Burton Yale Pines

World War I as “America’s Greatest Blunder”

VTR Date: January 4, 2014

Guest: Burton Yale Pines


GUEST: Burton Yale Pines
AIR DATE: 1/4/2014
VTR: 10/10/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and today, as I think I do on only very rare occasions, I’m going very much to indulge my one-time professional interest in American history as a teacher and commentator.

With good reason, too … for we head now into 2014, the centennial year of World War One, about which today’s guest writes that America’s decision in 1917 to declare war on Germany … QUOTE … “became a catalyst for the most deadly and violent century in world history.”

Burton Yale Pines trained as a historian and taught at the University of Wisconsin, then joined Time Magazine, where he reported from Germany, Vietnam and Vienna, where he was East European Bureau Chief. As a Time editor, he chronicled much of the Cold War. Then, at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation for over a decade, he was its Senior Vice President.

Now, with many new centennial books coming out about Woodrow Wilson and what we used to call the “Great War”, my guest has written “America’s Greatest Blunder – The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One”.

And I would first ask Burt Pines why – when he quotes Wilson’s words announcing the November, 1918 Armistice ending the war … “Everything for which America fought has been accomplished”… just why he also notes, “It is a statement that history turns upside down. Little for which America had fought had been accomplished. America, to be sure, wanted the Allies to win, and win they did. But just about nothing else came out the way Wilson or America had intended.”

Put simply, Mr. Pines, why do you title your compelling, most readable book, “America’s Greatest Blunder.”

PINES: Well, first, Dick, let me say it’s a delight to be here. It would be less of a delight where it to talk about this and say “It wasn’t a blunder”.

It was a dreadful thing that we did by going into World War One. As, as history latter showed.

I say it’s a blunder for this reason … first of all we had no reason to get into the war. Germany was no threat to us. Our national security was never endangered. Germany didn’t really ever attack us … except for some submarines … we can get to that in, in a moment, but we got into the war … after being neutral for two and a half years … neutrality, which I talk about in the book … we, we sorted of were tilted more and more to the British and French every, every week.

We got into the war, which had been a stalemate for two and a half years … I mean all of us who know anything about the war … even those who know just a little bit … know there were trenches and horrible battles and nobody made any progress. And that was the truth. It was an absolute stalemate.

We get in, we mobilize four million doughboys, as they were affectionately called … we send two million of them to the Western front by the middle of 1918, we absolutely transform the arithmetic of the battlefield. We tilted the battlefield sharply towards the British and French. They were called “allies”, we weren’t an ally.

Wilson was very clear that we weren’t getting into the war as an ally of Britain and France … but as an associate power. He was very careful about that.

We tilted the battlefield … we won the war and that allowed Britain and France to impose the kind of peace on Germany … the new German Republic, which was only a few weeks … or maybe a few months old … imposed the kind of peace which triggered a determination for revenge by Germans of all kind … far Conservatives, ultra-rightists, Socialists, even the, the independent Communist Party which … independent Socialist Party which was the most Left Wing of the Communist groups there … all against the Versailles Treaty demanding revenge.

That triggered, as we know, that desire for revenge triggered what became Adolf Hitler and World War II … the horrors of World War II and Nazism and I would say even the Cold War. Then you would ask, “What if we hadn’t gotten in?”

HEFFNER: Aha … I was going to ask.

PINES: Because that’s part, that’s part of the answer. It was a stalemate … the stalemate would have continued. Both sides were absolutely exhausted, both sides had begun drafting 55 and 60 year olds and 16 and 17 year olds … people they had by-passed before. Their economies were in shambles, there were peace movements mobilizing at home. There were strikes.

There was a mutiny in the French Army. I mean the great movie “Paths of Glory” sort of chronicles the mutiny of the French Army. The two sides in 1918 or in early 1919 would have done what happened at the end of the 30 years war in 1648 … the Napoleonic War in 1815 … they would have dragged themselves to a conference table … not happy about it, reluctantly, begrudgingly … they would have sat down and negotiate, as happened in 1648 and in 1815 … a peaceful compromise. There would have been no victor, no vanquished, no Versailles Treaty, no reparations, no assigning Germany … guilt on Germany … no German calls for revenge, no Hitler, no World War II.

