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6: Conclusion

<< 5: Over Where? The Search for Alternatives to the Western Front, June-November 1917 || The First World War Chronology

With the decision to concentrate American forces on the Western Front finalized, the responsibility for most strategic planning shifted away from Washington. Finally, more than seven months after the US declaration of war, the foundation of the American war effort was complete: the AEF would be raised by conscription; it would be shipped as rapidly as possible to Europe, receiving its training on both sides of the Atlantic; and it would cooperate closely with the French and British in the West, but would remain an independent force. The amalgamation issue would rear its head again in the winter of 1917-18, but the burden of parrying the Allied attempts to incorporate American soldiers would fall on General Pershing, as would the decision to focus US efforts on the Lorraine sector of the Western Front. Further issues relating to the coordination of the Entente war effort would be debated among the members of the Supreme War Council. While Bliss, who had been active in the General Staff's strategic planning as both the Chief of the War College Division and the Chief of Staff, would serve as the American military representative on the Council, the War College Division itself would play little part in these considerations. Belatedly, the military planners in the General Staff had fulfilled their war- planning role. The task of carrying through on those plans would belong to General Pershing and his own staff at their Headquarters in France.(1)

After Major General Peyton C. March assumed the position of Chief of Staff in the spring of 1918, the General Staff would finally gain recognition as the coordinating and supervisory agent of the War Department -- the status which it had sought since the turn of the century. Under March, the War College Division's role in strategic policy-making would be made official and that branch of the General Staff would be renamed the War Plans Division. Also during March's tenure, Wilson would begin close coordination with his military planners, as described by historians Link and Chambers. Such a cohesive approach to planning, however, had not existed during the formative period of America's policy-making for the war, and this examination of that topic has demonstrated the disparity between the approach and attitude of the military planners in the War College Division and that of President Wilson.(2)

Military planning before the US declaration of war had found itself tethered by several strong ropes. Within the War Department itself there existed no consensus on how best to approach the task. The individual bureau chiefs vigilantly protected their personal power from any hint of infringement, and in so doing often exercised their influence in Congress to thwart the General Staff by reducing its number or limiting its authority. Legislative opposition stemmed from other sources as well, including an honest fear that any comprehensive policy-making would inevitably lead to a Prussian-like military system within the United States. In addition, the organized militia-- the traditional American second line of defense--had strong supporters in key positions in Congress. The General Staff's criticisms of the National Guard would thus yield only a backlash of attacks on the military planners themselves.

The military planners were by no means blameless. They did little to transcend the myopic context of the Monroe Doctrine even as American foreign policy was reaching across the oceans. Even if they had been more far-sighted, however, the strong public sentiment for neutrality and the understandably popular desire to remain aloof from the slaughter in Europe would have prevented any military planning which might have even remotely suggested US involvement. In the context of American neutrality, any military planning at all was seen by many as a prelude to an American role in the conflict, and therefore was to be avoided.

Woodrow Wilson's view of the civilian-military relationship cannot be discounted, especially since he was the President who "kept us out of war." The constitutional distinction between the civilian Commander-in-Chief and the military leaders which Wilson so greatly enforced must be praised. It was precisely the lack of such a separation of powers which had led Germany to make several key errors in their war effort, including the eventually fatal mistake of resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. A division of civilian and military authority, however, need not yield a complete rift in military planning. A coordinated approach to policy-making can be pursued in the context of civilian authority, but Wilson chose almost completely to ignore his General Staff. He did not simply overrule their suggestions; instead, he seldom even sought their advice.(3)

As winter passed into spring in 1917, it became more and more obvious that the US was drifting into the war. Even Wilson began to consider the steps that might be necessary to mobilize America's armed forces, but only those actions necessary to safeguard the homeland from a possible attack. Definite restrictions remained in place. The President tenaciously clung to the hope that Germany would not carry through on its U-boat threat and that American involvement could be averted. Consequently, the military planning which Wilson did sanction-- narrow though it was--was kept under tight wraps. Chief of Staff Scott was reluctant to operate solely within these confines and, unknown to the President, ordered the military planners in the War College Division to consider strategies which wentsignificantly beyond those which Wilson desired and which included the possibility of creating an expeditionary force.

