Chapter 22 World War I

Section 5 Consequences of the War for the West

Despite the peace settlement, the conclusion of World War I left several questions unresolved. The peace settlement itself created a variety of new problems in international relations. The war also had a tremendous impact on society, striking a blow from which Western Civilization never fully recovered. 

America's Role in the Postwar World

Of all the world's nations, the United States emerged from World War I with the greatest potential for power. The country had entered the war a debtor nation and emerged the world's number one creditor. Its industry, military, and people had survived the war comparatively unscathed. Yet the role the United States would play in the world remained unclear.

            Although its president had been the principal architect of the League of Nations, the United States elected not to join it. The steadfast opposition of isolationist Senators coupled with President Wilson's refusal to compromise with those like Henry Cabot Lodge, who wanted only to adjust the language of the League's covenant, prevented ratification of the Versailles Treaty. The United States instead negotiated a separate peace treaty with Germany.

            American foreign policy after World War I has often been characterized as a return to isolation from European politics. This perception, however, is inaccurate. The United States remained engaged in Europe despite their military withdrawal and refusal to join the League of Nations. American leaders who succeeded Wilson tried to maintain stability in Europe by diplomatic and economic means. In 1921, for example, President Harding hosted the Washington Naval Conference, at which the world's major naval powers met to discuss a variety of issues, including arms reduction. During the Conference, the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed to set limits on their navies.

            Two years later, American economic diplomacy played a critical role in resolving a major crisis in Europe. In 1923, Germany defaulted on its war reparations. France responded by sending troops to occupy the Ruhr, a vital industrial region in western Germany. Britain refused to support France's action, and dissension grew between the allies. In 1924, American diplomat Arthur Dawes helped to stabilize the situation by devising a plan to reschedule Germany's reparations payments. His plan also called for Germany to regain complete control over her own economy. The Dawes Plan relieved the economic pressure on Germany as well as some of the bitterness Germans felt over reparations.

A New Map of Eastern Europe

The peace settlement changed the world's political geography. The collapse of old empires resulted in new boundaries and the emergence of new nations, particularly in Eastern Europe. Four new states emerged from the ruins of the Russian Empire: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian collapse combined with German defeat also enabled the restoration of an independent Poland. Out of the ruined Habsburg Empire, Hungary became fully independent and Czechoslovakia was formed in central Europe. In the Balkans, Serbia incorporated Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as other former Austrian territory, to create Yugoslavia.

            These new states represented an attempt to apply the principle of national self-determination by uniting people of the same nationality under their own government. Unfortunately, the attempt did not always succeed. For example, a German-speaking population of some 3 million lived in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. In another case, Poland gained access to the Baltic Sea through control of the so-called Danzig Corridor, which also cut through territory inhabited by Germans. Some contemporary observers recognized the danger. Marshal Foch, for instance, remarked prophetically that the Polish Corridor contained “the root of the next war.” 

Dissatisfied and Outcast Nations

The peace settlement left several nations feeling dissatisfied or outcast. Both Japan and Italy had entered the war on the Allied side primarily to acquire new territory. Japan wanted territory in the Pacific and in China. Early in the war, Japanese forces seized German holdings in both areas. After the war, a League of Nations mandate allowed Japan to keep control of several Pacific islands. Japan also hoped to keep China's Shantung Peninsula, but the United States objected, insisting that Shantung be returned to China. This angered many Japanese leaders.

            Italy had similar territorial ambitions. Italy wanted two ports on the Adriatic--Trieste and Fiumé--as well as the Tirol region of the Alps. In the peace settlement, Italy gained Tirol and Trieste, but the other Allies refused to agree to Italian control of Fiumé. Italy's failure to secure all it wanted in the peace contributed to popular dissatisfaction and political instability inside Italy after the war.   

            Two nations--the Soviet Union and Germany--emerged from the war as outcasts. The Communist commitment to spreading revolution coupled with their abandonment of the Allies at Brest-Litovsk alienated the Soviet Union from the rest of the international community. Germany was saddled with blame for the war and vilified by many people. Germany's treatment in the peace settlement created a sense of defiance and desire for revenge among many Germans.  “We shall win the final battle,” declared Germany's foreign minister upon returning from Versailles.

