Inquiry Document No. 885

Memorandum on the Context of the Inquiry

Now that a skeleton organization has been created it may be well to examine the context of the inquiry.


In all human probability the war will not at any one moment suddenly terminate in a peace. Demobilization will not precede the peace conference. It is not even likely that hostilities will cease during the early stages of the discussion.

The probable course of events is already indicated. We may expect a peace propaganda from Central Europe of increasing intensity calculated as accurately as possible to allure the groups of the Allied Left at a minimum of concessions. The minimum of actual concession will be covered by formulas which approach more and more the verbal form of the war aims outlined by the Left among the Allies. As the German proposals grow in “moderation” there is a political movement in each of the Allied nations towards its own left. The object of course is the division of the coalition as between the nations and within the nations. Naturally the German peace offensive is aimed at the weak points of the Alliance. Those points are those where the aims of the Allies do not coincide and within the nations the points where the imperialist-nationalist-liberal-pacifist-cleavages are least successfully covered.

Thus, the Reichstag resolution8 immensely reduced the war spirit of Russia and opened a schism between Russia and the Western Allies. That same resolution and the propaganda which accompanied it very seriously affected what might be called the reluctant liberal support of the war in the Western Nations. The Stockholm conference plan had a similar effect, and from its failure dates the withdrawal of official labor and socialist support of the French and British governments.

It must be noted that a parallel movement exists in Central Europe. There, too, the strain within the Allies and between the Allies is serious, and each move to seduce the Left among the Allies involves a heavy pull upon the Right in Germany. How much of the concessive policy of the German government is forced by the German Left, and how much is deliberately preventive in order to forestall division at home, and how much is carefully calculated to create division abroad, it is not possible to estimate exactly. But this we do know—the German government has succeeded thus far in maintaining a unity in [Page 28] Central Europe which is effective for military purposes and has played with considerable result for the weakening of the coalition.

The counter to this German effort has taken two forms. The first is coercive and consists in the suppression and ostracism of any opinion which is responsive to the concessive proposals from Central Europe. This policy has had some success in the Western Nations, at least temporarily, and may be even more successful in America as we become heavily engaged in France. But it is a very costly policy and in the long run, chiefly because it tends to accentuate class division into a militaristic-pacific division as well; because it corrupts the war spirit by inciting mob violence to drive out disinterested idealism; because it establishes a mood which is recklessly hostile to a constructive international policy. The other of the two methods by which the German offensive is countered reached its expression in the President’s reply to the Pope.9 That emphasized those purposes which have the widest possible acceptance; it repudiated those which not only divide the coalition within itself, but unify Central Europe in a tenacious defence psychology. This method unifies the Allies by attraction, immensely enlarges the constituency of the war, and because it acts to disintegrate Central Europe compels increasing concession by the Bight to the Left. These concessions are, of course, minimal and deceptive, but the assumption of power by a Catholic Bavarian,10 even though an aristocrat, is an important shift in the balance of political power.

In enemy and friendly nations there is at this time a fierce political struggle, not even concealed. The fact that the European Allies did not themselves reply to the Pope is not to be taken as complete acceptance by the governments of the President’s reply. It is to be taken as an indication that the domestic political situations are too tense for them to risk a discriminating reply. They were compelled to avoid a debate which would have inevitably revealed grave differences of opinion.

Resistance to declarations now of “peace terms” arises from a recognition that once public opinion centers upon questions of territory, no bit of territory will seem worth the cost of war. The actual struggle is waged against the menace of the German army which has terrorized Europe and the world, and the object of the battle is either to demonstrate that the army can be beaten, or to inflict such pressure upon the German nation as would result in a radical rejection of the groups now in control of the Empire. Terms of peace are inevitably [Page 29] secondary to this purpose. To permit them to occupy the center of discussion would cause morale to decline by a substitution of mere territorial ambitions for this greater purpose. A debate about territory now would reduce the war to the merely nationalistic objects, and inevitably split the coalition.

Ultimately the difficulty seems to be this: The war is waged by many nations against an international menace. Those who are directing that war have not centered upon this international fact but retain it in their consciousness and as part of their motive.

These divergencies of purpose in the coalition are no doubt the ultimate cause of an unco-ordinated strategy. The logic of nationalist absolutism is to stake more and more on victory, and to increase the prize as the effort requires sacrifice. The Western Allies are in the control of absolute nationalists, the stability of whose own power depends upon the realization of certain large promises. Therefore in official circles there has been a recession of interest in what may be called the program of an enduring peace, the program for which the workers, the farmers, the small capitalists and the liberal intellectuals of Western Europe and America accepted the war. This heavy emphasis on nationalist success in each country has brought its government into conflict with the governments of the Allies. As between Russia and the West it appears to have opened up an era of tragic misunderstanding. For Italy it has meant a curious isolation which appears to have led her to military disaster in a spectacular effort to secure sympathy and assistance. Thus, because the Allies distrusted Italy’s political ambitions, and her unco-operative method of pursuing them, her military zone was in a measure disregarded and the supplies needed for an offensive to complete Italy’s purposes were not furnished. To secure those supplies Italy appears to have overextended her front and exposed her flank. A similar political blunder upon the part of Rumania appears to have led her to disaster.

