Skip to main content

tv   1916-17 World War I Peace Talks  CSPAN  August 17, 2021 2:41pm-4:07pm EDT

2:41 pm
next, the book road less traveled. the secret battle to tend great war.
2:42 pm
it examines a five-month period during which the united states, the united kingdom and germany attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to world war i. good afternoon, welcome to woodrow wilson international center for scholars, featuring philip zelikow of the university of virginia and his book, "the road less traveled: the secret battle to end the great war, 1916-1917." the woodrow wilson international center for scholars aims to unite the world of ideas by supporting scholarship and linking that scholarship to issues of concern to officials in washington. congress established the center in 1968 as the official national memorial to president wilson. unlike the physical monuments in the nation's capital, it's a living memorial, whose work and scholarship commemorates the ideals and concerns of woodrow wilson.
2:43 pm
as both a distinguished scholar and national leader, president wilson felt strongly that the policymaker and scholar were engaged in a common enterprise. today, the center takes seriously his views on the need to bridge the gap between the world of ideas and the world of policy, bringing them into creative contact, enriching the work of both, and enabling each to learn from the other. this series is our new effort to make wilson and his period more central to that creative contact between ideas and practice in national and global affairs. in a critical and inclusive way, we seek to highlight work on wilson and his time that offers explicit or implicit lessons for contemporary or enduring problems of public and international life. for that reason, i'm thrilled to reason philip zelikow to discuss his new book, "the road less
2:44 pm
traveled: the secret battle to end the great war, 1916-1917." really just out from public affairs books. philip zelikow is a professor of history at the university of virginia, where he's also served as dean of the graduate school and director of the miller center. his scholarly work focused on critical episodes in american and world history. he was a trial and appellate lawyer before taking positions at harvard and virginia. his federal service during five administrations has included positions in the white house, state department, and the pentagon. he directed a small and short-lived, but i would say very important federal agency, the 9/11 commission, that produced a report that remains essential to understanding the terrible events of 2001. he also directed an earlier bipartisan commission on election reform, chaired by
2:45 pm
former presidents carter and ford, that led to successful passage of the help america vote act of 2002. phil is one of the few individuals to ever serve on the president's intelligence advisory boards of presidents of both parties, in the administrations of george w. bush and barack obama. to the united states, he was elected a member of the american academy of diplomacy in 2020. phil's new book exhibits the historical perspective he's long sought to bring to the practice of diplomacy. he traces the secret efforts over more than five months from august 1916 to january 1917 of leaders from the united states, britain, and germany to end the great war through u.s. mediated peace conferences. they did so far out of public sight. one reason why their effort, which came close to ending the war and saving millions of lives is little understood today. in the book, phil brings the story into the light, complicating our understanding of the war and the nature to
2:46 pm
have peace that did eventually follow. as befits this series, he places particular emphasis on president woodrow wilson's role in creating the opportunity for peace, as well as his failure to ensure its real eighth. -- realization. i'm going to ask phil to give a few brief remarks, and then ask some questions, both admiring, perhaps a few challenging that i hope will further illuminate the importance of his book to historians, diplomats, and anyone seeking a better understanding of the world the great war made, which in many ways is the world still with us today. then i will turn to the chat box to construct some questions out of the audience. so i invite you to put your comments and questions there. so without further ado, let me turn it over to professor philip zelikow. >> thanks very much for that nice introduction. so this is a book about why the
2:47 pm
first world war did not end at the halfway point. why didn't the war end halfway before the united states became involved? before the russian revolution and the bolshevik seizure of power in russia. before many millions of lives were lost. before central europe, eastern europe, and the whole middle east plunged off the precipice into years of civil and international war that helped wreck the peace. why didn't the war end at the halfway point? so in a way i start with an interesting thesis. every american schoolboy who studies world war i, if they're asked on their exam why did america enter world war i, they'll answer that question with something to do with german u-boats. the reason america entered the war, they're taught, everyone was taught, i was taught, is that the germans declared the u-boat war, the unrestricted
2:48 pm
submarine warfare, defying an agreement they had made to restrain their u-boat warfare the previous year. so standard story, america enters world war i because of the german u-boat war. the argument in this book is that the reason entered world war i is because the peace talks to end the war seemed to have failed. the only reason the germans declared the u-boat war the wider war is because the german military and the kaiser concluded that their five months of effort to end the war with peace talks had failed, and the u-boat war was the only alternative left. so the declaration of the u-boat war came because the peace talks failed. the reason america entered the war is because the peace talks failed.
