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Historiography: Contested histories of the Great War

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By Roger Peace and Jeremy Kuzmarov

Return to U.S. participation in WWI
This essay examines two historiographical debates regarding the Great War.  The first centers on the assignment of responsibility, or guilt, for the war, a concern of all the belligerent nations.  The second focuses on the Wilson administration’s justifications for U.S. intervention, a particular concern to U.S. scholars.1

German “war guilt” and the war system

In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to take full blame for the outbreak of war.  The “war guilt” clause was a humiliation for Germany and also served as the basis for reparation payments to the victors.  It furthermore absolved the victors of any guilt.  The German Foreign Ministry undertook a mission to challenge this dictum.  It recruited scholars and pulled together a multi-volume edition of German diplomatic documents from 1871 to 1914 that attributed equal or greater responsibility for the war to Allied nations.  The publication of these documents between 1922 and 1927 prompted Great Britain and France to mine their own documents in the interest of historical justification.  The British published Documents on the Origins of the War in 1926, and the French published Documents Diplomatiques Français in 1930.2
American views of the origins of the Great War adhered closely to the British view.  During the war, notes the historian Charles Beard, “the Entente war creed was pressed upon the people of the United States with such reiteration and zeal that in wide and powerful circles it became as fixed as the law of the Medes and Persians.  To question any part of it in those spheres was to set one’s self down as a boar and a Hun and after 1917, as a traitor to America.”3  William Stearns Davis’s 1918 book, The Roots of the War, was characteristic in decrying “Pan-Germanic conspirators for bringing on the great calamity” and for attempting to establish a world empire of Teutonia that was to be “indescribably vaster, richer, more irresistible [and] more universal than that of imperial Rome.”4  Harvard Professor William Roscoe Thayer expressed the point in his title, Germany Versus Civilization.  He placed full blame on Kaiser Wilhelm II for the atrocious war.5
The first important scholarly challenge to the dominant narrative was offered by Harvard history Professor Sidney B. Fay in three articles that appeared in the American Historical Review in July and October of 1920 and January of 1921.  While not exonerating Germany, he placed German actions in the historical context of militarism, rival alliances, imperialism, nationalism, and patriotic propaganda, implying a measure of shared responsibility for the outbreak of war.  Fay’s articles were read by a young Columbia University Ph.D. named Harry Elmer Barnes who said that their message came to him “like a blinding flash on the road to Damascus” demolishing “his belief in the official assignment of guilt [to Germany].”6  Barnes had written propaganda tracts for the National Security League during the war, extolling the morality and necessity of U.S. participation to defeat Germany.7  Following the war, he achieved a modicum of recognition with the 1921 publication of A Social History of the Western World.
