a persuasive example of how counterfactual reasoning is indispensable for understanding the role of causality in, and drawing larger interpretive conclusions from, history.