2:49 pm
therefore, this is a story of why did the peace talks fail? some of you, there are more than 130 people on the webinar at least. so all of you can ask yourself, how many of you knew that there were even peace talks going on in 1916-'17? to be specific, how many of you knew that in august 1916, in the summer of 1916, the german government asked the united states to mediate an end to the war. so the question is, how many of you knew that the german government -- this was not an informal set of peace feelers done through intermediaries. this is straight up, this is the chancellor writing to, you know, through the german embassy in washington, with the approval of the kaiser. this is a formal diplomatic approach. actually, which was reiterated
2:50 pm
by the kaiser personally in a letter to wilson a couple of months later. so question, how many of you knew that the germans had formally sought american 1916? and then for those three of you who knew about that, you can then ask yourself and, hey, by the way, do you know what happened to that german peace? what happened to the german peace. >> i'd be surprised if anyone knows the answer to that question and the second question is did you also know, those who studied world war i, did you know the british government at the same time -- the british government now, quite seriously considered seeking a negotiated peace through woodrow wilson in the autumn of 1916, that the british government at the highest levels, i mean now a
2:51 pm
discussion of the full british cabinet discussed the issue of whether or not they should end the war with the negotiated peace in the autumn of 1916 that would be arranged through the offices of woodrow wilson. if you did not know how seriously the british and by the way the french considered making peace, did not know about the german offer to have wilson negotiate the peace and did not know that this had been going on for months, then you don't know one of the great stories of world history at a turning point, the turning point before american entry, before the world widens, before the russian revolution and the bolshevik takeover as the war continued, before the millions of lives lost and all the rest. this book is that story. and, in fact, it turns out not only was this the story of these peace talks, but the peace talks
2:52 pm
came amazingly close to succeeding because the positions of the two sides were not reconcilable. in fact, the compromise peace the germans were prepared to offer had terms in it that were perfectly calculated to appeal to the key factions who wanted peace in the british government and probably the french government as well, and in any case the british and french would have had no choice but to make peace because they were about to go bankrupt in the dollars they needed to continue the war, another one of the war's great secret, by the way, so in a way this book is about how the war was on the verge of ending if nothing else for financial reasons in 1916-'17 but it did not, and why it did not is one of the most amazing historical stories i've ever come across in my entire career, and i think this is the first
2:53 pm
book that fully brings that story together drawing on materials and the american, german, british archives among other international sources in one place that finally sees the light of day. it's -- it's an amazing story, and the people are amazing, and in a way it's a hopeful story, though the outcome is tragic. hopeful in this. we have an image of world war i of sort of the valiant soldiers stalemated in the trenches being led by narrow-minded donkeys, the character, the heros led by donkeys. in fact, at the mid-point of the war, in is the summer and fall of 1916 after the disaster was done, the leaders did try to find a way out. that's the amazingly hopeful story. they were not entirely blind. they tried hard to find a way
2:54 pm
out. most of the leaders were prepared to compromise on terms that could have worked, that would have been much like the borders of europe before world war i and this is the story of why they came so agonizingly close and also of why they didn't make it. it's a story about how state craft could have work and how state craft in this case did not work. >> for the first time in a long time irremembered to unmute myself before speaking. thanks very much, phil, for that overview. before i get into what i will signal will be some of the friendly disagreements that phil and i may, have i want to just compliment the author on a truly fantastic book. i learned an incredible amount
2:55 pm
about a period that i have studied fairly closely. i also have to compliment the narrative, and actually i want to ask you first about your -- just your organizational methods. the narrative, it's a very powerful narrative, almost kind of like a drill. it is spiraling back and forth between all of these conversations in different countries and different foreign offices and yet it moves sort of relentlessly forward, not in a -- not in a deterministic way but a way that keeps the reader at the forefront. at the same time there's a contingency for historical events. bettman's ill-advised decision to push out someone who he thought was a militaristic falconheim and instead recruit
2:56 pm
others into the high command which turns out to have been a misstep or lloyd george's decision to put his political career ahead of, you know, the prospects of peace by announcing publicly that -- with no authorization from the prime minister or the foreign secretary, he was i think war secretary at the time, that britain will fight to the finish for a knockout blow. so there are just all of these wonderful moments of contingency and the narrative is something that gives this dual effect of something grand going on but really excruciatingly human at the time so people who like to read good history will love this book for that reason, and i'm curious how you organized your narrative. how did you decide, you know in, what order to -- to address the -- the various discussions?
2:57 pm
>> well, it's a great question, and i think you in a way have to almost organize it as if you're lining up the story boards for a -- in a movie production because you actually want to hold the narrative in view and then you have to be sure you don't move back and forth in time so radically that you unmoore the reader sore that you lose focus on the central story. that's not unrealistic because actually they are focusing on the common story. one of the amazing things in the story, as you know, is that the germans are doing all this with wilson in secret, but that the british at the time they were having their peace debates in autumn 1916, the british, the tiny center of the british cabinet, the war committee know
2:58 pm
about the german move. they have intercepted -- they have intercepted german telegrams and decoded them that have told them that the germans have made this move with wilson so they know about the german effort to get wilson to negotiate peace, and that's part of what is coloring their debates in the autumn of 1916 as they come so close to saying yes because of their own desperate position, so, yes, you have to then -- and then what i try to do also is bring in the perspectives of ordinary people in important ways, like the way i begin the book with the robert frost poem and its origins. the famous poem "the road not taken." many people don't realize the whole context that have poem arose out of the friendship of robert frost with an english poet named edward thomas debating in a wait issue of war or peace between the two men,
2:59 pm
close friends, in 1915. that was the context in which frost wrote that famous poem. thomas himself was facing such a kind of choice everyone was facing in the middle of the war and then thomas made his choice between the two roads. the context for that poem is really a moving backdrop here that i wanted to put in at the beginning and then at the end and in the middle i take the reader away from the cabinet room, so to speak, and i take them to the uncertainty on the front line itself through the eyes of the british prime minister's eldest son. the prime minister was herbert askwith and i take the reader into the world of askwith himself, one of the brilliant idols of his generation, a man named raymond askwith who is actually fighting on the front
3:00 pm
lines and experiencing personally in a way all the uncertainty that the politicians in london are trying to make sense of, but through his eyes you also see the human reality and the -- and the stakes in those -- in those debates going on in the cabinet rooms around the green table so to speak. >> you know, another thing i've learned from this book, well, a couple of things, i having studied wilson for many years was always a little bit confused by the degree to which he relied on colonel edward house as an advise, but even i was taken aback at just the sheer level of not just dissembling but sometimes insubordination on the part of house and also robert lancing at various times. on the other hand, i was -- i really learned a lot about
3:01 pm