Barnes soon became a leading crusader for the cause of revisionism regarding the origins of the Great War, publishing The Genesis of the World War (1926) and In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War Guilt Myth (1928).  These studies, based on diplomatic documents, memoirs, and interviews with officials, went further than Fay by placing primary blame for the war’s outbreak on France and Russia, and to a lesser extent, on Great Britain.  He wrote that “Germany was certainly not a lamb in the midst of the pack of European wolves, but it is just as apparent that she was not the unique wolf in the fold…. she was not as nationalistic as France, not as imperialistic as Great Britain, France or Russia, not as devoted to navalism as Great Britain.”8  The United States also bore some responsibility, according to Barnes, as it had financed the Allied war effort and jumped into the fray at the behest of banking interests who wanted repayment of their loans.9
Barnes’ first book caused a firestorm in the historical profession.  Members of the American Historical Association (AHA) accused him of “being on the Kaiser’s payroll to the sum of $100,000,” and booksellers discouraged prospective customers from ordering the book.10  Charles Beard, another revisionist who assigned a large measure of responsibility for the outbreak of war to France and Russia, nonetheless judged that Barnes had gone too far in attempting to vindicate Germany.  Beard ridiculed the idea of German militarists parading as “injured innocents” after the war.11
Fay followed up his articles with a massive two-volume study, The Origins of the World War, published in 1928.  Based on documentary evidence and interviews, including an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm, two major corrections from wartime propaganda emerged:  German militarism was not unique among the great powers and there was no evidence that Germany intended to conquer all of Europe.  As far as “war guilt” is concerned, Fay laid primary blame on Austria-Hungary rather than Germany.12
One reviewer, C. C. Eckhardt, described Fay’s study as “the most complete, most detached, and impartial work on the subject, and is not apt to be superseded soon.”13  Another reviewer, Preston Slosson, wrote, “If Professor Fay be called a ‘revisionist’ some new word must be coined for those who believe that the war arose from a Franco-Russian conspiracy.  His book stands almost equidistant between the wartime propaganda of such writers as James M. Beck and the viewpoint indicated in Professor Harry Elmer Barnes’s Genesis of the World War.”14  The German Foreign Ministry was pleased enough with Fay’s balanced assessment to rush a German-language edition into print and distribute it to German embassies for handing out free copies.
The views of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin also factored into the mix, though he died in January 1924.  In his 1916 wartime essay, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” he held the system of capitalism guilty of fostering imperialism, which in turn led to war.15  The secret Allied treaties exposed by the Bolsheviks in late 1917 added weight to his thesis.  The Allied nations, he argued, were intent on war with Germany in order to “ruin a competing nation which has displayed a more rapid rate of economic development.”  During the war, Lenin had called on Europe’s working class, caught in the middle of this economic rivalry, to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war,” to “stop fighting each other and turn their guns on royals, generals, aristocrats and capitalists.”16
German author Hermann Lutz, in Lord Grey and the World War (1927), was highly critical of the British role in fomenting German insecurity, but he nonetheless viewed Germany’s actions as regrettable.  While accepting the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s claim that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand signified a serious security threat to Austria-Hungary arising from Serbia, he judged that wiser statesmen in Berlin could have prevented war by not encouraging Vienna’s militant response.  Germany’s “blank cheque was a great blunder,” he wrote.  As an alternative, Berlin might have “come to an understanding with Russia, for example, at the expense of Austria-Hungary.”17

