[This review was published in the Winter 2003 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 497-501.  It is also Chap. 1 of the book America Challenged.]


Book Review


The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I

Thomas Fleming

Basic Books, 2003 


            As the title indicates, this book is more than a detailed scholarly history.  It is also a work of hard-hitting analysis.  Thomas Fleming has written an extended essay about American involvement in World War I that gives an informative factual account while also expressing a definite point of view.

            His perspective runs counter to the conventional wisdom that reveres Woodrow Wilson and counts him as among the best of American presidents.  In Fleming’s account, Wilson emerges as a man who, although deeply caring and confident, is uncompromising, vindictive, naïve, duplicitous, craving of fame, and utopian.

            Fleming has written more than twenty books.  These include several histories and biographies on a variety of subjects, as well as nine works of fiction.  When he writes about the “illusion” that the United States was a victor in World War I, however, he has something of a personal stake in the subject: his father, a sergeant in the 78th Division, received a battlefield commission when all the officers of his company were killed or wounded.

            The American intervention into World War I is arguably the most pivotal event of the twentieth century.  Before leading the country into war, Wilson, he says, first pursued a period of “sham neutrality” that applied a double standard to the British and Germans.  Fleming ponders what would have happened if the United States had followed a true neutrality that would not have provided abundant material support to the Allies.

            He concludes that “the war might have ended in 1916 with a negotiated peace based on the mutual admission that the conflict had become a stalemate.”   Had this occurred, the stage would have been set much differently for the rest of the century than it turned out to be.  Among countless other things, millions of lives would have been spared, Europe would not have depleted itself internally and on the world stage, the Treaty of Versailles with its aftermath of national socialism in Germany would not have come about, there would have been no Second World War, and Russia would not have fallen under the sway of the Marxism-Leninism that towered over the world for seventy-some years and itself took millions of lives.  Without Communism in Russia, it is doubtful that Mao would have conquered China and that the Korean and Vietnam wars would have come about.

            Some readers will be content to value the book merely as an excellent chronicle of the war years and of Wilson in the context of the politics and personalities of the time.  Its greater worth, however, lies in its analysis.  It has much to teach.

            In a final chapter summarizing his conclusions, Fleming comments about the messianic utopianism that we know today is central to the debate about the United States’ role in world affairs.  Fleming sees it as foolish and dangerous: “Idealism is not synonymous with sainthood or virtue.  It only sounds that way.  The most dangerous aspect of American idealism is its tendency to become utopian, to propose as ideals a foreign policy or political reforms or a world order that ignores the realities of the way men and women – and nations – live and prosper.”

            He then refers to “utopian derangements.”    This goes to the heart of the matter.  Much of the thrust of the book has been to show the vast extent to which the messianic outlook of the Wilson administration and, through it, of much of the American people was based on misinformation, disinformation, myth, and conceptual blindness.  The Illusion of Victory may be seen as a case study in the folly that seems so chronically a prime mover in much that humanity does.

            The derangement that Fleming speaks of is seen in the clichés that prevailed in Wilson’s thought: 

1. “Democracy.”  Wilson famously said “the world must be made safe for democracy,” which was to be accomplished by defeating the German threat.  There was, however, so consensus for “democracy” either in the world in general or among the major powers, as was evident at the time and was made clear during the decades that followed.   A similar, though arguably much worse, self-deception occurred later when the United States allied itself with Stalin in fighting Hitler, doing so in what seemed a moral crusade on behalf of all that is right.  Democracy dominated the rhetoric, but was divorced from the reality.

Fleming is correct in pointing out this illusion.  It is worth noting as an aside, however, that Senator LaFollette overstated it when, as paraphrased by Fleming, he asked: “Had the British shown the slightest interest in extending democracy to Ireland, to Egypt’s millions, to India’s hundreds of millions?”  This repeats some gross over-simplifications about Britain’s role in each of those places.  Egypt, as one example, was never a British colony.  It had existed for centuries under despotic and often brutal Turkish rule until 1885, when Britain intervened and made it in effect a British protectorate, still nominally under Ottoman rule. The with the outbreak of World War I, Britain deposed the Turkish rulers and administered it as a protectorate until 1922, when it obtained a measure of self-rule, achieving full self-government fourteen years later.  In this time period and these circumstances it was hardly Britain’s responsibility to transform Egypt into a working democracy. 