HEFFNER: You know, Burt, I remember as a young man … man may be too much … in World War II listening to Franklin Roosevelt, I believe it was at a press conference … handle, or not handle as you will … the question of “What would have happened if we hadn’t gone into the war”. And I don’t know that everyone is as certain as you … as to the way it would have come out.

PINES: Well, I suspect not everyone is as certain as I am. Now this is a provocative book … but I think a reading of history, a fair reading of history would say, “This was a huge mistake”.

Now we had a number of American historians in the … from the middle twenties to the middle thirties, saying just that. But they didn’t have the perspective we have of 75 more years where we can see what the results of that mistake were.

We know … and my background is … as you say, I taught history … it was west European history …and my, my field of specialization was Germany in the 19th and 20th century and, and pre-Nazism and so forth.

We know that the Versailles Treaty and Hitler’s and the ultra-Rightists enunciation of the Versailles Treaty was almost universally accepted in Germany. The Versailles Treaty saddled the young German democracy, which was called the Weimar Republic because the Constitution was written in this idyllic, wonderful little town of Weimar.

It saddled the Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment with democracy with an enormous burden. The burden of having to support the treaty … because every year the German Parliament, the Reichstag had to sit down and appropriate money to pay reparations.

Hitler was going up and down the country and found whenever he denounced the Versailles Treaty people were just jumping up and screaming and hollering and cheering him.

He talked about the November … the November criminals and the November traitors and the Weimar criminals. November traitors meaning those who signed the Armistice November 1918 and the Weimar criminals, those who were living up to the terms of the Versailles Treaty.

Had we not got in none of that would have happened. It is almost impossible for me to think today that there would have been a Hitler without Versailles Treaty and the ability of Britain and France to impose that kind of thing on Germany.

Now during the war Roosevelt … I mean during the war Wilson would have agreed with us. I mean what’s extraordinary is that Wilson knew what to do and he said the right things. He talked repeatedly about a peace without victory. He made speeches, including, I think, even his Fourteen Point speech had this in it … “We have nothing against the German people themselves. We are against the autocracy of the German Kaiser, but we have nothing against the German people themselves. We do not … we’re not going to impose solution which is full of reparations” … and so forth. And he just abandoned all of that.

HEFFNER: What puzzles me is your use of the word “blunder” because in my teaching of American history I think I’ve been less kind than you are even now to Woodrow Wilson. “Blunder”? Didn’t he take us step by step … steps that he couldn’t help but recognized were steps into the war.

After all, he was the one who said, when the war began he asked us, as Americans, to be neutral in word as well as deed.

PINES: Right. Right. That’s, that’s, that’s a good point. And at … it’s, it’s sweet for me to be accused of being …

HEFFNER: Generous?

PINES: … generous to, to Woodrow Wilson, the man who gave us the, the welfare state and so forth.

HEFFNER: Now don’t let your …

PINES: But …

HEFFNER: … your Heritage Foundation …

PINES: … but that was a long, that was a long time ago. I, I, I … a very long time ago. I use “blunder” because Wilson believed in neutrality. Wilson in, in Cabinet meetings would say the British blockade of Germany and the German use of submarines … that they were equally wrong.

Wilson would say that the, the Germans are aggressors on the land and the British are aggressors at sea. He understood the importance of neutrality. Yet a number of things began building up which pushed him, or he embraced them and step by step went into it.

I say “blunder” because if we would have asked him, “Do you want to take America into war? Do you want to take sides so definitely.” He probably would say “No”. By the beginning of 1918 and it was, I think, January 2nd or 3rd or 4th, 1918 … where Germany launched what was called “unrestricted submarine warfare”.

Wilson felt that that was his opportunity to go to war, but he may have also felt he had no choice. And I choose to be more generous and say we blundered into it, rather than he had deliberate policy to go into it.

And if we had a deliberate policy, it, it’s astounding to me that he would not have asked the most basic question any President ought to ask when he takes America into military intervention overseas … he says, “What’s in it for America? How am I defending America’s interests, how am I advancing America’s interests?”