chancellor bettman holwig and his real dogged efforts to try to salvage, well, millions of lives during the period that you discuss. so anyone who is interested in historical characters and characteristics will find those two stories interesting. i wanted to ask you. you spent obviously lots of time in the british foreign archives and were able to somehow not only navigate them but find things that even i would say 20 or 25 years ago may not even have been accessible. i don't know the exact timing of when those things ultimately became fully declassified but one of the surprising things, while there's this, you know, obviously the british and germans are so central to this. is the relatively minor role of the french, and i'm wondering if you can talk about why you think
3:02 pm
the french government played such a relatively minor role in this peace window. >> yeah. the -- one of the greatest secrets actually was that the french actually wanted to get out of the war, too, but the french leaders could not say so publicly, so one of the documentary finds -- oh, and by the way, let me pay a little credit to a colleague, a couple of colleagues. there were a couple of other historians who were also uncovering some of the pieces of the same story and are publishing it. one of them whom i think has done a terrific job is a younger scholar named daniel larson at cambridge who has a book called plotting for peace coming out from cambridge university press hater this year, and larson has also up covered some astonishing evidence, especially on the british side and deserves some notice, and his -- his story is
3:03 pm
quite complimentary to the one i saw. another book that's being translated into english is a terrific account of the latter part of the war from the german point of view and, again, his work in the german evidence compliments and reinforces some of the arguments that i was making, but back to your question on the french. in august 1916, literally like in the same week that the engineer non-chancellor is reaching out to the americans to ask them to mode ate peace, there is an astonishing meeting between the president of france and the british king george v. those of you who know french history know that the french president is no pacifist. he was conservative nationalist. a key figure in the events of
3:04 pm
the july 1914 that led to the war. he was the author in the french public eye of the sacred union to unite all the political factions in france to wage the war so think about this. this is the french president the great war hawk. he met privately with the british king, august 1916 and confided to him, one-on-one. no one else in the room. france must make peace. we must end the war as soon as possible. i expect that the opportunity for peace will come later this year through woodrow wilson, through a wilson mediation. when it comes we must take it. he's confiding this to the king so the king will know and let people know back in britain we must take it. the french people don't understand how bad the situation is. they are not aware of the fact that russia is tottering and may
3:05 pm
soon fall. the only reason i know about this -- by the way this, conversation i've just described is not in any of the standard presidential biographies because he kept this position completely secret. now, he had his prime ministerarities i'd brian actually begin some very secret peace feelers were a german emissary from bettman occurring inside switzerland during the winter of 1617, but meanwhile the only reason i know about the french president's confidences to the king about this, which were, by the way, passed back to london, is because the way that the king passed them back is he called in the british ambassador to paris, a man named francis bird, and he de-briefed birdie. he said you're the ambassador to paris. let me tell you what the president told me. birdie recorded all of this in his diaries. then when birdie published his diary in the 1920s he admitted
3:06 pm
all of this, but birdie's original diaries, the handwritten diaries, are still actually in the british archives which i cite, and he has all of this, and then birdie had to reveal all of this to the british -- to the war committee of the british cabinet later that month before askwith met with brian who would know all about it. so the british government at end of august 1916 knew in the most secret possible way that actually the french were looking for a way out of the war which comes back to your question. the french don't play as important a role because by this time the french are financially and militarily dependant on the british to continue the war. so the british in effect are kind of the controlling dial on whether or not to sustain the war. they are also looking to the british in part to offer them the face-saving way out of the war. since the french themselves
3:07 pm
cannot publicly ask to quit without -- without fatally compromising their whole position in the fight so that's -- that's -- in a way there is a secret desire on the french to find a way out, but they can't add knit publicly so it's not publicly known and they are -- they have to defer a lot to the british to take the diplomatic lead in helping to find the way out. >> thank you very much. okay. so now is i think the fun part. we're going to maybe do a little bit of academic battle and then we'll come back and try to find a negotiated settlement. in the spirit of this seminar i do have a few interpretive challenges that i want to pose to you and fittingly they all revolve around wilson's role. wilson is central in your account, and i will telegraph
3:08 pm
that i find the -- many of the judgmentsch wilson's performance to be much more measured than you find in many accounts, but i have some questions and sol challenges that i would like to -- to make, so i'm kind of going to go through may 1916 and then maybe fall '16 to winter '17 and then -- and then a final critical end of january and early february 1917 where everything falls apart. >> your audience should be able to see woodrow wilson right now. >> yes, they can. there he is. woodrow wilson. so in may of 1916, i read his speech to the league to enforce peace very differently than you did. it seems to me that it was the prisht, not wilson, who was to blame for that very early failure of the peace project.
3:09 pm
i don't think the speech articulated disdain for the objects and concerns of the war. i think he was trying to articulate impartiality. he was not at that point going to judge who was at fault. instead, he wanted to foucs on freedom of the seas, to court the german and u.s. audiences and on banding together against selfish aggression and to protect, quote, the inviable rights of people, obviously courting allied and u.s. audiences who saw germany and belgium as the defining moments and meanwhile wilson signaled the same attitude in a letter that reached the british cabinet a week before his speech and they were hotly debating peace at that point. then, of course, jpmorgan, and this is another wonderful part of the story, your story, jpmorgan arranges to relieve britain's financial woes for a few more months and suddenly the peace option is sheffield by the british cabinet and as late as august 28th british foreign
3:10 pm
secretary gray is still telling how is that any peace move would be premature, seen as pro-german and, of course, lloyd george publicly commits the british government to a fight to the finish by a knockout blow. seems to me that made it impossible for the british government from then on to entertain anything but a peace that made germany look like a supplicant so that's my first moment that i would like you to respond to. the second is in the -- in the fall of 1969 and the winter of 1916-'17 -- >> we may want to take them one at a time for the audience to hold these. >> sure, sure. let's go ahead. >> hold the chronologies together. >> yeah. go ahead. please. >> so what trigg is referring to, the narrative is intricate, and he's referring actually to
3:11 pm
the first real window for peace was actually back in back in may -- in the spring of 1916. at that time wilson was pleading with the british to ask for his mediation. the british decide not to ask for mediation. the cabinet considered it on three different occasions on which they came closest on the third one which is the one that trigg is talking about in late may. he points out, and you can make the argument it's really mainly the british fault that they didn't ask for his mediation, not wilson's. it was a very close call, and it turns on this. there was the peace camp in the british cabinet had the majority of the cabinet, but the center of that group, which was led by arthur balfour are needed
3:12 pm
germany to make some concessions. it needed it to be a compromisist. it wouldn't just be britain is willing to quilt with the battle lines where they were, with germany owning belgium, so what -- balfour had drafted a message he was going to ask the cabinet to approve that said we will accept your mediation, but you need to assure us you're going work for us on these -- to make sure that this is a compromise peace. that key meeting was going to be held on may 29th. the british told wilson and how is that they were going to have their key meeting on may 29th. wilson gives a speech hoping that this will bring the british along by offering them the -- the american commitment to the post-war league, that he believes, with cause, is something the british care about.
