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The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917

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A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running s A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running short. Yet roads to peace seemed daunting too, as exhausted nations, drummed forward by patriotic duty and war passion, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Germany made the first move. Its government secretly asked Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States and leader of the only great power still neutral, to mediate an end to the Great War. As a token of good faith, Germany promised to withdraw from occupied Belgium. Wilson was too anxious to make peace. If he failed, he felt sure America would drift into a dreadful, wider war. Meanwhile, the French president confided to Britain's King that the Allies should accept Wilson's expected peace move and end the war. In The Road Less Traveled, Philip Zelikow recounts the five months when, behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance. It is a story of civic courage, of awful responsibility, and of how some rose to the occasion or shrank from it. "Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!" pleaded the German ambassador to the United States. This book shows how right he was, and how close leaders came to doing so.


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A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running s A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running short. Yet roads to peace seemed daunting too, as exhausted nations, drummed forward by patriotic duty and war passion, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Germany made the first move. Its government secretly asked Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States and leader of the only great power still neutral, to mediate an end to the Great War. As a token of good faith, Germany promised to withdraw from occupied Belgium. Wilson was too anxious to make peace. If he failed, he felt sure America would drift into a dreadful, wider war. Meanwhile, the French president confided to Britain's King that the Allies should accept Wilson's expected peace move and end the war. In The Road Less Traveled, Philip Zelikow recounts the five months when, behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance. It is a story of civic courage, of awful responsibility, and of how some rose to the occasion or shrank from it. "Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!" pleaded the German ambassador to the United States. This book shows how right he was, and how close leaders came to doing so.

