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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“Zelikow proves an effective storyteller with an easy, uncomplicated narrative that makes for good reading of solid, honest scholarship reminiscent sometimes of Barbara Tuschman’s The Guns of August.”

President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the role of the United States in ending World War I in 1918 is a well-known story. Philip Zelikow in The Road Less Traveled explores Wilson’s almost forgotten peace efforts of 1916–1917.

This work tells the history of the failure of that effort and later to prevent such worldwide catastrophes in the future. Wilson became the creator of false hopes that became even more extensive than deaths in the war. Zelikow explains the conflicted wartime politics of France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States.

When World War I began in 1914 “the choices were rushed; options were murky and consequences hard to imagine.” By 1916, “most leaders of the warring parties had given up on their old victory illusions, if they ever had them.” Some leaders in all of the governments, however, insisted on fighting to the end, as did key persons in the United States government.

Conversely, other parties in the governments of France, Germany, and Great Britain looked to President Woodrow Wilson of the United States “to bring the warring sides to the [peace] table.” “And Wilson was eager to do it,” despite opposition in his administration to peace without victory.

The author writes that “Wilson had plenty of tools in his box for informal influence on the terms of a compromise peace—if he chose to use them.” The president feared for the interests of America and “the future prospects and prosperity of the world” if the war continued. He believed, however, that if the peace negotiations began, the fighting would never resume.

Beyond ending the “horrific and unprecedented” casualties, the nations at war had other reasons to end the conflict. France, Great Britain, and Italy had reached near bankruptcy. Continuing the fighting threatened a Communist takeover of Russia, already embroiled in civil war even as it fought in a world war. The people of Germany and Austro-Hungary starved as the British naval blockade cut off access to vital resources.

“The scars and burdens—psychic, financial, physical, and political—crushed ideals, dimmed hopes, and infected European society with every conceivable social and political virus.” All of the belligerent nations feared peace made by the overthrow of their respective governments. Military leaders threatened to take over the decision-making of each of the belligerents.

Wilson and his administration had tried to negotiate peace from the beginning of the war, at least between Germany and Western Europe, but had been rebuffed as the two sides each held on to dreams of military victory. Communication between the United States and Germany had to take circuitous and complicated routes after the British blockaded and cut off cable communication

Wilson was out of his depth in these foreign affairs and, worse, oblivious to his shortcomings and to the inadequacies of his only real advisor Edward House, not a diplomat or even a government official, but hardly more than just a friend. House actually feared a combined British and Japanese invasion of America!

German Ambassador Johann Von Bernstoff described Wilson as no hypocrite but more concerned with forming plans than executing them. Whatever Wilson decided, he had three strong factions led by powerful men to contend with in Congress and among the public: the interventionists (Theodore Roosevelt), the moderates (Wilson), and the pacifists (William Jennings Bryan).

Wilson was committed to negotiating peace between the warring nations, but he felt he could do nothing until after his reelection on November 7, 1916. His neutrality had guaranteed his extremely narrow victory.

The “peace plan” would follow traditional European diplomacy of “a compromise peace.” Germany asked for the United States to act as a neutral mediator. Two sets of negotiations would follow, one to end the war and the other among the major nations on the future of the whole world. No governments would be replaced, and France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia would obtain marginal gains while nothing was said about the compensation for Italy and Japan.

Even agreeing to negotiate came with problems about Alsace Lorraine, blockades, the Ottoman Empire, and German-occupied Poland. Conflicted and confused about Wilson’s intentions, the allies rejected whatever the plan might actually entail.

Matters went wrong when Germany, which saw itself as under siege, and with the options of negotiation or gambling on one last great offensive by submarines at sea and the army on land. Zelikov blames Wilson’s mistakes for the failure of the peace plan. The German leaders came to believe that he made war with the United States inevitable.

The last hope for the peace plan was figuratively and literally torpedoed when the German military finally received permission to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Millions more men died before the end of the war, the events leading to World War II began, and our modern world was born.

Zelikow proves an effective storyteller with an easy, uncomplicated narrative that makes for good reading of solid, honest scholarship reminiscent sometimes of Barbara Tuschman’s The Guns of August. The author does not burden the reader unduly with complexities and irrelevances, although more background on how Wilson might have affected the war earlier would not seem inappropriate. The Road Less Traveled has extensive annotation and also photographs of the principal characters.