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The Great War, 100 Years Later

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History

07/05/2017T. Hunt Tooley

T. Hunt Tooley is chairman of the department of history at Austin College and an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. In this interview with The Austrian, Dr. Tooley examines what we can learn today from the First World War. 

THE AUSTRIAN: It has now been 100 years since the United States entered the First World War. Was getting involved in foreign wars in this way a break from past policy, or was the US already going in this direction?

HUNT TOOLEY: I used to think of American intervention more in terms of a break from the past. The Spanish-American War episode seemed a precursor for international interventionism, and perhaps even an aberration. But looking objectively at various events in modern American and world history, I came to realize that the germs of interventionism were there from the beginning. In this light, the ”Farewell Address” becomes Washington’s warning against tendencies already present. The Mexican War becomes an even bolder aggression than it is often considered. The American state at war from 1861 to 1865 developing notions of invasions as crusades, of inflationary financing that made war so much easier to engage in, of centralizing the executive control and ramping up war powers of the executive.

And after 1865 the United States launched several expansionary initiatives above and beyond the ongoing wars against American Indians. Most of these initiatives concerned the Pacific. The United States engaged in a short, sharp, intentional invasion of Korea in 1871, a venture euphemistically remembered, if at all, as ”the United States Expedition to Korea.” The ”acquisition” of Hawaii in the 1890s was in essence a foreign intervention against a functioning kingdom. These and other episodes reinforce the interpretation of interventionism as a continuum. As do the multiple interventions following the Spanish-American War, invasions of many Latin American countries and the Philippines under Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.

But if American intervention in the European war in 1917 represented continuity, it was still a departure, both in size and extent and in being unattached completely from any geographically based vision. For America, the Great War introduced the project of intervening anywhere, not just in our (admittedly enormous) backyard.

TA: What do you see as some of the most damaging effects of the war on the home front, and do any of these developments affect us today?

HT: I see the home front as the main front for each of the belligerents. In some countries, it resulted in the birth of totalitarianism. In some countries dictatorships of one variety or another.

In our country and others the Progressive, control-oriented state emerged. Wilson had longed for this. John Dewey had longed for this. Many Progressives, both Democrat and Republican, longed for a managerial state that could dispense with the rights of individuals and constitutional limitations. Progressive Woodrow Wilson had for years chafed at the inefficiency of constitutional government, above all the functions of Congress. The war gave him latitude to intervene in many, many economic, social, and intellectual interactions. Just days before the Declaration of War, Wilson asked his closest advisor whether he should bother eliciting a war declaration from Congress or whether he should just start the hostilities and then present the country (and Congress) with a fait accompli. By that time, federal agents were already going through the mails. Opponents of the war were soon to be jailed for sedition. Conscientious objectors would receive brutal punishment, as would pacifists and various other nay-sayers.

Meanwhile, the war government restructured the economy, favoring huge corporations and helping them to gobble up smaller local businesses. Federal income tax rates for the lowest wage earners shot up during the nineteen months of the war by a factor of six. For the wealthy, ”progressive” tax rates rose from 10 percent at the opening of the war to 70 percent at its end. At the same time, ”boards” governing fuel, food, transportation, and other aspects of life formerly based on relatively free market calculations, disrupted the freedoms and efficiencies of the market drastically.

Many of these measures were scaled back in the twenties, but almost never all the way. In any case, the Pandora’s box had been opened, and most of the Federal measures designed to control aspects of life which had previously been private and voluntary gained footholds which have never been dislodged.

TA: Austrian critics of the war have also noted the role of central banking in the war. Is this one way we might say the war was the first truly “modern” war?

HT: In my opinion, yes. Since the seventeenth century, central banks have tended to help keep the state on a war footing, whether at war or not, and this goal included shaping of national debt and more. Inflation has likewise helped finance war since well before Henry VIII carried out the ”Great Debasement” of English coinage. I would say that ”modern” aspect of the role of central banks in World War I was the combination of two activities: the central banks’ older tradition of keeping the state on a permanent war alert and the new potential for monetary manipulation introduced in Europe and the United States before the war. In the case of the United States, I am thinking of the Federal Reserve System. So the older mercantilist tendencies combined with more modern manipulation of currency and credit to unleash unimagined possibilities for protracted, massive war.

TA: World War II is still spoken of today as “the good war.” It does not seem World War I gets the same treatment when we speak of the war — assuming we ever speak of it at all. What is the common view of the war today and how has this changed over time?

