When the 20th century began, Europe ruled most of the world.
The British Empire covered a fourth of the earth’s surface, the Russian Empire a sixth. The French Empire spread from North Africa to Indochina, Germany’s from Africa to Samoa.
The century saw the death of them all, and Europe’s retreat into its own small continent. What happened? According to historian Jacques Barzun, “The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction” was World War I.
Nine million of the best and bravest of the young of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Austria, Italy and the United States perished. By war’s end, four empires had vanished.
In the Allied victory, U.S. intervention was decisive. In 1917, German divisions had helped Austria knock Italy out at Caporetto. In early 1918, Germany had forced Lenin’s Bolsheviks to surrender and give up Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.
In March of 1918, Quartermaster Gen. Ludendorff launched a final offensive that brought the German army back to the Marne, almost to within sight of Paris. Only the arrival of 2 million American troops prevented an Allied defeat.
Schoolchildren are today indoctrinated in the myth that World War I was fought to save mankind from Prussian militarism, that its moral hero was Wilson, that he was tragically thwarted in his desire to bring America into the League of Nations by the bitter spite of evil and conservative men, led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Had Wilson succeeded, we are taught, all the horrors of World War II might have been averted.
There is another side to this story. It is called the truth. And in Thomas Fleming’s “The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I,” it is movingly and powerfully told. What is that truth?
World War I was an unnecessary war for America. Britain, France, Italy and Japan did not fight to “make the world safe for democracy,” but to crush Germany, loot her colonies, and disarm, bankrupt and dismember her so she never rose again. It was an imperial war from start to finish.
Any who believe in Allied nobility should reread Fleming’s account of the “starvation blockade.” After Germany laid down her arms, British warships kept food out of her ports and prevented German fishermen from even going out into the Baltic. British-French war aims were not worth the life of a single American doughboy.
Fleming has a novelist’s eye for the anecdote that brings home the larger truth. He harbors a burning contempt for propaganda lies and armchair generals who revel in reputations for bloody butchery, and a deep admiration for courageous soldiers like Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, and the U.S. officers who did their duty and led their Marines and soldiers out into no-man’s land and near-certain death.
Any American who thinks John Ashcroft is a threat to civil liberties should read this account of what happened to the men who spoke out against Wilson’s war. Hundreds went to prison for violating his Espionage and Sedition acts. Others faced vigilante justice.
Fleming writes of how Wilson’s incompetent administrators sent American boys to die, untrained, poorly led and with inferior weapons. Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin went up in a cast-off French plane to face veteran German pilots who machine-gunned him to death.
Among Fleming’s more moving chapters is “The Women of No-Man’s-Land” – about the “25,000 skirted Yanks” who “made it over there.” Shirley Millard was a New York girl who left her fiance in training, studied a handbook on nursing while crossing the Atlantic and was soon in a hospital near Soissons, under nightly attack.
She watched another nurse to learn how to use a needle to give wounded soldiers morphine. When the next barracks took a direct hit from German planes, she went out in a “blood-red dawn” to see trees “blossomed horribly with fragments of human bodies.”
Shirley ended the war in the “salle de mort,” the dying room. On Nov. 10, 1918, Sgt. Charlie Whiting, whom she had nursed for days, died. The next day, when nurses rushed in to tell her they had champagne to celebrate the armistice, she told them to get out.
Why did America plunge into a war in 1917 in which 5 million had already died, in which no vital interest was at risk? Wilson wanted a seat at the peace table, where he believed his nobility and superior intellect, and American idealism, could triumph over Old World duplicity, greed and hatred, and usher in a new world order of peace and justice.
It was the utopian dream of a vain, obdurate, willful man. For it, 116,000 Americans died, and the world got Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and World War II.
In his willingness to take on the idols of yesterday in books such as “The Illusion of Victory” and “The New Dealers’ War,” Fleming is a rarity, a historian unintimidated by the most savagely defended myths of the 20th century.