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The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917

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A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running s A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running short. Yet roads to peace seemed daunting too, as exhausted nations, drummed forward by patriotic duty and war passion, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Germany made the first move. Its government secretly asked Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States and leader of the only great power still neutral, to mediate an end to the Great War. As a token of good faith, Germany promised to withdraw from occupied Belgium. Wilson was too anxious to make peace. If he failed, he felt sure America would drift into a dreadful, wider war. Meanwhile, the French president confided to Britain's King that the Allies should accept Wilson's expected peace move and end the war. In The Road Less Traveled, Philip Zelikow recounts the five months when, behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance. It is a story of civic courage, of awful responsibility, and of how some rose to the occasion or shrank from it. "Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!" pleaded the German ambassador to the United States. This book shows how right he was, and how close leaders came to doing so.


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A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running s A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running short. Yet roads to peace seemed daunting too, as exhausted nations, drummed forward by patriotic duty and war passion, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Germany made the first move. Its government secretly asked Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States and leader of the only great power still neutral, to mediate an end to the Great War. As a token of good faith, Germany promised to withdraw from occupied Belgium. Wilson was too anxious to make peace. If he failed, he felt sure America would drift into a dreadful, wider war. Meanwhile, the French president confided to Britain's King that the Allies should accept Wilson's expected peace move and end the war. In The Road Less Traveled, Philip Zelikow recounts the five months when, behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance. It is a story of civic courage, of awful responsibility, and of how some rose to the occasion or shrank from it. "Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!" pleaded the German ambassador to the United States. This book shows how right he was, and how close leaders came to doing so.

