Thursday, April 6, 2017

On April 6 a century ago

James Bowman on an anniversary:
Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of America’s declaration of war against Germany, and thus of her joining the British, French, and Russian empires in their tremendous struggle against the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires—a struggle that was known at the time as the Great War. ....

...[C]ontrast President Wilson’s message to Congress requesting the declaration of war with the famous speech to Parliament by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, of two and a half years earlier. In 1914, Britain’s entrance into the war was seen by Sir Edward to depend upon honor, and specifically the honor involved in Britain’s treaty obligation to guarantee the Belgian neutrality that was being violated during the opening days of the war. Britain, thought Sir Edward, would be dishonored and any subsequent treaty obligations rendered worthless if she failed to enter the war on the Franco-Belgian side in response to such a provocation.

By contrast, President Wilson never mentioned honor in connection with America’s entry into the war, even though Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, the ostensible reason for the declaration, gave him good reason to do so. To Wilson, America had to be going to war for something much bigger and much more universal than mere honor or patriotism, let alone German violation of American neutrality. He was doing it, as he famously said, because “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Not our democracy, but just plain Democracy, with a capital “D.” And safe also for “the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

I sometimes wonder how many people, even how many naive progressives, believed then that we had determined on joining in this mass slaughter on the European continent for peace and safety and a universal dominion of right. I’m sure that not many believe it now. If we were going to war for abstract ideals of Democracy and Freedom, many people then and later must have reflected, when would we ever not be going to war? For Wilson’s high-principled language has returned periodically ever since to plague his presidential successors....