A scene from the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Erich Maria Remarque brought Germany’s great blunder to life in his gripping novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).  The reader follows protagonist Paul Bäumer as he is indoctrinated with patriotic propaganda, enlists in the army, and is sent to the front.  Bäumer experiences the horror of modern warfare and the very human pain of watching an enemy soldier he had knifed die before his eyes.  Later, he guards Russian prisoners who, like himself, are simply struggling to survive the insane war.  Just before the war ends, Bäumer is killed.  The army ironically reports that day, “All quiet on the Western Front.”  The book was translated into 22 languages and sold 2.5 million copies in its first eighteen months in print.  In the U.S., it was turned into an award-winning film in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone.18  The book and film evoked sympathy for German soldiers, highlighted the pathos of war, and called into question the nationalistic and patriotic idealism of every country.  When the Nazi government took power in 1933, Remarque’s book was one of the first to be banned.

Prior to obtaining power in Germany, the Nazi Party and its rightist allies in Germany focused not on who or what started the war, but on who was responsible for losing it.  They lashed out against Social Democrats, socialists, peace liberals, and Jews (blamed for everything) for ostensibly weakening the German state.  The liberal-left, in contrast, blamed the Kaiser and aristocracy of Prussian generals who had gambled on a decisive victory in 1918 instead of bargaining for a moderate peace settlement.  With the ascension of the Nazis to power, the “stab in the back” thesis became official dogma, reinforcing the Nazi political agenda of rebuilding the military and exerting German power, “Deutschland über alles.”19
The controversy in the U.S. continued with the publication of The Coming of War: 1914 (1930) by Bernadotte E. Schmitt, a former Rhodes scholar teaching at the University of Chicago.20  Schmitt’s book reaffirmed German war guilt.  It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association.  Forty-two years later, the historian M. H. Cochran uncovered major errors in Schmitt’s study and charged that he had used “false methodologies to uphold the fantasies of 1914.”  According to Cochran, the book represented “an appalling attempt, clothed in the elaborate trappings of scholarship, to uphold a pro-British bias and the entente myth which mountains of objective historical evidence had discredited.”21
The outbreak of the Second World War altered the debate over the First.  On the one hand, clear German aggression in World War II was projected back to World War I, reinforcing the thesis of German war guilt.  On the other hand, the harsh treatment of Germany imposed by the Allies at Versailles was seen as a primary cause of the rise of Hitler and renewed militarism in Germany, implying a measure of shared responsibility once again.  According to the historian Warren I. Cohen, there are “respected foreign affairs specialists who believe that the rise of Hitler and the origins of World War II can be traced to the treatment accorded Germany at Versailles.”22  Something was learned from history after the Second World War, it seems, as the victors chose not to impose a vindictive peace settlement on the vanquished nations.  Instead, a selection of German and Japanese leaders were put on trial for war crimes.
The debate over German war guilt in the Great War became somewhat academic after World War II, as the greater harm done by Germany in the Second took precedent.  In Germany, militarism and the old order were discredited and the nation became genuinely devoted to a peaceful path in international relations (and still is).  Remorse for the war, as such, provided the catalyst for a beneficial change in collective values and policy.  In the U.S., in contrast, militarism and blind nationalism were largely viewed as problems unique to authoritarian governments – Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, then the Soviet Union – rather than as general afflictions affecting all the great powers.
During the Cold War, when Germany was divided and aligned with its former enemies, the political zeitgeist favored acknowledgment of the Germany’s past errors.  In 1961, Fritz Fischer of Hamburg University published Germany’s Aims in World War I, which focused on Germany’s imperial aspirations.  Fischer’s thesis validated charges of German aggression but not necessarily of sole war guilt, as Fischer did not examine the records of other belligerent powers.  Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, wrote Fischer, “occupied himself in the very first weeks of the war with the question of future extensions of Germany’s power.”  The chancellor’s main concern, expressed on September 5, 1914, was “that England should not in the end be in a position to deprive us of the fruits of victory over France and Russia.”  Germany engaged in a “colossal effort to weld continental ‘Mitteleuropa’ into a force which would place Germany on equal terms with the established and the potential world powers:  the British Empire, Russia and the United States.”23

In the U.S., popular interest in the Great War was rekindled by the publication of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962).  The book became a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.  Tuchman’s narrative reveals in exhausting detail the war plans of all the major nations, and explains how military logic and inflexible mobilization plans led to war.  The book influenced President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1963.  According to one source, “In the midst of the crisis, he told his brother Bobby:  ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.’”  General Maxwell Taylor recalled in his memoir how the book came up during his discussions with the president during the crisis:

An avid reader of history, Kennedy has been greatly impressed by Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which he often quoted as evidence that the generals are inclined to have a single solution in a crisis and thus tie the hands of the political leaders by leaving them with the choice between doing nothing and accepting an inflexible war plan.  As he read Tuchman’s book, it was the rigidity of the mobilization plans both of the Triple Alliance and of the Triple Entente which made it impossible for the diplomats to avert a world war in 1914.24

While Barbara Tuchman focused on the myopia and missteps of policy elites, Princeton University historian Arno Mayer approached the war through a broader lens of class conflict, intimating that the war was an attempt by the upper classes to sustain their positions and direct the bottom majority towards its goals.  His 1981 book, The Persistence of the Old Regime, draws on Lenin’s thesis to argue that the Great War reflected a counter-revolutionary drive by European elites to suspend the process of democratization and halt the rise of the masses.  Dedicating his book to the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, Mayer insisted that “the cult of war was an elite not a plebeian affair because there was no spontaneous claim for war among the presumably aggressive and bloodthirsty masses.”  He adds that “Darwinian and Nietzschean thought became immensely meaningful and valuable to the elites engaged in reaffirming their dominance.”  Influenced by Mayer, Jacques Pauwels’ book, The Great Class War, 1914-1918 (2016), argues that the war was a part of a “merciless imperialist struggle over sources of raw materials and markets,” one of whose main outcomes, ironically, was to produce “precisely the kind of revolution in Russia it was designed to prevent.”25

