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Two Roads Diverged
EDWARD THOMAS COULD NOT decide what to do. An emerging poet, Thomas, thirty-seven years old in the summer of 1915, was balancing his time between literary London and the home he loved in the beautiful Hampshire countryside of southern England. Married, with children, he had not yet been conscripted into the war that was already taking so many of his country’s young men.
Thomas was torn. Should he enlist, join the war, and serve his country at the front? Or should he leave it all far behind and go to America?
Thomas had a real offer of refuge in America. His friend and soulmate, a fellow poet named Robert Frost, had gone back to his beloved farmlands of New Hampshire. Come join me, Frost had offered.
Frost and Thomas had become friends when Frost had moved to England in 1912, hoping that there he might make an impression with his work. Over many visits together, the two men had encouraged each other’s writing, each other’s dreams. They often took long walks through the woods, relishing the outdoors. “Thomas and I had become so inseparable,” Frost recalled, “that we came to be looked on as some sort of literary Siamese twins.”
Earlier in 1915, Frost and his wife, Elinor, had returned to America. With them, Edward Thomas sent his eldest child, his fifteen-year-old son. Thomas had an open invitation to come along too.
So, now, Thomas faced his choice: Should he join up and go to war or seek peace with his American friend? Thomas had often talked to Frost about his dilemma. “These last few days,” Thomas wrote in June 1915, “I have been looking at 2 alternatives, trying to enlist or coming out to America.”1
Frost replied by sending his friend a draft poem. He called it “The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Thomas took the message of the poem very personally. He was hurt by it. He felt Frost was accusing him of dithering and that the accusation was unfair. “It’s all very well for you poets in a yellow wood to say you choose, but you don’t.”
Frost wrote back, assuring his friend that he was only teasing: “Methinks you strikest too hard in so small a matter…. the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing.”
Thomas was unconvinced. “You have got me again over the Path not taken & no mistake.”
A week later, he wrote to Frost to say that now his mind was made up. “Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.”
The doctor did pass him. After training, Thomas reported for duty to become an officer in the Royal Artillery. The date was August 25, 1916.2
When Thomas took on his commission, the Great War had been under way for two years. The summer of 1916 had been the most monstrous yet. Already that season’s gigantic concussions had passed into the common vocabulary; one needed only to say “Verdun” or “the Somme.” No one in Europe had ever lived through such a war. It had passed well beyond any known experience.
Earlier, in 1916, Thomas wrote a poem that closed with the words
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.3
If they danced lightly in memory, the collective tread of the lost millions was heavy enough in the consciousness of the living. By August 1916, with no end to it in sight, all the leaders of the warring powers, at least in private, confronted the scale and cost of the slaughter, the unremitting hardship weighing on their societies.
Like Edward Thomas, the leaders also faced a fateful choice. They too looked out at two divergent roads. Down one path was ever more war. The other, perhaps, led to peace.
As they looked down the war path, no good military options were left. Money, food, munitions, and people were running short.
Yet the road to peace seemed daunting too. How to get there? How to take the first steps?
Exhausted nations, drummed onward by patriotic duty, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Bureaucrats wrote papers speculating about annexing this or that strip of land. But to some of the leaders, on both sides, such aims seemed banal, almost trivial, in relation to the scale of what was being sacrificed. Was anything, beyond defense of home and country, worth all this? Yet, if they had doubts, how could they acknowledge them? What could they say? How could they be the first to go before their suffering people and offer to end the war without a heroic conclusion?
For Edward Thomas, the other path—away from war—led toward America. Those wartime leaders who confronted their own secret doubts also looked to America. The US president, Woodrow Wilson, held the key that could release them from their awful dilemma.
A week before Edward Thomas reported for duty, on August 18, 1916, the chancellor of Imperial Germany made the first big move. He sent a momentous and secret cable to his able ambassador in Washington. Britain had cut direct telegraph connections from Germany to America. So the chancellor’s message had flashed over the wires first to neutral Stockholm. From there it was relayed to neutral Buenos Aires. From there his coded message was dispatched again, on to the German embassy in Washington. There the chancellor’s words were laboriously decoded.
“We are happy to accept a mediation by the President 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 or desperate, the chancellor’s plea was utterly secret. The German mediation request was unconditional. The chancellor sought President Woodrow Wilson’s help to arrange both a peace conference among the belligerents to end the war and another, more general peace conference, with participation by the United States and other neutrals, to set postwar plans to secure the peace. The other path now beckoned.4
THE IMPERIAL CHANCELLOR who made that plea, the sixty-one-year-old Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, had been in his job for seven years. He was a tall, firmly built, angular man, graying with a short mustache and beard.
He was not an elected politician. He was an imperial official, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the kaiser. Bethmann was the supreme civilian leader and foreign minister both for the German Empire as a whole and for its largest member state, Prussia.
