What If the United States Had Sat Out World War I?


Mr. Fleming's latest book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

Counterfactual history is making an ever larger contribution to historical thinking -- and is also winning favor with the history reading public. Two What If books edited by Robert Cowley, to which this writer contributed, have each sold over 100,000 copies and a third is in the works. In the current Journal of American History there is a fascinating article by Gary J. Kornblith about an alternative scenario that might have avoided the Civil War. An even bigger counterfactual proposition is waiting to be explored: What if the United States had not intervened in World War I?

If America had refused to intervene in 1917, would a German victory in 1918 have been a better historical alternative? That is debatable. By 1918, the Germans, exasperated by the Allies refusal to settle for anything less than "a knockout blow" (the words of Prime Minister David Lloyd George) were contemplating peace terms that would have been as harsh and vindictive as the ones the French and British imposed, with Woodrow Wilson's weary consent, in the Treaty of Versailles.

But there is another more promising alternative. What would have happened if Wilson had taken Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's advice and practiced real rather than sham neutrality? Bryan wanted to bar both the Allies and the Germans from buying war materiel in the United States. Without the backing of American weaponry, munitions and loans, the Allies would have been forced to abandon their goal of the knockout blow. The war might have ended in 1915 or 1916 with a negotiated peace based on the mutual admission that the conflict had become a stalemate.

As a genuine neutral, Wilson might even have persuaded both sides to let him be a mediator. By 1917, the Germans, disgusted by America's huge arms sales to Great Britain, explicitly informed their ambassador to Washington that they did not want Wilson to play any part in peace negotiations. Meanwhile, canny Lloyd George had seduced Wilson with the argument that unless America intervened, the president would have no place at the peace table.

German aims before the war began were relatively modest. Basically, Berlin sought an acknowledgment that Germany was Europe's dominant power. They wanted an independent Poland and nationhood for the Baltic states to keep Russia a safe distance from their eastern border. Also on the wish list was a free trade zone in which German goods could circulate without crippling tariffs in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Austria-Hungary. It is not terribly different from the role Germany plays today in the European Union. But the British Tories could not tolerate such a commercial rival in 1914 and chose war.

Some people whose minds still vibrate to the historic echoes of British propaganda argue that by defeating Germany in 1918, America saved herself from future conquest by the Hun. The idea grows more fatuous with every passing decade. A nation that had suffered over 5,000,000 casualties, including almost two million dead, was not likely to attack the strongest nation on the globe without pausing for perhaps a half century to rethink its policies. One can just as easily argue that the awful cost of the war would have enabled Germany's liberals to seize control of the country from the militarists and force the Kaiser to become a constitutional monarch like his English cousin. A victorious Germany would have had no need of political adventurers such as Adolf Hitler. Nor would this counterfactual Germany have inserted the Bolsheviks into Russia and supported them with secret service money. Lenin and Trotsky would have agitated in a political vacuum in Switzerland unto a crabbed old age. Or ventured a revolution in their homeland that would have come to a swift and violent end. On the eve of the war, Russia had the fastest growing economy in Europe. The country was being transformed by the dynamics of capitalism into a free society. The war created the collapse that gave Bolshevism its seventy year reign of blood and terror.

The argument against intervention finds support from an unlikely, little known quarter. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was as disillusioned witb the results of Woodrow Wilson's war as the rest of the American people. FDR told progressive Republican Senator Gerald Nye of Indiana that he now thought Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was right -- Wilson's sham neutrality and his intervention in 1917 were mistakes. The president said the same thing in a letter to Wilson's secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, around this same time. In August of 1936, Roosevelt said if another war broke out in Europe, it would be difficult to resist American businessmen who wanted to sell arms to the belligerents. But if America had to choose between profits and peace, "the Nation will answer -- must answer -- we choose peace." This was very close to a total repudiation of Woodrow Wilson's war by the man who had served in his administration and had been an ardent interventionist in 1917.

Why did Roosevelt become a covert interventionist after his election for a third term? It was a judgment call. By 1941 Adolf Hitler had achieved power beyond the Kaiser's wildest dreams. He had destroyed the French Army and driven the British Army back to England, a shattered remnant, and seemed on his way to conquering Soviet Russia. On the other side of the world, Hitler had allied Germany with a Japan that sought to dominate Asia. American security was profoundly threatened by this fascist world order. FDR decided it was his duty to intervene.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2003

You're right, counterfactual speculation is an important part of both planning and post-analysis in many fields. But it has to be done carefully: if you try to take account of too many variables at once, you are engaging in wishful thinking, not hard-core analysis. And history contains more variables than a football game or even a business plan.