34 review for The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917

  1. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    This is a 4-star plus book. The new material in it would have it at a 5-star, but, Zelikow errs in still painting by “consensus history” colors in showing Wilson as the determined neutral. He’s not as bad as some, and in some of the new information, he shows Wilson at times was — or acted like, in the moment — a true neutral. But, he never followed though. That said, that perception was part of what did make this largely 5-star. On the other hand, the weight of the “consensus history” elements ti This is a 4-star plus book. The new material in it would have it at a 5-star, but, Zelikow errs in still painting by “consensus history” colors in showing Wilson as the determined neutral. He’s not as bad as some, and in some of the new information, he shows Wilson at times was — or acted like, in the moment — a true neutral. But, he never followed though. That said, that perception was part of what did make this largely 5-star. On the other hand, the weight of the “consensus history” elements tilted me back to 4-star. With that? Let’s dig in. (Warning: Much of the rest of the review is spoiler alerts. Scroll 80 percent of the way down, since we can't put an anchor mid-review to hide just the part after it as a spoiler alert.) There is a lot of new information here, even to someone like me who’s pretty knowledgeable about WWI and many of its specifics. I knew about the German peace feelers, and some of their specifics. Zelikow still filled in a few details for me, including how much of an intermediary House was and how much he bollixed some of this. More on that later. Much of what he talked about on the British side, the big picture as well as the details, was very new to me. I knew money was tight, but didn’t realize how tight by how much Britain was scraping for securities in the US to serve as loan collateral with the House of Morgan. Did not know that going off the gold standard got a halfway serious Asquith Cabinet discussion. Did not know Britain had tried floating an unsecured bond issue before this and it got only nibbles in the US. So, then we get to the meat. The British tried to float another unsecured issue. The Federal Reserve, with the chair at the time prompted by the head of the NY Fed, decided to issue an official “investors’ caution” note. This was brought to Wilson’s attention — and he told the Fed to SHARPEN the note. Yes. It’s at a time like this that Wilson is halfway open to interpretation as a true neutral. But, then Wilson’s feet of clay come into play, to riff on Clemenceau at Versailles. And Zelikow shows this. First, he references British politicians who, in talking about Wilson working on a peace plan, note he was an idealist, and might even have ideals that were statesmanlike — but that he had an indifferent grasp of governance. Part of this connects to the smallness of the U.S. government at this time. But, part of it connects to how close Wilson played his cards to his vest, and didn’t trust many people. Neither his second wife nor Col. House was a government or any kind of administrator. And, while House might either accidentally or deliberately undercut Wilson while outside his presence, neither he nor Edith would challenge or redirect him in person. This had several fallouts. First, Wilson had no idea he had Britain by the financial gonads for months after getting the Fed to sharpen its note. And, without a semi-war cabinet looping in Treasury, he couldn’t. Second, beyond small government, he had a small cabinet. Not small in size for his era, but small minded, largely sleepy southern segregationists. Wilson may have admired British cabinet government, and Bagehot’s ideas on government, in the abstract and academic, but in the real world? Not at all. Third, as Zelikow notes, it wasn’t until Versailles that Wilson learned about House truckling him. (That said, House didn’t have the worst of the ideas side in all cases he did this.) Fourth, because Wilson himself wasn’t reading Amb. Bernstorff closely enough, he didn’t grasp time pressures Germany faced — or rather, that Bethmann faced from unrestricted submarine warfare mongers. Zelikow is also very good on the Nov.-Dec. 1916 machinations of Lloyd George, including how he first considered keeping Asquith as a figurehead premier. He adds as background that with many Liberals already deserting him, a coalition government was his only chance to grasp the brass ring. I had “minimum high regard” for Lloyd George before this, but even worse afterward. Britons who criticize the American presidency in general are on soft ground, given some of their prime ministers. VERY good on the machinations of Col House … and why: his desire for continued “access” to British society. This led him to get Wilson to yank his call for a peace conference, which totally defanged Wilson’s leverage in terms of the big picture. It also led the Kaiser, anti-Bethmanns in the civilian government, and above all, Hindenberg and Ludendorff, to decide that Wilson couldn’t be trusted. House also lied about who wanted to go further forward and who was delaying, between him and Wilson. At the same time, House misrepresented some Britons, or with the likes of Grey, simply didn’t represent them to Wilson at all. End of spoilers. And now …. “Consensus history” errors about Wilson earlier on. While noting his admiration for the British parliamentary system, he ignores him writing his PhD on Bagehot, and yet claims Wilson really was neutral. Related and worse: Claims Wilson just urged Germany to “restrict” submarine war by not targeting merchantmen. Ignores British violations of int’l law through its extended blockade and its use of food as a blockade-item weapon; ignores that these are the parallels to Germany targeting merchantmen. (Also ignores British false-flagging, the Lusitania carrying munitions and more.) Says that Wilson said he would tackle blockade issue after getting Germany to “cruiser warfare” after Sussex. He didn’t. And, in turn, then, is Zelikow correct in his interpretation that Wilson didn’t know just how bad British finances were and that he didn’t know he had Britain by the gonads? Or, did he, and did he choose not to follow up (since he really never did follow up)?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    Did the United States led by Woodrow Wilson blunder its way into the First World War in 1917 because the president committed the "most consequential diplomatic failure" in U.S. history? Yes, says the author of this exciting new book, former diplomat and now University of Virginia scholar Philip Zelikow. Full disclosure: I interviewed Zelikow about his argument for my podcast. The episode drops 4/6/21. http://historyasithappens.radio.washi... This is a short book but not a breezy read. It is the wor Did the United States led by Woodrow Wilson blunder its way into the First World War in 1917 because the president committed the "most consequential diplomatic failure" in U.S. history? Yes, says the author of this exciting new book, former diplomat and now University of Virginia scholar Philip Zelikow. Full disclosure: I interviewed Zelikow about his argument for my podcast. The episode drops 4/6/21. http://historyasithappens.radio.washi... This is a short book but not a breezy read. It is the work of a fastidious researcher and experienced diplomat (Zelikow worked in five presidential administrations and was involved in the reunification of Germany, to name one endeavor). He presents an impressive amount of documentary evidence. Zelikow makes a convincing case, even if no one can be sure how the "what if" scenario would have played out in the long run. But it is not unreasonable to think that Europe would have been spared the carnage of the 1940s had the First World War been brought to a negotiated end in a compromise peace in 1916, when Wilson had an opportunity to do so. As the book demonstrates, the Germans -- led by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg -- had been imploring Wilson to offer mediation at a peace conference through most of 1916. The Germans offered to withdraw from Belgium, among other important concessions, as a precondition and show of good faith. At the same time the British (and French) were looking for a way out of the catastrophic war, especially after the disasters of the summer offensives in 1916. The Allied finances were on the brink of collapse, and all the warring countries were strained to the breaking point after two years of vicious bloodshed. But Wilson vacillated. He dithered. And, according to Zelikow, he came up small when the moment called for bold diplomacy. By spring 1917, the Germans had run out of patience and the military leaders, who had never trusted Wilson to begin with, convinced the Kaiser to lift all restrictions on the U-boat war. It is tantalizing to think about what may have happened, had the U.S. been able to avoid getting involved in the war, and had brought about a peace without victors, instead of the unworkable peace of 1919.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Louis Muñoz

  4. 4 out of 5

    Łukasz

  5. 4 out of 5

    Derrick Ranostaj

  6. 4 out of 5

    OTIS

  7. 5 out of 5

    Grouchy Historian

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

  9. 4 out of 5

    Hope

  10. 5 out of 5

    Maryanna Brunkhorst

  11. 4 out of 5

    Emilie

  12. 5 out of 5

    Donna Davis

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steven

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michelle Quintana

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    Pavel Shestakov

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Bianchi

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kovan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Leo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dakota

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mel

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cam Todd

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael Katz

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tatu

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ilya

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jason Phinney

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amber

  27. 5 out of 5

    Malia

  28. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Cassie

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Craig

  31. 5 out of 5

    Lee

  32. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

  33. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

  34. 5 out of 5

    Karen

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