He had never attempted to become the kaiser’s friend. His style was to be the quintessential dispassionate public servant. Deliberate, plain-spoken, and truthful, he offered appraisals and advice in a professional, careful, didactic style. Others in the court occasionally resented and mocked him; yet they respected him.5
Before the war started, Bethmann had been melancholy, his mood darkened by his wife’s death in May 1914. As the conflict wore on and his son died at the front later in 1914, he became still more somber. By early 1915, Bethmann wondered aloud, to friends, about what share of the blame he should carry for the hurried and negligent diplomacy that had led to war in July 1914. “If one talks about guilt for this war—we also have our share of the responsibility, that we have to confess honestly,” he confided. “And if I say this thought depresses me that would be too little—the thought does not leave me. I live in it.”
Bethmann put some of the blame on xenophobic popular movements, including in his own country. “There we have our part of the guilt, the pan-Germans (Alldeutsche) have their guilt. In our domestic and foreign policy, we have lived in lies.”6
By 1916, Bethmann was in plain opposition to the right-wing factions. They were doing all they could to bring him down. To some he seemed worn down, “tense, tired, and nervous,” a colleague observed in the spring of 1916. “His hair has become white; his face is lined with deep furrows.”7
But in August 1916 Bethmann had won the kaiser’s approval to step out, for the first time, on the road to a general peace. The path, the German peace strategy, looked to Woodrow Wilson, the only leader of a great power not yet embroiled in the war, to bring the warring sides to the table.
And Wilson was eager to do it. And in Paris, and in London, other leaders too were eyeing the peace road. Bethmann’s timing was better than he knew.
ON AUGUST 17, 1916, the day before Bethmann sent his request to Wilson, King George V granted an audience at Buckingham Palace to Francis Bertie. Bertie, the second son of an earl, had spent fifty-three of his seventy-two years in diplomatic service until he was awarded a title of his own, Baron Bertie of Thame. The king had something he needed to tell Bertie. Since 1905, seemingly forever, Bertie had been Britain’s envoy in Paris. The king had some startling information to pass on about France.
The king had just returned from a then secret visit to the British troops in the field. A key stop was at Val Vion, a handsome four-story brick mansion, about a mile east of the village of Beauquesne in northern France, that was the forward headquarters of the British commanding general in France, Douglas Haig. Val Vion was about twelve miles west of the networks of interlocking trench lines.
The gigantic Battle of the Somme had been raging for the past seven weeks. It would continue for months to come. The battle had already snuffed out more lives than any other that had ever been fought in the long history of the British Isles. From Val Vion, the king could hear the rumble of the guns.
France’s president, Raymond Poincaré, came up to Val Vion for a private talk with the king. The king came out to greet him, wearing a beribboned khaki military uniform appropriate to the occasion.
The two men, the king and the president of France, were already well acquainted. Poincaré had been president since 1913. President Poincaré stepped forward 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. Poincaré knew the toll the war was taking. Seeing the king, on August 12, he had been “preoccupied by the numerous letters in his post-bag calling for a peace settlement.”8
To the French public, Poincaré was a symbol of the united war effort. He was a conservative nationalist. He was competent and worked hard. He had very much been part of and supported France’s moves toward war in 1914. He personified France’s “sacred union” to wage that war. A few months before he saw the king, in May, he had given a firm speech reiterating France’s determination to fight on to impose a proper peace.
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.”
Poincaré believed that, understandably, the French public was “too optimistic.” The people did not know the full situation. He also felt “great anxiety in regard to the state of affairs in Russia.” That ally had just suffered yet another season of horrific losses. The political turmoil there was more and more obvious to all observers.9
Receiving this report from the king about what Poincaré had said, Bertie was greatly disturbed. The aged diplomat viewed any talk of peace with haughty disdain. Just six days before this royal audience, Bertie had in fact tried to persuade the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, to dismiss any peace move from Wilson.
Grey had not agreed. He had long been eyeing the peace path from America, much more than Bertie knew. To his blustery ambassador, Grey did not explain all this. Grey did predict, correctly, that Germany would ask Wilson to mediate. Britain, he told his ambassador, could not “make a blank refusal” of such a move by Wilson. Britain would have to consult with allies and dig into the terms. Britain’s leaders did not dare to “put America against us.”
Arguing with Grey, Bertie had played the French card. He “had not seen any signs of the French being ready to listen to peace proposals,” he assured Grey, “they not being afraid of America as we are.” How discomfiting it was now to Bertie. Having just made that argument to Grey, confidently describing French opinion, he might now have to report that, from no less a source than the king himself, it turned out that the famously patriotic president of France was very much “ready to listen to peace proposals.”10
Grey would indeed soon learn about what Poincaré had said. To that he could add his own awareness of just how much the entire British and Allied war effort and food supplies depended on America. Grey also knew, as Bertie did not, the greatest secret of them all: that Britain’s ability to pay for these supplies, to sustain its whole war effort, was running out.