HT: First, it seems to me this contradiction has several causes. For one thing, WWII and the Cold War to some extent erased the public memory of the First World War. When I was a kid, the World War I memorial in my hometown represented to me a past so remote I could hardly imagine it — even though my grandparents’ generation had been marked by it. But so much had happened since then! As I grew up, World War II was all around us: I knew veterans of POW camps, survivors of grisly battles, men who told hair-raising stories of dive-bombing Japanese ships. And unlike the fairly stolid and formal Great War generation, the second war vets were open, relaxed, ironic, and usually funny. They were easy to admire, and those writers who coined the ”good war” phrase had an easy job transferring these feelings of personal admiration to the American war effort.

But of course the second war is also the ”good war” for many because of the Nazis. For all the first war propaganda, the Kaiser was no Hitler.

Of course the popular narrative of the Second World War failed to mention that Hitler and Stalin started the conflict as a team or that of these two colossal killers, Stalin was the more prolific. Much of the seamier side of the Allied Cause has remained unknown to the majority and was for a long time simply not discussed in the triumphal histories of the Second World War.

The First World War had been impugned within the decade following it by revisionist analysis and soldiers’ memoirs. The 1960s saw a small wave of renewed interest in the First World War, but much of this was in the form of technical diplomatic history. Some state-friendly historians tried to rehabilitate leaders who had been discredited — British Field Marshal Haig, for example. But even these re-evaluations were part of the technical historical literature.

General interest in World War I in the United States and Western Europe revived beginning in the 1980s because of two powerful historical works: the monumental book by Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, and the elegant early book by John Keegan, The Face of Battle, both published in the mid-seventies. Other historians followed suit. British government schools adopted special study of the war focusing on ”the war poets.” By the 1990s, histories of the first war had a large audience.

So much of the new material from the eighties onward has been focused on individual soldiers that it has been hard for the writers of popular history in the former Allied countries to go back to the triumphalist versions of the twenties. Still, I do get the feeling that within the English-speaking world, many of the recent works on the occasion of the centennial sit on a kind of neocon subtext, justifying brutal war measures for the sake of power and national greatness. The equivalent histories in Germany and Austria (and to some extent France) are quite different, in many ways based on a more sober assessment of the conflict.

TA: In the past, you’ve written of the role of Murray Rothbard in WWI revisionism. What role should that play in the  minds of revisionists of the war today?

HT: Rothbard was writing in the direct tradition of the revisionists of the twenties and thirties, of course as very much a part of that tradition. But his technical understanding of and brilliant insights into economics, finance, banking, and other aspects of modern war-making, really extend the work of Tansill, Millis, H. C. Peterson and Engelbrecht/Hanighen. On a number of issues, Rothbard filled in the blanks on issues which the earlier revisionists had raised. In my own understanding of the origins of the war, Rothbard’s view of American economic and political planning for ”world power” is really crucially important.

TA: When WWI begins, Europe had just experienced nearly a century without any large-scale wars. Did this long period of peace somehow make the Great War worse? Is there a problem of complacency when there is a long period of peace, and could we find ourselves in a similar situation today?

HT: In answer to each of these questions, probably so. Historian Gordon Craig once quoted the words of an older German woman overheard among the jubilant crowds in Berlin at the outbreak of the war in 1914. Her complaint amidst the cheering: ”War? But what about the vacation I was about to take?!” Both the cheering and the complaint go to illustrate your point.

Another aspect of the same problem is that there had been a good bit of warfare in nineteenth-century Europe, fought mostly in faraway places against ”evil” and corrupt rulers attempting to stand in the way of Western empire. Or against violent popular opposition to colonial control. These foreign clashes were great fodder for escapism in calm belle époque Europe. In the sensationalist newspapers, massacres of Hereros, Chinese, Filipinos, and Sudanese in the period before World War I were always seen as famous victories, dangerous and exciting! Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mark Twain’s denunciations of imperial cruelties were the exception, not the rule. And much of the early war journalism and even war fiction up to 1916 partook of this escapist tradition.

So there was a long peace, yes, and many thought it would last. But this normalization of violence through empire also played a role in the mood of Europeans as the war broke out. It is easier to glamorize and sell war than to glamorize and sell negotiation and compromise.

When you hear public outcries for risking large-scale war against North Korea or Russia, or when you listen to the breathless rhetoric on the necessity of bombing some foreign population in some faraway quarter of the globe for some noble purpose — yes, I think there are many parallels to the history of World War I.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: "Cousin Dirk" https://www.flickr.com/photos/cousindirk/15764634696/sizes/l

Cite This Article

T. Hunt Tooley, "The Great War, 100 Years Later," The Austrian 3, no. 3 (2017): 8–11.

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