            Neither Germany nor the Soviet Union was initially invited to join the League of Nations. Shunned by other nations, they decided to work together. In 1922, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Rapallo Treaty. They agreed to open diplomatic relations, to renounce outstanding claims against each other, and to cooperate economically.

Impact of the War on Society

World War I had a tremendous impact on Western society. The costs of the war stagger the imagination. Reliable estimates indicate that the war left more than 10 million soldiers dead and over 20 million wounded. Russia lost more than 2 million people. Germany lost almost that many. France lost more than a million, while Britain lost almost a million. The United States lost 115,000 lives. For the first time in history, civilian casualties numbered almost as many as combatants. The destruction of property was appalling--one historian has estimated it at $400 billion. One contemporary observer, considering the losses suffered by his generation in the war, wrote: 

“This generation has no future, and deserves none. Anyone who belongs to it, lives no more.” 

Although not all sentiments were so extreme, World War I left many people in the West with a feeling of disillusionment and insecurity.

            In the Western democracies, the war resulted in the extension of political power to new groups that had made major contributions to the war effort and could no longer be denied political participation. In both Britain and the United States, women obtained the right to vote shortly after the war. Labor reforms strengthened unions, increasing the influence of workers in several countries. At the same time, many wartime measures that had established greater central government control and interference in peoples' lives continued, or provided precedents for the future.

            The war accelerated the transformation of the British Empire into a Commonwealth--a group of “autonomous communities...freely associated” with Britain.  In particular, the old dominions--Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa--demanded the right to control their own foreign relations. Each had sustained heavy losses in the war. They would not tolerate their commitment by Britain to another European war without their consent. In India, similar considerations led Indian nationalists to demand first self-government, and then complete independence.

            World War I had a devastating impact on the economies of Europe. Allied governments in Europe emerged from the war seriously in debt, largely to American banks from which they had borrowed heavily during the war. France's national debt had grown seven-fold, and Britain's ten-fold. Germany was saddled with war reparations beyond its ability to pay. The combination of national debts and reparations created a vicious cycle. Britain and France depended on the receipt of reparations to pay off their debts. Consequently, they remained reluctant to relax the burden imposed on Germany, whose economic situation only worsened. Moreover, the war had disrupted both industry and agriculture.

            Post-war literature and poetry perhaps best captured the sense of disillusionment and insecurity that pervaded Western society after World War I. The extent of the catastrophe could be clearly seen in the transformation the war had wrought in the work of the British poet, Rudyard Kipling. Before the war Kipling's stories and poetry conveyed the hopes and enthusiasm of Western Civilization. In 1915, however, he lost his only son at the battle of Loos. His later writings express anger and a sense of betrayal. In “Epitaphs of the War”, he wrote bitterly:           

            “If any question why we died,

            Tell them because our fathers lied.” 

The popular British novelist, John Buchan, called World War I “the vastest disorder since the breakdown of the Pax Romana.”  Indeed, for many people, World War I seemed to mark the beginning of the decline of Western Civilization.

[1]Alfred Thayer Mahan in The Annals of America Vol. 11, pp. 312--313.

[2]CHW, p. 967.

[3].  Quotation in Terraine, The Mighty Continent, p. 121.

[4].  On artillery in World War I see Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford, 1987, pp. 449-450.

[5]Eyewitness to History, p. 466.

[6]Use the following as a caption for an appropriate photograph of Lawrence and Hussain, et al. The Revolt captured the imagination of the Allied home fronts. An enterprising American news reporter skilfully used photographs, and especially exciting news stories about the British liaison officer with the Arabs, T.E. Lawrence, to create a virtual mythology about the Revolt and its usefulness to the Allied cause. "Lawrence of Arabia" became a legendary war hero whose successes encouraged people at home.

[7]E.B. Potter, Sea Power: A Naval History, (1981), p. 227.