3:13 pm
i blamed wilson a little bit for having screwed up the diplomacy because they had not -- that he gives a speech in which he seems to stand away from offering any pressure on territorial concessions. in other words, he -- he distances america from seeking to pressure the germans to make a compromised peace, yet it is just that pressure that the peace faction needs to hear so that they can sell the peace deal to the british government, and that -- and that standoffishness is what hurt. trigg can interpret wilson's expression as merely a statement of disinterest, not a statement of disdain, and that's a fair reading. the british read it as disdain, but here's the more important thing. all he needed to do is secretly
3:14 pm
reassure the british that, yes, indeed, we will be pushing for these compromise provisions, and realizing this at the last minute house sent the british that reassurance that they needed, but he sent it by a letter sent on may 27th. the key british meeting was on may 29th. by the time the left had arrived, the british indignant at wilson's speech which they thought had walked back his commitment to help them get a compromise, had thrown this aside and committed -- well, we're just going to go ahead with the summer offensive and roll the dice and see if we kim prove our position on the battlefield, so i -- what i describe in the book is thoughtful speech, thoughtless diplomacy because i actually -- i don't really blame wilson for this problem here. i actually blame house because wilson had pleaded with house to
3:15 pm
please help him make the case in the best possible terms for the british peace faction and house who was supposed to be his expert on london did not help him do that, and, therefore, that moment in which the british could have south the mediation and closed the deal on that, which came extremely close in may 1916, that moment was lost, which then leads us to the -- to the really huge lost opportunity which ensues in august because now in august it's not the british who are asking for the compromise peace. the germans are asking for it secretly, but the british secretly know about it, and their need to get out of the war is still very great. gray is holding house off at the end of august, but that's partly because he's still worried about the need to get some sort of compromise, and there were -- the discussions of this
3:16 pm
developed two days after that message is sent to house an august 28th saying hold off for now. askwithholds a meeting with the war committee opening the meeting saying it's time for everyone in the cabinet to start giving me their peace terms. that's on august 30th. that, by the way, is right after he had his discussion with the french leadership and also got debriefed on the french president's interest on bringing the war to an end and really from august 30th, from then on, most of the british cabinet is moving towards a negotiated peace because the war news is just terrible, and the financial news is terrible, and -- and that's the context in which lloyd george makes his political play that trigg was referring to at the end of september in order to position himself publicly as the win the war guy for his political reasons, we think. there are some other arguments. the irony there is that at the
3:17 pm
very time lloyd george is positioning himself publicly at mr. win the war, privately he's the leading opponent of the current military strategy. he is the person who in private more eloquently than anyone else is saying that britain is on the path to lose the war, but he -- his private stance sutterly contradictory to his public stance, but that's the game it a he plays in the autumn of 1916. >> so this is good because i feel like we've opened a peace window between the two of us. perhaps it's really house and lloyd george who are the -- the villains in this story, but we'll see -- >> let me interrupt for just a moment on this because this is such an important opportunity. my book blames wilson for what i think ultimately for the most consequential diplomatic failure in history of the united states, and i say that and then i want to say this.
3:18 pm
is anyone who reads this book will come away actually in many ways with a quite positive portrait of wilson. >> that's exactly right, yes. >> and that's -- in a way that's the tragedy in this story. willison not the cartoon idealist that -- that so many schoolchildren are taught. wilson comes across in this pock as actually quite far-sighted. quite perceptive about the great issues of the war, deeply perceptive about the way to bring it to an end. in other words, at the level of grand strategy, wilson comes across as one of the most perceptive statesmen of his time, and the tragedy then is that he can't translate his grand strategy into the choreography of the diplomacy to brick it about. it's the operational state craft that fails him in part because
3:19 pm
of his reliance on edward house so that's the -- here's edward house, by the way, for those of you who are trying to conjure up an image of the wealthy ex-patriot texan who was wilson's veras. this is a pen and ink portrait made of him in 1919. trigg and i actually share -- one of the things i admire about trigg's own work, we share fundamentally a similar portrait of wilson's grand strategy, of wilson's -- often you could call it quite pragmatic adjustments, standing to the situation and -- and so it's a positive portrait of wilson that sadly results in this unbelievably tragic outcome. >> yeah, and that is important. i don't mean to suggest that
3:20 pm
this is a -- i mean, a takedown of wilson. it is anything but. i'm trying to get at -- so one of the arguments that you make is that wilson lacked the ability, as you say, to do the diplomatic choreography, and i think maybe where we might disagree is you see that lack of ability as a little bit more innate to wilson whereas i see it in some ways imposed by circumstances. he has kind of dissembling and insubordinate top diplomats. he has a very, you know, a british government that in the fall and winter of 1916-'17 continues to insist that germany publicly announce that they are going to evacuate belgium before any conference is called whereas the british government has known for months that germany is
3:21 pm
willing to evacuate belgium and that bettman cannot undermine his own position with the german high command by doing that. >> there's chancellor bettman holwig for those of you trying to put a face to it. >> is that his russian academy duelling scar across his nose there, too, do you know? >> i don't know. >> and then even in the -- at the end, you make a very, very strong argument. i'll skip some of what i was going to cover and go kind of to january 1917. you make a very strong argument that wilson's peace without victory speech was not a bad speech or misguided but that it needed to be similarly again, there needed to be a second track of kind of nuts and bolts diplomacy, so just for the audience.
