The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916–1917

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Release Date: 
March 16, 2021
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“In The Road Less Traveled, Zelikow brilliantly tells the diplomatic story of what he calls ‘the lost peace’ of August 1916–January 1917.”

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan called the First World War—what an earlier generation knew as the Great War—the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. When Kennan looked at the causes of the wars, revolutions, genocides, civil strife, arms races, and failed diplomacy of the 20th century, he remarked that all lines of inquiry led back to the First World War.

There are no inevitabilities in history. The First World War did not have to end the way it did—with the collapse of four empires, the rise of Bolshevism and Fascism, civil war in Russia, a defeated and politically unstable but still fundamentally powerful Germany, psychologically weakened European democracies, and a United States determined to remain aloof from the European balance of power.

Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a former U.S diplomat, believes that the Great War could have been ended almost two years before it actually did—immediately saving hundreds of thousands of young lives on the western and eastern fronts, and perhaps changing the course of 20th century history for the better.

In The Road Less Traveled, Zelikow brilliantly tells the diplomatic story of what he calls “the lost peace” of August 1916–January 1917. During that seven-month time period, he writes, “[t]he possibilities for peace were tantalizingly close.” It is a story of “inspiring possibilities” and missed opportunities for peace. There was much blame to go around among the diplomats of the warring powers, but Zelikow assigns the greatest share of the blame to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The great irony here is that Wilson wanted to mediate a peace without victory for either side in the war. As early as 1915, Zelikow notes, Wilson sent his most trusted advisor Edward House to Europe “to float the idea of an American mediation to negotiate peace.” Wilson’s model, Zelikow believes, should have been Theodore Roosevelt’s successful mediation of the end to the Russo-Japanese War. But instead of “seeking to learn” from Roosevelt’s experience, Wilson “thought he could figure it all out on his own.”

By August 1916, all of the major warring powers were prepared to negotiate peace. There was no end in sight to the stalemate on the western front. The Dardanelles campaign had been a spectacular failure with huge losses of British, French, and Australian troops. The Battle of the Somme continued to exact tremendous losses in manpower on both sides—British forces suffered 20,000 dead and nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the battle. Offensives in the French sector of the western front also failed, and Verdun was a killing field for both sides.

Although the generals on both sides wanted military victory at all costs, the diplomats sought ways out of the slaughter. Zelikow praises the efforts of German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann Hollwegg and Count Johann von Bernstorff, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, who “fought to keep the peace road open” despite opposition from Generals Falkenhayn, Hindenberg, and Ludendorff.

Germany’s diplomats favored Wilson’s offer to mediate peace without victory. They were willing to abandon Belgium and most of France, including portions of Alsace-Lorraine. Many Germans were starving as a result of the British blockade. Germany’s main ally Austria-Hungary “could no longer conduct large offensives.” Her other ally, the Ottoman Empire, was still the “sick man of Europe.”

French and British diplomats were also open to Wilson’s mediation efforts. France’s army was months away from mutiny. Britain’s finances were exhausted. But the generals kept planning major offensives to finally win the war. As Zelikow notes, the war “fed on itself.” “Each new sacrifice,” he writes, “prolonged the conflict by hardening the resolve on all sides to win the victory that would give sense to the sacrifice.”

By the fall of 1916, Zelikow writes, “the prospects for negotiated peace were ripe, precisely because the prospects for decisive military victory were not.” President Wilson believed that if the United States failed to mediate peace, it would likely drift into war—a war Wilson wanted to avoid. Zelikow writes, however, that Wilson was ill-served by the House and Secretary of State Lansing who provided mixed signals to Britain and France at a time when America’s financial power could have exercised decisive influence on both powers.

Politics in both Britain and the United States also played a role in delaying peace efforts. Zelikow writes that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George publicly supported a fight to the finish, while privately believing that military victory was nearly impossible. And Wilson, like Franklin Roosevelt in the years leading up to the Second World War, would do nothing dramatic in an election year.

Meanwhile, Germany prepared to expand their U-boat campaign and attempted to covertly recruit Mexico to join in a war against the United States (the Zimmermann Telegram) while simultaneously seeking a compromise peace. The German generals—with the Kaiser’s blessing—were willing to risk war with the United States rather than negotiate a modest peace. “Of all the miscalculations of the German High Command,” wrote Winston Churchill, “none is more remarkable than their inability to comprehend the meaning of war with the American Union.”

On the last day of January 1917, Germany informed Wilson that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare beginning on February 1. Wilson was stunned. A month later, Britain publicized the Zimmermann Telegram. In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, which it did.

Zelikow has harsh words for the German High Command but reserves his most scathing judgment for Wilson. Germany had by the fall of 1916 proposed a workable peace option. Wilson had the financial and political clout to persuade Britain and France to negotiate. “In the failure to make peace at the most opportune moment,” Zelikow writes, “no one failed, and failed the world, more than President Wilson. His was the most consequential diplomatic failure in the history of the United States.”

The consequences of Wilson’s failure were epic. “[T]he failure to end the Great War in 1916–1917,” writes Zelikow, “was much more than a human tragedy . . . It became a turning point in world history.” The continuation of the war led to the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia and the spread of communism to many parts of the world. It tore apart the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, resulting in more instability in the Balkans and the Middle East. And it led to a defeated Germany and the hunger for revenge among many Germans that helped catapult Adolf Hitler to power.

George Kennan was right: All lines of inquiry lead back to the Great War.