Above Photo: Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919: left to right, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando; French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Edward N. Jackson, U.S. Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons.
With an eye on the urgent need to end the killing and destruction in Ukraine, Helena Cobban spotlights the diplomatic failures surrounding the First World War and an opportunity Woodrow Wilson missed.
For many years, countries around the world marked Nov. 11 as Armistice Day, commemorating the date in 1918 on which the horrors and destruction of World War I were finally brought to an end. In many countries, that remembrance bore a strong anti-war message.
Today, as the killing and destruction multiply in Ukraine, we should look at some of the key lessons that can be gleaned from the record of that war.
Crucially, a recent book by historian Philip Zelikow unearths the previously almost unknown history of a mediation effort that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson undertook, at the request of the leaders of both sides, between August 1916 and January 1917.
Wilson and his British, French and German interlocutors were all serious about that effort. But after January 1917 it unraveled, and three months later Wilson abandoned U.S. neutrality and joined the war on the Allied side.
Many of the most deadly battles of the war were fought in the 22 months after Wilson’s mediation effort collapsed. The Battle of Ypres saw 857,000 casualties in 1917. In 1918, two other battlefields each saw casualties greater than 1.5 million.
The horror of those WW I battlefields was captured by writer-combatants like British poet Wilfred Owen, or the German memoirist Erich Maria Remarque. (Netflix has just released a new movie version of Remarque’s classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. It is the first ever made by a German film-maker and it is certainly worth watching.)
Zelikow’s book is titled The Road Less Traveled: The secret Battle to End the Great War 1916-1917. The allusion he makes to Robert Frost’s famous poem prompts us to imagine how different the history of Europe and the world would likely have been, had Wilson’s 1916-1917 mediation effort succeeded.
As it was, the continuation of the war beyond January 1917 and the super-punitive way it was finally brought to an end in 1918 had a massive impact on the entire history of the 20th century.
In Russia, outrage over the terrible losses the country’s armies had taken in their large-scale battles against Germany spilled over in March 1917, forcing the tsar to abdicate. That October, the Bolsheviks rode the antiwar wave to power in Moscow … and they retained their hold there for more than 70 years.
In November 1918, the Armistice (ceasefire) that we remember today did succeed in ending the fighting. But the Treaty of Versailles the victorious Allies pushed through the following year, which aimed at anchoring the final peace by resolving all outstanding issues, did nothing of the kind.
The terms that the Allies were able to, and did, impose on Germany reduced the country to penury and incubated the bitter, irredentist forces of Nazism that then arose.
The arrogant triumphalism the Allies embodied at Versailles led within two short decades to the horrors of World War II.
In 1945, U.S. intervention in an originally intra-European war once again allowed a clear Allied victory. But this time, Washington’s leaders were much more clear-headed and forward-looking in the way they treated the defeated countries than they had been in 1919.
It turns out that ending a war “successfully” and sustainably calls for as much wisdom as any other major task in statecraft.
So what lessons can we take today from that record of World War I and the way it was ended? The main lessons, I think, are these:
- Even (especially) in the height of a conflict, every effort should be made to explore the possibilities for a ceasefire on the ground and the opening of negotiations for a deeper peace.
In his opening chapter, Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian, notes that in 1916, when the leaders of Britain, France and Germany asked Wilson to mediate a ceasefire, they all still insisted on doing so in secret. They were afraid that if they were seen reaching for diplomacy they might undercut the fighting spirit of their forces on the ground.
By that time, two years into the war, the publics in all the fighting countries had become convinced that their side’s fight was truly existential in nature. (Sound familiar?)
Nonetheless, in 1916 those leaders realized they had no easy or clear path to victory, and were eager to seriously explore a negotiated solution. Had they succeeded then, how different — almost certainly, how much better for humanity — the history of the world would have been.
In Ukraine today, it is hard to identify which third party might play the trusted mediator role that the European leaders asked Washington to play in 1916. But there are several possible candidates, including some of the (non-Russian) BRICS countries, Turkey and the United Nations.
- When planning for the deeper peace, generosity and breadth of vision will be far more effective over the long term than single-minded pursuit of a desire to punish.
Political elites in the United States love the idea of punishing leaders they see as miscreants around the world (though our own leaders who invaded Iraq in clear defiance of international law have never been held to account.) The idea of “punishing Putin” is widely popular in the West — as was the idea of “punishing Kaiser Wilhelm” on the Allied side, in World War I.
As it transpired, in October 1918 Wilson openly called for the overthrow of Wilhelm. Many areas of Germany then saw popular uprisings and mutinies; and in early November the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.
The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that he be punished for German’s violation of previous treaties. But the Dutch refused to extradite him, and the Allies retained the harsh countrywide sanctions on Germany that provided fertile ground for the rise of Nazism.
In Russia today, Putin retains much more domestic support than Wilhelm had in 1918. He also has a large nuclear arsenal. Distasteful though it might seem to some, it is far better to negotiate a sustainable and forward-looking peace with Putin than it would be to continue seeking his punishment.
The alternative would be countless more months, or years, of war in Ukraine and a multiplication of the harms that war has already imposed on the most vulnerable communities around the world.
In a world facing the possibility of nuclear war, it is more urgent than ever to find a way to end the war in Ukraine.