3:22 pm
it was -- it was in the peace without victory speech that wilson sort of tried to offer something to all of the belligerence while also shoring up support in the american public for a u.s.-mediated peace so he talks about no humiliation or crushing of one side or the other which is important to every -- to all the populations of the major belligerence and the leaders. he insists on government by consent of the governed again which he does to ease minds both about belgium and also about the polish buffer state that germany really needs to as a security against russia and finally a league of nations. he lays out a reason that we can all come to the peace table not to -- not to recriminate against each other but to join in a common project. now i completely agree that it would have been better for wilson to pursue a conference
3:23 pm
program at the same time, a really detailed conference program, but house had not informed him properly of the very clear directions for how to do that. bernsdorf is the german chancellor to washington now and the most important player to bettman in the peace and then there's the peace note of december that called for a total reorganization of europe, and so wilson, there is a delay. that delay does undermine bettman, the chancellor in germany, but i'm not sure exactly what else wilson could have done unless all of these other characters were playing
3:24 pm
their roles a little bit better and then my final question is would it have mattered given the mindset of ludden dorff and hindenberg and their direct access and influence over the kaiser and their control of the military branch of the government? would -- did bettman still have the ability to -- to be -- to have germany be a kind of honest player by the early 1917, or were the hawks really in germany really in had a much more powerful position than he was? not in -- not blaming him or saying that he mishand trillion dollars but just because of the kind of tragic evolution of the narrative. because if i was the wilson and i received a note on the same
3:25 pm
day, january 31st, that germany was resuming submarine warfare and also to come to the table for partly cloudy skies would i have interpreted it as germany is willing to stop indiscriminately killing americans if the united states is willing to help us get out of a war that most people in your country think that we started and our only show of good faith is that we're evacuating a country, belgium, that we overran. which is not to say that in hind tight would have not have been much better for wilson to have pursued in the peace option still. i'm just wondering if you really had that option or if it's more of a tragedy and maybe i'm just not understanding how much we might agree on this. or not. >> so, sem both questions have
3:26 pm
to do with the late developments in 1917. where we both agree is we both actually admire the fundamental rhetorical position in wilson's peace without victory peach which he delivers to the congress as a joint -- as an address on january 22-in, 1917. which at the high level is wilson is outlining how the war should end on a compromised basis and his concession of how the war should end is fundamentally sound. it's actually the same concessionception that bethmann has and that the british have and there's a lot of information coming into wilson. wilson knows now from four different sources that the germans are willing to consider
3:27 pm
going back to basically pre-war borders, including an opening to the mediterranean guaranteed for russian, plus an independent pole flow from russian rule. all right. the problem is wilson is taking this rhetorical stance of the nature of the space which we both admire and he's not actually doing anything to bring it about. he -- what he needed to do then is to try to arrange the peace conference. this is what people had been waiting for him to do in germany for five months is you've got to do something to bring about the peace conference. bethmann has been holding off the military who have been saying we know how to end this war. we can end this war with a submarine fantasy. he's been holding them off with the kaiser support consistently now for five months. he had seen off the top head of the german navy and seen off the
3:28 pm
former head of the german army falconite and refused to bring in new commanders who were popular as he put it to the kaiser who could help -- allow us to make a face-saving peace because the generals were popular, because they had been heroes in the east. all of that, the kaiser had stood by him again and again even against the military pressure in october, in december. finally wilson's -- the false reports that they were getting about wilson, including from -- because of house's dissembling, wilson's misfire with his december peace move which was again failed to call for a conference. new the kaiser and the generals have given up. the kaiser and generals have given up. and here he gives a peace -- bernsdorf, his ambassador in
3:29 pm
washington, just arranged the whole choreography for how to start arranging the peace conference, and -- and house having -- though house got wilson's clearance on all of this which was cabled to bernsdorf yet house had not explained it well to wilson and wilson goes ahead with his peace without victory move with no other moves towards a conference which basically takes the whole table that bernsdort had set which was being negotiated with berlin and just turns that whole table upside down and even then you've got the generals, the high command convinced that wilson is hopeless. they then declare the unrestrict submarine warfare. finally wilson comes back at the end and says, well, if chancellor bethm mah nn will only confide in me his secret peace terms, if he'll just trust me with that i will go try to see what i can do to arrange a conference.
3:30 pm
the general -- so they are already moving for the u-boat war. bethmann takes -- gets this message that wilson just wants to hear his peace terms late on a sunday night in mid-week. he jumps on an overnight train to the kaiser's headquarters drafting a message all the way, arrives and persuades the kaiser to send a second message at the same time with the u-boat message saying you asked for our peace terms, here they are. i'm -- i'm doing this -- no other -- no leader in the war had done this with wilson. here they are. he's written them in a way that gives them some room for negotiation and so on, but makes it clear restoration of belgium. it's clearly some kind of compromise peace with bickering over the details and says by the way if you call a peace conference we stop the uboth. and -- and wilson is so furious
3:31 pm
abetted by house actually at the german u-boat move that he basically does not read seriously the parallel message from bethmann offering the peace terms. he kind of just throws that aside and breaks relations with germany the next day and sends beornsdorf home and then wilson is stunned. see, wilson thought at that moment -- i'm only like four weeks away from investigate peace conference, and he has this emotional reaction which -- which frankly bernsdorf feared would happen to the submarine message. he then doesn't seriously read bethmann's parallel message that he got approved over the overnight train ride and wilson now finds himself in the position having sent bernsdorf home, but he doesn't want america to go into the war. he's trying to revive the peace talks, but he has no -- he's
3:32 pm
burned his bridges to do it. he sent the germans home. he spends the next month and more trying to find some way out of the box that he's cornered himself into, but he -- and i've explained here's how you would have restarted the negotiations. you would have just said -- you would have -- you would have pocketed bethmann's terms and then you could have said i'm arranging a peace conference and as part of this arrangement i have now -- the germans have agreed they will stop the submarine warfare as soon as the peace conference begins. i've won this concession. the germans will end the u-boat war as soon as the peace conference i have arranged begins and what's more the germans have promised as a condition of talking peace that they will withdraw from belgium to show their good faith. at that point the whole situation -- wilson would be
3:33 pm
