Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Yanks over There — 100 Years Ago

By Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

American intervention saved Western Europe in World War I, but the result was a failed armistice.

One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. The ongoing conflict ended just 19 months later with an Allied victory.

The United States did not win the war alone, given the far earlier and greater sacrifices of Great Britain, France, Italy, and czarist Russia.

But America’s late arrival, with some 2 million doughboys who landed in France less than three years after the start of the war, saved the teetering Allied cause.

By late 1917, Germany had knocked Russia out of the war and seemed likely to swarm the sole Western front and finish off the exhausted British and French armies.

On this centennial of America’s entry into the war, debate still rages over the cause and results of World War I in a way not true of the far more lethal World War II (an estimated 60 million dead) just two decades later.

Until World War II, the conflict was initially known as the Great War, on the naïve premise that the “war to end all wars” would never have to be repeated. But World War I did not solve problems as much as it led to even greater ones.

Unfortunately, World War I ended with an armistice — at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 — and not with an unconditional surrender of the defeated. Although Germany and Austria-Hungary clearly lost the war, their countries were not occupied and monitored, as would be true after World War II.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that was supposed to bring peace is often blamed for being too harsh on the losers. But it was more complicated than that. The settlement of Versailles combined the very worst of both worlds: blaming the defeated side, but without any means of ensuring that the humiliated losers would not rearm and try their luck again.

The victorious Allies soon hosted conferences outlawing deadly weapons, declaring war obsolete, and calling for collective security through the new League of Nations.

In response, the losing Germans often blamed back stabbers for their defeat and first interpreted such utopianism as Allied guilt — and later as weakness. Under Adolf Hitler, Germany rearmed and began absorbing neighboring borderlands eager to replay the verdict of World War I.

The United States was depressed that World War I seemed to have brought no lasting peace. It returned to its former isolationism during the depression years of the 1930s, disarmed, and was determined to never again become involved in Europe’s nihilistic wars.

Yet that very disengagement weakened the European democracies’ common front. Both European appeasement and American isolationism only encouraged the new Axis Powers to become even more determined to reverse the outcome of World War I.

World War I broke out in 1914 at an age when new offensive technology — machine guns, airplanes, poison gas, mass-produced artillery shrapnel shells, submarines — had vastly outpaced the arts of defense and medical care. It proved far easier to kill than to protect soldiers. And it was the first major war that was truly global, spreading beyond Europe to areas of the Middle East and Africa.

Mass deaths — especially during the great flu outbreak of 1918 — in the trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea over four years of fighting nearly destroyed Europe. The war finished off the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires.

In time, savage new ideologies — Fascism, Nazism, Communism — filled the void and promised to restore national pride and prosperity.

What can Americans learn 100 years later from the belated entry of the United States into World War I, and from the war’s beginning, conduct, and aftermath?

Seemingly isolated incidents — such as the assassination of Austria’s archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 — can lead to nearly 20 million dead.

Isolationism and disarmament only encourage aggressors to do something stupid. Military power and deterrence persuade them not to try.

Had the United States been fully armed in 1914 (or again in 1939) and ready to help its allies, Germany might not have invaded Western Europe, or at least not have achieved such initial successes.

Wars — easy to start, hard to end — usually last far beyond what the original belligerents imagined.

Stalemate at the front ensures horrendous casualties. The Allies had no strategic plans — or ability — to attack German industries or invade German cities. And Germany and Austria could not reach the heart of Allied power in London, Paris, or New York.

Defeat and occupation force an enemy to cease its aggression. Armistices without a definite result only lead to postponements — and eventually more war.

World War I’s terrible irony is that today its horrible carnage seems even more senseless than the far greater death toll of World War II, which ended quite differently and did not lead to another world war — at least so far.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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