Like I said, I see counterfactual thinking as integral to historical analysis, but only when used carefully and in small arenas. This kind of "alternate history" writing (which I enjoy in other venues) is not the same thing as real historical analysis.

Marion Lelong - 7/11/2003

I agree with Perry Willis. He did even not mention the blockade of Germany by the British Navy, after the Armistice, that caused much suffering and even starvation in Germany. Another factor was the assistance given to Hitler by Wall Street financiers, (J. P. Morgan, T. W. Lamont, etc.) as told in "Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler", by Dr. Antony C. Sutton, Seal Beach, CA 90740, '70 Press, 1970, 220 pages.

Mark Willey - 7/11/2003

Flemming's "Why did Roosevelt become a covert interventionist after his election for a third term?" is easy to answer but he got it wrong. FDR needed to save Soviet Communism because the Communists bought him in return for getting him elected to his third term. He sold out his country to remain President and KGB "Agent 19" Harry Hopkins moved into the White House to run FDR and run the country (and his re-election campaign) 10 May 1940.

Shane Chubbs - 7/11/2003

The monetary mischief of the BIS, created to handle Germany's reparations and support the gold exchange standard, caused the postwar business cycle that started the Great Depression. If Germany had not required the Versilles treaty (winners/losers switched) in its counterfactual victory, neither the Bolsheviks nor the Fascists would have had the issue that they rode to power. There would have been other issues leading to war (the Pacific theater would probably have still happened), but not the issues that led to WWII.

Ted Mettlach - 7/11/2003

Here's another pebble of truth (with a little "t")to rattle through the noisy barrel of multi-truth: http://www.rense.com/general34/amaz.htm. Benjamin Freedman--Jewish defector--explains the Zionist role in bringing the U.S. into WWI, the diabolical influence of propaganda and the enigmatic Balfour Declaration.

Ross Nelson - 7/11/2003

Both winning and losing coaches after a game speculate in "what if" thinking in order to improve their teams' performance. Businessmen do the same when deals don't work out. In fact counterfactual thinking is a method everyone practices daily in just about all endeavors.
So it seems to me highly mistaken to consider counterfactuals to be a game or science fiction entertainment. We have much to learn when we dwell on what might have been otherwise, and maybe we can avoid mistakes in the future.

Jim Crutchfield - 7/7/2003

Thomas Fleming's speculations about WWI without the US are very interesting, but they surprisingly ignore the underlying economic forces involved in the two world wars.

Whatever his personal ambitions, Wilson's decision to get the U.S. involved in the First World War surely had something to do with massive, widespread labor unrest and the growing power of organized, revolutionary workers in the United States. WWI gave the Wilson government a pretext for brutally suppressing the Industrial Workers of the World, which was growing by tens of thousands a year and giving workers unprecedented control over their lives in such vital industries as agriculture, timber, and marine transport. The desire for protection of capitalist control over the labor force was a central factor inWoodrow "He Kept Us Out of War" Wilson's decision to enter the war.

In the 1930s, Franklin "We Choose Peace" Roosevelt saw another increasingly militant labor movement gaining momentum (this time under communist leadership, as the I.W.W. had been effectively benched by government persecution) in a growing wave of strikes in major industries, while an army of unemployed workers threatened social instability from another angle. The New Deal put Stalinist bureaucrats firmly in charge of "legitimate" labor, and firmly wedded them to the Democratic Party and the interests of big capital. Yet wildcat strikes persisted.

Roosevelt also saw another threat in the expansion of Japanese commercial control of Asia, including the rubber and oil resources of Southeast Asia. While U.S. capital might have continued to support Hitler (who gave Henry Ford an Iron Cross), it could not support the more competitive Japanese Empire. Admitting that the other causes Mr. Fleming cites were also important, does it make sense to ignore these economic causes?

Alec Lloyd - 7/7/2003

The entire scenario posited seems one of hopeless optimism. Britain and France had great hopes of victory up until 1917. The New Army divisions were only beginning to take the field in 1915. Russia had also made great strides in mobilization and Austria-Hungary was clearly weakening.

No European general war ended in stalemate until both sides were exhausted. That simply hadn’t happened by 1916.

A more likely result of American neutrality would have been an Allied collapse and widespread revolution.

By 1917, even with the hope of American aid, the French army was beginning to come apart. Bolsheviks were active in almost every army and there is little reason to believe that Germany would have been more magnanimous in victory than the Allies.

