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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/10509/the-why-of-world-war-i/

The Why of World War I

August 24, 2009 by

Whoever bore primary responsibility for the European war, one thing was immediately clear. No valid reason existed for the United States to become involved. To do so would fly in the face of the American tradition of noninvolvement in European power politics. Sentiment in the United States overwhelmingly opposed involvement, and President Wilson accordingly called for neutrality. FULL ARTICLE


DJF August 24, 2009 at 12:54 pm

One of the many crimes against liberty caused by WW1 was the takeover of the US railroads by the US government, the railroad industry at the time was the largest industry in the US at that time.

The reason given was that the railroads were failing in delivering vital war goods but much of the problem was caused by the government itself. It sent huge amounts of goods to mostly east coast ports virtually all of this shipping was given high priority orders issued by the government itself. There was not enough ships or warehouses to store the goods so they sat in the freight cars awaiting unloading. With the freight cars and railroad yards filled it was impossible for the railroads to operate.

So the US government took over the railroads, and as one of its first orders it rescinded many of the governments own priority shipping orders that had caused much of the problems. It also suspended government rules which had prevented the railroads from working together. So the success of government takeover was caused by the government ending practices that the government had itself imposed

Michael A. Clem August 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Since the seeds of WWII came out of the results of WWI, undermining the validity of WWI also undermines the validity of WWII. Better yet, it shows the unintended consequences of engaging in a ‘little evil’ with the purpose of stopping a ‘greater evil’.

David Gordon August 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm

In the review, I ought to have explained why the British blockade violated America’s rights as a neutral power. According to international law as generally understood in 1914, a country that established a blockade had the right to inspect ships of other powers for contraband. But the British radically expanded the scope of this right and attempted to shut off altogether trade with the Central Powers. Charles Tansill gives a classic account of this in America Goes to War. (I’m grateful to N.Joseph Potts for calling to my attention the need to clarify this point.)

Dennis August 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm

“True enough, the Germans encouraged Austria to deal decisively with Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But to accept a local conflict is not to will a European conflagration, and Germany’s policies were no more bellicose than those of the Entente powers.”

For example, I wonder how the British would have dealt with Ireland if an Irishman had assassinated a member of the British royal family, or how the French would have acted if an analogous act had been committed by an individual living in one of their colonial possessions. We already know how Belgium reacted a few years earlier when the Belgian Congo demanded its independence: war, with 8 million inhabitants of the Belgian Congo dead.

Anonymous August 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm

John Denson’s lecture “Six Months that Changed the World” is an excellent complement to this article. The second half of the lecture is shocking.


Vincent Cook August 24, 2009 at 8:37 pm

In 1913, an associate professor of history, Roland G. Rusher of Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a book, Pan Germanism, that claimed that the U.S. would become entangled in an “imminent” European war due to a secret “gentleman’s agreement” made in 1897. The alleged agreement, involving the U.S., Britain, and France, supposedly gave the U.S. a green light to move forward with its imperialistic ventures in Latin America and the Pacific in exchange for a promise to economically support Britain and France in the event of a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The war was indeed imminent, and America did in fact favor Britain and France in this manner once it broke out. Rusher also accurately predicted that on-going Balkan conflicts would provide the immediate occasion for the war’s outbreak.

Shortly after the war, Kaiser Wilhelm’s memoirs cited Rusher, but from what I have read Rusher seems to have been completely forgotten since then. Did any of the revisionists ever take note of him?

Peter August 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm

For example, I wonder how the British would have dealt with Ireland if an Irishman had assassinated a member of the British royal family

Mountbatten, for instance?

Walt D. August 24, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Michael A. Clem
So what you are saying is that WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler and WWII would not have occurred if they had had gun control in Serbia in 1914?

Michael A. Clem August 25, 2009 at 8:59 am

I don’t know about that, Walt, although gun control would also be a “little evil”, and may have caused other unintended results, but if U.S. the foreign policy response had been different, our history sure would have been different.

Dennis August 25, 2009 at 10:02 am

“For example, I wonder how the British would have dealt with Ireland if an Irishman had assassinated a member of the British royal family…

“Mountbatten, for instance?”

Interesting point. My initial comment was limited to the time frame around WWI.

P.M.Lawrence August 25, 2009 at 10:10 am

In that case, Dennis, you are not making a sound comparison. There would have been no international ramifications or repercussions, any more than if a Hungarian had assassinated the Archduke at Sarajevo.

Dennis August 25, 2009 at 1:54 pm

The British did handled things differently in 1979.

However, the initial posting by Mr. Gordon involves, among other issues, the assignment of guilt for the outbreak of WWI, and my first comment addressed that issue. I hold to my view that any of the major powers in 1914 likely would have handled the assassination of a member of the royal family in much the same way as the Austrians did.

Vincent Cook August 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

As a follow-up to my previous message, there was a typo–the author of Pan Germanism is Roland G. Usher. The book can be found on-line here; with the description of the agreement beginning on page 139.

Matt H. August 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Pat Buchanan’s “Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War” is a great insight into diplomatic failures by all powers and over-extension by Great Britian prior to both world wars. His critique of Winston Churchill in particular is excellent. One of the sources on which Buchanan relies is Robert K. Massie’s “Castles of Steel”, which I also highly recommend.

