World War I and American Neutrality
By the time that World War I erupted in 1914, it was seemingly inevitable, and most European powers were expecting a military conflict at this time. This came due to the rising international tension in Europe, both regional and broad. For years prior to the war, European countries adopted militarism ideologies, greatly building up militaries fueled by technological progress at the time. Germany, in particular, was focused on building its navy to defend against Britain and land forces to protect against France.
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In light of these tensions, countries both big and small began to create a web of alliances and treaties which would ensure in case an ally was to be attacked, others would step in. When the war began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, it was Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, both relatively small European nations, but because of the interlocking alliances Germany, Britain, France, and Russia were pulled in. It was difficult to avoid this considering that many countries had issues of historical nature or land ownership with their neighbors due to imperialism, to which the war seemed like a logical response (Mulligan, 2017).
Technically, the U.S. could have maintained its neutrality for the duration of World War I, but it was highly unlikely due to aggressive German actions. The United States was never directly attacked, and if it maintained a truly neutral status of selling to both the Allies and the Central Power, it was theoretically possible to stay neutral. However, German attacks its unrestricted submarine warfare, disregard to warnings by the American government, and attempts to instigate an alliance against the United States with Mexico were indirect acts of aggression against the United States which leadership could not ignore as U.S. citizens, safety, and the core of democracy was threatened (Dyer, 2005).
One of the premises for the U.S. entry into the war was to support democracy, and from a historical perspective, it played a large role in saving the democratic order. Central powers led by Germany were largely authoritarian and sought to establish this domination throughout the continent. Already annexing large amounts of territory, German victory in Europe would have created a neo-Napoleonic state ruled by an authoritarian leadership of the Kaiser. American entry into the war joining the Allies preserved global democratic norms and produced liberal international cooperation in the form of the League of Nations.
The Treaty of Versailles was not effective in establishing long-term peace. In the words of Ferdinand Foch, it was “not a peace treaty, merely an armistice for 20 years” which was prophetic. The Treaty of Versailles was a vindictive peace treaty which was meant to humiliate, suppress, and devastate Germany, its people, and its economy. It placed full blame of the war on Germany, and thus burdened it with tremendous reparations the country could not repay.
The Allied powers prohibited Germany to maintain a military and placed numerous other restrictions. Altogether this led to political and social turmoil in Germany in combination with a failing economy and hyperinflation for the next years. These conditions eventually led to the rise of highly nationalistic, militaristic, and increasingly anti-democratic ideologies of Nazism along with Hitler’s leadership. One of the primary reasons to the beginning of World War II was Hitler’s ambition highly supported by German people to retaliate against the humiliations caused by the Treaty of Versailles (Farmer, 2018).
The U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles due to provisions established by Woodrow Wilson regarding collective security and the League of Nations. The Senate feared this way the U.S. will get pulled into another war easily (United States Senate, n.d.). However, because of this the League of Nations was virtually powerless without U.S. involvement. In retrospect, if the treaty was approved and the U.S. had a greater role in European peacekeeping politics with the League of Nations, it may have been possible to prevent World War II by engaging in more productive and inclusive diplomacy with Germany rather than the appeasement process which occurred leading up to 1939.
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Dyer, J. (2005). Transforming America: U.S. history since 1877, A war to end all wars: Part 2.
Farmer, B. (2018). The Treaty of Versailles and the rise of Nazism. New American, 34(21), 33-38.
Muligan, W. (2017). The origins of the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
United States Senate. (n.d.). The Treaty of Versailles. Web.