David Frum has written a long and complex essay on World War I. We are commemorating the centenary of America’s entry into that horror, so Frum’s comments are well timed.
Frum questions Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war, and discusses what might have happened if he had not. He is right to say that things might have been worse, but they might also have been better.
He explains the cost of the war:
The First World War’s horrific human and economic costs, the disappointment of hopes that the war would somehow reform or redeem society, the failure to achieve an enduring peace, the subsequent Great Depression that indicted the liberal world order for which so many Americans believed they had fought, the ensuing collapse of democracy in so many European countries, the slide toward a second world war—the experience of the two decades after the war systematically made mockery of every ideal and hope and promise for which Americans imagined they had joined the fight in April 1917.
Since what was called the Great War was, George Kennan argued, the defining event of the twentieth century, one is within one’s rights to say that, however much it enhanced America’s influence in world affairs, the fact that the war gave rise to Communism and Nazism and Fascism does not tell us that the situation was well-handled, militarily or diplomatically.
Since Frum is working with historical counterfactuals, allow me to introduce one offered by Winston Churchill. He said that only one man could have prevented the war from taking the course that it did. What if, Churchill was asking, that man's intervention had stopped the carnage before it started. By the time America entered the war it had been going on for nearly four years.
I suspect that Churchill was referring to Woodrow Wilson. Whatever you think about Wilson’s decision to enter the war—after promising that he would not do so—we should also ask whether he could have changed the course of history by entering much earlier and stopping the war.
On this score we are not merely speculating in the dark. Throughout the war, from the opening shot in Sarajevo, former president Theodore Roosevelt was writing op-ed columns in which he gave advice to a man he called weak and cowardly. For those who believe that former presidents never criticize current presidents, the TR columns, collected in four volumes strike a counterpoint.
The columns were collected in several volumes. Among them: America and the World War, Fear God and Take Your Own Part and The Foes of our own Household.
Of course, when we consider counterfactuals we enter into the realm of alternative facts. Several years ago the Saturday Evening Post wrote the alternative history.
Here are some highlights, what would have happened if Roosevelt had won the election of 1912:
America enters World War I two years earlier.
World War I ends two years sooner.
Adolf Hitler never comes to power.
The Communists never gain power in Russia.
Europe forms a union.
In this case a former president, a man who wielded power, told us what he would have done. For all we know, the leadership vacuum in Washington incited the Europeans to lose control. For all we know the mere presence of TR might have restrained the combatants.
We do not know to a certainty what would have happened under Theodore Roosevelt. We do not know whether he could have implemented his plans. But, there is something to be said for asking the Churchillian question: could it have been avoided?
And, what if the larger conflict could only have been avoided with a smaller, more contained conflict, one that did not, dare we say, directly involve the United States? Early or late we would still have fought a war. The option of sitting back and financing someone else’s war should be taken for what it was: a prescription for a delayed entry into the conflict. The real choice was between sooner or later, not intervention or non-intervention. Wilson’s miscalculation surely contributed to the horrors that befell the world.
Recall that Wilson famously declared himself to be “too proud to fight.” If his analysis was wrong, he was the one man who could have ended the war before it got completely out of control. He did not do so because he thought that he could avoid dealing with the problem.
We extol war heroes, but we rarely think in terms of stopping conflict in its tracks. We love the drama of war but we do not often admire those presidents who knew how to resolve conflicts with a minimal intervention.
The choice is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.