I may have to re-read “Unnecessary War”, but I believe Buchanan gave very little attention to the issue of how the U.S. became involved in the Great War. On the other hand, Massie devoted a chapter to it and really showed it to be a complex, difficult issue. David Gordon’s statement, “no valid reason existed for the United States to become involved,” must be an oversimplification.

Among the Ron Paul / Lew Rockwell crowd, no president has as bad a name as Woodrow Wilson. But we have to be careful not to over-simplify his legacy in a “cartoon history” sort of way. The reality of the man, according to Massie, was that he was dedicated to the U.S. principal of not getting involved in others’ wars.

Nevertheless, the reality of WWI was that Germany was at a geographic disadvantage compared to Great Britian. Germany’s only hope in overcoming that disadvantage lay in the U-Boat, which for tactical reasons committed forced them to commit far greater hostilities towards neutral countries, the U.S. in particular, than Great Britain. Yes, it is true, Great Britain was starving Germany, but blockade was as a legitimate act of war. Merchant ships destined for Germany were stopped, inspected, and much cargo was confiscated. But the merchants themselves and traveling passengers were not killed and many were in fact compensated for their losses.

Not so with the U-Boats. Before the U.S. joined the war, Germany had been sinking U.S. merchant ships and had killed many U.S. citizens. True, we all now know that Lucitania was in fact a legitimate target, but that ship was sunk years before the U.S. entered the war anyway and was hardly the only case of U-Boats antagonizing the U.S.

What was Wilson to do? What would Ron Paul, dedicated as he is to non-intervention, have done? Should the whole of the North Sea have been declared by the President to be a war zone with instructions that U.S. citizens may enter only at their own risk?

When Ron Paul tries to distance himself from outright isolationists, he often says, “we should still trade with others, still travel to other countries,” but how could this be possible if an entire corner of the planet was written off as too hazardous? I don’t see how WWI could have been dealt with in any other ways than either complete isolationism or eventual engagement. The middle ground of Paulian “non-intervention” seems to meet its limits in consideration of that conflict.

Nick August 25, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Ah yes – WWI… it also brought us one of the most famous (and most often misquoted by statist idiots) tidbit from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr in Schenk vs. United States…

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater…”

Whenever I hear someone misquote it, or use it out of context – which is 99.999 percent of the time, I want to kick them in the balls.

newson August 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm

to matt h:
it’s hard to see how wilson would fit into any non-entanglement category. he merits his cartoon-caricature-status for all other progressive-era programmes he presided over. BAD, BAD. some people don’t deserve shades of grey.

Matt H. August 26, 2009 at 8:54 am


The question remains, “what would a Paulian non-intervention answer to the U-Boat crisis have been?”

The best I can come up with is something along the lines of what I suggested in my original post. Basically, American citizens / merchants would have proceeded into the North Sea at their own risk. The U.S. might have declared it a “war zone” in which casualties inflicted on her citizens would not be avenged militarily.

But such a policy would surely have resulted in complete isolation of the U.S. from economies of the North Sea. Perhaps, in a time of war, this would have been acceptable. But some down side must be admitted in that case.

Of course, another possibility is that the proceed-at-your-own-risk policy might have produced a burgeoning new industry in private maritime defenses. In fact, a question worth exploring is whether defeat of the U-Boats, if left to the ingenuity of private enterprise, might have been more effective and occurred earlier in the war. One problem could have been the incompatibility of private maritime defenses with International Law, but of course I know most readers of this post would readily dismiss International Law anyway.

Dennis August 26, 2009 at 1:58 pm

One can reasonably argue that the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare served as a convenient excuse for Wilson and his supporters, who in action, as opposed to rhetoric, firmly supported the Allies from the war’s beginning, conveniently overlooking or severely downplaying Allied infringements on the rights of neutrals. In addition, the much greater magnitude of money that was lent to the Allies, compared to the Central powers, by politically powerful Northeastern financial interests had a considerable influence on U.S. policy. We need to look through the rhetoric and follow the money.

As Mr. Gordon advises, read Professor Raico’s outstanding “World War I: The Turning Point” in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, edited by John V. Denson, Second Expanded Edition. This piece is arguably the best essay length introduction to U.S. involvement in WWI.

Vincent Cook August 26, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Matt H. wrote:

Yes, it is true, Great Britain was starving Germany, but blockade was as a legitimate act of war. Merchant ships destined for Germany were stopped, inspected, and much cargo was confiscated. But the merchants themselves and traveling passengers were not killed and many were in fact compensated for their losses.

Assuming by legitimate you mean international law of the time, the British were clearly in violation of the London Declaration of 1909, which provided that blockades must not extend beyond the ports and coasts belonging to or occupied by an enemy (article I), the blockading forces must not bar access to neutral ports and coasts (article XVIII), and must not treat certain items as contraband (article XXVIII).

Moreover, libertarian ethics goes well beyond international law in restraining blockades, notably in opposing the practice of declaring foodstuffs to be conditional contraband. Starving a civilian population is never “legitimate” from a libertarian point of view.

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