Unity of strategy, especially if the war is prolonged, will depend upon a simplification and pooling of purposes in both coalitions, the enemies’ and our own. This involves a shifting of political power from those who now control all the nations of Western Europe and Central Europe so that the governments represent both in personnel, in social outlook and in patriotic purpose the middle parties. Unity will involve placating the moderate left even at the cost of opposition from the irreconcilable right. In both coalitions unity will depend increasingly upon this movement toward the left. The movement, of course, need not be parallel or at the same rate. In each country it is relative to the position now occupied by the controlling groups.

But the two movements react upon each other almost like the bidding at an auction. The price of unity is increased in each nation as the liberalism of the enemy increases. But as the governing groups have [Page 30] staked themselves on particular nationalist successes, this competition in liberalism cuts under the whole social regime which they represent. They resist liberalization of purpose, and so, while they disintegrate their own people, they make it easier for the enemy to hold together.

This political situation bears most heavily on our own success in the war. Excluding for the purposes of argument the invention of some brilliant tactical or strategical novelty, the military decision must be reached on the Western Front by an attempt to exhaust Germany’s reserves. No immediate spectacular success is expected. This involves an unprecedented strain on morale and resources which can be met only by the most successful kind of moral and administrative economy in Western Europe and the United States. This is to be had only by keeping political power upon the broadest basis of popular consent and by a powerful counter-offensive in diplomacy to reveal deceptive liberalism in Germany.

Without this we may expect Germany’s skilful seduction to succeed sufficiently to bring about moral disunion followed by administrative waste and military weakness. Larger and larger areas of the front would then grow torpid as the Russian, Rumanian, Macedonian, Caucasus, Mesopotamian and Gaza fronts now are, and as the Italian may very possibly be.

We may assume that following the conclusion of the Italian campaign Germany will attempt this winter to force a peace discussion aimed to disintegrate the Allied morale before the opening of the spring and summer fighting. The Allies, on the other hand, will resist this peace offensive during the winter, and will this summer try to force a German retirement behind the Meuse and the Scheldt, and will begin at least a tentative invasion of Germany through Lorraine. Until this occurs a very tight hand will be kept on peace discussion in Western Europe and America. If it occurs, the military decision will have been reached and the German army’s prestige will be sufficiently reduced to permit negotiation and discussion. This will be the decision. It will consist of the destruction of the submarine bases, the recapture of northern France, and a potential invasion at least of German territory. The deeper decision, however, will consist in the relative reserves of men. For when the new lines are established at the end of the 1918 campaign Germany will face the military reconquest of Lorraine at the time when the American reserve is becoming an actuality.

If such a decision is reached it will probably not be pressed to any ultimate conclusion. Negotiations will begin on the new line, and with the Allies in control of the outer world and, therefore, of all the materials essential to German reconstruction.

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When the Conference Assembles

The motive which will probably control all others in the minds of European statesmen will be how to obtain the means of recuperation. Unless they are found revolutionary discontent will accompany demobilization. This will be intensified by the fact that the disbanding of armies is a slow process, and must be accompanied by violent discontent once the pressure of the enemy is removed. Slow demobilization will produce an insurrectionary spirit in those detained too long after hostilities cease. Quick demobilization will produce an economic crisis unless raw materials, transportation, markets, credit are in proper working order. The competition for these facilities will be immediate and intense, and the power to allocate them will be the strongest of all instruments of negotiation. No territory in that belt which stretches from the-Baltic through the Balkans to the Persian Gulf (the chief area of debatable territory) is as immediately important as access to and use of sea-borne materials. If the Powers which control the outer communications have a policy of national autonomy and international organization to enforce, this is the only means by which it can be done. For though a military decision is obtained in the West, this great disputed belt of peoples will almost surely remain at the end of the war within the German lines.

The President has many times emphasized the fact that the supremacy of Germany throughout the Near East represents her victory thus far. This supremacy can scarcely be disputed from the East with Russia weak. The acceptance of the Reichstag Resolution by all but the extreme Pan-Germans is based unquestionably upon this fact, and it is highly significant that the German Foreign Secretary, von Kühlmann, should be himself one of the chief promoters of the Bagdad railway. The men he represents undoubtedly see that German prestige east of the French boundary assures them a mastery of the points which control the approaches to three continents.

