- - Monday, April 5, 2021

Did Woodrow Wilson commit the “most consequential diplomatic failure in the history of the United States,” a failure so dismal it led to unnecessary American involvement in the First World War and an Allied victory that imposed an unjust, and short-lived, peace?

The answer is yes, according to a University of Virginia historian who argues Wilson blundered away a chance to bring the Great War to a negotiated end in 1916, long before the first Doughboys stepped foot in Europe.

Philip Zelikow, a former diplomat who worked in five presidential administrations, wants us to fundamentally reassess the reasons why the U.S. entered the war in April 1917. For the past century, the common understanding has been that the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as the outrage caused by the exposure of the Zimmerman telegram, forced Wilson to seek a war declaration from Congress.

But that is only part of the story, said Zelikow in the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast. 

The rest of the story has largely been ignored or overlooked: Germany, led by their chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and with the approval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, had spent months secretly imploring Wilson to publicly call for a peace conference, for which the Germans would agree in advance to retreat their armies from Belgium, among other important concessions.

“Germans only adopted the U-boat war because their peace move had failed, the peace move they had been negotiating for five months… at the same time the British were trying to get out of the war,” said Zelikow of the secret diplomatic moves and internal debates.

In his new book, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917, Zelikow documents the German civilian leadership’s efforts to bring about a peace conference in the face of military pressure to fight to the end.

At the same time, the British cabinet was locked in months of debates about how to escape the war. The British dilemma was made more urgent after the costly summer offensives of 1916, including the epic bloodbath at the Somme, which produced little progress on the Western Front but millions more casualties on all sides.

Armed with solid information about both the German willingness to talk peace and the precarious Allied finances that imperiled their entire war effort, President Wilson emerged from his 1916 re-election victory with an opportunity to change the course of history for the better, Zelikow said.
Instead, he flubbed it because he had poor advisers and, as Zelikow writes, “he thought he could figure it out on his own, borrowing ideas from newspapers and magazines, without any real study of diplomacy…”

By the time Wilson offered his public call for peace, the German military leadership had convinced the Kaiser to abandon all restraint in the U-boat war, infuriating Wilson who believed he had been betrayed, when in fact it was the American president who vacillated and dithered at the critical moments.

“This is the turning point of the war,” Zelikow said in the podcast. “This is the turning point of world history, because if you end the war at this stage, with the leaders trying to get out of it, there’s no Bolshevik takeover in Russia.” 

Indeed, the rest of the 20th century may have gone much differently had the First World War ended two years sooner than it actually did, in late 1918. The potential implications for humanity are almost too much to consider. 

“These issues of how to solve giant problems without blowing things up, are eternal issues,” said Zelikow. reflecting on the giant missed opportunity of 1916.

Studying how close the world came to ending the worst war ever (at least until the Second World War) should serve as inspiration for modern-day diplomats, he said.

“It inspires you and informs you on how to approach the problem-solving of our own age.”

For more on Philip Zelikow’s insights into the First World War and why it matters now, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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