On August 30, the British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, began getting ready in earnest. He secretly asked the members of his cabinet’s War Committee to submit their views on the terms for a negotiated peace.
The War Committee well knew that Woodrow Wilson was anxious to mediate an end to the war. Wilson had hoped that the British would ask him to do it. In the first half of 1916, the British government had in fact been sorely tempted. Yet, after round upon round of secret debates, the British had put off the American peace option. They and their allies decided they would first try out their long-planned gigantic summer offensives.
Those bloodily foundered. So, as hopes of a military breakthrough faded once again, as the shocking casualty lists touched families in every part of the land, the British debates began again. So, in August, for the first time, all the stars finally came into alignment for a real chance to end the war. On both sides, those who knew the most were pessimistic about the future and willing to consider ways to bring the war to an end. The one great power still on the sidelines was ready and willing to help them do it.
FOR MORE than five months, from August 1916 until the end of January 1917, leaders secretly struggled to end the Great War. They did so far out of public sight, one reason their battle is still little understood today.
Other supposedly pivotal moments in the war have long been the subject of intense scrutiny. For generations, the spotlights have been trained on how the war started. Scholars have minutely studied every move and countermove in the “July crisis” of 1914.
The great battles, however inconclusive, have been scoured for their significance. There is even a book dedicated to the war’s last week, when its conclusion was inevitable.
In many ways, these choices not to end the war are more interesting than the choices that started it. In July 1914, the choices were rushed; options were murky and consequences hard to imagine. Between August 1916 and January 1917, the leaders worked for months on the peace road. By that time the stakes were tragically visible. But there are no books on why the war did not end in late 1916 and early 1917.
Few know that the German government secretly sought peace and pleaded for 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 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 1916–1917 phase of peacemaking was a unique opportunity. 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, later in 1917 and in 1918, the rising American support always spurred them on. 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.
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.”11
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. This book is the secret understory of why and how America’s historic neutrality came to an end and America embarked on a new course in world history.
THE STORY is, however, about much more than what happened to the United States. The consequences of these failures and Britain’s own fateful choices in these months rippled far outward. The French historian Georges-Henri Soutou calls this period of late 1916 and early 1917, and the flurry of efforts to bring the war to an end, the tournant, the great turning. He is right.
“The transition from 1916 to 1917 marked a decisive turning point in the war,” writes a German historian, Jörn Leonhard. “For the historian,” Bentley Gilbert observes, “the autumn and winter of 1916 provide clearly a division in the course of the First World War. More to the point, many contemporary thinkers as well as the great suffering mass of Europe, saw events in the same way.”12
A number of leaders realized that, by the latter half of 1916, their societies were on the edge of a precipice. All the major warring powers had pushed their countries to the outer limits of what a modern nation-state could do to turn governments into absolute machines of war. As the war continued and widened, from 1917 on, the once-mighty Liberal Party in Britain disintegrated as a political force. Germany, the United States, and France all explored how to further transform and militarize their entire societies. In that story too, “1916 was a pivotal year.” These experiences became the models for the total-war states still to come.13
Had the war stopped in 1916, it would have given way to a scarred, bitter peace. There would have been more turmoil, just as years of turmoil followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But the outlook would have been better. As in a patient ravaged by illness, the immune system more and more compromised, every further year of terrible warfare lowered the world’s odds for a healthy recovery.
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.”14
By the end of 1918, when the armistice stopped the shooting in western Europe, other wars were already well under way, including the revolution and civil war in Russia that began in 1917–1918, the violent decomposition of the Austro-Hungarian domains, and the wars that tore apart the former domains of the Ottoman Empire. The regions slid irreversibly into years of violent torment that continued on into 1923.
These further wars in central and eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East inflicted some of the worst traumas of the whole era. The scars and burdens—psychic, financial, physical, and political—crushed ideals, dimmed hopes, and infected European society with every conceivable social and political virus.
IN 1919–1920 the Reichstag of the new German republic conducted a remarkable investigation of two aspects of Germany’s diplomacy related to the war. Part of the work was on the outbreak of war in 1914. But there was also a second report, one that inquired into why the German peace moves of 1916–1917 had failed.15
Lacking any evidence about the British, French, or American behavior, the early German investigators tended to point fingers of blame among themselves. Soon, those arguments about those peace moves were put aside, swamped by the overwhelming attention given instead to the great and public debates about 1914 war guilt and the unending waves of documentary releases and arguments about the “July crisis” of 1914.