Indeed, a far more likely result would have been Communist uprisings across Europe, with Wilhelm II ineptly trying to suppress them with German garrison forces. Even had the Kaiserschlacht battles won the day in 1918, Russia was proving a massive drain on German resources and the German Army was beginning to lose its famous discipline.

How would the German people have looked upon this empty victory? With gratitude or anger? Assuming a more “optimistic” scenario where victory is counted a blessing, would national pride not have led them into greater adventures, say a “cleansing” of the East? Hitler did not invent the idea of Lebensraum and the Drang nach Osten could well have taken place in 1919 rather than 1939.

The end result: an isolated Britain, ala 1808 facing off against a Continental hegemon wracked with unrest and locked in war with Bolshevik Russia. Such a struggle might have played out as an traditional ethno-nationalist war, or it could have taken on more political overtones: Russian Communists calling upon the oppressed masses in Europe to rise up against the reactionary monarchies.

And in this alternative world, there wouldn’t be 1 million Americans and large Anglo-French armies to keep order along the Rhine. Instead, France would likely join the insurrection, as would already unstable Italy and perhaps Spain.

The sheer upheaval and scope of the war shattered the legitimacy of the royal houses; the Hohenzollerns might have been able to keep power, but they were just as likely to meet the fate of the Romanovs.

If one thing is certain about that time it is it’s massive uncertainty.

Historians do well to contemplate the alternatives, but they should look at the bad as well as the good. Things could have been better; they could also have been incalculably worse.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2003

I'm not arguing that the Holocaust would have happened in 1939-45, but the basic elements which created it were present and strong and would not have been alleviated by a a negotiated stalemate or even German victory in WWI. Fascism took many forms over the course of the 20th century, and there's plenty of reason to think that even a victorious Germany would have become more populist/democratic (which allows fascist leaders to take power), nationalistic (and racist/anti-semitic), and that it would have suffered from the Depression as much as it actually did when it lost.

Maybe it would have just been gypsies and gays, instead of Jews. Maybe it would have been the Jews in Poland, or in Rumania, instead of Germany. Maybe it would have been Japanese in the US...
genocides happen, and eventually one would have happened in a "civilized" industrial society. The only reason we think it couldn't happen is that we have the bad example of Germany, now....

NYGuy - 7/5/2003

Did the Krupp family in the development of steel in Germany have anything to do with the wrongful U. S. foreign policy in WW1? Was it that everyone was jealous of Germany for making frying pans or did the ability to develop guns that beat the French in the Franco-Prussian war have something to do with the opinions both in and out of Germany. And, what does one think about a peacemaker such as Big Bertha? Surely such a WMD, in the hands of a benevolent nation like Germany would be used to promote peace, unless that nation was provoked and had to attack France twice.

Or did it do the opposite, i.e. give a sense of power and a desire to dominate the world to a formerly inferior mixture of states that lacked democracy. Could any of this history effect the attitutes of Hitler and the German people. What if the U. S. bought more German frying pans, would Germany not have developed an WMD? Probably, since Germany was never an arrogent nation such as the U. S.

and later were so power

mark safranski - 7/4/2003

I find it a real stetch that the Holocaust would have happened without Hitler coming to power as he did. Even as Fuhrer Hitler felt compelled to move against the Jews in phases and shroud genocide in secrecy and euphemisms. Kaiser Wilhelm II or a military dictator like a General Ludendorf launching the Holocaust ? This is a rather unlikely counterfactual.


Mike Shumaker - 7/2/2003

It might be more fruitful to ponder how the Great War would have turned out had Europe accepted the peace plan of Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary. Charles was a far different ruler than Franz Josef. His wife, Zita, would have exerted great influence and was iron willed. An intact Catholic Austria would have surved as a counterweight to Protestant Germany.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/2/2003

Yes, Hitler's rise was a highly contingent historic event. All historic events are highly contingent if you take a bio-drama approach. But biography happens in context, and the fact is that Hitler wasn't exactly swimming against the tide. Yes, WWI was a factor, but there are enough structural factors which had nothing to do with whether Germany won or lost WWI that I am not convinced.

Hitler didn't invent anti-communist anti-semitic politics in Germany, nor was it a result of WWI. The Great Depression would have affected Germany even if it had won (it got the US, didn't it?). Crowd manipulation and propoganda studies had been progressing in the early 20th century, and were available for anyone who wanted to use them (like Mussolini and Churchill, both of whom were very effective students of the discipline). Ethnic cleansing wasn't invented by Hitler, either: the Turks in Armenia had the dubious distinction of carrying out the first modern genocide.

