- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

The world is still struggling to escape from the shadow of the Great War that began 100 years ago this year and produced the bloodiest century in recorded human history. The conflagration destroyed the old order in Europe, along with a generation of young Brits, French, Germans and Russians, gave birth to Bolshevism in Russia, led to the collapse of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, and set the stage for the rise of Nazism in Germany and the Second World War, the Cold War and the struggles in which we find ourselves enmeshed today.

As the centenary approaches, book after new book is analyzing the causes of the war and arguing over the apportionment of blame. Most analysts continue to heap much of the blame on Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and the entangling system of alliances and technology that created a momentum of their own in the days after teenaged assassin Gavril Princip fatally shot Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo.

The United States was a bystander as the first shots were fired, but as the war dragged on, this country’s involvement deepened, was crucial to the outcome and shaped a peace that turned out to be something else entirely. President Woodrow Wilson’s obstinacy, naivete in dealing with international problems and bumbling misled and allowed the winners to change the world in ways that continue to cost U.S. taxpayers in treasure and blood.

Edward House of Austin, Texas, is as responsible as anyone.

Col. House was his generation’s Karl Rove. House was a native-born Texas who had gone off to college at Cornell, but he dropped out and returned to Austin, where he elected and advised several governors, including one who made him an honorary “colonel.” By 1910, the Colonel began to look beyond Texas, moved to Manhattan and befriended Wilson, a Princetonian just elected New Jersey governor. Impressed by Wilson, House decided to make him president and succeeded in 1912, thanks to a divided Republican Party. During the Wilson presidency, House actually moved into the White House with his boss and lived there.

Wilson and House were among our first “Progressives” and were intent upon fundamentally changing the country. Wilson was the first president to attack the Constitution. He preferred a parliamentary government and thought the Founders’ reliance on a separation of powers and on checks and balances unduly restrained the power a president ought to be able to wield on behalf of the people. House was even more forthcoming. He had authored “Philip Dru: Administrator,” a horribly written novel in which the title character leads a civil war against the entrenched financial interests of the East and emerges as a dictator who sought, as the author put it, to establish “socialism as dreamed of by Karl Marx.”

Both men hoped war in Europe could be avoided, and when it broke out, they hoped the United States would not have to intervene. House quickly decided, however, America’s participation was inevitable and privately assured the British that a precipitating event or crisis would persuade Wilson, who obstinately refused to abandon neutrality, and the American public that Germany and her allies had to be defeated to “make the world safe for democracy.”

This did not stop House from cynically designing and running a 1916 Wilson re-election campaign based on the theme “He kept us out of war.” while working within the White House to persuade his friend that America had to jump in to save Britain and her allies in what he characterized as a “war to end wars.”

House prevailed, and Wilson vowed victory over the forces of darkness at home and abroad, organizing and mobilizing the domestic economy to serve the war effort, squelching dissent and vowing to remake the world after the inevitable victory of the righteous based on the “Fourteen Points” assembled for him by House. They included the promises of democracy, self-determination, an end to colonialism, the formation of something Wilson called a “League of Nations” to prevent future wars, and peace without retribution that inspired Europe and the Middle East while persuading a reluctant Germany and the Central Powers to surrender rather than fight to the death.

Wilson dispatched House to Versailles to advance this idealistic but unrealistic agenda, and House quickly discovered that the men and nations with which he was dealing were all about power, revenge and greed. He fell in with them and found himself enjoying the power of redrawing the map of the world even at the expense of the promises of freedom and self-determination. Artificial boundaries created national entities without reference to who lived where — from the Balkans to the remains of the Ottoman Empire — leading directly to the creation of nations such as Iraq.

When it was over and Germany was saddled with a peace that would lead directly to Adolf Hitler and Buchenwald, House returned to a furious Wilson, who had hoped his agenda rather than those of old-guard Europeans would be imposed on the postwar world. House lost favor, Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations was defeated, and the seeds of another world war and never-ending strife in the Middle East were sown. The surprise is not that the boundaries drawn up by the British, French and House are collapsing, but that they survived to remain intact almost 100 years in nations where ethnic and religious divisions led to the subjugation of one group or another.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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