49 review for The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Craig

    This outstanding book shows us a tragic window where WW1 could have ended in late 1916/early 1917. The warring countries were exhausted and willing to hold a peace conference with minimum preconditions with the help of Wilson. However, Wilson would not do anything until after the election. Also, he did not have good diplomatic counselors to guide him on how to handle setting up a conference. By the time Wilson had some momentum, it was too late. The same day that Germany agreed to a conference, it This outstanding book shows us a tragic window where WW1 could have ended in late 1916/early 1917. The warring countries were exhausted and willing to hold a peace conference with minimum preconditions with the help of Wilson. However, Wilson would not do anything until after the election. Also, he did not have good diplomatic counselors to guide him on how to handle setting up a conference. By the time Wilson had some momentum, it was too late. The same day that Germany agreed to a conference, it also sent a note that it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson was so shocked and upset about the u-boats, he dismissed the conference note. This part of WW1 history has not been discussed in depth before, so Zelikow breaks new ground. This is a must read for any WW1 fans. Truly tragic and fascinating.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    This is a 4-star plus book. The new material in it would have it at a 5-star, but, Zelikow errs in still painting by “consensus history” colors in showing Wilson as the determined neutral. He’s not as bad as some, and in some of the new information, he shows Wilson at times was — or acted like, in the moment — a true neutral. But, he never followed though. That said, that perception was part of what did make this largely 5-star. On the other hand, the weight of the “consensus history” elements ti This is a 4-star plus book. The new material in it would have it at a 5-star, but, Zelikow errs in still painting by “consensus history” colors in showing Wilson as the determined neutral. He’s not as bad as some, and in some of the new information, he shows Wilson at times was — or acted like, in the moment — a true neutral. But, he never followed though. That said, that perception was part of what did make this largely 5-star. On the other hand, the weight of the “consensus history” elements tilted me back to 4-star. With that? Let’s dig in. (Warning: Much of the rest of the review is spoiler alerts. Scroll 80 percent of the way down, since we can't put an anchor mid-review to hide just the part after it as a spoiler alert.) There is a lot of new information here, even to someone like me who’s pretty knowledgeable about WWI and many of its specifics. I knew about the German peace feelers, and some of their specifics. Zelikow still filled in a few details for me, including how much of an intermediary House was and how much he bollixed some of this. More on that later. Much of what he talked about on the British side, the big picture as well as the details, was very new to me. I knew money was tight, but didn’t realize how tight by how much Britain was scraping for securities in the US to serve as loan collateral with the House of Morgan. Did not know that going off the gold standard got a halfway serious Asquith Cabinet discussion. Did not know Britain had tried floating an unsecured bond issue before this and it got only nibbles in the US. So, then we get to the meat. The British tried to float another unsecured issue. The Federal Reserve, with the chair at the time prompted by the head of the NY Fed, decided to issue an official “investors’ caution” note. This was brought to Wilson’s attention — and he told the Fed to SHARPEN the note. Yes. It’s at a time like this that Wilson is halfway open to interpretation as a true neutral. But, then Wilson’s feet of clay come into play, to riff on Clemenceau at Versailles. And Zelikow shows this. First, he references British politicians who, in talking about Wilson working on a peace plan, note he was an idealist, and might even have ideals that were statesmanlike — but that he had an indifferent grasp of governance. Part of this connects to the smallness of the U.S. government at this time. But, part of it connects to how close Wilson played his cards to his vest, and didn’t trust many people. Neither his second wife nor Col. House was a government or any kind of administrator. And, while House might either accidentally or deliberately undercut Wilson while outside his presence, neither he nor Edith would challenge or redirect him in person. This had several fallouts. First, Wilson had no idea he had Britain by the financial gonads for months after getting the Fed to sharpen its note. And, without a semi-war cabinet looping in Treasury, he couldn’t. Second, beyond small government, he had a small cabinet. Not small in size for his era, but small minded, largely sleepy southern segregationists. Wilson may have admired British cabinet government, and Bagehot’s ideas on government, in the abstract and academic, but in the real world? Not at all. Third, as Zelikow notes, it wasn’t until Versailles that Wilson learned about House truckling him. (That said, House didn’t have the worst of the ideas side in all cases he did this.) Fourth, because Wilson himself wasn’t reading Amb. Bernstorff closely enough, he didn’t grasp time pressures Germany faced — or rather, that Bethmann faced from unrestricted submarine warfare mongers. Zelikow is also very good on the Nov.-Dec. 1916 machinations of Lloyd George, including how he first considered keeping Asquith as a figurehead premier. He adds as background that with many Liberals already deserting him, a coalition government was his only chance to grasp the brass ring. I had “minimum high regard” for Lloyd George before this, but even worse afterward. Britons who criticize the American presidency in general are on soft ground, given some of their prime ministers. VERY good on the machinations of Col House … and why: his desire for continued “access” to British society. This led him to get Wilson to yank his call for a peace conference, which totally defanged Wilson’s leverage in terms of the big picture. It also led the Kaiser, anti-Bethmanns in the civilian government, and above all, Hindenberg and Ludendorff, to decide that Wilson couldn’t be trusted. House also lied about who wanted to go further forward and who was delaying, between him and Wilson. At the same time, House misrepresented some Britons, or with the likes of Grey, simply didn’t represent them to Wilson at all. End of spoilers. And now …. “Consensus history” errors about Wilson earlier on. While noting his admiration for the British parliamentary system, he ignores him writing his PhD on Bagehot, and yet claims Wilson really was neutral. Related and worse: Claims Wilson just urged Germany to “restrict” submarine war by not targeting merchantmen. Ignores British violations of int’l law through its extended blockade and its use of food as a blockade-item weapon; ignores that these are the parallels to Germany targeting merchantmen. (Also ignores British false-flagging, the Lusitania carrying munitions and more.) Says that Wilson said he would tackle blockade issue after getting Germany to “cruiser warfare” after Sussex. He didn’t. And, in turn, then, is Zelikow correct in his interpretation that Wilson didn’t know just how bad British finances were and that he didn’t know he had Britain by the gonads? Or, did he, and did he choose not to follow up (since he really never did follow up)?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    Did the United States led by Woodrow Wilson blunder its way into the First World War in 1917 because the president committed the "most consequential diplomatic failure" in U.S. history? Yes, says the author of this exciting new book, former diplomat and now University of Virginia scholar Philip Zelikow. Full disclosure: I interviewed Zelikow about his argument for my podcast. The episode drops 4/6/21. http://historyasithappens.radio.washi... This is a short book but not a breezy read. It is the wor Did the United States led by Woodrow Wilson blunder its way into the First World War in 1917 because the president committed the "most consequential diplomatic failure" in U.S. history? Yes, says the author of this exciting new book, former diplomat and now University of Virginia scholar Philip Zelikow. Full disclosure: I interviewed Zelikow about his argument for my podcast. The episode drops 4/6/21. http://historyasithappens.radio.washi... This is a short book but not a breezy read. It is the work of a fastidious researcher and experienced diplomat (Zelikow worked in five presidential administrations and was involved in the reunification of Germany, to name one endeavor). He presents an impressive amount of documentary evidence. Zelikow makes a convincing case, even if no one can be sure how the "what if" scenario would have played out in the long run. But it is not unreasonable to think that Europe would have been spared the carnage of the 1940s had the First World War been brought to a negotiated end in a compromise peace in 1916, when Wilson had an opportunity to do so. As the book demonstrates, the Germans -- led by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg -- had been imploring Wilson to offer mediation at a peace conference through most of 1916. The Germans offered to withdraw from Belgium, among other important concessions, as a precondition and show of good faith. At the same time the British (and French) were looking for a way out of the catastrophic war, especially after the disasters of the summer offensives in 1916. The Allied finances were on the brink of collapse, and all the warring countries were strained to the breaking point after two years of vicious bloodshed. But Wilson vacillated. He dithered. And, according to Zelikow, he came up small when the moment called for bold diplomacy. By spring 1917, the Germans had run out of patience and the military leaders, who had never trusted Wilson to begin with, convinced the Kaiser to lift all restrictions on the U-boat war. It is tantalizing to think about what may have happened, had the U.S. been able to avoid getting involved in the war, and had brought about a peace without victors, instead of the unworkable peace of 1919.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    This book is tightly focused on a major but little-known "what if" of World War I - the fitful effort by President Wilson in 1916 to broker a peace between the Entente (Britain & France) and Germany. The Germans especially were eager for an end to the war - they were in a strong position, having occupied most of Belgium, part of France, and Poland, every bloody attempt to dislodge them having failed. Britain seemed most eager to continue to fight and had choked off trade to Germany with their bl This book is tightly focused on a major but little-known "what if" of World War I - the fitful effort by President Wilson in 1916 to broker a peace between the Entente (Britain & France) and Germany. The Germans especially were eager for an end to the war - they were in a strong position, having occupied most of Belgium, part of France, and Poland, every bloody attempt to dislodge them having failed. Britain seemed most eager to continue to fight and had choked off trade to Germany with their blockade. However, the book reveals Britain's dire financial situation, their ability to pay for vital American arms and supplies almost exhausted. In fact, had America not entered the war, Britain would have been forced to make a peace by spring 1917. Wilson begins his efforts to bring the powers to negotiations beginning in fall 1916, but puts off any concrete moves until after the November election (frustratingly, the book never explains why he thought brokering peace before that would be bad for his election). The middle of the book gets way into the weeds detailing every back and forth communication, frequently losing context and getting tedious at times. But Zelikow wraps it up nicely, detailing how Wilson's failings left him without the imagination and diplomatic smarts to close the deal. Zelikow convincingly makes the case that, first, a conference was possible, given Germany's willingness to evacuate occupied Belgium & France and America's financial hold over Britain; second, resumption of the war would have been unlikely; and how the resulting peace essentially restoring the prewar status quo would have led to a dramatically better outcome. I do think the book would have better with a little less excruciating detail on every communication and instead placed it in the context of other attempts to broker a peace, both before and after the events in this book. It is a frustrating read ultimately, because just a little more push might have avoided the worst possible outcome of a harsh victor's peace and the resulting, even deadlier conflicts and ideologies that arose from it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chad Manske

