This paper seeks to answer significant questions about the causes of World War I, including ethnic (i.e., Pan-Slavic) and nationalistic considerations brought on, in part, by imperialistic strategies of the European powers in the 19th century. This paper also traces the course of the United States’ involvement in the war, from neutrality to full war declaration, and post-war outcomes, including the failure of the Treaty of Versailles and American policy-making in 1920-30s.
The causes of the Great War, World War I (1914-18), were widespread, involving the political, social, and economic interests of many different nations, regions, and cultural influences. Many of the causes for the initial outbreak of war in Europe centered on sweeping nationalistic movements of various ethnic groups in the early 20th century. With the rapid advent of technological advances during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century came a need for scarce resources, cheap labor, and economically-advantageous means of production. Many European nations had been finding these facets of capitalistic economy through ideologies and practices of imperialism, colonialism, and nation-building. For many European powers—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, etc.—many of the 19th century strategies of acquisition focused on claiming land and resources for the mother country. This land and resource grab often suppressed the native ethnic groups in the colonies and caused conflict between indigenous peoples and the imperialist country, such as was the case in conflicts like the Boxer Rebellion in China, German conflict in southwest Africa, and Great Britain’s campaign in Sudan (Wesseling, 2005, p. 100). These conflicts laid the roots for World War I, as Wesseling (2005) noted here, pointing to a link between colonial military strategy and that of the Great War: “It is not difficult to see the connection between [colonial pre-War strategy] and the predominant mentality of the World War I generals who valued willpower, moral fiber, and bold attack” (p. 107).
In addition to the ideological roots to the Great War laid during pre-War imperialistic campaigns, World War I also had its cause in the Pan-Slavic movement of the late 19th century and early 1900s. The pushback against 19th century imperialism sparked nationalistic tendencies in many ethnic groups, who sought to unite against the oppression of the greater imperialist nations. One such example of this paradigm can be found in the Pan-Slavic movement, which began in the mid-19th century as a reaction against Austrian monarchal rule. Pan-Slavs appealed to Russia for aid against Austro-Hungarian control (“Pan-Slavism,” 1998). The Pan-Slavic movement had previously drawn Russia into conflict with the Ottoman Empire in 1876-77, so when Serbian nationalists plotted to assassinate Austrian heir-apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Serbia, Russia felt compelled to once-again protect Slavic/Serbian interests and join in a war against Austria-Hungary (Royde-Smith, 2016). Meanwhile, Germany, who had interests in Serbian Belgrade, moved to block Russia from its attack against Austria-Hungary. France and Great Britain were soon compelled to join the war on the side of the newly-formed Allied Powers, while Bulgaria and the then Ottoman empire joined sides with Germany and Austria-Hungary. It is interesting to note that this complicated scenario can be traced back to 19th century imperialism and the resulting nationalism formed by the ethnic groups who felt oppressed under monarchal rule.
America’s own involvement in the Great War came late in the conflict (1917) but helped secure a victory for the now-solidified lineup of the Allied Powers—The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, and Russia—against the Central Powers, i.e., Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, America’s political leadership, under Woodrow Wilson, adopted a non-interventionist policy. This ideology was largely brought on by the United States’ own lassez-faire nationalism and avowal to stay out of European affairs and its Great War, which many Americans saw as the result of European imperialistic greed (“The War,” 2014). Also, President Wilson, in trying to preserve the ideals of a “united” nation, was hesitant to pick sides in a war that would pit large portions of America’s ethnic immigrants (i.e., German, Irish, Italian, etc.) against one another. However, an anti-German consensus began amping-up in in the years leading to America’s entry into the War in 1917, and soon Germany’s aggressive overseas actions (i.e., the sinking of the British Lusitania, and its 129 Americans civilians on board) made it hard for President Wilson to maintain neutrality (“The War,” 2014). When the United States intercepted the German “Zimmerman Telegram”—which was intended for Mexican leaders, promising a return of Mexican territories lost to the U.S. during the Mexican-American War if they were to join the Germans—President Wilson severed ties with German diplomats. It was easy to see where this escalation of tensions was heading. The final deciding factor in the United States’ entry into the war came as the Germans sank several American merchant vessels from March 16-18, 1917. Casualties were heavy, and left President Wilson with little choice but to declare war on Germany and join the Allied Powers on March 20, 1917 (Royde-Smith, 2016).