hailed as using american leverage to get the germans to stop the u-boat war at the same time he brings people together with a peace conference with an astonishing show of german good faith. that addresses the one issue that motivated the british and american publics as no others did which was belgium. because all the remaining territorial issues are of very little interest to anyone in britain and america. at that point i think -- well, this is then to wilson -- wilson looks like the great peace-maker. he stopped the u-boat war. he's brought about the peace conference, and he's -- and he's persuaded the germans to put belgium on the table as a condition of talking peace, and he's done all this before the peace conference has even actually begun, and it would have -- it would have been a diplomatic triumph for wilson. i could put the same set of
3:34 pm
facts in front of any of my old professional diplomat friends, and i think nine out of ten of them would see exactly what i've just seen as to what to do with that, but you're righting is that wilson didn't have professional diplomats helping him. he had edward house. he had robert lancing who was just be a international lawyer really whom wilson regarded as more than a clerk who was secretly conconspiring to get the americans on the side of the allies which is not what wilson wanted at all. wilson had a couple of young diplomats, william butler in london who was a junior diplomat but brilliant, the young joseph grew in berlin. there were good american diplomats in the service at it and they were sending interesting advice back to washington, but it wasn't being used or heed, so it's -- it's --
3:35 pm
that's what is so incredibly tragic about this. you can blame the german generals for their hawkishness, their yearning for the submarine panacea, their yearning to find some way of finally beating down bethmann and showing that the military was really in charge in german, yes. they deserve all the blame that you want to heap upon them, but this problem was eminently solvable in january 1917 and wilson had all the tools in his hand to solve it. he had by this time absolute financial leverage over the allies. they knew it and he knew it and in fact he had already used that leverage. he had already effectively cut off the continuation of further loans to the allies and was probably within six weeks of running out. that's -- that's how close things were. wilson is bewildered and stunned that his peace-making has failed
3:36 pm
and part of the irony and the tragedy is to the end of his life he never knew and understood what had gone wrong. >> thank you very much. that was really very helpful. i'm not -- well. i think i should move on to just one or two other questions because i think we could go back and forth on this -- >> and there are some good things coming in the chat, too. >> i do want to ask a couple of -- one quick, well, i'll ask you two quick questions and you can save -- you can answer which ever one and see if you can weave in your answers to the others maybe when i get to the audience here. one is you and i both share a really deep interest in the way that wilson was influenced at key points by people outside of his administration, particularly her brert crowley and walter
3:37 pm
lippmann, and when you were speaking just now, i found myself wondering if indeed in those days, that january, february moment, wilson could have done what you had expected him or what you would have liked him to do given the climate of public opinion. it almost seems if germany is announcing unrestricted submarine warfare you have to send the ambassador home, and i'm wondering because a lot of what wilson does in these january -- december, january, february months is very much approved of and lauded by some of the great sort of thinkers outside of the administration of the age, so i'm wondering if -- if public opinion really allowed -- would have allowed williston do what -- what you -- >> actually two quick points
3:38 pm
then about state of public opinion. first, contrary to the general impression including in the historical literature the peak of pro-allied opinion had already come and gone in the united states. >> yes. >> the pro-allied opinion peaks in the year after the lose tena sinking between may 1915 and '16 pro-allied sentiment is dwindling from may 1916 on for many reasons so it's still substantial but it -- it's not nearly what it had been a year earlier and the dominant sentiment in the country was to stay out of the war. i agree, and -- and the dwindling of that sentiment is epitomized by no one better than the example you just mentioned, walter lippmann and herbert pearl. the peace without victory editorial that inspired the
3:39 pm
peace without victory speech, this is a period in which lipman is moving towards the influence of his public affairs. wilson doesn't rely on anyone in his government to help him so he's getting his ideas frankly from editors in the new republic. house has no particular intellectual left of his own. it's amazing, so the -- but if anyone goes back and reads the peace without victory peace in the new republic, they will see that actually the peace is anti-ally. it's not anti-german. the whole thrust of the peace is basically to chastise the xwritish and david lloyd george in particular for aspiring to unato inable warrings and appearing to defy what the world was calling for which is a compromised peace. how then do you deal with the
3:40 pm
public outcry about the german u-boat war if you're wilson on january 31st, and it seems to me the only way you deal with that is you've got to then do something in response that shows the germans stepping back. hence, that's, why and the germans had offered him the tools to do this. that's why the peace move would be -- it would be made to look as if i had threatened the germans with war and rather than go to war with us, they have agreed to talk peace, and have agreed to lift the u-boat war in connection with that. now bettman had promised him that the germans would do that, and you can see how wilson can play this. furious at the german u-boat war, i have told them we're prepared to go to war with you. in response they have said very well then. we will talk peace and abandon the u-boat war when the peace talks start and indeed put belgium on the table right away.
3:41 pm
boy, that i think totally handles your public opinion problem. it shows that wilson has used the threat of war to bring the germans to the peace table on a compromised basis. they don't know. see, the public doesn't know that the germans had been offering that for months. they will think that this is something wilson would have gained by his muscular threat of war, but -- but, you know, the americans don't see it. >> thank you. thank you very much. >> i was going to ask another question about long-term significance, but i think a lot of the questions in the chat kind of point to that, so -- >> okay. >> a few -- a few questions -- well, let me start with the historiographical question kind of going way back. how does your work -- and think about this, again in, terms of the long-term consequences of this -- of this story.
3:42 pm
how does your work build on your good friend and one of my former mentors ernest mays' work in 1959, on the world war in american isolation. that's one question. and another question was why do you think wilson after the failure -- this kind of bewildering failure to him of this closing of this peace window, one of the people in the audience wants to know why did he maintain his faith in multilateralism or in deliberative foreign policy in a community of power through the end of the war, and how did these events, do you think, influence his thinking at
3:43 pm
versailles? why don't we start with those for now from the audience. >> yeah. so the historiographical question is a great question. it came from our colleague thom schwartz at vanderbilt. tom was a student of ernie may as i am, too. the book that he's referring to is one of what i think are the three seminal works on why america got into world war i written after the first generation of materials became available. may -- ernest may, arthur link and actually a swedish historian named carl birnbaum all wrote in the late '50s and early '60s on this, and the story actually is partly the story of this book. the whole origin of this book lies in a conversation between me and ernie may that occurred a couple of years before ernie's death.
