Daniel Herman

Daniel Herman

Perhaps you’ve visited “fauxhenge,” the Stonehenge replica that magnate James Hill erected overlooking the Columbia. Hill intended the monument to be a statement against war, or at least one particular war: WWI. The idea was to show that Americans sacrifice humans to false gods no less than did their ancestors (in Hill’s time, scholars believed Druids had practiced human sacrifice).

Somewhere along the line, a plaque got added that reversed the anti-war message. According to the plaque, Hill built the monument with the hope that future Americans — like the fallen in WWI — would “burn with the fire of patriotism (that) death can alone quench.” The plaque demands human sacrifice.

So: was defeating the Central Powers in WWI worth dying for?

Let’s start with numbers. The war claimed 10 million lives, including 133,000 Americans. Countless more were crippled or maimed. Did their sacrifice make the world better? Did either side even “win”?

Prior to 1917, the war was a hideous stalemate. American entry allowed the Entente to force Germany into negotiations. Though President Wilson sought a treaty that would end all wars, the result was precisely opposite. Entente leaders largely ignored him, choosing instead to force Germany to accept blame and pay massive reparations. The reparations—with the war—destroyed Germany’s economy and created a hothouse for Nazism. Hitler came to power by damning the Versailles Treaty, along with Jews, socialists (real ones, which Nazis weren’t), and communists.

One world war led to another, which cost 75 million additional lives.

So why did President Wilson get involved in the first place?

The initial casus belli was the sinking of the Lusitania by a German sub in 1915. The Lusitania carried American passengers. It also carried arms for Britain, which — as Germany claimed — violated American neutrality. The U.S. denied it, but divers later proved Germany right.

In 1917 came two more seismic events: Germany resumed “unrestricted submarine warfare” (having halted the practice); and British agents intercepted the so-called “Zimmerman Telegram,” in which Germany promised to restore the U.S. Southwest to Mexico in exchange for alliance.

Amid the furor, the press downplayed the fact that Britain itself was killing civilians (700,000 in total) by blockading German ports. Germany countered with submarine warfare, which killed civilians in far fewer numbers. The press also largely ignored the fact that the Entente — like Germany — was bribing European nations to join by promising to restore lost territories. Such offers were standard practice in European wars.

Even so, a chunk of the U.S. opposed entry, particularly socialists, German-Americans, and Irish-Americans, who rightly argued that Britain was fighting to save its empire. To counter naysayers, Wilson constructed a propaganda machine. Germans became barbaric, ape-like “Huns” who — in posters — abducted half-naked women and strode across the Atlantic, club in hand.

What followed was hysterical patriotism. German-Americans found themselves forced to kneel in theaters and kiss the flag. Many were beaten; one was lynched. Thousands accused of dodging the draft or even opposing it found themselves jailed. In Washington state, teachers who opposed the war were summarily fired.

To fight his “war for democracy,” Wilson had to grab democracy and give it a choking. He restricted free speech and assembly; turned ordinary Americans into persecutors; and, through the draft, sent tens of thousands of Americans to miserable deaths.

What Wilson destroyed — apart from Germany — was the progressive movement he had championed. Its broad goals were to curb monopolies; improve workers’ lives; and create old-age pensions. (Similar movements were ascendant in Europe, where socialists had made inroads against aristocratic elites.) War hysteria, however, spawned a nativist, anti-radical fury that handed Republicans the presidency; rolled back progressive gains; and triggered the 1920 Red Scare.

Hill was right: in worshiping war, Americans — including renowned progressives like Ida Tarbell and W.E.B. DuBois — worshipped a false god. WWI showed that fury against an enemy is easily unleashed, and that progressives are no more immune than others. Fury reduces complexity to “good” and “evil.” Our press perpetually insists that the U.S. fights for human rights and decency, yet our efforts can produce the opposite, whether in 1917 Europe, 1960s Vietnam, 2003 Iraq, 2011 Libya, or 2013 Syria … or potentially Iran and Ukraine.

Don’t fall for it.

Daniel Herman is a history professor at Central Washington University. Left and Right is a column provided by CWU professors to represent a variety of political viewpoints.


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