essays

Sep 1, 1980

The Origins of World War I

“The European war became a global conflict by drawing in the Western Hemisphere and extending connections into the Pacific.”

“World War I: European Origins and American Intervention.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 56(Winter 1980):1–18.

World War I has often been compared to “Armageddon,” the nation-shattering miracle preceding the Last Judgment in the book of Revelation. The suddenness and magnitude of the conflict was the first time in history that the destructive deeds of man matched the disasters of nature.

Though the actual outbreak of complete war was sudden, tensions in the European continent had been brewing for years. The war sprang from two related breakdowns in mankind’s proudest creation at the beginning of the twentieth century, the highly civilized nation-states of Europe. The countries were experiencing severe problems with relations among themselves. All the main European powers held grudges against each other for the control of territories and populations, imperial colonies in Africa and Asia, and assertions of political and economic influence.

Germany bore the heaviest responsibilities in encouraging tensions among nations by fomenting discord among rivals through imperialist crises in the Far East, Africa, and the Balkans. German actions reflected a reckless desire for expansionism. German leaders felt their destiny as a “world state with a world mission” would only be fulfilled by a “coming world war.” However, other nations were quick to react to Germany’s aggression. These European countries were experiencing domestic strife that made the war a welcome relief to lay aside domestic troubles.

Britain was facing the growing militarism of the Labour Party, the rising voice of women suffrage, and an incipient civil war over Irish autonomy. The Socialists vs. the Nationalists were coming to heads in France; Germany’s Social [91]Democrats were emerging as the strongest single party and war seemed the only means to curb them.

Only Russia was gaining internal stability, due to her massive industrialization and sweeping land reforms. World War I did not cause these internal breakdowns, though it did accelerate the conditions. The United States viewed the European war with detachment, being geographically and morally removed from the conflicts. The sinking of the Lusitania raised the question of intervention for the first time, but Wilson maintained his policy of remaining neutral and seeking peace.

However, the Germans seemed unable to conceive of any other course except riding the war to total victory, and ignored U.S. demands to cease submarine warfare.

Wilson had two concerns for the escalating war: to end the conflict and to prevent any recurrence of such a war. He finally chose to intervene since the financial collapse for European allies was iminent. Belligerency seemed to Wilson the only means to a final and lasting peace among nations.

American intervention revolutionized World War I by saving the Allies from financial ruin; lending a moral boost to hold the Western front; and supplying fresh manpower for the final counteroffensive which ended the war on November 11, 1918. The European war became a global conflict by drawing in the Western Hemisphere and extending connections into the Pacific.

The far reaching effects of World War I were to take the focus off territorial appetites and imperial designs of nations and to explore new ways to conduct relations among nations by attempting to create an international order.

The decision by Wilson to intervene set the tone for the U.S. world role for the twentieth century. Despite Wilson’s intentions, the war turned into a self-righteous crusade which confirmed a dangerous predilection in U.S. conduct of world affairs. “Thanks to him [Wilson] and to the long-running aftereffects of World War I, the United States has tried again and again to shape events that have seemed to others beyond human control. That has been America’s glory and tragedy.”