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"Peace without victory"

Posted on January 22, 2013 at 4:42 PM
On this day in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for "peace without victory" in World War I. It was a last forlorn hope to fulfill the campaign promise on which he had recently won a narrow re-election victory: "He kept us out of war." In less than three months from this speech, the U.S. was nonetheless at war.

Even discounting the benefit of hindsight, it would seem logical for such an appeal to have won a more receptive audience among the leaders of warring Europe. Why didn't it? This can never be known for certain, but almost certainly one factor was the common belief that only victory could redeem the rivers of blood that both sides had already shed. Great Britain believed that its naval blockade of Germany would force the Germans to sue for peace. France was planning yet another ill-fated offensive that would assuredly throw "Les Boches" out of France. Germany's armies were entrenched in seemingly impregnable positions on the Western Front, while Austria-Hungary was shielded from invasion from the south by the granite wall of the Julian Alps.

The Allied Powers would shortly have occasion to rue their dismissal of Wilson's initiative. The overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia lay only five weeks in the future. It was this (perhaps more than anything else) that motivated the Germans to believe that unrestricted submarine warfare would tip the balance in their favor. That proved to be the fatal miscalculation that forced Wilson's hand.

What is perhaps more remarkable is that Wilson persisted in his hope that a peace without imposing vindictive terms on the losers might lay a foundation for a lasting international order. His actions have gained much criticism over the ensuing decades, much of it justified. Yet when we consider the long-run cost of a peace that was achieved without victory followed by a deeply flawed peacemaking process, his actions look much better in posterity's eyes than do those of many of the critics.

Categories: War and Peace

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7 Comments

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I had no idea the plagiarism among these easy essay sites was so pervasive, but to illustrate how a single essay gets copy/pasted from this site to other sites all over the internet, consider one of my long time favorite essays, Cows and Whales, an essay by a Japanese student who wrote the essay when I was teaching in the US.

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9:34 AM on May 11, 2013 
In less than three months from this speech, the U.S. was nonetheless at war.
Reply Steve Gordy
9:22 PM on May 11, 2013 
Quite true. The same poor timing (willful or not) was to bedevil Lyndon Johnson when, shortly after promising the American people that American troops wouldn't be sent to fight in South Vietnam, he went back on his promise. This was one of those things that gave rise to the phrase "credibility gap."
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That proved to be the fatal miscalculation that forced Wilson's hand.
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