3:44 pm
we were working on a world history project together, and we west back over this -- we went back over the evidence about the secret german peace move which is in the german documents, and we began talking about this and musings like what did happen to this, and we began pulling that thread a little bit more because we both read german and were following some of the germans, and then we went back to the lansdowne memo. now there was a question in the chat about a famous lansdowne letter. the lansdowne letter that historians know about is from the fall of 1917, 1917. the lansdowne memo was while lansdowne was at the heart of power. it's in the fall of 1916. the lansdowne memo is much more important than the lansdowne letter. the lansdowne memo is what triggered the -- is what
3:45 pm
catalyzed the debate in the british cabinet in the fall of 1916 on whether to go on with the war, and so we remembered the secret german peace move. we remembered the lansdowne memo and we began digging into this some more. we looked again at house's diaries which were not as readily available to scholars in the late '50s and early '60s in their unexpirgated form as they are now and there was more british evidence, too, and ernie and i actually decided oh, my god this really needs a completely new look. we really need to dig hard into this question of what did happen to the german peace move? we thought that this deserved a really important further examination, and then ernie died a couple of years later in 2009, and i kept chipping away at this book for more than ten years
3:46 pm
since then, and what you have now in a way is the result of that sort of brainstorming moment that ernest and i had shortly before his death. in answer to your other questioner about how did wills orrin think of diplomacy afterwards. hem ended up saying the diplomacy failed because of russian militarism and that, therefore, russian militarism had to be destroyed in the peace somehow. he had not given up on peace negotiations. he was develop soon that the kind of situation that produced the worst war in history was clearly not a model for the future, that you needed some kind of different system from that and so then you go out, but the argument i make and the argument i make about the peace in 1919 which i make in the
3:47 pm
epilogue is not to -- is not that dissimilar from the argument you would find from historians like zara stoinman or others who looked at this. i'm quite sympathetic to the peace-makers, and i basically think they made the best of an impossible set of problems. things were so bad after the further two years of war, with the russian civil war and the complete collapse of central europe and the collapse of the mast, the greek curbingish war, things were so bad that i think there was the no peace possible that ends up making everyone happy. the peace-makers dish think wilson had a modest but important influence in the peace
3:48 pm
talks. the tragedy in a way is that the expectations from the peace by that time were so xhi because america had had to commit in and all would be redumd by the pace. it put expects on what could be fulfilled in paris. i think upped the circumstances wilson tried as hard as he could in paris and did just about as well as he could have. that's separate from the issue of whether he should have compromised with the reservations or not and i think even if the americans had joined the league of nations it would have made a fundamental difference because americans were so fundamentally disgusted with the outcomes that they were withdrawing from european politics and intervention any way. so i don't fault wilson quite as
3:49 pm
much in 1919 as maybe some people do. on the good side, when wilson and house actually worked together in the field in, paris in 1919, wilson finally had the chance to really see how bad house was and their relationship then broke and wilson wound up never speaking to house again. >> by the way, if you want a really good book, folks, on that peace conference era that has a slightly different interpretation than phil's, i know a guy. i know a guy. >> hooper. >> "break from the heart of the world." >> there's another guy with a long knowledgian name, too. i want to get to some more audience questions. a couple talley are interesting and this is kind of similar to the questions about france. we had people asking where is
3:50 pm
austrians in the ottoman in this story. >> well, yes. >> bethmann coordinated the peace move with his allies. the august 1916 peace move as i described, this was no little sit and formal thing. bethmann was cleared with the kaiser. bethmann coordinate the move with the leading political faxes in the german government, including in the imperial federal government. he coordinated are the austrians. he coordinated with the turks, so he had basically -- he had them all lined up for a compromised peace. the austrians themselves totally wanted a compromised peace and had totally bought into bethmann's plans for a compromised plan. the austrians bought into it so completely that british intelligence found out about that, too, and that was yet up more source of information that the british and americans had
3:51 pm
that the central powers were ready to compromise, and -- and meanwhile the allies were moving rapidly towards losing the war in 1917, so everything was coming together for a compromise. the allies could not hold. they knew that the central powers wanted to compromise peace. the allies were running out of money to continue the war, even if they wanted to, and had they tried to continue the war without american help they would have lost the war in 1917 because of the collapse of russia, the french army mutinies in the spring of 1917, italy almost collapses in the fall of 1917. the british offensive was ruinous. so really the only thing that allows the war to continue is the american entry and the american entry was unnecessary under the circumstances.
3:52 pm
>> another question given the significance of this moment from david patterson, so why have so few people written about it? why did it not strike, know, arthur link or birnbaum or -- or others as there being a there there? >> yes. that -- that's a terrific question, trigg and to david patterson, i've thought -- i've thought a lot about this question, but to be blunt i actually think this book could have been written probably any time in the last 35 to 40 years, that is i think all the evidence was basically available if people put -- it could have been written for a while. here's the problem. the problem is no one knew the story existed except really the germans for a long time.
