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A. Roland

Lessons of the Last War

(21 February 1942)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 8, 21 February 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The second world war has now been on for two and one half years. The first world war lasted more than four years, but it offers no lesson as to the length of time the present war may last.

The United States was an active participant in the last war only at its tail-end. This country has just entered the new war, but its entry will not hasten the ending of the war as it did last time. Quite the contrary, this war may prove to be far more prolonged than the last one, at least in its world aspects.

The advocates of the last war to end all wars, the supporters of Wilson, included the vast majority of American liberals. Among them there was no group more enthusiastic to make the world safe for democracy than that which found a voice (not without the kindly assistance of a partner of J.P. Morgan, Willard Straight) in the magazine, The New Republic.

Every phase of the war found its democratic rationalization in this magazine. Its writers were close to Wilson and played up constantly his almost messianic role. But alas! The swing in opinion after the war, the opposition to the Versailles Treaty, found nobody more disappointed with the leader Wilson, than these same New Republicans.

George Soule was at that time one of the younger “finds” of the Alvin Johnsons and Walter Lippmanns. It seems fitting and proper that Soule should now write a special twenty-four page section of the self-same New Republic devoted entirely to the Lessons of Last Time.

Naturally the function of the writer is to present a new liberal program which will avoid the pitfalls that beset democracy – indeed succeeded in snaring it – last time. Soule leads up to a presentation of his “new order” of society by a discussion of America’s role in the first world war, the causes and aims of this war, and the terms necessary for a peaceful world order. There could be no more opportune time than the present for an examination of a program to accomplish so great an aim.

America And The First World War

Why did the United States enter the first world war? A Senate committee that investigated this problem long after did not fail to show the connection between the economic interests of the big financiers and the entry into the war. The loans made by Morgan and others to the Allies would have been endangered by a German victory. The issue of freedom of the seas existed with respect to both sides in the war, but the economic interest decided that this issue should be pressed against Germany rather than England. Furthermore it did not suit American capitalism to have a Germany dominant on the continent of Europe and taking away from Great Britain a part of her empire.

But Soule will not accept economic, materialist causes as the primary ones. He says: “In my opinion neither economic interest, natural sympathy, propaganda nor incidents at sea could alone have united the people behind the great crusade. Though all these played a part, it was the ideals expressed by Wilson that led us to accept the war.”

This may sound like an evasion of the issue, but it is the liberal’s vague manner of making a statement, or getting round a fact. He tells us not what caused the war, but rather what led Americans to “accept” the war.

Soule has no illusions whatever about the European causes of the war. “Old-fashioned imperialism, both political and economic, was still strong among the conservatives in Britain and France.” And of German imperialist desires there never was any question.

American Exceptionalism

Only the United States stood and stands in a different category for Soule. The reason for this harks way back to the foundation of American democracy. “The nation was founded in an effort to escape the evil heritages of the Old World and give man a new opportunity.” Yes, America was founded to create a new society free from the feudal, absolutist remnants of the European nations. If we except the institution of slavery (a big exception indeed), then the United States saw from the start the development of a pure and progressive capitalism, continually expanding its forces of production.

But time has caught up with the entire world system of capitalism, which also did not stand still while American capitalism was expanding. What was once the path of progress is no longer so. The first world war, as Soule forgets carefully to tell us, was the end of an epoch, the end of one epoch and the beginning of another.

The “American kind of promise” to which Soule refers had its fulfillment in the creation of the greatest technology the world has ever seen. With that fulfillment, any further “promise” has vanished from the present form of American and world society.

The first world war started the entire world on a decline. The second world war only hastens the decay and endangers civilization all the more. Whoever fails to see this with all its consequences, cannot hope to construct a program for the future, a program for a peaceful new order.

The pious wish of Soule’s will not avail him. “We do not want now to be caught up in, or be the inheritors of, the imperialisms, the political intrigue, the absolutisms in thought and action, that have brought Europe to its deathbed.” Yet this liberal proves that the only course for the United States is to take on the entire world problem of economics and politics.

Losing The Peace

Soule tells us that Wilson lost the peace after helping to win the victory in the last war. He failed to carry out his fourteen points in the peace treaty. Were these points intended seriously, or were they intended as propaganda for the purpose of keeping revolutionary Russia in the war (after the Bolsheviks had issued them invitation for a general peace on similar but more specific points), and for the purpose of undermining German morale? The outcome does not speak in favor of any serious attempt at self-determination of nations, or peace without indemnities.

“Apparently” Soule tells us, “he knew about the secret treaties when he decided to go in and either did not regard them seriously or expected to discard them when the time came.” Certainly it was the Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia that made known the exact nature of these imperialist treaties, at the same time repudiating them publicly.

We are told that Wilson made a number of blunders that were responsible for his “defeat”. In his campaign for the treaty at home he was opposed by “sinister forces”. What were these sinister forces? The entry of America into the League of Nations was also prevented. “The dark forces that really controlled affairs had revealed themselves in the peace conference and in the reaction to the war in this country.” Soule seems averse to saying that these “dark forces” were the forces of American monopoly finance capital, not yet ready to take over world domination.

The League of Nations

But Soule himself tells us what history has made a commonplace: The League was “chiefly a mask for the power politics of the great nations controlling it.” That is, the League was the organization of the victors to maintain their victory. Clemenceau had little interest in Wilson’s “ideals”. He pursued the outright aims of French imperialism. “The politics of military strategy was to carve Central Europe up in such a way that it would be impossible to unite it again as a military force under German leadership, and this aim coincided with the intention of financial groups to exploit these backward regions by loans and investments.”

Soule fails to indicate that what confronted Wilson, and what Clemenceau confronted him with, was a stark reality. Europe was in turmoil. Russia had shown the way to proletarian revolution. Wilson had no choice of a middle ground. It was a case of either the preservation of the capitalist system, or the encouragement of the extension of the revolution. There could be not the slightest doubt of Wilson’s choice. He was the spokesman for capitalism. The true self-determination of peopled carried out by really democratic processes, would have brought on the explosion that all the diplomats feared.

Soule does tell us of the later period what he might have applied just as well to the time of the signing of the Versailles Treaty: “All through this period, the ruling powers were more afraid of the leftward revolutionary forces of Europe than they were of aggressive, nationalist war-makers.” The conclusion is inevitable that if Wilson was really “defeated”, then he took part in his own defeat. The premises of all his thinking were capitalist. The Versailles Peace could therefore have been nothing but an imperialist treaty dictated by the victors to the vanquished.

The reason that the American financiers opposed any United States guarantee for the treaty and the League was not their opposition to European power politics, but that as yet they did not feel that they had sufficient stakes involved on the side of the victor. The ease is far different this time.

(More next week)

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