All in all, over the last half century, the mainstay of research on the origins of the Great War has centered on understanding the complex forces underpinning it, although the debate over war guilt has not entirely ended.  According to the historian Gordon Martel, in his 2017 study, Origins of the First World War, “Nationalism, militarism and imperialism are the most prominent of the ‘underlying’ causes of the war that historians have investigated in their attempts to go beneath the surface of the events that led to war in 1914.  Historians began assessing these factors even before the war ended, and they are assessing them still.”26

As the living memory of the Great War has receded, a number of historians have attempted to keep the shock and pathos of the war in view, lest the public forget the devastation it wrought.  Asked what is especially meaningful about the 100th anniversary of the Great War, Yale historian Jay Winter commented:

We see it as a global catastrophe, which opened the door to the Second World War and the Holocaust.  Hence, commemorating the Great War necessarily has a pacifist character.  No cause justified the slaughter of 10 million men and the mutilation of another 20 million.27

The noted English historian on the Great War, John Keegan, similarly testified to the war’s utter waste:

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.  Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.28

These honest and sobering portrayals of the war serve at least three useful purposes.  They counter popular war romanticism that shrouds warfare in tales of individual heroic deeds.  They challenge real politick analyses that downplay the human costs of war in favor of a narrow focus on national power advantage.  And they underlay explorations into possible peaceful alternatives and solutions to war, recognizing that such tragedies are avoidable, that better choices can be made.

