Hypothetical: World War I

In reading a post at OTB on embarrassing quotations from popular historical figures one of the comments lead me to start thinking about what might have happened had the U. S. not entered World War I. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, you know.

I strongly suspect that World War II would never have taken place and that the world would look very, very different than it does now, although whether for better or worse I’m not entirely certain. Would something resembling what H. G. Wells envisioned in The Shape of Things to Come have happened? I’m thinking more of the exhaustion of the combatants rather than the Utopian condition that emerged thereafter. Or maybe like E. R. Burroughs’s Beyond Thirty?

So, I’m throwing the question open to the floor. What would have happened if the U. S. had not entered World War I? What would it have meant for the U. S.? What would it have meant for the nations of Europe? For their colonies?

9 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Depends on how American involvement was forsaken. I don’t buy the view over at Yglesias’ comments thread that Wilson, the great man of history, single-handedly brought America into the war. I believe that Germany came to believe that its success depended on ending American trade with Britain, and therefore unrestricted submarine warfare was necessary and since the USA would clearly enter the war in that event, an attempt to bring Mexico into the conflict would help slow the USA for long enough to win.

    In the alternative world, does Germany adopt a more cautious strategy against the United States? Does the U.S. feign indifference to its historic support for its trade rights? Is the telegram not intercepted? Does Mexico initiate a war that distracts America?

    If all things are kept the same, the decision Wilson faced was a public and Congress outraged at Germany and demanding that American national security be protected. There may have been some more limited way Wilson could have done this; perhaps invading and annexing Mexico, arguing that American security is most threatened by the chaos in its near-abroad.

    Anyway, I believe Germany would have won the war. Even if the sides became exhausted, that event favors the party holding the territory at exhaustion. Germany would have annexed Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, the lowland countries, and perhaps Romania. France would give up Briey and it and Britain would give up some overseas territories that Germany could use for naval bases.

    The end of the British global system would have forced America to choose between taking up more of this role itself or focusing on security within its own hemisphere. I imagine some sort of cold war between Germany and the United States, perhaps an invigorated Monroe doctrine that puts England and France out of the Western hemisphere for good, and a new focus on the Pacific ocean. This last point would bring the U.S. into either conflict with Japan or a strong alliance.

    In Europe it’s possible that Germany bites off more than it can chew and eventually has to reduce its borders and rely more on informal control of neighboring territory. But Germany, reeling in the spirit of 1870 and 1920, will keep the order in Europe and prevent any other power from rising. It’s a less liberal Europe, perhaps moving from monarchy to autocracy.

  • Very interesting topic and great comment from PD.

    I’d love it if someone also considered what would have happened vis a vis Russia. Presumably the revolution would still have occurred (barring some butterfly wing theory) but would the infant USSR, seeing a seemingly irresistible Germany on its borders, have tried for an alliance with the US? And might such an alliance have forestalled the rise of Japan?

  • I think that all it might have taken was Germany’s not sinking the Lusitania in 1915. Or, more broadly, laying off passenger ships. That would have been problematic since passenger ships between Britain and the U. S. were unquestionably carrying munitions but I doubt that it would have made the difference between victory and defeat for Germany.

    I think I can address what effect our not entering the war would have had on Russia. Basically, not much.

    The U. S. didn’t declare war until April of 1917, U. S. troops didn’t start arriving until July. The Tsar had already abdicated by the time the U. S. declared war following the February Revolution

    Would success by Kerensky in his offensive in Turkey following the Tsar’s abdication have prevented or forestalled the October Revolution in which the Bolsheviks overcame his government? I doubt it.

    At the time of the February Revolution Trotsky just happened to be in New York on a lecture tour. In the interview he gave to the New York Times he laid out in virtually prophetic detail how events were likely to unfold in his homeland.

    In December the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with Germany. For the next several years they were pretty busy consolidating their control over Russia. In the absence of an eastern front it’s possible that the Germans would have been able to prevail.

