Book Review from the September 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order', by Adam Tooze. Penguin £12.99
Which side won the First World War? The straightforward answer is that it was the Entente – Britain, France, etc – that prevailed over the Central Powers, mainly Germany and Austria-Hungary. But, as Tooze shows here, it was rather more complicated than that, and the true victors were the United States and, to a considerably lesser extent, Japan. We should add the kind of provision that he does not make, that it was the ruling class in these countries that really won.
The lengthy fighting, with its incredible costs in materiel and its disruption to industry and agriculture, had greatly weakened the major European powers, with even the ‘winners’ owing vast sums to the US. In 1923 the British government agreed to repay $4.6bn to the US, with interest, over 62 years. Most of the reparations paid by Germany to Britain and France in fact ended up being passed to the US.
It can be said that the real end of the war came, not with the Versailles Treaty, but with the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–2; holding it in the US was itself symbolic. There Britain in effect conceded naval and hence global power to the US, Japan was allowed a Pacific fleet, and other countries were relegated to the status of minor players in terms of their navies. In 1928 a British Foreign Office memo recognised the new situation: ‘Great Britain is faced in the United States of America with a phenomenon for which there is no parallel in our modern history – a state twenty-five times as large, five times as wealthy, three times as populous, twice as ambitious, almost invulnerable, and at least our equal in prosperity, vital energy, technical equipment, and industrial science.’ Even the fact that the US did not join the League of Nations gave it a kind of veto over the decisions of the major players who were in the League.
Not that the American ruling class had it all its own way, even in its own backyard. There were widespread strikes in 1919, often opposed violently by the employers. At US Steel, twenty workers were killed before the company won a comprehensive victory in January 1920. Immigration was drastically cut, and a ‘Red Scare’ led to many non-US-born labour activists being deported. All this was, says Tooze, ‘a shock from which the American labour movement was never to recover.’
Moreover, the official end of the war by no means meant anything approaching peace. From the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923 to the British military defence of Shanghai in 1927 and other examples, fighting and preparations for fighting continued right down to the bloodbaths of the thirties. The outcome of the Great War was not Peace without Victory, as trumpeted by US President Wilson, but Victory without Peace.