    Not even two months off the press, Zelikow exhibits his read of the pivotal (and at the time secret) 5 month period in 1916-17 to end WWI. The book’s title is loosely borrowed from Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” in which Frost’s close friend, British poet Edward Thomas, struggles with the decision to enlist in the war. He does so and stays comfortably in France for 3 months before dying in the Battle of Arras, Easter 1917. The parallels of this micro story reflect the gre Not even two months off the press, Zelikow exhibits his read of the pivotal (and at the time secret) 5 month period in 1916-17 to end WWI. The book’s title is loosely borrowed from Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” in which Frost’s close friend, British poet Edward Thomas, struggles with the decision to enlist in the war. He does so and stays comfortably in France for 3 months before dying in the Battle of Arras, Easter 1917. The parallels of this micro story reflect the greater effort of the British leadership—Asquith, Hankey and many others—to put an end to the war behind the scenes through a brokered peace. That peace process would have been led by US President Woodrow Wilson, representing the largest neutral country, and would like have been held at The Hague. Political maneuvering, strategy, underhandedness and other machinations in combination with the food and money shortages of the belligerents seemed to lean towards a peace outcome. Yet Germany continued to fight on secretly, having the advantage while displaying outward peace longings. Eventually, Germany’s warring, particularly against civil shipping and non-combatants not only took a potential peace option off the table, it brought in a reluctant but willing and combative US into the war in early 1917. Fantastic slice of history!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chuck

    This is excellent book about a little-known or studied aspect of efforts made by President Wilson, as well as the British and German governments. to end World War 1 before the US declared war on Germany in 1917. Professor Zelikow is a superb writer and has obviously done a vast amount of research on this topic. My views after reading Zelikow's book about President Wilson, his efforts to avoid American intervention in the conflict, his relationship to and reliance on advisor Edward House, as well This is excellent book about a little-known or studied aspect of efforts made by President Wilson, as well as the British and German governments. to end World War 1 before the US declared war on Germany in 1917. Professor Zelikow is a superb writer and has obviously done a vast amount of research on this topic. My views after reading Zelikow's book about President Wilson, his efforts to avoid American intervention in the conflict, his relationship to and reliance on advisor Edward House, as well as the British and German leadership have evolved. I now appreciate that Wilson, although a highly intelligent person and effective President in many aspects, failed to understand the dynamics of diplomacy. WWI was a tragedy that did not need to occur or last as long as it did. Wilson played a central part in not bring the conflict to an end sooner. I strongly recommend this book both to those who know a great deal about that war and era as well as those who don't!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Henry

