The Hundred Years War

Today marks one hundred years since the armistice was signed at Versailles. Eleven o’clock of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—sounds like a blues tune.

The 1914-1918 war is possibly the greatest exercise in overreaction (the term overkill comes to mind) the planet has ever known. One guy got shot in an obscure Bosnian city and the world fell apart.

Many thought the war would be done by Christmas, but instead it lasted four interminable years. The First World War brought with it many innovations—the joys of chemical warfare were introduced, aerial warfare became a reality, and tanks entered the fray for the first time in the Battle of the Somme.

WWI was also a war where global finance gained prominence—the business of war was predicated on large loans to governments, and nowhere was that clearer than in Great Britain. Woodrow Wilson refused for years to bring the United States into the war—in fact he was re-elected in 1916 with a margin of four thousand votes running on precisely that ticket, with the slogan “He has kept us out of war.”

A century later, one over-arching message is that the US has a tradition of resisting involvement in European conflicts—ironically, Britain, France, and Spain historically illustrate the exact opposite.

But Wilson also actively promoted trade with Europe, particularly for armament. In this respect, US neutrality is questionable, since far more weaponry was sold to the Allies than to Germany. By 1915, the only way to sell arms to Britain was by loaning it money.

Enter the huge banking houses of New York and Philadelphia. Bankers with names like Warburg, Schiff, Brandeis, Rothschild, Baruch, Meyer, and of course J.P. Morgan, were at the ready—a war is a great business opportunity, but only if your side wins.

Bank of England posters for the purchase of war bonds during World War I.

If the Germans won, it was pretty clear that the Allied bonds would return pennies on the dollar, if that—they would be what became known in the 1970’s as junk bonds—potentially huge, but potentially ruinous.

After the US entered the war things rapidly changed, and the bankers were all smiles. They did, however, require Germany to lose, and in order for this to happen, an accommodation was undesirable. If an early cease-fire was negotiated whereby Germany would not have to make substantial reparations, the bonds were junk.

By 1917, the bankers had lent the Allies 2.25 billion dollars. In fairness, they also lent money to Germany—twenty-seven million, hardly a balanced book—it was pretty clear who the financiers wanted to win.

Early German overtures to end the war were refused and, by the time the armistice was signed, the so-called Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) were forced to surrender on ruinous terms.

Many, including the economist John Maynard Keynes, attribute the Second World War to those terms. Undoubtedly, they contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany and to Hitler’s popularity. Some of the popular hatred against Jews will also have stemmed from the financial support given to the Allies—several of those US banking magnates were Jewish.

All those WWI ‘achievements’ have only made the world more dangerous: chemical and biological weapons, followed by nuclear warheads; open cockpit prop planes, followed by jets, missiles, rockets, and drones. Tanks are now in the world of robotics and can shoot down a commercial airliner full of innocent souls.

However, there is one achievement we can all be proud of in the West. The absence of civilian men during World War I forced women to take over male jobs—shortly thereafter, this led to women’s emancipation and the right to vote. That’s led directly to the landslide female representation in the US congress of 2018—absolutely unthinkable back then.

But on the world stage, where are we now?

When it comes to world leaders, I’ll let you be the judge. Instead of Lenin, we have Putin. Instead of Wilson, we got Trump. Instead of Asquith and Lloyd George, we have May. Clemenceau? Makron. Instead of Enver Pasha, we have Erdoğan.

At least three of the above are enthusiastic warmongers. Four generations after the war to end all wars, I wonder how well positioned we are for the start of World War III.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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