Even though these military planners had finally broken the bonds of the Monroe Doctrine, they found themselves hampered by the nation's previous inaction and failed to create a reasonable plan for US involvement. The War College Division did, however, successfully draft plans for raising a mass army. It concluded dearly that conscription would be the only feasible means of raising a large American force, no matter what the eventual shape of the nation's involvement. Here again, though, the gap between the concerns of the military planners and those of the President is illustrated. In spite of their repeated urgings of the General Staff and in spite of the growing likelihood of US participation in the struggle, Wilson continued to look toward voluntarism to expand the army. Not until he realized that selective service could thwart Theodore Roosevelt's plans to raise a volunteer division for service overseas did he embrace the draft and jettison his previous affinity for volunteers. This was one of the rare times that Wilson was fully aware of the opinions of the General Staff. His concurrence would not result from their persuasive arguments, however; instead, it would come only after he had realized the political utility of conscription. Wilson was not so fully attuned to the War College Division's recommendations concerning an immediate expeditionary force to France. The military planners voiced their reservations passionately and argued that sending an American army to Europe before it had been trained could not only threaten the nation's independent war effort, but might also result in a mass butchering of raw soldiers. Wilson was probably ignorant of these opinions when, on 2 May, he promised Joffre that the US would raise and send a division as soon as one could be organized.

In retrospect, following the War College Division's advice to hold the bulk of American soldiers within the country until they had completed their training would no doubt have left the US lacking a land presence at the end of the war or, worse yet, might have resulted in a victory for the Central Powers. Such hindsight analysis does not erase the fact that Wilson had not thought to consult the General Staff and that Secretary of War Baker proved a poor messenger for the War College Division's opinions.

Wilson's approach to strategic planning came dangerously close to folly when he suggested that the US seek an alternative to the Western Front. Wilson seemed too easily swayed by the strategic advise of amateurs or polemicists, such as Herbert H. Sargeant. Indeed, the President appeared reluctant to accept even the most straight-forward arguments which excluded the possibility of an attack through Russia. Secretary of War Baker had to present the War College Division critique of these alternatives twice, and even then it is less likely that the President was swayed by the strategic considerations than it is that he was influenced by the fall of the Provincial Government in Russia and by Baker's contention that a campaign along any front but the West would threaten Wilson's role at the peace settlement.

It is often easy to find mistakes in failure. It is more difficult to criticize a process which ends successfully, as did America's effort during the First World War. The Allied victory, however, does not change the fact that American strategy was formulated in a tardy, reckless and haphazard fashion, with Wilson making policies and commitments with no consideration for the counsel of his military planners in the War College Division of the General Staff. This is not to say that the advice of those planners was always sound, or to claim that it should always have been adopted, or even to suggest that, at least on the surface, American diplomatic goals and military policy failed to mesh. In fact, in retrospect it appears that Wilson's decisions were often better suited to America's war aims than was the advice of the War College Division. Nonetheless it must be recognized that these decisions were not the result of a long and considered dialogue between the President and these military planners. They were instead the outcome of unilateral decision-making which, although successful in this instance, is a dangerous approach to strategic planning.

1. See Allan R. Millet, "Over Where? The AEF and the American Strategy for Victory, 1917-1918," in Against All Enemies: Interpretations of American Military History from Colonial Times to the Present, eds. Kenneth J. Hagan and William Roberts, Contributions in Military Studies 51 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 235-56; American Battle Monuments Commission, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide and Reference Book (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1938), 16; Trask, The United States in the Supreme War Council; On 3 September Pershing ordered from his own staff a study of strategical fronts for the employment of the AEF. The examination was complete within the month: Lt. Col. Fox Conner, Col. L. R. Eltinge and Maj. H.A. Drum, "A Strategical Study on the Employment of the A.E.F. Against the Imperial German Government," 25 September 1917, Record Group 120 (American Expeditionary Forces), File 1003, Folder 681, Part 2, G-3, G.H.Q., A.E.F., National Archives; Pershing's headquarters were at No. 31 Rue Constantine, Paris, until 1 September 1917, when they were moved to Chaumont. Army War College Historical Section, Genesis of the American First Army, 3.

2. Edward M. Coffman, The Hilt of the Sword: The Career of Peyton C. March (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966); Michael J. McCarthy, "The US War Department General Staff in World War I," in The Encyclopedia of World War I, ed. Anne Cipriano Venzon, Wars of the United States Series (New York: Garland Publishing, forthcoming); Link and Chambers, "Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief,"319-24.

3. Martin Kitchen, "Civil-Military Relations in Germany During the First World War," in The Great War, 1914-18: Essays on the Military, Political, and Social History of the First World War, ed. R.J.Q. Adams (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 39-68; Cooper, "World War I: European Origins and American Intervention," 10-12.

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