Today we're talking with Burton Yale Pines, author of America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One
FQ: Feathered Quill: As I have recently reviewed two fiction books set in World War I, I was anxious to begin reading America’s Greatest Blunder, a non-fiction book. Your narrative is so interesting that I’d like to ask, first of all, how you came up with this idea of the US staying out of the war altogether?
PINES: From the time of my grad school seminars in history (decades ago), I've been puzzled by why America entered World War One. After all, no American interests were involved and we weren't threatened by Germany. In addition, Americans clearly strongly were supporting neutrality. We actually had no reason to go to war. I also began feeling that our entering the war is what allowed Britain and France to impose their drastic and horribly punishing peace on Germany. And that had horrible consequences. So, with the centenary of the war's 1914 outbreak approaching, I decided to stop musing about the whole notion and begin researching it. The result is my book.
FQ: Your research was really on the money. Did you research this book for a long time? I realize that the history books are full of WWI but your research covered so much more than the bare essentials.
PINES: Though I’ve been a journalist and editor most of my professional life, I’m trained as an historian. Thus I approached the research for the book as would an historian. That means extensive research – which took at least three years (though I was doing other things as well). Without all the sources now accessible via the Internet, the research would have taken much longer. And, of course, I’ve benefited by living in New York City, enjoying easy access to the fantastic sources and materials at the New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue building.
FQ: With the ego-driven people, good and bad, who start and sustain wars, I’m sure it would have been very difficult not to go charging in and saving the day. I’d like to know what the choices would have been if the US had not entered the war?
PINES: The choice for America would have to remain neutral – and demand our rights as a neutral. That would have meant the right to trade with and extend credits to any of the belligerents. As it was, as I pointed out in my book and as your Feathered Quill review notes, our neutrality repeatedly was violated by the British. But we took no action against London. Had we remained neutral, the two sides in the war (again, as your review notes) would have had no choice but to sit down, haggle, agonize, posture and then come up with a compromise peace. There would have been no victor, no vanquished, no punishing of Germany, no Germans determined to get revenge and thus no Hitler, no WWII.
FQ: Through the years, war after war, the US has been on the front lines helping countries that, many times, didn’t want us there. How do you feel about this?
PINES: That’s a good question and it’s tough to answer directly. It’s very difficult to measure whether a country wants or doesn’t want our assistance. In my view, as I explain in the book’s conclusion, the standard we should use in deciding whether we go to war, whether we send the nation’s sons and daughters into harm’s way, is not whether another country wants our help. Rather, it’s whether such action defends or advances American interests. We always should ask the question: Does going to war protect us from a real danger? By that standard, we were right to enter World War II (we had been attacked by Japan) and right to launch the first Iraq War (Kuwait, a country important for us to defend, had been invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). And by that standard too it was stupid and catastrophic to enter World War One and to launch the second Iraq War.
FQ: As you have probably noticed by now, I’m a big fan. I like your list of ‘what ifs.’ I’d like to get your opinion on some other what ifs. There have been a list of wars since the beginning of time and some leaders of other countries that were, to say the least, not very nice people. Do you think that if there were no Hitler, Saddam, Osama and even Charles Manson, wouldn’t there have been another evil presence to take their place?
PINES: Indeed there would have been. There was and will be no shortage of evil people and evil leaders. But their impact is limited. What war does is allow such people and leaders to spread evil far beyond their borders. Had Hitler been merely a German tyrant, the suffering he triggered would have been limited to Germany. That, of course, would have been terrible. But what made Hitler into a cosmic catastrophe (and the same is true about Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders) is that the war he launched allowed him to repress and slaughter millions in other nations. So it is war which magnifies the evil.
FQ: There have been many turning points in the many wars and killings that have happened. In a fairly recent book, a plotline centered on a person who was able to go back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. However, when he came back to the present, he found that the world was in a horrible state because of his ‘adjustment.’ Do you think that things as horrible as an assassination of a statesman can change the course of our lives?
PINES: I do. As a history grad student I, as my fellow grad students, would debate whether “the Great Man” or “Circumstances” was the driving force of major historical events. In our arguments, we were able to make strong, even impassioned, cases for either. But when we calmed down, we’d usually concede that it was a combination of both (the great man in the right circumstances) that drove history. There were, for example, lots of forces affecting the course of America’s battle for independence against England and, later, the course taken by America’s northern and southern states in their monumental clash. But how those events actually played out were as much determined by the monumental leadership of Washington and Lincoln as they were by the underlying forces. Leaders do change the course of history. Thus an assassination of such a leader has monumental consequences.
FQ: After reading this book, I see that this is an excellent story of WWI. The story is so real and you have brought the time period to life. Do you really think that tremendous ego-driven people will ever change? It’s a nice thought but probably not very practical.
PINES: Wow. Your question is a minefield. You’re asking me whether I think that human nature will ever change. Yikes!! Many religions assert that it can change. And Karl Marx and his followers strongly believed that if the economic relations between humans could be changed, human nature would improve. I’m going to duck your question by saying that I don’t know what will happen in the future. But what has happened in the past demonstrates consistently that most of the time actions and events are driven by individuals and groups seeking their own benefit. That’s not necessarily bad. When this occurs in a fundamentally free society, the various groups – each seeking benefit --peaceably compete with each other and do so within a framework set by the society. The result, though the process is often messy and uncomfortably contentious, benefits and improves society as a whole.
FQ: Thank you for this book which was a fantastic page-turner for me. I didn’t know much about WWI and really learned a lot from you. Are you planning another book, perhaps about WWII?
PINES: Obviously, I’m pleased and flattered that you’ve enjoyed the book and have taken something away from it. I had hoped that the book would be thought-provoking - in that sense, provocative – and that it would spur readers to think in new ways about America's role in that particular war and thus in wars more generally. I had hoped that the book would raise a cautionary flag useful for today's decisions about whether America should intervene militarily abroad. In writing the book, I deliberately was more a journalist than an historian, aiming the book at the general-interest reader, those whose curiosity about the war may be tickled by the approaching centenary. I tried to make the narrative move smoothly and at a decent trot. You’ve called it a ‘page-turner,’ thus maybe I’ve succeeded.
To learn more about America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.