What We Should Remember on Armistice Day

World War I wasn’t a war for democracy — it was a catastrophic, barbaric conflict that left tens of millions of people dead and set the stage for anti-democratic rollbacks for years to come. Anti-war socialists were right to oppose it.

A German machine gun emplacement during World War I. (Library of Congress)

“We are far from wishing war,” Russian tsar Nicholas II wrote to his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, in the days leading up to World War I. Wilhelm, too, felt the weight of the war’s imminent arrival — a war that would ultimately leave 9 million soldiers and millions more civilians dead — but likewise deflected any role he had in creating the conditions for it. “In my endeavors to maintain the peace of the world I have gone to the utmost limit possible. The responsibility of the disaster . . . will not be laid at my door,” he insisted, his pleas for peace crossing in the telegraph wires the same day Nicholas sent his own telegram: July 31, 1914.

The infamous, dynastic exchange between the two relatives (the so-called “Willy-Nicky telegrams”) are suffused with the naked confusion and sheer incompetence of Europe’s early-twentieth-century rulers, so unsure about how to stop a global war whose wheels they had set in motion. Reckless military mobilization, an international arms race, and nationalistic fervor — combined with a willingness to relinquish decisions to generals — sparked the conflagration; the sources of Europe’s unraveling were entirely of elites’ own making. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 simply lit the spark under the decades-long system of secret treaties and elite alliances solidified through imperialism and anti-democratic hostility.

As Ferdinand’s death activated the defenses of a reactionary yet tenacious ancien régime — and the shared self-absolution of its leaders — Russia, Germany, and their respective allies (France and England for Russia, Austro-Hungary for Germany) were left pleading relentlessly, insufficiently, to stop a war they clearly anticipated, and at least some wanted. Europe deliberately stumbled — “sleepwalked,” in the view of one historian — into total war, bringing the United States into the conflict three years later.

At the outset of the war, socialists and anti-war leftists warned about how it would end: with untold numbers dead, a ready-made system for state-sponsored repression, the defeat of necessary reforms to curtail the rapaciousness of Gilded Age capitalism, and the rise of a fractured peace that would set the stage for a renewed war. They were right on all counts.

On this Armistice Day, amid an era of “endless war” — one that has also laid bare the repercussions of relentless militarism — we should recognize the failure to heed their warnings: that wars waged in the name of democracy invariably rely upon the sacrifice of it.

A Catastrophic War

Almost a year after World War I erupted in Europe, the conflict ground to a stalemate. Neither the Entente Powers (France, England, Italy, and, until 1917, Russia) or the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) made headway in a war waged on two fronts.

On the Western front, the war deadlocked on the border of Belgium and France for three years. The monthslong battles of Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) — which together saw close to 1.5 million casualties — were microcosms of a war dependent upon modernity and the destruction that emanated from it. The use of chemical weapons, tanks, and, above all, machine guns, was ubiquitous, with Europe’s aristocratic generals willingly accepting the bloody outcome. Douglas Haig, the British general in command at the Battle of Somme, oversaw casualties of nineteen thousand soldiers in the first day of battle, many in the first hour, due to artillery shelling and machine gunfire. He downplayed the results in his diary as a “day of ups and downs,” thinking the deaths of his men “cannot be considered severe” overall. (Haig would later earn the moniker “Butcher Haig.”)

As the war unraveled, socialists decried Europe’s willingness to prolong the fighting. German anti-war socialists split from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) over the SPD’s support for the war and formed the International Socialist Party (ISP), which drew inspiration from the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. (German and American socialists regularly collaborated and shared ideas on housing rights and universal health care prior to the war and opposed the war together, too.) Anti-war socialists in the United States urged Woodrow Wilson to avoid preparing for war in 1915, with socialist Helen Keller urging the “workingman” to reject a conflict spearheaded by elites eager to “beat down his wages or wreck his unions” in search of war profits.