And Wilson would not have been able to say “I am”. I mean unlike Roosevelt, 24 years … 24 years after Wilson asked the Congress for War, Roosevelt was at the same podium … and it clear why we were going to war … the ships were still smoldering in Pearl Harbor. It was very clear.

When, when Lincoln took us into the Civil War … it was very clear, we’d been attacked.

But Wilson, Wilson could not have made that kind of statement and said, “I’m taking you into war for this reason” if it would have been a well thought out, well thought out path to war.

When Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare … which meant it would attack American ships only in the war zone, not on the high seas. But if American ships were in the war zone heading for Britain or France … German submarines would attack them.

Now the British had declared a war zone around Germany from the very beginning of the war and kept all American ships out of going to Germany. You didn’t have to attack them because we, we respected the British blockade.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that lead you though to conclude that Wilson from the get-go, from the very beginning, in terms, now I know this is “old hat” history or an historical approach … that while Wilson’s sympathies were always with the British …

PINES: No question.

HEFFNER: … always with the …

PINES: No question.

HEFFNER: … the English poets.

PINES: No question.

HEFFNER: … and writers. Doesn’t that loom even larger than as an indication of what transpired …


HEFFNER: … that Wilson moved step by step by step.

PINES: He was, he was comfortable helping the British and French. But even at the last minute … even after we had declared war and he had this wonderful speech on April 2nd to Congress, which historians say is one of the most eloquent of all Presidential addresses and then four days later Congress voted war.

Even then a lot of people thought that us declaring war … as an “associate power” not at an ally … meant we were going to send arms and money to Britain and France.

In fact when the Secretary of Defense, the day after declaring war … maybe it was two days … the date’s in the book … went before a Senate Committee and asked for appropriations for sending Americans overseas …the Senator … the Democratic Senator who chaired the Committee said, “We’re not going to send Americans over there, are we?”

I mean so … if, if Wilson would have even drawn the line there … at sending more money and arms to Britain and France it would not have tilted the battlefield.

So I think, I think, you know that at, at that moment Wilson was ready to go in all the way. And he was leaning toward it from the beginning. I absolutely agree with you and I chronicle it in, in the book … he was sympathetic to the, to the allies, he had strong feelings for Britain, he was a man who had almost no foreign policy background, no foreign policy experience. All he had was favorable to Britain. He was surrounded by a lot of people … some would call them the East Coast Establishment … very favorable to the British and the French … bankers such as J. P. Morgan, which became the main purchasing agent for Britain in the United States and while we were neutral, was pushing, was pushing this. Wilson …

HEFFNER: You’ve become an economic determinist.

PINES: Well, I think, I think there is economic de … one doesn’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that there are economic forces. After all, those of us who are supply side economists in this day … know that economic forces can lead to behavior.

HEFFNER: Well I wonder, how much do you think the presence of J. P. Morgan and the other Eastern bankers … how important was that here?

PINES: Well, certainly by the 18th month of the war, American economic interests were tied very much to the British and French …

HEFFNER: We’d become …

PINES: We’d become their bankers … and we’d become their suppliers. They’d buy American goods and they didn’t have the money to pay for them for so we would lend them the money to pay for American goods. It’s not all that different in some ways than the Chinese lending us the money so we can buy China’s goods.

American bankers, American industry, American farms … American minds became increasingly dependent on, on the welfare or how Britain and France were going to fare in the war. That became a huge factor and I think it … it wasn’t the only factor, that’s why I’m not a pure economic determinist and I’m not one of the Socialist historians who say “That was all it was”. But that became, by the 18th month a very big factor.

HEFFNER: Burt, when, when you gave me the book and I was so grateful to you because I think it’s a terrific book, a terrific read, if I may …

PINES: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … use that expression …

PINES: I’m glad you say it’s a good read … I’m a Time editor …


PINES: … and, and I wrote it to read like a very, very large Time cover story, where it just carries the reader through.

HEFFNER: It does. Precisely that.