There is, however, one overpowering difficulty in the way, and that is the blockade. The Near East, even with Russia added as an economic colony, is still an inchoate empire which would require perhaps a generation of peace and economic resource to organize. Although the enthusiasts for Mittel-Europa write as if it could be a closed economic system, soberer criticism has shown them that this is an impossibility. Middle Europe must, in the immediate future at least, draw essential supplies of reconstruction from the outer world. To pay for those supplies the lost foreign markets must be regained.

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There appear to be two schools of German imperialism at the present time, represented perhaps by the Fatherland Party and by the Kühlmann-Helfferich groups. They differ considerably in tone, in domestic policies, perhaps even in spiritual values. But there is a tacit agreement on two points: (1) that Germany’s immediate future is the domination of the eastern part of the continent; (2), that this domination depends upon access to the supplies of the outer world. It is upon the method of attaining the second point that they really disagree. Kühlmann and his group wish to attain it by “accommodation”, by a reconciliation with the western nations which at the present time is equivalent to a surrender of the Near East to the Germans. They count shrewdly that the anti-German coalition would have even less unity of action in peace than it has had in war and that German methods of competition would be irresistible in a world that was exhausted and in a sense demoralized by inability to win when the odds were in its favor. They believe they would secure their supplies from over-seas and dominate the Near East without serious resistance. The Fatherland Party, on the other hand, believes that this access to the outer world must be established by military and naval power, and maintained by constant threat of force.

That is why this party insists on retaining Belgium. That is why the struggle in Germany centers on Belgium. It is a contest between two schools of imperialism. The moderate Kühlmann school is assisted by the German Socialists because its plan of accommodation seems quicker to attain and does not imply a continuation of heavy armaments. This school consists of the really practical men of Germany who understand that recuperation is impossible without a reduction of military expenses and freedom from the threat of war.

For these reasons Belgium has become the pivot of German policy. Obviously the control of Belgium, besides its commercial advantages, would make it possible for Germany to prevent England ever again landing an army in France and would thus leave France absolutely at her mercy. This is probably even a stronger motive than the control of submarine bases. It is interesting to note that Bethmann,11 who tried to preserve party unity, frequently toyed with the idea of an “administrative division of Belgium”. Such a division would mean Flemish administration of the Flanders coast with the possibility at least that the Flemings could be drawn into the orbit of German influence.

Immediate recuperation through access to supplies, followed by the organization of the Near East, is the probable policy from which German [Page 33] peace plans arise. The President’s speech at Buffalo12 makes clear his determination to check it, whether it takes Tirpitz13 form or Kühlmann.


How can this be done?

By a strong and independent Belgium and France.
By a reorganized Austria-Hungary in which the Czechs and Croats have the political power to which their numbers entitle them.
By a satisfactory settlement of the Balkans which makes Servia strong and Bulgaria satisfied.
By an independent Poland able to resist German encroachment.
By strong allied control over the essential parts of Turkey—Armenia, Palestine, Mesopotamia.
By the creation of a trustworthy Germany.
These may be reduced to three main lines of policy:
Evacuation and restoration of the West.
Diffusion of power in the East.
Domestic reform of Germany.

What are our assets?

Military power in the West
Economic control of the outer world.
Public opinion.
Anti-Prussian feeling in Middle Europe.
War weariness.

What are our liabilities?

Imperilled communications and strength of Germany’s defensive.
Incomplete political unity—particularism.
Complexity and apparent remoteness of the issue.
War weariness
Inability to apply military pressure upon Middle Europe itself.

Assuming that evacuation in the West can be had at almost any time, how are we to attain the other two objects of policy—Diffusion of power in the East and Domestic Reform in Germany?

By forcing, rather than accepting, a retirement in the East, thus reducing the prestige of the German Army.
By increasing the unity of control in the outer world.
By making it clear to Germans that this control is a war measure which will not be relaxed when peace comes, unless there has been reform in Germany and conclusive evidence that the submerged nationalities of eastern Europe are freed.
By friendly advances to these nationalities which encourage movements toward autonomy but do not promise independence.
By keeping alive the picture of a reunited peaceful world, constantly accompanied by proof that such a world is not possible with Germany controlled as she is today.
  1. Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 2, vol. i, p. 139.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 2, vol. i, p. 177.
  3. Count Georg von Hertling, Chancellor of the German Empire from Nov. 3, 1917.
  4. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, German Imperial Chancellor, 1909–17.
  5. Address to the American Federation of Labor Convention, Nov. 12, 1917. For text, see Ray Stannard Baker and William E. Dodd (eds.), The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson: War and Peace, vol. i, p. 116.
  6. Alfred von Tirpitz, Lord High Admiral of the German Navy, 1911–16; Secretary of State for Naval Affairs, 1897–1916.