    This is a peculiar and frustrating book about an important topic. The author is an attorney and career diplomat and this background comes through in so many ways. He is a decent storyteller, but three to four pages about one diplomat's decision to make a trip or not make a trip or whether he should pass along a note, well, that can wear you down for a while. Ultimately, he does a decent job of demonstrating the manipulative nature of England's foreign policy, the pressures on the German diplomat This is a peculiar and frustrating book about an important topic. The author is an attorney and career diplomat and this background comes through in so many ways. He is a decent storyteller, but three to four pages about one diplomat's decision to make a trip or not make a trip or whether he should pass along a note, well, that can wear you down for a while. Ultimately, he does a decent job of demonstrating the manipulative nature of England's foreign policy, the pressures on the German diplomat from the generals, and the general war-weariness of everyone by 1916. Woodrow Wilson is revealed as the man of principle he was, but no effort is made to dig into what his motivation my have been for his constant waffling and procrastination. (Unfortunately, his one civilian advisor was a bit of a dope, in well over his empty head). Another ignored elephant in the room is Arthur Balfour. And so forth. An interesting peek into a major issue, but just not enough there.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mike Kanner

    Two things sparked my interest in this book. First, I am a student of the First War. Second, I am a lecturer on the presidency and in security studies. Zelikow proves again that he is a master of explaining the complexity of foreign policy. He weaves together the accounts of the major players to show that our view of the leaders needs to be reassessed. He sets this in the context of popular opinion, the 1916 presidential election, and the economics of the warring parties. This last leads to the Two things sparked my interest in this book. First, I am a student of the First War. Second, I am a lecturer on the presidency and in security studies. Zelikow proves again that he is a master of explaining the complexity of foreign policy. He weaves together the accounts of the major players to show that our view of the leaders needs to be reassessed. He sets this in the context of popular opinion, the 1916 presidential election, and the economics of the warring parties. This last leads to the insight that the US may have had the means of forcing England to the peace table but chose not to. It also shows how dependent England was on US agriculture and industry. One of the more tragic realizations (if not the biggest) is that peace in 1916 was possible, which meant that the destruction and death after that could have been avoided. This is a great historical case study and should be used to understand how to improve peace talks.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mathieu Gaudreault

    A masterpiece on an unknown subject. In this well researched work the author tells the desperate quest of Germany chancellor Bethman and his ambasador to the USA to find a way to end the slaughter of the great war. Actually the germans were offering a acceptable peace proposal(they offered to withdraw from Belgium, Northen France, Serbia and maintain an independant Poland between them and Russia. In this book you see the struggle of chancellor bethman against the militarist who just want an unre A masterpiece on an unknown subject. In this well researched work the author tells the desperate quest of Germany chancellor Bethman and his ambasador to the USA to find a way to end the slaughter of the great war. Actually the germans were offering a acceptable peace proposal(they offered to withdraw from Belgium, Northen France, Serbia and maintain an independant Poland between them and Russia. In this book you see the struggle of chancellor bethman against the militarist who just want an unrestricted U Boat warfare and the struggle in the british cabinet between those who wanted a settlement of the war and the warmongerers. Also this books show president Wilson as an idelist but indecisivie leader.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bekah

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jodie

  12. 5 out of 5

    Louis Muñoz

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Richardson

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Gallop

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mike Wipper

  16. 4 out of 5

    Łukasz

  17. 5 out of 5

    arthur arfa

  18. 5 out of 5

    Derrick Ranostaj

  19. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

  20. 5 out of 5

    OTIS

  21. 5 out of 5

    Grouchy Historian

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura Evans

  23. 4 out of 5

    Warren

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

  25. 4 out of 5

    Hope

  26. 5 out of 5

    Maryanna Brunkhorst

  27. 4 out of 5

    Emilie

  28. 5 out of 5

    Donna Davis

  29. 5 out of 5

    Steven

  30. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Quintana

  31. 4 out of 5

    Pavel Shestakov

  32. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Bianchi

  33. 5 out of 5

    Michael Kovan

  34. 4 out of 5

    Leo

  35. 5 out of 5

    Dakota

  36. 5 out of 5

    Mel

  37. 4 out of 5

    Cam Todd

  38. 5 out of 5

    Michael Katz

  39. 5 out of 5

    Tatu

  40. 5 out of 5

    Ilya

  41. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  42. 4 out of 5

    Amber

  43. 4 out of 5

    Malia

  44. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

  45. 4 out of 5

    Cassie

  46. 5 out of 5

    Lee

  47. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

  48. 4 out of 5

    Tanya

  49. 4 out of 5

    Karen

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