3:53 pm
the whole story was -- was deliberately, quite deliberately covered up by house in his lifetime which is the interwar period. house publishes this version of his diaries that he did with the yale historian seymour that deliberately edits out a lot of the key material from his diaries, and the british no interest in publicizing this and didn't know what had happened, so there were some really quite suggestive evidence that the germans discussed and released beginning in the 1920s, but unless you follow the german evidence and everyone was distracted with the 1914 war guild controversy during the interwar period so the story disappears from view. it just disappears. by the late '50s and early '60s, the things that are missing here is full access -- full access
3:54 pm
and digestion of the house diaries and of the full house diaries now, and then lining that up against the german evidence does not really occur. people did not -- people did not really know the issue was there and they did not look for it. and -- and as his -- and they did not -- this was when the key things hike may's work in 58 and byrn about imuse work around '58 and '59. in the early '60s germans are linking the evidence and link begins to see this and it dawns on link in the stuff that he's writing in the myth '60s and on into the '70s. you can see it because link's interpretation of this material starts getting revised, and -- and towards the -- towards the
3:55 pm
end of his writing on this link is now coming around to the view that it's all lansing's fault, that oat first he started blaming the germans and then he realized they are not to blame and then he starts blaming lansing for it and that's -- and house, too. he told house responsible, but link is not a dip malt. he didn't really understand how diplomacy could work, and so he never real understood what had gone wrong in the story all that much better than wilson had understood it and link did not have -- did not work with the british evidence, and the british evidence is the last big treasure trove evidence to come out. a lot of the key british evidence does not come out to begin with until the '70s and '80s. we're talking now not just about the records at the public record office now called the national archives of the united kingdom, but we're also talking about the full diaries of maurice finke
3:56 pm
who was effectively the national security adviser of the british war cabinet, the diaries of lloyd george's mistress and -- and other -- also i cite some -- a couple of records of british cabinet meetings which -- which weren't supposed to have notes but which were taken by a man named lord haarcourt some of which is absolute dynamite in the library at oxford so some of the british material -- the decrips of the british intelligence intercepts and i think it was impossible to do this starting to do this the 1980s. i actually think that some of people working on the woodrow wilson papers in the early 1980s were beginning to see this. i can just tell from some of the footnotes, i think some of the people who were editing those papers, the light bulbs were going off and it was almost like
3:57 pm
they were urging historians to take another look at this, and i guess i'm -- i'm one of the ones who did. >> a few more questions. we have ten minutes remaining. let me see. we have a couple of questions about maybe a larger or again maybe factor beyond wilson's control that might have shaped this. >> oh, i'm sorry, just one more thing. forgiving me for interrupting. i saw something in david patterson's note. the german archives on this stuff have been very stopping and are excellent, but it does help to be able to read engineer non-. very few of the american scholars ever really tried to get -- but they didn't know to look at it because they didn't know it was an issue. are i'm sorry to have interrupted. >> no, not at all. not at all. where is the guns of august in all of this which i take to mean
3:58 pm
how does the whole system of rivalries and everything that helped us explain and the degree that we can, the outbreak of the war, is there may be kind of an inearthia still going on that narrows this window even as it's opening and then another factor that you addressed very directly but maybe could be expanded upon. you've got a question about what was house's -- what was edward house's goal, his -- you know, why was he dissembling? why was he not open with wilson and then -- and then i hope you'll save time just to give your kind of two or three-minute, you know, summery argument about why this is important to us today or to
3:59 pm
policy-makers or to the state department or to people who want to be diplomats or -- or to, you know, our public life generally. >> yeah. in a way let mow -- let me kind of wrap your first and last comments together and in any kind of -- because the first time it was really about how do you orf come the sheer inertia of the war-making to end the war, and in a way that's the lesson i want people to take away from the book for today. is when you -- if i tell you the moral of the story is you need to understand diplomacy, people will nod their heads and go to sleep. diplomacy is one of those words that you say it and people, yeah, yeah, diplomacy. their eyes glaze over. think about instead here's this colossal problem that you're trying to solve. how do we end the war?
4:00 pm
good news. most of the war leaders after the summer of 1916 realize that had they need to brick the war to an end. they want to bring the war to an end. one of their great foes in bethm ha nn had an expression for this. bethmann referred to how do we overcome what he called the machine of war bags. he worked out the answer to this which he then deployed in his political consultations and he got the german government ready for a compromised peace so his answer of how you overcome it is everybody has to have a story of how they won. everyone has to be able to say they won? well, how do you say that? how can they all say that. >> because all of them, all of them believe they are fighting the war in self-defense.
4:01 pm
are there bowerocrats in general who are hungry for annexations and drawing up papers? yes. but what bethmann and other political leaders realize -- this was a people's war by this time. and the people all think they are fighting in self-defense. the germans had this narrative. i mean, if you get not world of the germans or the austrians, they think that their enemies encircled them and ambushed them with the assassination of the archduke. they feel they were invaded. the americans and -- westerners tend to know about the invasion of belgium. the germans and austrians have a national member rift russian invasion of 1914. russia invaded germany. it invaded austrian and did a lot of damage. the invaders were thrown out in 1915. that's what made hindenberg a hero. but they think they are fighting
4:02 pm
the war in self-defense. the reason their political parties are uniting behind the war for the first couple of years is because even the socialists agree on fighting the war of self-defense, especially against the russians. so petromann is structuring a narrative look. this is a successful peace if your enemies have all combined against us and we fight them off and survive. we keep germany intact. there's even an analogy in german history that everyone refers to in germany called the peace looking back to the precedent in the seven years war that bernsdorf mentions and bethmann mentioned and that same narrative is mentioned. and they spoke above all of belgium's neutrality and they were invaded sobel jim could get
4:03 pm
at photographs. they can say we enter the war to stop russian militarism and be a certain shield against the german spear and we have turned that spear aside. germany has withdrawn from belgium, has renounced its conquests in belgium and france. we have shown that militarism failed. edward gray writing after the war said that that was an argument that would have worked with the british people and if the germans had restored belgium internally, the british recognized, belgium was the issue that held together the british. france, france had been invaded so what france needed above all is how the german invader leaves france, that france had defended herself. now france wanted -- and ideally france wanted more. france wanted to get back the
4:04 pm
laalsace lorraine territory but they were trying to cut a deal on that in the winter of '17. they all fought for self-defense and they succeeded. they all would have been scarred and bitter. there still would have been lots of linger resentiments and others about the enemies that had not been beaten enough, and so the -- the peace would have been opposed by minority factions in all these governments because there are minority factions that wanted absolute victory, but what you see in the book and those who studied this. the majority of the soldiers and the majority of the people actually wanted to win the war of self-defense alone and wanted desperately to bring the war to
4:05 pm
an end and that was the outcome that was available to them at the -- in the last months of 1916 and the americans were perfectly positioned to do it. all the sides had -- he had complete power over the allies and the germans had put on the table that everything he would need to develop a compromise peace. >> i think that that is a very appropriate place to leave it. i'm sorry we didn't get to house, but you do talk about it a little bit and in the book, of course, and i want to think very, very much for an excellent book. again, it's "the road less traveled" from public affairs. it was just out in march which i guess we're still in. i want to thank everybody for joining us.
4:06 pm
♪♪ c-span is cspan's online store, a collection of products and browse to see what's new and your purchase will support our nonprofit operations and you still have time to order the congressional directory with contact information from members of congress and the biden administration. go to up next on american at facts, we travel to northeastern france to trace the steps of american soldiers during the spring and early summer of 1918. but first, a portion


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on