    Frankly, I doubt it. I think that absent U. S. involvement the war would simply have ground on for several more years in stalemate.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t necessarily disagree that the war would have ground on as a stalemate (it had done so for some time), but under the rule of possession is nine/tenths of the game, the Germans would have been in possession of most of their war aims. (By 1917, I think only two of the belligerents, England and Germany, had any significant offensive capability)

    Russia: The collapse of the Russian Army was severe and to sue for peace, Lenin had to give up approximately 33% of the population of Russia, 25% of its industry, 90% of its coal mines, the bread basket of the Ukraine, oil and money. Lenin moved the capitol from St. Petersburg to Moscow at this point because the Baltic had become a German lake.

    When Germany lost the war, the Russian concessions were lost or simply unenforceable, allowing Russia to recapture most of it once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power. I believe if the U.S. hadn’t intervened, the Germans would not have lost and would have been able to maintain control over the Russian concessions either directly or indirectly. This would have left Russia as a second-tier power in Europe and not a very likely counter to German hegemony.

    One wildcard though is whether a prolonged war would give rise to communist revolts throughout Europe, which might completely change the dynamics.

  • Brett Link

    Are we assuming the US plays it completely neutral (as in selling arms solely to both sides or neither), or just that it doesn’t enter the water?

    My guess is that once the Russians fold and make their deal with Germany, Germany batters itself bloody against France. If they break through and get to Paris, we get a repeat of the Franco-Prussian war, and eventually some type of armistice and treaty in which Germany will probably have to give back most of the concessions it got from Russia, but will still end up one of the better-off parties out of the war. Great Britain would be bankrupt, and northern France devastated. If not, then we eventually get a similar outcome, except when the war finally grinds to a halt the various states are even more financially desperate and damaged than historically happened.

    This would have left Russia as a second-tier power in Europe and not a very likely counter to German hegemony.

    I honestly can’t see Germany hanging on to most of the lands it got from the Russians, particularly if Britain offers them generous terms in exchange for giving most of them back, plus possibly some type of autonomy arrangement for Poland.

  • I’m also kind of interested in what the world would have looked like if the United States had come in on the side of Germany, which there was a strong amount of political support for…

  • PD Shaw Link

    Brett, I don’t think it’s any less likely that Germany could control Eastern Europe than Russia. It was going to do so by a combination of:
    1. Direct territorial annexation of the near abroad (Poland);
    2. Organizing dependent states with sizable German nationals who would be placed in leadership positions (Baltic states)
    3. Advancing the ambitions of nationalist ethnic groups along anti-Russian lines along the Russian border (the Ukraine).

    This is essentially the mirror image of what Russia did over the coming decade, but it started from a weaker position of power, aided largely by Wilsonion demands for independent states next to Germany.
    (moving outward from Germany) by a combination of direct territorial annexation, putting locals of German descent in positions of power in dependent states, and supporting independent states set up with ethnic groups

  • PD Shaw Link

    Sorry, the last four lines were from the earlier edit of this comment.

  • PD Shaw Link

    It’s hard for me to imagine America entering the war on the side of Germany even with support from German and Irish communities. The most likely point of divergence would be Wilson’s tepid response to the British blockade prior to the Lusitania. The blockade included neutral ports, labelling cotton and food as contraband, declaring the Baltic Sea a war zone, blacklisting U.S. exporters and opening U.S. mail. In short, trampeling on the rights of neutrals in ways that America usually got aggressive in defending. Wilson didn’t want a repeat of the War of 1812 and was mildly pro-Britain, so he issued mild protests and didn’t rule out reparations at a later date. I personally think that Britain would have reduced its blockade in response to a potential conflict with the U.S.; in fact, I think they modulated the blockade to what they thought they could get away with.

    Anyway, this scenario would have the U.S. in a naval war with Britain early on, reducing Britain’s control of the open seas and its ability to raise money in the U.S. by selling bonds. Trade between the countries would shut down, so Germany might not continue unrestricted submarine warfare. This could lead to a quicker end to the war with moderate German gains and perhaps even the retention of the Tsar.

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