11/12/2008 01:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Wartime Folly

Special for the Huffington Post
Eric S. Margolis
November 12, 2008

As Americans observed Veteran's Day, and other Western nations commemorated the 10 million soldiers who died in World War I, we should reflect on how America's involvement in this ghastly conflict turned out to be a historic tragedy.

By 1917, the principal Allies on the Western Front - Britain, France, Italy - lay exhausted. So were the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Bloodbaths at Verdun, the Somme, and in Flanders had failed to break the stalemated siege warfare on the front. The butchery of trench warfare had reached unimaginable ferocity and utter futility. Never again would the term `military glory' be used.

The Great War had begun in 1914 almost by itself, like a monster doomsday weapon that once triggered, could not be stopped. Serbia had pulled the trigger in 1914 at Sarajevo. Germany then allowed ally Austria-Hungary to drag it into war in response to Russian and French mobilization.

Britain's imperialists, Winston Churchill and Edward Grey, were determined to plunge their nation, and the Empire, into a war against Germany that the Germans sought to avoid. Germany was also forced into the conflict out of fear it would eventually be crushed in a two-front war by the superior weight of the Franco-Russian alliance.

The war that was supposed to have lasted for a few months was now three years old. Millions had died. The Central Powers, which had to rely on imported food and raw material, were being relentlessly starved by a British naval blockade, a war crime under international law.

The time was ripe for peace talks. Germany put out peace feelers through various parties in an effort to reach a cease-fire, then armistice. Many divisions of the French Army had mutinied after the slaughter at Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. At the Somme, Britain had lost 19,240 men dead on the first day of battle alone. An entire generation of Frenchmen had been blown to bits, machine-gunned, or gassed in the inferno at Verdun.

Just as chances for peace were growing, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson decided to enter the war on the Allied side. There were many reasons Wilson led the nation into war, but the most important was his desire to reshape the globe, with America as the dominant power, and a highly successful British propaganda campaign of lies about German atrocities that turned America against the Central Powers and stoked war fever. Ironically, this was at a time when people of German ancestry formed America's single largest ethnic group.

America's entry into the war in 1917 - it would eventually dispatch one million troops to Europe - tipped the balance of the war in the Allies' favor and convinced the leaders of France, Britain and Italy to eschew peace initiatives and press for maximum punishment of the Central Powers.

Thanks to Wilson's intervention in a war that was none of America's business, the victorious Allies were able to impose a Carthaginian Peace on defeated Germany and its allies that left them dismembered, starving, bankrupt, and racked by internal violence.

As France's Marshall Ferdinand Foch rightly remarked of the Draconian 1919 Versailles Treaty imposed on the Central Powers, `this is not a peace, it is an armistice for twenty years.' Foch was right. Exactly twenty years later, in 1939, the second act of the 1914-1918 Great War began.

Wilson played a leading role in the ruin of Germany, and the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, an act of British, French, and Italian imperial rapacity whose calamitous effects vex us to this day in the Balkans and Mideast. As this writer has long maintained, without Wilson's intervention, and that of his revenge-obsessed allies, it can be soundly argued that there would have been no Adolf Hitler, no Communist revolution in Russia and no Josef Stalin.

While we pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, it is also essential to reflect on the political decisions that sent them to war. War is always the failure of policy and diplomacy. As Benjamin Franklin observed, `there is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace.'

A major contribution to realistic, propaganda-free thinking about our past wars, our future military policies, and how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past has been made by veteran author and perennial `enfant terrible,' Patrick Buchanan, in his courageous and provocative new book, `Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.'

Buchanan's thesis is one that I have also long advanced. He has the audacity to challenge many ingrained wartime shibboleths and propaganda that still cloud our thinking about the conflict and distort proper historical study.

Winston Churchill's blind, lifelong hatred of Germany - `Germans are either at our throat or at your feet' - led him to create disasters in two world wars that destroyed the British Empire, which he had vowed to uphold, and left his nation bankrupt, shorn of its power, and a helpless vassal of the United States.

Britain had no vital interests in Central Europe and no ability to take military action there. The British guarantee of Poland's integrity was a major mistake. Poland should have let the 250,000 Germans of Danzig peacefully reunite with Germany. Britain's guarantee made the Poles stubbornly refuse a diplomatic solution. In the end, Britain could not defend Poland from Hitler's wrath and ended up seeing Stalin grab a large chunk of it.

Similarly, Buchanan maintains that Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt should have let Hitler expand his sphere of interest eastward until it collided with the Soviet Union. A Soviet-German war would have left Europe in the hands of the Western democracies and the British Empire intact. Instead, Roosevelt and Churchill handed over half of Europe at Yalta to Stalin's tyranny that was an order of magnitude more murderous and dangerous than that of Adolf Hitler. Buchanan also suggests that the destruction of Europe's Jews might not have happened if Britain had taken a different course.

The most important message for today's world from Buchanan's very important, illuminating work is that our leaders must avoid the kind of reckless commitments that drew Britain into two world wars. First, the guarantee of Belgian neutrality, and secret understandings with France and Russia that encouraged their rush to war against Germany. Second, Britain's fatuous guarantees to Poland. In both cases, Britain gave other nations the ability to involve it in war, and at a grave disadvantage.

These lessons resonate today. The Bush administration - and likely the new Obama one as well - want to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The recent conflict between Georgia and Russia showed how easily NATO could be drawn into a conflict where it is military ineffective and has no vital interests.

Kiev or Poti, Georgia, could become the Sarajevo or Danzig Corridor of our era. President George Bush's promises to back Israel in a possible war with Iran allow foreign leaders to drag America into a war it may well not want.

If the world wars teach us one thing it is the dangers of alliances conceived for emotional or domestic political reasons. Britain fell into this trap in the war years, and the United States has saddled itself with a number of unnecessary or risky alliances and foreign commitments.

Finally, Buchanan points out a fact, also made by other historians and this writer, that we in the West have avoided facing for fifty years. World War I, the `war to end all wars,' produced a far worse conflict. World War II, waged to `liberate Europe from Hitler,' ended up handing half of it over to Stalin's despotism. This was, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted from the gulag, an historic act of `stupidity' by Roosevelt and Churchill, both of whom became enraptured by Stalin. Tragic stupidity by men who do not deserve the veneration they are accorded in our wartime hagiography.