This month we commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. It began July 28, 1914. The war was the result of miscalculation, misunderstanding and miscommunication by the major European powers. Decades later, the U.S. miscalculated and misunderstood what the Vietnam war was all about. Not to mention the failure of our Iraq invasion from the very start. But we were a hero to many people throughout the western world when we entered the first World War. President Woodrow Wilson was welcomed as a savior in devastated post war Europe as he pledged to make the world safe for democracy. He encouraged nationalistic dreams of freedom from imperialism. But by 1919, Wilson was telling the Senate he regretted uttering the words” all nations had a right to self-determination.”
Instead the seeds were planted for future wars and ethnic conflicts as two major empires were destroyed-the Austro Hungarian and Ottoman-and new countries emerged in Europe and the Middle East. The Ottoman empire included modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, the Arabian Peninsula, and Turkey. The war resulted in the downfall of four monarchies-Russia in 1917, Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1918, and Turkey in 1922. It contributed to the Bolsheviks take over in Russia in 1917 and the triumph of fascism in Italy in 1922. It also led to colonial revolts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
A pact between France and Britain carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Syria and Lebanon went to France; Britain took over Palestine and three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia became the modern day Iraq. Many of the worldwide conflicts of today were incubated in the aftermath of World War I. Questions of what makes a viable nation — ethnicity, culture, religion— still haunt us today.
The physical toll was devastating. Nine million soldiers died; 6 million civilians died from disease and starvation; one million civilians were killed as a result of military operations. Overall, 16 million were left dead and more than 21 million wounded. It was the first war to use airplanes, tanks, long range artillery, submarines and poison gas. President Wilson was blamed for not entering the war earlier by former President Teddy Roosevelt and some members of Congress; others blamed him for entering Europe’s war. Yet the U.S. entry was decisive. Without it the two sides were at stalemate. But Wilson's 14 points and plans for a League of Nations to end all wars was nixed by a republican Congress.
President Barack Obama is faced with the unraveling of Syria and Iraq because of corrupt governments, Sunni Shia religious rivalries and the geopolitical agendas of Saudi Arabia vs. Iran. He is urged by some to enter the fray and by others to stay out. World War I provides important history lessons. Number one: don’t miscalculate or misunderstand or miscommunicate. Easier said than done when there are no good guys, just bad. It is easier said than done because there are no leaders in the Middle East resembling Nehru, Nelson Mandela, even Ho Chi Minh who put aside past hatreds to do what was best for their country. And Obama has to deal with the same naysayers in Congress as Woodrow Wilson. “Faced with a choice between siding with Iran and watching Iraq slide into civil war, most republicans have decided that it is easier to blame Mr. Obama…” (Economist 6/21/14). History does have a way of repeating itself.
As we emerge form the annual Fourth of July celebrations we need to remind ourselves how lucky we were to be blessed with great leaders and statesmen to lead our country after the American Revolution. Their wisdom enables us to enjoy democracy and freedom which is difficult to replicate in other parts of the world. Just imagine if we had some of the characters thinking of running for president in 2016 and some of the current members of Congress locked up in some hot hall in Philadelphia without air conditioning, and trying to piece together a Declaration of Independence and Constitution by compromise for a common good. It wouldn’t have happened. Thank you, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for being there at the right time in the right place.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.