After the war, knowledgeable British and American sources had no great interest in revisiting the question of whether they could have ended the war in 1916–1917. Wilson’s emissary, Edward House, for example, wrote a memoir with the Yale historian Charles Seymour, edited with the help of the former British intelligence agent William Wiseman, that was immensely influential but carefully omitted and edited key material.
Wilson’s great biographer Arthur Link began pulling together some of the key German and American material and kept revising his interpretation of it. At first, he thought the Germans were never serious. Then he thought they had not given Wilson enough time. In his last work, Link began also blaming members of Wilson’s own team for the American failure. But Link never had any clearer idea than Wilson did of just what had gone wrong. Nor did Link have the evidence now available about the crucial British debates and the way they interacted with the other stories. Another Wilson biographer, John Milton Cooper Jr., came closer, noticing several key clues over the years, but never squarely turned his full attention to the peace story.
- "Marvelous. What a well-wrought and haunting book this is. Philip Zelikow lucidly recounts and dissects how the worst consequences of the war of 1914-1918 almost came to be averted. He shows how leaders in both belligerent camps and the neutral United States strove mightily to end that conflict in 1916 and early 1917. This is a must-read book for understanding World War I and its consequences."—John M. Cooper Jr, Emeritus Professor University of Wisconsin-Madison
- "I read this book with unflagging interest, as my admiration for the carefulness of Zelikow’s research and the nuance of his argument grew virtually by the page. This is a gripping, granular analysis of one of modern history’s most fascinating and consequential might-have-beens, a must read for all practitioners and students of statecraft. "—David M. Kennedy, Stanford University, Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War and Over Here: The First World War and American Society.
- “Enthralling … a masterpiece … a page-turning narrative, based on meticulous archival scholarship yet a pleasure to read, the characters deftly drawn, the locations vividly realized. … This is an instant classic of diplomatic history.”—Niall Ferguson for Times Literary Supplement
"The failure of Germany, Britain, and France halfway through World War I to reach a compromise peace mediated by Woodrow Wilson proved as disastrous for subsequent world history as the outbreak of the war itself. Philip Zelikow's enthralling narrative, with all the tautness of a mystery and based on thorough multinational research, unravels the earnest hopes, miscalculated tactics, and narrow political ambitions that all played a tragic role. Today's policy makers should ponder the lessons."
—Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History, Harvard University
- “In The Road Less Traveled, Zelikow brilliantly tells the diplomatic story of what he calls ‘the lost peace’ of August 1916–January 1917.”—The New York Journal of Books
- “[The Road Less Traveled] offers an engaging and detailed account of the secret peace negotiations among the warring nations …. Zelikow, chronicling the futility of these efforts with the keen eye of a former diplomat … does not shy away from attributing blame where he identifies missed or bungled opportunities in the past. But [the book] also speaks to the present.” —Foreign Policy
- “This fine and lucid scholarship has the additional benefit of the eye of an experienced practitioner.”—Foreign Affairs
- “(A) well-researched, well-written book... Focusing on the personalities and policies of the leaders of each of the Great Powers, Zelikow tells a gripping tale of the road not taken.”—The Telegraph UK
- “Despite the immense literature about World War I, there is, Zelikow attests, no history until now about this tragic impasse, making this supremely well-written work essential.”—Booklist
- “Zelikow shines fresh light on a major historical crossroads…. Outstanding revisionist history demonstrating what could have been a far more peaceful 20th century.”—Kirkus (starred review)
- “Deeply researched and scathingly critical of the war’s foremost political figures, this history offers an intriguing look at what might have been.”—Publisher's Weekly
- “Zelikow proves an effective storyteller with an easy, uncomplicated narrative that makes for good reading of solid, honest scholarship reminiscent sometimes of Barbara Tuschman’s The Guns of August.”—New York Journal of Books
- “Zelikow has written an important book. … The professor plays the part of a detective, constructing a well-written and well-argued account of a tragically missed opportunity.”—The National Interest
- “The history of the almost-peace of 1916-17 is complex, multilayered, and poorly understood. Drawing on a wealth of source material from the archives and documentary repositories of the warring powers, Zelikow has skillfully unearthed the dispiriting tale of overmatched officials, missed cues, foregone initiatives, personal biases, political gamesmanship, and the powerful momentum of war. In The Road Not Taken, Philip Zelikow has given us a riveting, sometimes maddening, and ultimately heartbreaking account of the Great War's greatest might-have-been.”—Journal of Military History
- “Through haunting depictions of forfeited opportunities, Zelikow reveals in his gripping history just how close several diplomats came to ending World War I two years before its resolution… With his rich archival study and ingenious recombination of documents, Zelikow relates a thorough, chronological tale of incompetence, missed signals, and misunderstandings in World War I.” —Parameters, The US Army War College Quarterly
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages