War Is “A Blessing, Not a Curse”–The Case for Why We Must Fight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a time when relations between the United States and Germany were declining rapidly because of Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the editors of the North American Review strongly advocated American entry into World War I. They argued that the United States stood outside a vast coalition of democracies surrounding autocratic Germany and its allies. This position, they claimed, was unworthy of the historical role of the United States as the first democracy and the leading supporter of democracy in the world. The war was part of a larger historical process, beginning with the American Revolution, by which democracy advanced. Germany and its ally, the Ottoman Empire, were painted in the most hostile colors in order to make the moral case for war overwhelming. War was also painted as a means to national unity and regeneration. Missing the chance to fight would thus be missing an opportunity.

Summary Overview

At a time when relations between the United States and Germany were declining rapidly because of Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the editors of the North American Review strongly advocated American entry into World War I. They argued that the United States stood outside a vast coalition of democracies surrounding autocratic Germany and its allies. This position, they claimed, was unworthy of the historical role of the United States as the first democracy and the leading supporter of democracy in the world. The war was part of a larger historical process, beginning with the American Revolution, by which democracy advanced. Germany and its ally, the Ottoman Empire, were painted in the most hostile colors in order to make the moral case for war overwhelming. War was also painted as a means to national unity and regeneration. Missing the chance to fight would thus be missing an opportunity.

Defining Moment

The editorial is a product of the period during World War I when both relations between the United States and Germany were deteriorating rapidly and the government of President Woodrow Wilson was moving from a position of neutrality to one of belligerence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had also occurred, and it appeared to outside observers that Russia, part of the anti-German coalition, was moving from czarist autocracy to republican democracy (although in the process pulling out of the war, to the detriment of the Allied cause). News of the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottomans was also reaching the United States, reinforcing the idea that the struggle of the Allies was a struggle of civilization against barbarism.

The outcome of the war was still in doubt as the Russian position in the east was deteriorating rapidly and the British and the French were increasingly exhausted by the static trench warfare of the west. The great Battle of Verdun the previous year had accomplished little at the cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties.

One issue moving the United States in the direction of war with Germany was the German use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the practice of submarines attacking commercial ships without warning. In its attempt to cut off imports to Britain and force it out of the war, the Germans had recently revived the use of this tactic, attacking neutral as well as British and Allied shipping in the seas around the British Isles, including American vessels. Furthermore, a German diplomat, Arthur Zimmerman, had offered Mexico an alliance with Germany against the United States, and the “Zimmerman telegram” had been intercepted by British intelligence and revealed to the United States, shocking and outraging much of the American public.

Culturally, the editorial reflects the concern of many elite Americans that the nation was growing soft and unable to make sacrifices for the greater good. War was viewed, as it had been viewed in many European states at the outbreak of the World War I, as a way of toughening the nation and uniting disparate elements behind a common national purpose. Wilson’s great rival, Theodore Roosevelt, with his praise of the “strenuous life,” was part of this movement and a strong advocate of US entry into the war. Although this editorial makes less use of gendered rhetoric than does much of this sort of literature, war was also thought of as a quintessentially manly activity that would strengthen conventional gender roles at a time when they were being challenged by movements for women’s equality.

Author Biography

The North American Review, founded in 1815, was the oldest literary magazine in the United States; a leading national journal in cultural, political, and social thought; and a voice of the Northeastern establishment. Its owner, publisher, and editor in 1917 was George Brinton McClellan Harvey (1864–1928), who had originally been a supporter and political ally of Wilson and had bought the journal in 1899. Harvey had encouraged Wilson’s run for the New Jersey governorship and played a major role in Wilson’s rise to the presidency. However, he was a conservative troubled by Wilson’s attacks on big business, and he eventually shifted to the Republican Party in the postwar era.

Document Analysis

The authors view modern history as a struggle for democracy, beginning with the American Revolution and culminating with the current war. The French Revolution, the American Civil War, the nonviolent broadening of the franchise in Great Britain, the overthrow of monarchical governments in China and Portugal, the introduction of constitutional government to Japan, and the revolution in Russia–only a month old at time the editorial was written, and Russia’s future authoritarian character not yet clear–were all parts of this process. All of these governments, except that of China and the United States, were now part of the Allied coalition. (China had already broken diplomatic relations with Germany, but would not declare war until August.) Curiously, Italy, whose unification as a nation in the nineteenth century had been widely celebrated as a liberal triumph and which had entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1915, is not mentioned.

The rhetoric of the document is extraordinarily harsh, an example of the type of propaganda characteristic of the Allied effort that emphasized German militarism and atrocities, referring to the Germans as “the Hun,” after the nomadic tribes that had invaded ancient Rome. This malevolent Germany is personified in the figure of the kaiser, the “madman of Prussia.”

All of the Central Powers–Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria–were monarchies. The authors clearly prefer republican government to monarchical, but the presence of the monarchies of the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan in the Allied coalition prevent them from denouncing monarchy outright. Although the authors correctly see Germany as the leader of the Central Powers, they do not anticipate the destruction of the German people as a national community–the kaiser is the “madman of Prussia,” not the “madman of Germany,” and the Germans are “patient” and are expected to become democratic after the war. Their Muslim Ottoman Turkish allies, however, are regarded as “unspeakable” and their likely postwar fate goes unremarked upon.

War is seen as offering the possibility of national regeneration. America has grown slack in the time that it has not faced any serious national challenges. The author looks forward to the draft–“universal service”–and a vastly expanded American military. Building up of the army and navy at a time when the United States was not under serious threat was better than waiting for a time when it was. War would also provide national unity and a spirit of sacrifice.

The authors display little doubt of ultimate Allied victory. The central question is the role that the United States will play in this victory. The writers offer the hope that American entry into the war will be so psychologically devastating to the population of the Central Powers that the war would end then and there, reassuring American readers that perhaps the sacrifices made would be modest.

Essential Themes

The most urgent demand of the editorial–that the United States declare war on Germany–was met almost immediately on its publication, as President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on April 2 (though the actual congressional declaration did not happen until April 6). The rhetoric of the Wilson administration as it entered the war, which spoke of making the world “safe for democracy,” would have many similarities to that of the editors of the North American Review. The idea of the war as a crusade for democracy and of the United States as a leader in the fight for democracy along with the accompanying rhetoric was to have a long history extending through World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. However, the immediate hopes of the editors of the North American Review for the inevitable progress of democracy were doomed to disappointment. The Russian Revolution ended by ushering in an even more oppressive autocracy than the czars–Soviet Communism–while the surviving Armenians would quickly lose the freedom and the independent nation they had attained at the end of the war. The republican governments installed in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria were unsuccessful. Germany in particular would succumb to a regime far more barbarous than that of the “madman of Prussia,” when Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists rose to power in 1933–less than fifteen years after World War I.

The hopes of a world “made safe for democracy” would be the target of mockery after the war. The portrait of the Germans as committers of atrocities would also be questioned, and much of the negative impressions of the Germans during the war would be blamed on Allied, and particularly British, propaganda. Despite its endorsement of the Wilsonian rhetoric of a war for democracy, the North American Review vigorously opposed the next phase of the Wilsonian program, the entry of the United States into the League of Nations, and Harvey would support the Republican candidate in the 1920 presidential election, Warren G. Harding. In its turn against Wilson and the League, the North American Review would take the same side as many of those Americans who viewed entrance into the war as a mistake in the first place.

Bibliography and Essential Reading
  • Capozzola, Christopher. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford UP. Print.
  • Doenecke, Justus. Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • “The North American Review Archive.” Making of America. Cornell University Library, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
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