PINES: Thank you. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Now I wondered about the word “blunder” again and I wondered whether it wouldn’t have more appropriately been applied to the end, rather than to the beginning. Not our getting into the war, but the way we got out and what happened to Wilson and maybe I’m too much a devotee of those who express concern for what happened to him with the stroke and in, in … as he went across the country … barnstorming for the Treaty …


HEFFNER: … with the League of Nations.

PINES: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: What do you think?

PINES: Well, I would, I would say you’re, you’re mostly right, but we got out of the war because of the way we got into the war. And if getting out of the war the way we did was a blunder than certainly getting into the war was a blunder.

Had we not gotten into the war, we wouldn’t have had the problem of getting out of the war. We wouldn’t have had a Versailles … a Paris Peace Conference, sometimes called the Versailles Conference. The treaty was the Versailles Treaty. Wouldn’t have had a Paris Peace Conference the way it was. There would have been …

HEFFNER: How do you account for that though. You, you describe how Wilson arrives in, in Europe and …

PINES: Right.

HEFFNER: … he’s greeted as a savior …

PINES: Terrific. Terrific.


PINES: … he was called “The Savior”. Well, first of all he felt that because of this adulation and there were signs in Milan saying “Wilson, The Savior” and even … Paris … there was just phenomenal jubilation.

Herbert Hoover who was then in Europe because he was head of this Belgium Relief stuff … wrote in his own memoirs that standing in Paris and seeing the adulation of Wilson was one of the most moving things he had ever seen.

So, Wilson felt that he had … that popular opinion behind him, he’d be able to use it as leverage over French Premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Absolutely didn’t.

He found himself in very tough negotiations which … for which he was absolutely unprepared. The, the great Wilson fans who have written many histories of Wilson … all conclude that yes, this was not his greatest hour. If these Wilson fans have anything to criticize him for, it’s his performance at Versailles. He should have …

HEFFNER: Or non-performance.

PINES: Or non-performance. Okay, he was ill for a while, that’s a factor. He had lost … his party had lost a 1918 Congressional elections and Republicans controlled the Senate and Henry Cabot Lodge became Majority Leader and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Wilson had campaigned, against his advisor’s advice in that Congressional election that said “Back Wilson because he’s going to make the peace for America”.

And it was seen as a referendum on him …and yet he lost that referendum. That weakened him at, at the bargaining table. He didn’t follow advice or advisors. And he should have. Colonel House … who was not … as we all know not really a Colonel … he was … Wilson … Edward House … was the closest advisor, probably to Wilson.

He had begun putting together a year before the war ended a think tank, based in New York and I, I think they, they worked for a while out of the headquarters of the National Geographic Society.

HEFFNER: This was “The Inquiry”.

PINES: Called “The Inquiry”, it’s a rather sweet name. Called “The Inquiry”. They produced by the time Wilson sailed off to Europe 1,000 position papers. House had experts working on almost every topic that would come up at a peace conference. What is Serbia? What do the Balkans want? What are reparation? What’s the history of reparations? How much could a defeated Germany afford to pay. So forth.

Wilson ignored all of it. On the seven or eight or nine day boat ride … or ship … trip over to, to Europe for the Versailles Conference, Wilson met with the staff only once. And those …

HEFFNER: That’s a shocking …

PINES: … it’s shocking thing. I mean you look at when, when General Pershing went over three … two and a half years earlier for the first time to assume command … he was in constant meetings with his advisors … everyone would be.

So part of the Wilson was unprepared. The biggest thing and, and this is what you, you touch on … Wilson was so determined to get his League of Nations that he was willing to give away everything else to the British and French.

Wilson talked about no reparations, no reparations. There were reparations talked about at the Versailles Conference would amount to about a trillion US dollars in today’s terms.

Now it wasn’t a trillion dollars because they so many disagreements about the reparations between what the French and British wanted and what we’d, we’d accept … is they put it off and Germany had to sign the treaty saying there will be reparations … an amount to be determined. Not to be determined by Germany, but by, by others. But he gave that away. He gave away self-determination … it was a big part of the Fourteen Point speech.

Countries have a right to decide who’s going to rule them … self determination.

He gives a huge section of German speaking … Sudetenland … to, to the new formed Czechoslovakia … huge part of German’s … millions of Germans in what had … what was becoming Poland, he gave to Poland.