America’s entry into the Great War helped force its conclusion in 1918. Though the United States had been selling munitions to Allied Power nations, such as Great Britain, for a good part of the war, it was not until the United States was officially in the Great War that its true effect was known. Aside from troop aid overseas, the United States provided massive outsourcing of armaments into the conflict, enough to satisfy not only its own needs, but the needs of France’s and Great Britain: “the American economic contribution alone was decisive” (Royde-Smith, 2016). The United States’ exporting of armaments, coupled with substantial monetary loans to the Allies (totaling seven billion dollars) made a huge economic impact for the Allies (especially in food and supplies) (Royde-Smith, 2016). Along with economic aid, America’s military power also helped force an end to the war, only a year and a half after its entry. By the end of the war, American troops under General John J. Pershing totaled 1.2 million, to go along with 380 battle-ready ships deployed overseas (Royde-Smith, 2016). In October of 1918, with civil unrest crippling Germany’s political structure and the Allied Powers having broken through the Hindenburg Line as a culmination of the Hundred Days Offensive, Germany was pushing for peace, and an armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918 that effectively ended the Great War (Lloyd, 2014). In the months following the armistice, Allied leaders came together to sign the Treaty of Versailles that outlined the terms of Germany’s capitulation.
The Treaty of Versailles, written during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference was lead by “David Lloyd George of Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy” (“Treat of Versailles,” 2015). For the most part, all the decisions were made by these leaders, and none of the defeated nations had any say in its ratification. The terms were harsh, including massive tax reparations for Germany, along with loss of territories, political power, and much of its standing army. Many, if not most, scholars believe that the harshness of this treaty laid the foundations for the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the preludes to World War II.
Interestingly, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by the United States, which failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, nor did the United States ever join President Wilson’s proposed League of Nations that would have compelled America to join with its European counterparts in wartime defense. The failure of the Treaty of Versailles had much to do with political and ideological division in the United States, specifically between President Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, regarding what was perceived to be a setting-of-the-table for Great Britain’s political advantage over the U.S.: “The fact remains in the body of delegates England has five votes to one vote of any other country” (Cabot Lodge, qtd. in Meaney, 1963). This divide between President Wilson and the American Senate, coupled with anti-British dissent and a sweeping national divide over the fate of Germany amongst the various ethnic groups of the U.S., ultimately led to the Treaty’s downfall with regard to U.S. ratification.
This failure shaped American policies in the 1920s and 1930s. With the U.S. basically turning its back on the newly-formed League of Nations and refusing to join a collaborative peace effort, American policies were clearly returning to isolationist ideologies. The grand ideas for a permanent kind of peace that Wilson outlined in in his Fourteen Points, and with his proposals for the League of Nations, were never realized. Instead, the League of Nations could not affect the policing of any sort of peace in Europe, nor intervene as Germany began to violate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, re-militarizing its army in the Rhineland under Hitler and eventually invading Poland, which became the defining incident that sparked World War II. During this era, the United States was reduced to watching on the sidelines as another World War escalated toward full-scale military clash in 1939. It is interesting to wonder whether or not the United States’ successful ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and possible joining of the League of Nations would (or could) have prevented World War II. Whatever the case, it is clear that the United States’ return to isolationist, lassez-faire diplomatic ideologies in the years following the Great War certainly did nothing to slow Germany’s remilitarization efforts and subsequent military aggression in Poland that led to the outbreak of the Second World War.
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