The following Letter to the Editor appeared in the March 2016 102 (4) issue of the Journal of American History.
To the Editor:
“Interchange: World War I,” the online discussion in the September 2015 issue (pp. 463–99), raised many important points about the American experience in that conflict. The reasons given for American intervention in the war included the threats to U.S. security from Germany, humanitarian motivations, American prestige and diplomatic credibility, the desire for a world order based on democratic principles, and the impossibility of insulating the United States from the currents of power politics.
Economic motives come into the historians’ discussion on an apologetic note when we read: “without being conspiratorial—we might ask about war loans and munitions sales, which heavily favored the British” (p. 474). It is as if the abundant evidence for an economic interpretation of America’s intervention in the war had been relegated to the turbid world of conspiracy theory tracts and had been lost amidst alternative interpretations presenting reasons of no more than secondary significance.
Charles Beard, mentioned in another context of the online discussion, wrote a series of powerful books and articles in the 1930s touching on President Woodrow Wilson’s decision for war. The real story, he argued, began in 1915 when the United States had entered into financial arrangements with one side in the war, the Allies. War loans made to them eventually totaled in the billions of dollars. The money was used to purchase the necessities of war from the United States, making the country’s economic recovery from the recession of 1913 totally dependent on the economic alliance thatpreceded the military alliance of 1917. Robert La Follette, the leader in the U.S. Senate opposing intervention and much admired by Beard, asked, “How long can we maintain a semblance of real neutrality while we are supplying the Allies with the munitions of war and money to prosecute the war” (Robert M. La Follette, “Neutrality,” La Follette’s Magazine, Sept. 1915, p. 1)? America entered the conflict just as the military crises on the western, eastern, and Italian fronts were maturing and putting the American investment in the Allied victory at risk.
America’s entry into the war resulted primarily from the economic necessity caused by the policy decisions of 1915. As Walter Millis observed in Road to War— America 1914–1917 (1935), the Anglo-French loan of 1915 was a turning point for the United States. Thereafter, he wrote, “the two economies were for the purposes of the war made one; each was now entangled irrevocably in the fate of the other” (Walter Millis, Road to War—America, 1914–1917, p. 221). Beard regularly referred to the work of Millis and to the devastating revelations of the 1934–1936 Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry in his analysis of how the national interest had been defined by pro-war American leaders. Wilson’s political genius lay in his capacity to imbue American intervention with the cosmic significance of a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Although he set new standards of uplift for American foreign policy that are with us still, they should not cause historians to lose sight of the more mundane factors involved in the fateful decision to go to war in 1917.
University of Montana