And the biggest probably thing he gave … he had promised the Chinese … we had promised the Chinese … got involved in the war, they’d get back some of these concessions which we Western powers carved out of China, including the Shandong peninsula … very important to China. And it’s … some estimates are that it’s close to 100,000 Chinese died in the war … they came … they didn’t fight, but they were at the front, they were, they were driving trucks, they were building things and so forth … Wilson allowed Japan to get the Shandong peninsula … didn’t give it back to China, gave it to Japan to placate Japan.

The Chinese delegation walked out of the Versailles Conference, never signed the Treaty. A number of Americans quit our delegation in sympathy. They went back to China and the students were so horrified by this betrayal by America … there was a demonstration where … Tiananmen Square … huge demonstration Tiananmen Square … and I’ve gone … as you know I’ve gone to China a lot … you still run into Chinese, young Chinese as well as old Chinese when they know you’re an American, they remind you of the betrayal of 1918 … the unfilled one to self-determination. Wilson gave this all away to get Clemenceau and Lloyd George to support his League of Nations.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to conjecture whether that led FDR to do what he did at Yalta … leading to another kind of lengthy conflict.

But I want to, I want to ask you … people always refer to Clemenceau’s I believe it was Clemenceau saying, “God almighty had only ten points”, in his reference to Wilson’s Fourteen Points. And look what we’ve done to them. Was it the moralistic aspect of Wilson that undermined his power …

PINES: Well, that was … yes, absolutely. That’s part of what undermined his power. I mean Lloyd George and Clemenceau especially were horrified by the Puritanical moralism … I mean it is given … I mean Wilson’s view of the world and America’s role in the world has given birth to the term “Wilsonianism”. Woodrow Wilson was the first Wilsonian …

HEFFNER: That’s a plus … in many places.

PINES: That’s a plus … I think it’s, I think it’s a minus … I think it gets into places like Iraq and it gets us in other places and so forth without asking the question … “What’s in it for us?”

And they were horrified at this kind of Puritanical preaching. And Wilson was that way. The whole Progressive Movement had a lot of this uplifting rhetoric in it of which Wilson was a part. And he carried that rhetoric. And he was lecturing Clemenceau and he was lecturing Lloyd George, two very savvy politicians with these high ideals and these are “real politicers”

HEFFNER: Burt, in the two minutes or so that we have left … what about the Treaty of Versailles here and its defeat? How do you evaluate Wilson’s own personal role?

PINES: Well, Wilson refused to negotiate anything. The … there were members of the Senate who were absolutely against it … the 12 Republican members of the Senate absolutely against on every … any terms.

But the others had reservations and they refused … Wilson refused to sit down and said … “Okay, we’ll open this up”. One of the reservations was that the British Commonwealth had all these votes so Britain would control all these votes … we only had one vote. Is there a way we can do something with that?

They were worried that the League of Nations could declare war on a country and force us to go in without Congress declaring war. These were legitimate points. Wilson absolutely refused to negotiate at all about these points.

And when meeting with the French Ambassador … when the French Ambassador … “Well, what’s going on with your Senate and so forth … he said, ‘I’m not going to negotiate anything. I’ve negotiated in Paris, I’m not going to negotiate in Washington. Let them take their medicine.”

And so even Democrats who, who were, you know 99% for the Treaty with some reservations, were horrified by that. And Wilson said, “I’m going to go over the head of Congress, I’m going to go out to the people.”

And he had this Western tour … it was very grueling and so forth. He got off to a sort of shaky start, but by the third or fourth day he was attracting huge crowds and so forth and had he not had his … become ill … which later lead to a stroke … perhaps, perhaps he would have mobilized enough for the Versailles Treaty to be ratified. But that wouldn’t change anything.

The Versailles Treaty was full of all these terrible things on Germany … that would have happened anyway. And the League of Nations would have been no more successful than the United Nations in reigning in the ambitions of major powers.

HEFFNER: Burt Pines, I’m glad you’re so enthusiastic and I’m delighted that you came her to discuss this truly wonderful book … agree with it or not … “America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One”.

PINES: Thank you, Dick

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.