2.  “Militarism.”  Illusion again applies to the image of Germany under the Kaiser as unspeakably militaristic.  Fleming points out how during the Napoleonic era (a mere century before) it was France that had shown a “love of military glory and lust for conquest.”  Britain, not Germany, had the world’s largest fleet.  The “militarism” charge was reinforced by the Allies’ demonizing the Kaiser, who liked to dress up in military regalia, and whom they called “a megalomaniac with a hunger to rule the world,” as well as “the Mad Dog of Europe” the “the Beast of Berlin.”  Fleming points out how incongruous this was in light of the New York Times’ headline in 1913, just the year before World War I: “Kaiser, Twenty Five Years a Ruler, Hailed as Chief Peacemaker.”  Fleming says “the accompanying story called Wilhelm ‘the greatest factor for peace that our time can show.’”

3.Germany planned to dominate the world.”  In tandem with the “militarism” aspect, a central feature of Americans’ “war rage” was the image of Germany as a behemoth that was out to dominate the world.  Wilson wrote that “the object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government, which, having secretly planned a dominate the world….”  But in a speech in Saint Louis, Wilson later made what Fleming calls “a baffling remark” in total contradiction to the “domination” thesis:  “This was, in its inception, a commercial and industrial war.  It was not a political war.”

4.  Germany started the war.”  It was the claim of exclusive war guilt, solemnized within the Treaty of Versailles, that so greatly infuriated Germans and contributed to the anger that was manifest in Hitler’s national socialism.  Fleming calls it a “bizarre accusation.”  “No one claimed that the Germans had shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, nor that this murder… did not have a great deal to do with precipitating the conflict.  The war guilt clause pretended this central event never happened.”  The debates among historians since 1914 show that there is a great deal of complexity to the “war guilt” issue.  Germany’s culpability, as especially its “sole” culpability, is disputed by many of those who have studied the issue.

            5.  “Neutrality.”  Wilson railed against German submarine warfare and insisted  that Americans had a right to travel on British ships in the war zone.  But he did nothing effectual to protest the British blockade that so thoroughly choked off Germany’s supplies and created the desperate expedient of unrestricted submarine warfare to counter it.  Fleming says “Wilson talked – and talked and talked – about neutrality,” but that the United States evolved “into a branch of the British armament industry during the thirty-two months of its neutrality.”

6.  “Self-determination.”  Wilson’s naivete and idealistic over-simplification was perhaps best shown by his principle of “self-determination” that was included among his 14 Points.  Fleming says “the idea had opened a Pandora’s box that would be difficult if not impossible to close.  Albanian warlords, tribal chieftains from obscure valleys in the Caucusus and Carpathian mountains, would-be politicians from Armenia, the Ukraine and Bessarabia appeared… seeking redress and recognition.”  Needless to say, these examples barely scratch the surface.  As it turned out, the peace conference declared “mandates” that “handed over some 17 million people to the victorious Allies.”  “The British acquired Palestine and Iraq, and the French got Syria and Lebanon. What Wilson forgets, perhaps, is that there was little profit in these mandates (except, for a time, the opportunity to develop the oil wealth of Iraq, which investments were lost to Britain after that country was deemed ready to manage its own affairs), but considerable onerous and costly responsibilities, notably, in the case of Palestine, when Jewish refugees began to pour into that country from Europe following the Allied victory in World War II."

7.  “Open covenants, openly arrived at.”  Fleming said Wilson lied when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had not known of the other Allies’ secret treaties before he arrived in Europe for the peace conference.  And the “open covenants” principle was immediately shunted aside when “the press… found themselves barred from all sessions of the Council of Ten (the Big Five and their foreign ministers)” at the peace conference.

8.  “A war to end all wars.”  The irony of the claim to be ending all wars is shown by world history since 1919, but it is enough to point to the fact, as Fleming does, that in early 1919 “there were no less than fourteen small wars in progress in supposedly pacified Europe” as “armies began shooting at each other over disputed slices of territory.”

There is much, much more in Fleming’s account.  Although the book’s title speaks of “illusion” and Fleming refers to “derangement,” he does not bring out the points for separate discussion as we have done here.  He presents them, instead, as parts of a vast tapestry.  The history of World War I, its causes and consequences, is a matter of great importance about which all educated people would do well to reacquaint themselves.  Almost ninety years have passed since that war began, and we are hopefully better able by this time to take an objective look at it.

                                                                                                                                                                                    Dwight D. Murphey