Why America went to war (1921)

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Here’s a letter written by Captain Alexander Sidney Lanier (1869-1942) who was the Military Intelligence Chief of Staff of the US Army. He is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. As you can see below, and in a different letter he wrote to President Harding, Lanier had both a keen military mind, as well as some strong opinions.

Why America went to war

Motives examined by an officer who served on the general staff of the army

To the Editor of The Tribune,

Sir: Why we went to war will probably remain a question of as much dispute as “Who struck Billy Patterson?” While Mr Harvey’s statement of the reasons was crude, unfortunate and unnecessary, I am of the opinion he stated substantially the fundamental reason, though there were incidental reasons that had their influence upon our action.

If we regarded ourselves as knight-errants bent upon a crusade solely in the interest of a great ideal, and seeking the redress of humanity, and the righting of wrongs that were being perpetrated, then we have by no means finished out task on the one hand, and on the other we have stultified ourselves by being a party to one of the most infamous wrongs that history records.

If we fought solely for an ideal and humanity, with no selfish thought, why do we not go a step further and make war upon Japan to rescue Korea from her cruel grasp, and restore to the Koreans their own country and government, and stop their oppression and extermination that is going on under Japanese rule and exploitation? Then, too, who stilled within our representatives at the Peace Conference the spirit of the knight-errant and crusader, when they became parties to the transfer of Shantung to Japan, and betrayed poor old China, who had entered the war on the side of the Allies largely upon our inducement and representation that we would safeguard her interests?

Was this infamy perpetrated from no unselfish motives and inspired by a lofty idealism? By no means. We sacrificed the sacred territorial rights of our told-time friend and ally to placate Japan and rid ourselves of some embarrassing questions she was pressing upon us.

Coming now to the reasons that constrained us to enter the war, notwithstanding the fact that our President in the beginning of the war admonished us that its roots and causes were no concern of ours, and that we should be neutral even in thought, our people did sympathize with France and Belgium, and believed the war one of unwarranted aggression on the part of Germany for world dominion. But would this sympathy alone have given our government the moral or legal right to plunge our people into the war, with all its terrible consequences, or to right a wrong we believed was being done to those countries unless that wrong potentially affected directly or indirectly, our own rights, interests, or safety?

In fact, our President, together with a tremendous element of pacifists in the country, was opposed to our entering the war at all, and this element was numerous enough to reelect him upon a platform — “He kept us out of war.” And it was only by the force of events and the insistence of a few patriotic and far-seeing Americans that the Administration was finally kicked into the war.

When it comes down to the individual opinion of why we went to war the reasons will be many and ofttimes conflicting. There is but one authoritative and official statement of the reasons, and that is contained in the resolution of the Congress, which recognized the existence of a state of war between us and Germany, which Germany had already begun against us, and pledged the resources of the nation to its successful prosecution.

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This was and remains the only official statement of our reasons. It was unavoidable and sufficient, because Germany was murdering our people upon the high seas, and making war upon us in our own country by fomenting revolution and sedition in our midst and blowing up munition plants and other instrumentalities for war making all over the country.

But back of all this our people realized that if Germany won the war, as she appeared to be doing when we entered it, we would be her next victims, with all the resources of Europe at her command. It was the fear of this in the minds of our people, coupled with the state of war already existing, that prompted our entry into the war more than anything else.

The truth is that for several years past we have had an overdoes of Quixotic idealism, and those in authority seem to have been more interested in humanity at large than in the rights, interest and welfare of our own country, and the results of such a policy are now seen in the utter demoralization of the social, economic, industrial and financial conditions in the United States. We take courage and thank God for the indications of a return to saner politics and a more enlightened self-interest.

In conclusion, I was one of the first to volunteer my services, and served during the war as an officer on the General Staff of our army. I believe I am an average American in intelligence and patriotism, and I want to say that, whatever may have been the motives of others, there is no doubt in my mind of the reasons why I went to war and offered my life to my country. I was influenced by no mawkish sentimentality or spirit of the crusader to right the wrongs of humanity or by such nonsense as “making the world safe for democracy” or to establish a league of nations. On the contrary, I went to war to defend my own country from the attacks that were being made upon her and because of the potential dangers that were threatening her independence and safety in the event that Germany should win the war in Europe. I was not, of course, unmindful or uninfluenced by the danger threatening civilization and free governments throughout the world by the assaults Germany was making upon them.

As a matter of fact, the world, and our own country in particular, are in far more danger today from unbridled democracy led by a fanatical and demagogic minority than genuine democracy was ever endangered by the war. Instead of “making the world safe for democracy,” our present and greatest problem resulting from the war is to “make democracy safe for the world.” While I do not undertake to speak for the soldiers that filled our armies, I do believe that the foregoing represents the views of the great majority of them.

– Alexander Sidney Lanier
Washington, DC, June 23, 1921

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