U.S. intervention in the Great War

The question of whether it was necessary and just for the U.S. to enter the Great War did not receive a proper hearing after President Wilson opted for war in April 1917.  Almost immediately, laws were passed silencing contrary views.  Many historians and intellectuals joined the bandwagon of war propaganda, writing tracts for government agencies.  Such kowtowing to the state was decidedly unscholarly and some historians such as Carl Becker regretted it.  As history professor Jonathan F. Scott wrote in 1930:  “It was a sad revelation to see historians, many of whom had given courses in historical method, throw their scholarship overboard and lend themselves to the most unsubstantial anti-German propaganda.”29
Once the war ended and disillusionment over the results set in, the debate began.  According to the historian David Ekbladh, there was a “broad feeling in the United States that intervention in the conflict had been a mistake, a cause not worth repeating.”30  One of the first to contest Wilson’s decision for war was John Kenneth Turner, a journalist and friend of Robert La Follette, and ardent critic of the war.  In his 1922 book, Shall It Be Again?, Turner challenged every administration rationale.  “If we have been betrayed,” he wrote, “it is not sufficient merely to acknowledge the fact, but to determine how and why, in order that provision may be made against betrayal in the future.”  U.S. entry into the war, he argued, could neither be justified on the basis of self-defense nor on the basis of Wilson’s idealistic rationales.  He noted that it was absurd to think that the U.S. had gone to war to end imperialism when the United States itself practiced imperialism by invading Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and Russia.  Turner also reminded his readers that wartime repression had skewed the debate by forcing one side “to remain silent” while the other side’s views were amplified by a “vast propaganda apparatus.”31
The first historian to present a “revisionist” history of U.S. participation in the war was C. Hartley Grattan, who had been a student of Harry Elmer Barnes at Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  In Why We Fought (1929), Grattan analyzed the role of propaganda and economic interests in pushing the U.S. into war.  His study was followed by Walter Millis’s Road to War (1935) and Charles C. Tansill’s America Goes to War (1938).  “Taken together,” writes David Kennedy, these three books “composed a formidable brief that indicted the folly of America’s departure in 1917 from its historic policy [of neutrality] . . . The war had been fought, those authors argued not to make the world safe for democracy but to make it safe for Wall Street bankers and grasping arms manufacturers.”32  This economic critique was reinforced by F. C. Hanighen and H. C. Engelbrecht’s exposé of the arms industry in the March 1934 issue of Fortune magazine.  Their subsequent book, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry (1934), became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.33
Other notable revisionist works of the era include George Seldes’s Iron, Blood, and Profits: An Expose of the World-Wide Munitions Racket (1934), Charles A. Beard’s The Devil Theory of War: An Inquiry into the Nature of History and the Possibility of Keeping Out of War (1936), H. C. Peterson’s Propaganda and War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914-1917 (1939), and Harry Elmer Barnes’s essay, “The United States and the First World War” (1940).34  Charles Beard wrote that this revisionist literature combined with the Nye committee hearings in the Senate on the role of arms manufacturers “disclosed the starkness of the ignorance that passed for knowledge and wisdom in those fateful days [1914-1918].  They make the files of the newspapers that reported and commented on events look like the scribblings of ten-year-old children, so far as the actualities behind the scenes were concerned.”35  The political influence of these “revisionist” works could be seen in the U.S. government’s adoption of neutrality laws, prohibiting arms sales to belligerent nations and factions, in the latter half of the 1930s.  A Gallup opinion poll in 1935 found that 70 percent of Americans believed that intervention in World War I had been a mistake.
Another set of studies that emerged following the Great War focused on peace activism:  Kirby Page, War: Its Causes, Consequences, and Cure (1923); Norman Thomas, The Conscientious Objector in America (1923) and War: No Glory, Nor Profit, No Need (1935); Marie L. Degen, The History of the Woman’s Peace Party (1939); and Emily Greene Balch, A Venture in Internationalism (1938).  All sought to establish the legitimacy of the peace persuasion, notwithstanding President Wilson’s dramatic reversal.36  Comprehensive historical accounts of the U.S. peace movement were later written by H. C. Peterson and Gilbert Fite in Opponents of the War, 1917-1918 (1957), and Michael Kazin in War Against the War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 (2017).  Notable later works on women’s peace activism during the great war include John C. Farrell’s Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams’ Ideas on Reform and Peace (1967), Allen F. Davis’s American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (1973), Frances H. Early’s A World Without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I (1997), and Kathleen Kennedy’s Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion During World War I (1999).