I find comparative studies more convincing than counterfactuals, though it is harder to find and study multiple equivalents than it is to play "what if." And this is all this is: play. Historical scholarship contains an element of counterfactual thinking, but this is no more convincing or scholarly than science fiction.

Don't get me wrong, I love science fiction and fantasy. But all it is is something to think about and enjoy.

james kelly - 7/2/2003

Reming's presumptions about the results of true American neutrality are plausible, but his presumed results are too brnign. And blaming the English Tories for the war seems strange as the Liberal Party governed Great Britain in 1914. As to Britain not tolerating Germany as a commercial rival, Britain practiced a policy of free trade whereas France, Italy, the U.S.and others exposed German goods to tariffs. Why then is Britain especially culpable? Also, the 1905 Schlieffen plan called for invading France via Belgium and once occupied, Germany intended to keep Belgium, which everyone knew was a pistol or dagger aimed at the throat of England. Not something Great Britain can reasonably be censored for resisting. And by treaty Britain had guaranteed Belgian independence, which unless it was "just a scrap of paper," Britain was justified in upholding.

James Thornton - 7/2/2003

France was determined to regain her pride lost when Wilhelm crowned himself Kaiser in Versailles. The loss in the Franco-Prussian War would have prevented France from settling with Germany and was bent on total victory.

Perry Willis - 7/2/2003

The rise of Hitler to power was a highly contingent event. The early success of his movement owed a lot to the outcome of World War I, and the resultant fall-out, like the reparations inflation. Reverse that outcome with a German victory and the Nazi's probably never get a good start. As history actually developed the Nazi's got their best surge from the advent of the Great Depression (which raises all sorts of other questions about U.S. monetary and trade policy -- when we sneeze the whole world catches cold), but the Nazi's peaked and were on their way down when Hitler was suddenly handed the reigns of power. The whole sequence turned on so many instances of things breaking just the wrong way at exactly the wrong time that I find it hard to believe that changes in U.S. policies throughout the period from WWI forward wouldn't have made a decisive difference. We can't know what would have resulted instead, but it's hard to imagine that it could have been any worse than what did happen, and there are a lot of reasons to think things would have been better. Sadly, I think a similar analysis could be made of nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy during the 20th century. It has largely been a disastor, and now we are doing it again in Iraq. We need conterfactual historical analysis because without it there is no hope of learning anything useful from history, and the discipline becomes nothing more than a filing cabinet for useless dusty facts.

George B. Clark - 7/1/2003

If Germany had not been the main victim of British and French revenge; if the war had not been lost by Germany, the royal house may very well have retained their hold on the nation as have the Windsors in Britain. They weren't great, but then neither are the Windsors. Lots of "ifs."
No dictatorship would have occurred, unless it were on the socialist left, assuming all things being equal.
Had the Treaty been reasonable; ie: Fourteen Points, or something similar, it is unlikely that the people of Germany would have ached for revenge. No revenge, no Schickelgruber. No him, unlikely WWII.
Therefore, no U.S. intervention (and we did really win the war for the badly handled allies) and all parties would have been pleased to sit down and hammer out a modestly agreeable treaty that, even in Europe, might have lasted longer than twenty years. Or, so what if Germany had won. Who cares? Maybe, if someone strangled Clemenceau early on all would have been well.
However, that is being said tongue in cheek. Because Wilson's ego required a blood sacrifice from his "peasants." He desperately desired to be the "main man" and couldn't be until he dominated the world. That is the real reason the U.S. got messed up with Europe. That is a major reason the Allies "won." That is the reason for WWII.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/30/2003

Mr. Fleming's assertion that "A victorious Germany would have had no need of political adventurers such as Adolf Hitler" is a fine example of the wish-fulfillment nature of most counterfactual history (Hey, I do it too!). While there's no doubt that the WWI loss and Versailles settlements sharpened Hitler's drive and appeal, it is absurd to think that a victorious Germany would not have had a powerful self-image, that it would have been satisfied with EU-like concessions, or that nationalism, racialism, anti-Communism and anti-Semitism would have melted away. Nationalism and racialism would have been enhanced by a clear German victory: aryanism might have become truly entrenched in German thought and culture if Germany hadn't lost its two 20th century wars. Anti-Communism was a powerful factor in the rise of Italy's Mussolini (which, if memory serves, was on the winning side in WWI).

The ultimate question, whether the Holocaust would have happened, I'm not even going to touch, except to say that the application of industrial technology and techniques to race-murder was, in my opinion, a nearly inevitable result of European 19th century development.