Self-Defeating Violence: The Case of the First World War

The United States recently reached the 100th anniversary of American entry into the First World War. Although American businesses had provided arms and money to the Allied nations (which included Britain, France and Russia) in their war against Germany and the other Central Powers, US President Woodrow Wilson had sought to avoid sending American troops to fight in the war.  American support to the Allies led to an escalating series of confrontations between the United States and Germany, however, in the winter and spring of 1917. Wilson eventually called for a declaration of war, which the US Congress gave to him on April 6.

Portraying the conflict against Germany and alongside the Allies as a struggle between autocracy and democracy, Wilson justified the US war effort by saying “The world must be made safe for democracy.” However, far from matching Wilson’s words —or the idea of “a war to end war” that became associated with the First World War—the war was an object lesson in how violence can lead to still more violence.

Although the United States and the other Allies eventually won a military victory over Germany, the costs were staggering, even for the victors. An estimated 9-10 million soldiers died during the war.[1] This included 53,402 American battle deaths—more than the number of Americans killed in battle in Korea (33,739) or Vietnam (47,434).[2] 

Also, on the American home front, the war had consequences that made a mockery of Wilson’s claims to be fighting for democracy. After the Declaration of War, Wilson engaged in what one commentator called “war against the Constitution.”[3] Dissenters against the war and conscription for it were charged with espionage or sedition, and many served prison terms. Wilson even asked the Congress to set up detention camps to quarantine “alien enemies.” Such repression was consistent with other Wilson policies: an extreme racist, he encouraged re-segregation of the previously integrated federal Civil Service. (The pattern of opposing democracy at home while claiming to be fighting for democracy abroad repeatedly shows up in American history.)

Moreover, neither democracy nor peace followed the end of the First World War in Europe. Roughly 15 years after the war was over, defeated Germany became a dictatorship under Adolf Hitler. He would start the still-deadlier Second World War. Historians and other analysts of the world wars have debated why the first was followed by the second. In particular, the question of whether the Allies’ treatment of Germany after the First World War helped cause Hitler’s rise has been answered in varying ways. What’s hard to dispute, however, is that Nazism’s rise and the Second World War wouldn’t have occurred without Allied victory in the previous war.

What would have happened if there had been a German victory in the First World War? Certainly there were good reasons to dread such an outcome since the German regime of the early 20th century could be repressive and cruel. Nevertheless, its rule in Europe would scarcely be comparable to the Nazis’ rule in the 1930s and 1940s. As the historian Niall Ferguson noted, in a post-World War I Europe where Germany had been victorious, “Adolf Hitler could have eked out a life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated Central Europe about which he could have found little to complain.”[4] By declaring war on Germany in 1917 and ultimately sacrificing so many lives to defeat it, the United States was paradoxically helping to make possible a far worse future—one that better warranted the extreme rhetoric Wilson had invoked at the time.

This historical interpretation should not of course be used to justify or endorse the German war effort in the First World War. The only outcome people should have striven for during 1914-1918 would have been for everyone to come to their senses and stop the war and all the governmental cruelties on both sides that went with it. The point is not that either side in the First World War was preferable to the other, but that the war ultimately made possible a more catastrophic situation than the one the victors had fought the war to prevent.

Although the link between the First and Second World Wars is one of the more dramatic examples of violence bringing about the outcome it was supposed to prevent, it’s hardly the only one. During the American War in Vietnam, the US war effort against North Vietnam led the United States to bomb and send troops into then-neutral neighboring Cambodia. Although intended to hinder the North Vietnamese (and allow the United States to disengage from the conflict), these actions instead contributed to conflict and civil war in Cambodia. The ultimate result was the murderous Khmer Rouge coming to power in Cambodia. Over 1 million Cambodians were deliberately killed under their rule. One escalation of violence led to another.

American policy toward Iraq may be another example of this same principle. Consistent Life Network endorser Stephen Zunes has argued, in the book Consistently Opposing Killing, that the American-led bombing campaign against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the years of economic sanctions on Iraq that followed had a devastating effect on the Iraqi middle and skilled working classes. These were precisely the parts of Iraqi society that could have led a nonviolent resistance movement to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Instead, the United States and other nations’ policies impoverished these classes or forced them to emigrate, while making Iraqis more economically dependent on Hussein’s regime.[5] Hussein continued to rule in Iraq, and this perhaps made the eventual American-Iraqi war of 2003 more likely.

The tendency of violence to lead to the opposite of what it was supposed to accomplish isn’t limited to the violence of war. While some might excuse the violence of abortion on the idea that it would allow women with unwanted pregnancies to avoid falling into or remaining in poverty, abortion might have the opposite effect. Consistent Life Network Vice-President Rachel MacNair has argued that the negative psychological and relationship effects of abortion may make it harder for women to escape from poverty.[6] Moreover, Pro-lifers for Survival founder Julianne Wiley has argued that access to abortion allows men to behave as if babies are born not because of anything men did but solely because of the woman’s decision not to have an abortion. As a result, men become self-righteous about thinking they don’t really even owe child support, a rather minimal way of being responsible, thus leaving new mothers in the lurch financially.[7]

Similarly, one way to justify the death penalty is the idea that it saves lives by deterring criminals from committing murder. The vast majority of criminologists who study this issue don’t believe it has that effect.[8] In fact, it may be the opposite: potential murderers may see the executions as an example to follow. This is one explanation for why the murder rate in US states with the death penalty is higher than the murder rate in states without it.[9]

To be sure, that violence is sometimes counterproductive should not be the only reason for opposing it. Even if an act of violence did accomplish what it was intended to do, that wouldn’t necessarily justify such an act. Many sound arguments can be made against war, abortion, executions, and other forms of violence, and advocates for peace and life shouldn’t rely on just one.

Nevertheless, the ways in which violence can perversely compound the problems it’s meant to solve is a significant testimonial against resorting to violence in response to problems.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Stephanie Trouillard, “World War I Death Count ‘Too Low by One Million’,” France 24, January 22, 2014,

[2] Nese F. DeBruyne, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2017, available at

[3] James Bovard, “Woodrow Wilson Made Democracy Unsafe for the World,” USA Today, April 4, 2017,

[4] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 460. 

[5] Stephen Zunes, “People Power and Regime Change: How Nonviolence Spreads Democracy,” in Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War, ed. Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes (Bloomington, IN: Authors Choice Press, 2011), 184. 

[6] Rachel MacNair, “Poverty and Abortion,” Consistent Life Network, accessed May 20, 2018,

[7] Julianne Wiley, “The Myth of Sexual Autonomy,” Consistent Life Network blog, September 9, 2015, ​

[8] Death Penalty Information Center, “Study: 88% of Criminologists Do Not Believe the Death Penalty is an Effective Deterrent,” accessed May 20, 2018,

[9] Death Penalty Information Center, “Deterrence: States without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates,” accessed May 20, 2018,​

© 2017 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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