The experience of World War II changed the way most Americans viewed U.S. participation in World War I.  Most Americans judged that the second fight against Germany was essential and that the U.S. had no choice but to fight the Japanese after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  The Wilsonian idea that the U.S. must play a major role in the world and advance noble principles was revived with gusto in World War II.  The idea that the U.S. was dedicated to promoting “freedom and democracy” around the world hardened into an ideology during the Cold War.  It was projected backward as well as forward, making President Wilson look prescient.  In 1959, Ernest R. May’s The World War and American Intervention, 1914-1917 presented U.S. entry into the war more or less as Wilson presented it, as a morally justified response to German submarine attacks and a noble attempt to advance a new world order.  May’s work was echoed in the writings of Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson’s biographer, who, according to one of his students, studied Wilson’s career in such depth that he came to see the world exactly like Wilson.37  D. F. Fleming, in The Origins and Legacies of World War I (1968), similarly upheld Wilson’s cultivated image, presenting the president as sincerely committed to peace, resistant to the influence of arms manufacturers and financial interests, and ultimately forced into war by German submarine warfare and American public opinion.38
The debacle of the Vietnam War reignited critical questioning of U.S. foreign policies, past and present.  Authors such as Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko, Michael Parenti, William Appleman Williams, and Marilyn Young challenged not only official explanations of the Vietnam War but also investigated U.S. hegemonic aspirations and obfuscating rationales extending back for decades.39  More recent studies critically examining Wilson’s justifications for U.S. entry into the Great War can be found in Thomas Fleming’s The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (2003), Burton Yale Pines’s America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One (2013), Ross Kennedy’s The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security (2009), Robert Tucker’s Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914-1917 (2015), and Robert Hannigan’s The Great War and American Foreign Policy (2017).40  Hannigan argues that historians should be more diligent in examining the gap between Wilson’s rhetoric and policies, and should not assume without evidence that Wilson was committed to peace, democracy, and self-determination.41
Other studies have continued to uphold Wilson’s justifications for entering the war.  Gary Mead, in a 2000 book on American doughboys, asserts that France, Britain, and the U.S. were “morally and politically correct to oppose German aggression.”  He also affirms the assessment of Major General Hugh Drum that it was “the preponderance of American manpower – and nothing else that brought Germany to her knees on November, 11, 1918.”42  University of Virginia Professor Edward G. Lengel in his 2008 study of the Meuse Argonne battle, To Conquer Hell (2008), describes Wilson as “peace loving,” leaving out the whole back story of the Wilson administration’s angling for global influence at the price of war.43  In 2011, Justus Doenecke, a University of South Florida emeritus history professor, published Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry Into World War I, which concludes that “in the end, it was Germany that forced the administration’s hand, doing so at a moment when relations with Berlin were improving and those with London were growing worse.  When the U-boats began sinking American vessels without rescuing their crews, Wilson had run out of options.”  There were, in fact, other options, but Wilson chose to keep sending supplies to Britain on U.S. ships, thus ensuring that the U.S. would be “forced” into the war.44
Some U.S. historians have depicted Wilson as a visionary and credited him with “reshaping international relations in the 20th century (Akira Irye), “defining the American mission,” (Tony Smith) and laying the seeds for a liberal international order that triumphed over communism (Thomas J. Knock, John Milton Cooper).  Henry Kissinger, in his book, World Order (2015), referred to Wilson as a “prophet” whose “greatness must be measured by the degree to which he rallied the tradition of American exceptionalism” and “harnessed American idealism” in the service of “great foreign policy undertakings.”45  John Milton Cooper claims that Wilson “shortened the war by months and thereby helped save perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, avoiding the massive destruction that an invasion of Germany and ‘fight to the finish’ would bring.”46  Wilson comes across as a great hero in these celebratory nationalist accounts.
The U.S. Office of the Historian in the State Department introduces the issue of U.S. entry into the Great War by acknowledging the controversy over interpretations, writing on its website that the “precise reasons for Wilson’s decision to choose war in 1917 remain the subject of debate among historians.”  Yet its own selection of facts, events, and arguments all support Wilson’s claims only, with no counterpoint arguments or contrary evidence.  This type of presentation is unfortunately all too common in American history textbooks, where official reasons for actions are stated but not interrogated, and no alternative frameworks are offered.  It also prevails at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.47
President Barack Obama, who invaded Libya and expanded the drone war ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, that during the First World War, President Wilson “avoided American involvement until the repeated sinking of American vessels by German U-boats and the imminent collapse of the European continent made neutrality untenable. . . . When the war was over, America had emerged as the world’s dominant power whose prosperity Wilson now understood to be linked to peace and prosperity in faraway lands.”48
To be “the world’s dominant power” was exactly what the most fervent German militarists sought in the Great War and what the British actually achieved at the turn of the 20th century.  When this phrase is applied to the United States by U.S. leaders, however, it reflexively becomes benign – a reflection of Wilsonian idealism in which America, unique among the nations, wields power not for “selfish” reasons but for the good of the world.  The diplomatic historian Frank Ninkovich proclaimed the current era not just the American century but “the Wilsonian century.”49  To deconstruct Wilsonian idealism and rhetoric, as such, is to probe justifications for America’s hegemonic and militaristic role in the world today.


