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Peace, Waiting to Be Picked Up: The Secret Diplomacy Failure of 1916 that Changed the World

On August 12, 1916, France's president, Raymond Poincaré, walked up to the British military headquarters at Val Vion, in northern France, for a private conference with Britain's king, George V.  The king came out to greet him, wearing a beribboned khaki military uniform appropriate to the occasion.  President Poincaré joined him in a more somber kind of uniform, a livery of mourning.  Poincaré wore black from head to toe, without a bit of adornment or decoration. 

To the French public, Poincaré was a symbol of the united war effort, a conservative nationalist who personified France's "sacred union" to win the great war.  That was the public man.  But in private, with the distant thunder of the guns in the background, Poincaré had a sober message.  He confided to the king that he was in favor of "bringing the war to a conclusion as soon as possible."

How could this be done?  Poincaré had his eye on the American path to peace.  He expected the American president, Woodrow Wilson, to offer mediation by October.  "When an offer of American mediation comes," the French president explained, "the Allies should be ready to state their terms for peace."  The French public, he added, was "too optimistic."  The people did not know the full situation.  And he also felt "great anxiety in regard to the state of affairs in Russia" -- a country then about seven months away from the revolution that would topple Czarist rule.

Knowing nothing of this French-British exchange, only six days later, on August 18, the chancellor of Imperial Germany sent a momentous and secret cable to his able ambassador in Washington.  He and his Kaiser were also desperate to end the war and ready for compromise, including the restoration of Belgium.  "We are happy to accept a mediation by the President [Wilson] to start peace negotiations among the belligerents who want to bring this about," the German chancellor instructed.  "Please strongly encourage the President's activities in this regard." 

To avoid giving any impression that his country was weak, the chancellor's plea was utterly secret.  The German mediation request was unconditional.

For more than five months, from August 1916 until the end of January 1917, leaders from Germany, Britain, and the United States secretly struggled to end the Great War. They did so far out of public sight, one reason their battle is still little understood today.

Few know that the German government secretly sought peace and pleaded for President Wilson to mediate a peace conference. This was no informal feeler. It was a direct move made at the top, coordinated with allies and key political figures in Germany.  Few know of the German move; fewer still can trace exactly what happened to it.

Few know that Wilson entirely recognized the significance of this move and sought to act on it as quickly and emphatically as he could. He placed it at the top of his agenda as soon as he was reelected. Wilson also knew he had practically absolute leverage—mainly financial—over the Allied ability to continue the war. Given the political climate in the warring countries, it was the Americans who could give the peacemakers in all the warring capitals the face-saving way out.

Few know that the divided British coalition government was intensely, secretly debating its own growing pessimism about the war and its imminent bankruptcy in the dollars to sustain it. These debates were quickened by a still deeper layer of secret knowledge. British intelligence had learned of the secret German peace move.

Few know any of these things because, to outsiders then and to most historians now, it seemed that nothing happened.

During those five months of speculation, arguments, and choices behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance as never before.

The winter of 1916–1917 was pivotal for the history of the United States. Six months before America entered the war, few Americans (or British leaders) predicted it would. Even in January 1917, urged to look to the readiness of the armed forces, Woodrow Wilson, who had just been reelected with the slogan “He kept us out of war,” turned sharply on his adviser. “There will be no war,” the president said. “This country does not intend to become involved in this war.”

Until April 1917 the United States in its 141-year history had never sent a single soldier or sailor to fight on the continent of Europe. During the next year and a half, the United States, then a country of about one hundred million people, would send two million of them across the Atlantic Ocean to war. Neither Europe nor the United States would ever be the same.

There is a public story of why and how America’s historic neutrality came to an end. It is a story catalyzed by a debate over German submarine warfare. That story is well understood.

But behind that public story is the secret story. The Germans resumed their full U-boat war, the public road to wider war, because some German leaders concluded that the alternative road, the secret road, the peace road, had, after months of trying, reached a dead end.

The Americans faced the end of neutrality because they too had run out of options: President Wilson’s alternative, his peace diplomacy, had also failed, although—then and later—he never really understood quite what had gone wrong.

The 1916–1917 phase of peacemaking was also a unique moment in the history of the world. After 1916–1917, there would be other discussions about peace. But the alignment of possibilities slipped away. In March 1917, the Russian Revolution began. The Russian war effort slowly collapsed. That collapse eased some major problems for Germany and its allies. It gave them hope to carry on.

After 1916–1917, the British and French also had fresh reason to hope. They had America on their side. That sustained them, quite literally, in their darkest days.

So, what in August 1916 were two years of agonizing war had by November 1918 turned into more than four. Those further years of widening war changed the whole course of world history.

To pick just one example: without a continuation of the war, it is hard to work out any plausible scenario in which the Bolsheviks would have seized power in Russia. As the war continued, profoundly damaged most of all, beyond the countless individual human tragedies, were the future prospects for core regions of the world—Europe and the Middle East.

As horrific as the war had been until the end of 1916, the conflicts of 1917–1918 pushed Europe and the Middle East over the edge. The historian Robert Gerwarth has recently chronicled that descent.

“Notably in its final stages, from 1917 onwards, the Great War changed in nature….It was in this period that a particularly deadly but ultimately conventional conflict between states—the First World War—gave way to an interconnected series of conflicts whose logic and purpose was much more dangerous.”

As I wrote in the study of the 9/11 attacks by the 9/11 Commission, “The path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply into shadow.” Much of what happened in this history, the secret debates and hidden crises, was already in shadow to begin with. This history should see the light, because, beyond the tragedy, it is also a story of inspiring possibilities.

Two roads diverged. Both were uncertain. One led toward peace, the other toward a wider war. The secret battles to end the war were not a blur of explosions and gunfire, the battles that kill thousands. They were the quieter, more secret kind that determine the fates of millions. A small number of leaders, mainly in London, Washington, and Berlin, faced their two roads.

Analytically, one can distill some of the miscues into cold isolates of timing, ambition, dissembling, and incompetence.  But, as with those who first encountered the world of molecular biology, the closer one looks at this episode with the historian's microscope, strange new worlds open to view.  And, as in the greatest tragedies, what stands out are some human beings, flawed as they are, who did strive courageously to avert catastrophe. They wrestled with a challenge that, in its way, was as great as any of the mud-spattered heroics in Flanders or Galicia, at Verdun or Belleau Wood.

The story of the lost peace would be easy if it were merely a story of governments with irreconcilable goals. But the chancellor of Germany and the president of the United States had a vision that meshed with the vision that held sway in much, if not most, of the British cabinet, at times including both of the relevant prime ministers. The possibilities for peace were tantalizingly within reach.

Some leaders rose to the occasion. Others did not. Some demonstrated the greatest civic courage; others, its absence. It was one of those times that reveal a person’s deepest strengths and weaknesses, in ability and in character.

“Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!” the German ambassador to the United States pleaded in November 1916. He was right. But with the war in full bloody bloom, peace depended on enough people choosing the less obvious outcome: they had to step onto the road less traveled by.