The Germans probably wouldn’t have been able to enjoy their victory for long. Britain would have retained its independence, protected by its navy that might have continued the hunger blockade against Germany. In all likelihood, Germany would have become bogged down in endemic conflicts along the frontier with Russia, complicated by nationalist rebellions in the wreckage of Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary. Such problems might have proven to be too much for the German army that was already struggling to put down mutinies. Bad as this would have been, even it was preferable to what did happen: the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.
American entry in World War I helped produce another terrible consequence: the November 1917 Bolshevik coup in Russia. The country had been deteriorating ever since Czar Nicholas II entered the war in 1914. It led to millions of Russian casualties, drained the country’s finances, generated devastating inflation, caused pervasive shortages, and discredited the government and the army.
France and Britain had to know they were playing with fire when they pressured the Russians to stay in the war so that German forces would continue to be tied up on the Eastern Front. The last thing France and Britain wanted was for Russia to make a separate peace with Germany and thereby enable the Germans to transfer forces to the Western Front. Allied pressure assured that the deterioration of Russia would continue or even accelerate.
Following the spontaneous revolution and abdication of the czar in March 1917, Wilson authorized David Francis, his ambassador to Russia, to offer the Provisional Government $325 million of credits — equivalent to perhaps $3.9 billion today — if Russia stayed in the war. The Provisional Government was broke, and it accepted Wilson’s terms: “No fight, no loans.”
Wilson was oblivious to the fact that ordinary Russians had nothing to gain from whatever happened on the Western Front, which was his sole concern. The Bolsheviks exploited deteriorating conditions brought on or aggravated by the war. They were the only ones on the Russian political scene who advocated withdrawal. Lenin’s slogan was “Peace, land, and bread.”
For a while, despite all of Russia’s problems, the Bolsheviks weren’t able to make much headway. In elections for the Constituent Assembly, they never received more than a quarter of the votes. Lenin failed three times to seize power during the summer of 1917. It wasn’t until the fall of 1917, when the Russian army collapsed, that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power.
The diplomat and historian George F. Kennan observed, “it may be questioned whether the United States government, in company with other western Allies, did not actually hasten and facilitate the failure of the Provisional Government by insisting that Russia should continue the war effort, and by making this demand the criterion for its support. In asking the leaders of the Provisional Government simultaneously to consolidate their political power and to revive and continue participation in the war, the Allies were asking the impossible.”
What might have happened in Russia if the United States had stayed out of World War I? Russia almost certainly would have quit the war earlier, with the Russian Army still intact and capable of defending the Provisional Government from a Bolshevik coup.
Thanks to Wilson’s misguided policies, the Bolshevik coup led to seven decades of Soviet communism. Historian R. J. Rummel estimated that almost 62 million people were killed by the Soviet government. He estimated that all 20th-century communist regimes killed between 110 million and 260 million people.
Nothing Wilson did could compensate for the colossal blunder of entering World War I. He claimed his League of Nations would help prevent future wars, but charter members of the League of Nations were most of the winners of the war and their friends — countries that hadn’t been fighting each other. They vowed to continue not fighting each other. Member nations agreed to join in defending any of them that might be attacked, which meant that the league was another alliance. An attack on one member nation would lead to a wider war. The World War I losers weren’t members.
Wilson’s admirers tend to blame postwar troubles on Republicans in Congress who refused to support his beloved League of Nations. Wilson’s arrogance toward Congress and his refusal to compromise had a lot to do with that. He failed to recognize that he couldn’t control his allies, he couldn’t control the losers, and he couldn’t control Congress. World War I should remind us that the consequences of war are extremely difficult to predict and often impossible to control. The world would have been better off if America had stayed out of that war and pursued a policy of armed neutrality.