[1] For an excellent annotated bibliography of books on U.S. participation in World War One, including domestic movements, see Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), pp. 349-67.  See also, Andrew M. Johnston, “The Historiography of American Intervention in the First World War,” Passport (Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review), Vol. 45, No. 1 (April 2014): 22-29.

[2] Selig Adler, “The War-Guilt Question and American Disillusionment, 1918-1928.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 23, no. 1, 1951: 1–28.

[3] Quoted in Harry E. Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War Guilt Myth (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles Publishers, 1972), 40.

[4] Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice, 161.

[5] Frederick A. Hale, “Fritz Fischer and the Historiography of World War I,” The History Teacher, 9, 2 (February 1976), 275.

[6] See William Neumann, foreword, in Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice: DeBunking the War Guilt Myth, iii-v.  For an succinct overview of Fay’s main conclusions regarding responsibility for the war, drawn from his study, The Origins of The World War, Volume 2 (1930), see “The Origins of the World War (excerpts),”

[7] “Revisionism – World war I revisionism,”

[8] Harry E. Barnes, The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt, rev ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929), 231.  Barnes interestingly refuted the view that the outbreak of the Great War was the inevitable outcome of the European system of international anarchy and conflicting alliances, as he said that dangerous as it was, this system existed for over 40 years without a major war. In his view, it was “unquestionably the specific personalities and policies of 1914 which produced the great cataclysm.”

[9] Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice; Barnes, The Genesis of the World War.

[10] Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice.

[11] Adler, “The War-Guilt Question and American Disillusionment, 1918-1928,” 14.

[12] Sidney Bradshaw Fay, The Origins of the World War, two volumes, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1928; and Charles F. Howlett and Ian M. Harris, Books Not Bombs: Teaching Peace Since the Dawn of the Republic (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 128.

[13] C. C. Eckhardt, “Review of The Origins of the World War by Sidney Bradshaw Fay,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (June, 1929), 95-98.

[14] Preston Slosson, “Review of The Origins of the World War by Sidney Bradshaw Fay,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 1929), 337.

[15] Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” written January-June, 1916; first published in mid-1917 in pamphlet form, Petrograd, available online:

[16] Alpha World War I Historiography,

[17] Herman Lutz, Lord Gray and the World War (London: Kesinger, 2004, rev ed.), 223-24; online:

[18] Modris Eksteins, “All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 2, (April 1980), 353.

[19] Herwig, Holger H. “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War.” International Security, vol. 12, no. 2, 1987, 32.

[20] Bernadotte E. Schmitt, The Coming of War: 1914 (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1930).

[21] M.H. Cochran, Germany Not Guilty in 1914, with a new foreword by Harry E. Barnes (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles Publishing, 1972); Gerry Docherty and Jim MacGregor, Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishers, 2013), 326.

[22] Howlett and Harris, Books Not Bombs, 132.  See also, Hew Strachan, The Outbreak of the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.

[23] Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in World War I (New York: Norton, 1961; English translation 1967), xxi, 98, online:,+Fritz+-+Germany%E2%80%99s+Aims+in+the+First+World+War_djvu.txt; and Frederick A. Hale, “Fritz Fischer and the Historiography of World War I,” The History Teacher, 9, 2 (February 1976), 258-279. For a cogent summary of German war aims, based on Fischer’s analysis, see D. F. Fleming, The Origins and Legacies of World War I (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 185-92.

[24] “How Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August influenced decision making during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” March 19, 2012, Reader’s Almanac: The Official blog of The Library of America,

[25] Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1891); Jacques Pauwels, The Great Class War, 1914-1918 (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 2017).

[26] Gordon Martel, Origins of the First World War (London and New York: Routledge, 2017, 4th ed.), 8. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) places primacy for the war’s origins on Russia, not Austria-Hungary or Germany. Gerry Docherty and Jim McGregor, in Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War: How the Anglo-American Establishment Deliberately Extended World War I for Three-and-a-Half Years (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2018), have revived the Barnes thesis with vehemence. They claim to expose a century of “propaganda, lies and brainwashing about World War I,” arguing that Russia fanned the flames of Balkan nationalism and secretly supported the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and mobilized on Germany’s border in a de-facto act of war with France against Germany. [Note: Both France and Russia had plans for a military invasion of Germany, but these were predicated on an initial German attack or declaration of war.] Goading France and Russia, the authors assert, were the British elite, led by the arch-imperialist Lord Alfred Milner and the Rothschild banking establishment, who were the puppet masters behind the scenes. Pointing to the secret destruction and ferreting of documents in order to cover up the truth, the authors conclude that “it was a small, socially advantaged group of self-styled English race patriots backed by powerful industrialists and financiers in Britain and the United States who caused World War I.”