When the United States did enter the war on April 2, 1917 (after continued attacks from German U-boats), Woodrow Wilson promised to “make the world safe for democracy.” American entry in the war was decisive in forcing Germany’s capitulation to the Entente Powers and securing the eventual ceasefire on November 11, 1918. During negotiations in Paris, Wilson pressed for “peace without victory,” promising through his “Fourteen Points” an end to colonialism, self-determination for all peoples, and the creation of nation-states from the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire.

Socialists around the world were deeply skeptical of Wilson’s claims. His “Fourteen Points” came a year after the war propelled Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, with Lenin soon abandoning “this horrible, criminal war [which] has ruined all countries, exhausted all peoples” and pushing for a “world socialist revolution” around issues of “bread and peace.”

In America, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs led the charge. In a 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, Debs denounced Wilson’s war for democracy as “false pretense” and argued that the Bolshevik revolution had created an avenue for international peace that the war’s belligerents had rejected. “You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder,” Debs told his audience. Debs was arrested and imprisoned under the 1918 Sedition Act.

The Wilson administration didn’t stop with Debs. It used the full power of a burgeoning surveillance state to rein in anti-war, radical voices, compelling ordinary citizens to volunteer and participate in the state’s efforts to root out anti-war socialists.

The administration’s draconian response erected the machinery for further crackdowns on civil liberties. The First Red Scare, carried out shortly after the war, targeted socialists, anarchists, and labor sympathizers. The arrests and trials of Charles Schenck and Jacob Abrams for distributing pamphlets critical of the war, and encouraging people to resist it, institutionalized internal policing against opponents to American foreign policy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which emerged from the Palmer raids and the First Red Scare, would become notorious under J. Edgar Hoover for wiretapping, monitoring, and silencing radical activists, particularly black leftists, from Martin Luther King, Jr to members of the Black Panther Party.

As Wilson stifled democracy at home, the hopes and limitations of democracy promotion in the name of internationalism — the failed “war to end all wars” — unleashed revolutionary movements in the Global South. Wilson’s and Lenin’s vision competed for international salience. A young kitchen assistant, Nguyen Tat Thanh, traveled to Paris in 1919 hoping Wilson would recognize Vietnam’s independence from French colonialism. When rebuffed by the American president — there is no evidence that Wilson knew of Nguyen’s existence — he then joined the French Communist Party before founding the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1930. Forty years later, donning the pseudonym Ho Chi Minh, he would fight the aftereffects of America’s efforts to create democracies through military invention — this time in his own country.

No Wars for Democracy

If World War I spurred socialist movements to promote competing visions of democracy and internationalism, it also created a class of foreign policy experts in the United States suspicious of democratic input on foreign policy. Among Wilson’s coterie was a group of advisers known as the “Inquiry,” an Ivy-League-educated class of foreign policy experts who, after the war, sought to make liberal internationalism popular — to “educate” the public on foreign policy — through the Council on Foreign Relations.

The postwar years helped their cause, as the most notable democracy born from the war, Germany’s Weimar Republic, proved fleeting. According to Cold War elites, the rise of Nazism was a cautionary tale about the certain fate that awaits democracies too weak to confront international and external threats. To protect democracy and national security — the two conflated in an uncomfortable syllogism — the United States needed a class of educated experts to convince the public that global supremacy served their interests. If the United States was going to make the world safe for democracy, foreign policymaking needed to be ensconced from it.

And it would prosecute its wars from the skies. After the horrors of World War I, air power was thought to be a progressive remedy to the mass casualties and came to be viewed as the future of warfare. “Precision bombing” was carried out against Japan during World War II and against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Today, it echoes today in the logic and attitude toward drone warfare. Ongoing reliance on airpower thus legitimized World War I’s precedent for waging endless wars premised on a teleological faith in military technology — for a war, as historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued, “waged for unlimited ends.” World War I fetishized protracted wars; wars waged without purpose; senseless, aimless wars with meanings applied retroactively to validate the atrocities committed.

The lasting legacy of World War I — of a world made safe for American empire backed by a national security state enlisted with the responsibility to restrain the rights of Americans — should discredit the notion that wars for democracy will lead to greater democracy. For a century later, elements of the “new world order” are now old: an imperialism with a democratic face, a United States willing to wage endless wars on behalf of an elusive peace.