The Fog Of WWI And Modern Conflicts
What can we learn from two competing theories in the early days of WWI?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
If you’re like me, you’re skeptical of everything being reported about the Ukraine War. I follow news sources from around the world, so I see the perspective not only of the West in this conflict, but also Russia and those sympathetic to its cause. From my monitoring of the situation, combined with my knowledge of the history of wars, I can draw one decisive conclusion: both sides employ plenty of propaganda techniques and disinformation campaigns to drum up support while confusing the enemy and their enemy’s supporters.
Perhaps in another post I’ll dig into how exactly wartime propaganda works, but right now I want to shine a light on two competing theories prevalent in the United States in the early days of World War I or The Great War. One I’m sure almost everyone is familiar with, thanks to it being taught in classrooms from sea to shining sea, while the other is infinitely more obscured through the dimming memory of time.
The year was 1915 and the campaign rhetoric for the 1916 presidential candidates was heating up. Theodore Roosevelt, the popular former president who unsuccessfully tried rising to that office again under his newly founded and quickly-disbanded Progressive Party, was probed by journalists about his thoughts on WWI. Everyone wanted to know if he thought not only should the United States get involved in the conflict, a topic of heated debate at the time, but which side it should back. Roosevelt at first resisted giving too firm of an opinion, but later he indicated a support of the Allies, although he didn’t fully explain why. Finally, after a question was posed by Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who queried if Roosevelt’s siding with the Allies had to do with his love of Belgium, which declared itself neutral in the war but had been invaded by Germany the previous year.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
As was common with Roosevelt when he got worked up, his voice rose in pitch as he responded, explaining to Patterson what he believed the fate of the US would be if Germany won the war. Unlike some, he didn’t think Teutonic aggression would be a problem immediately, but as the fledgling empire expanded it would meddle in the Caribbean, eventually threatening the free flow of vessels through the Panama Canal. That, the old Rough Rider argued, would put Germany and the US on a military collision course. If our country were to not help England, France, and the other Allies in their conflict, he felt those European powers would in turn become “extremely philosophical about the evil things happening to us.”
If that theory of Roosevelt’s strikes you as odd, recall what you know about the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. There’s plenty of controversy around the communication which helped push our country into the European war, but it was effective in part because from the beginning of the conflict some Americans circulated a theory that Germany would ally with Mexico, helping the latter to reclaim lands it lost after the Mexican-American War just 66 years previously. With the Mexican Revolution in full swing, Americans were understandably feeling uneasy about their neighbor to the south and its ultimate intentions.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In hindsight, there were some serious problems with this theory, but some believe it still could have been a reality had the US not been involved in WWI. In fact, Henry Stimson, US Secretary of War under Taft, wrote an article in Harper’s Weekly, which was published on December 12, 1914, arguing that an enemy state could easily land 150,000 troops in New London, Connecticut. Others posited German battleships could bombard Manhattan Island or land somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard with hundreds of thousands of troops, overthrowing our government. These types of theories of a foreign force invading our soil aren’t unfamiliar even today.
What most have forgotten was a competing theory. German-Americans and other so-called “Hyphenated-Americans” believed the British, French, Japanese, and Mexicans would combine to overwhelm the United States in a joint invasion. Before you dismiss such a theory as simply wartime propaganda, which it definitely was, keep in mind there was some truth to it. After all, the War of 1812 was only a century in the past, and many Americans were still bitter about the atrocities committed by the British, including the burning of Washington. What’s more, the French, British, and Japanese were all aggressively expanding their empires and resource-rich North America was certainly a tempting target. Throw in the same bitter sentiment from the results of the Mexican-American War and it’s easy to see why this theory was believable, just like the other, at least to an extent.
My whole point of bringing this up is we live in a time of many competing theories about what lies ahead for global military conflict: China invading Taiwan, Russia invading other countries like Poland, Russia and China linking up for a military alliance, Iran stirring the pot in the Middle East, even South American countries like Venezuela trying to goad the US into something. Just like with the competing narratives about the Ukraine War, it’s difficult to see through the fog of war and that’s intentional. After all, one of the greatest tools a general can wield against enemy forces is confusion and despair.
If you truly want to understand what’s happening, which at times seems near impossible, read everything about Ukraine and other conflicts with this in mind, taking it all with a grain of salt. Both sides have been saying since the beginning of the war everything would be over quickly and have repeatedly stated the conflict was almost over, the other side was crumbling in disarray, etc. Healthy skepticism in a time of war is just that, healthy.
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