[27] Bess Connolly Martell, “Yale Remembers World War I: Historian Jay Winter on the conflict’s centennial,” Yale News, August 4, 2014, See also, Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[28] John Keegan, “The First World War,” 1999,

[29] Jonathan F. Scott, “Why We Fought,” Current History, March 1930, 1056.

[30] David Ekblach, “Introduction: Legacies of World War I Commemorative Issue,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 38 , No. 4 (September 2014), 697.

[31] John Kenneth Turner, Shall It Be Again? (New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc., 1922), 1-2.

[32] David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 387-88.  C. Hartley Grattan, Why We Fought (New York: Vanguard Press, 1929); Walter Millis, Road to War, 1914-1917 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1935); and Charles C. Tansill, America Goes to War (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1938).

[33] H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry (New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1934).

[34] George Seldes, Iron, Blood, and Profits: An Expose of the World-Wide Munitions Racket (New York: Harper & brothers, 1934); Charles A. Beard, The Devil Theory of War: An Inquiry into the Nature of History and the Possibility of Keeping Out of War (New York: Vanguard, 1936); H. C. Peterson, Propaganda and War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914-1917 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939); and Harry Elmer Barnes, “The United States and the First World War,” in Willard Waller, ed., War in the Twentieth Century (New York: Dryden Press, 1940).

[35] Charles Beard, The Devil Theory of War: An Inquiry into the Nature of History and the Possibility of Keeping Out of War (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1936), 12-13.  For a counterpoint to the progressive critique, see D. F. Fleming, “Our Entry into the World War in 1917: The Revised Version,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 1940): 75-86.

[36] See Charles F. Howlett, “Peace History: The Field and the Sources, “ OAH (Organization of American Historians) Magazine of History, Vol. 8, No. 3: 26-32.

[37] Ernest R. May, The World War and American Intervention, 1914-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959); and Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and Peace (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 1963).

[38] Fleming, The Origins and Legacies of World War I, 214-29.

[39] See for example, Marilyn Blatt Young, The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901 (Harvard University Press, 1968); and Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969).

[40] Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Burton Yale Pines, America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One (New York: RSD Press, 2013); Ross Kennedy, The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009); and Robert E. Hannigan, The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-1924 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). On the wider context of U.S. foreign policy, see Lloyd C. Gardner, Safe for Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913-1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Robert Tucker, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914-1917 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); and Robert E. Hannigan, The New World Power: American Foreign Policy, 1898-1917 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

[41] Hannigan, The Great War and American Foreign Policy, xi-xii.

[42] Gary Mead, The Doughboys: America and the First World War (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 2000).

[43] Edward G. Lengel, To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne (New York: Henry Holt, 2008), 15. The late Robert Ferrell starts his study of Meuse-Argonne by calling Wilson a “peace loving man.” Robert Ferrell, America’s Deadliest Battle: Meusse-Argonne, 1918 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007), 1.

[44] Justus Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy and Peace (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

[45] Akira Irye, Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Vol. II: The Globalization of America, 1913-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (New York: 1991); John Milton Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World War and the Fight for the League of Nations (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Lloyd Ambrosius, Woodrow Wilson and American Internationalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Tony Smith, Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today (Princeton University Press, 2017); and Henry Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Books, 2015). Patricia O’Toole, in The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), does better in analyzing Wilson’s contradictions in racial matters, accepting more or less his “moral” critique of foreign policy.

[46] John Milton Cooper, “War Aims and Peace Discussions (USA),” 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War,

[47] “U.S. Entry into World War I, 1917,” Office of the Historian, The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City was built to honor Americans who fought and died in the war, not debate its causes. The museum contains a rich array of artifacts and informative displays.

[48] Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 282.

[49] Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).