Review of “The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931” by Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze is a British historian currently serving as Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University. The Deluge, which won the 2015 LA Times Book Prize for History, is an incisive, extensively researched, and comprehensive retelling of the consequences and immediate aftermath of World War I.

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Most historians have described the end of World War I as a return to old-fashioned power politics, with the winning states scrambling over the leftovers for influence and domination. Tooze sees it differently. Tooze avers that “[t]he Great War weakened all the European combatants irreversibly, even the strongest amongst them and even the victors.” The United States, on the other hand, came out of the war as the world’s dominant economic power, not having squandered its wealth or manpower on the war, and not as interested in empirical or colonial aggrandizement.

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919 (L - R) Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919 (L – R) Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Tooze shows that Churchill, Hitler, and Trotsky were prescient in their understanding that a fundamental change had been effected in world affairs. In particular, Britain would no longer be acting as an arbiter of world affairs; that role had been assumed by a much greater economic power, the United States. Prior to the war, America barely registered in Europe. As Tooze pointed out in an interview:

This year in Europe we’ve spent much time commemorating and discussing the outbreak of WWI, and in virtually none of those discussions does the U.S. even figure. It’s the war that transforms this, because in fighting the war, Britain, France and Russia make themselves financially dependent as never before on the U.S. Because their fighting depends on the blockade and the blockade impinges on the U.S. — and the one dimension of military power in which the United States has emerged is naval — it becomes clear that the decisive strategy … against Germany and its allies hinges on America’s willingness to go along.

There’s a really radical transformation from a position in which America is really … a nonentity in global politics to being really the decisive factor.”

But that Power (with a capital “P”) was reluctant to exercise its new found power (with a lower case “p”). President Wilson wanted a “peace without victors,” and he did his best to promote “self-determination” among various (predominantly white European) ethnic groups, and to prevent the war’s big winners from taking too much from the losers. Moreover, he was too enamored of his own ideas to lend support for the ideas of others. In Tooze’s words:

Why did the western Powers lose their grip in such spectacular fashion? When all is said and done, the answer must be sought in the failure of the United States to cooperate with the efforts of the French, British, Germans, and the Japanese to stabilize a viable world economy and to establish new institutions of collective security.”

Furthermore, the reluctance of America to assert its new hegemony in world affairs may have not only discouraged the development of genuine democracy in China but conversely allowed for the rise of fascism and communism in Europe and Russia. Differing from many other historians of the period, Tooze contends that “[w]e grasp movements like fascism or Soviet communism only very partially if we normalize them as familiar expressions of the racist, imperialist mainstream of modern European history…” Rather, for Tooze,

It was precisely the looming potential, the future dominance of American capitalist democracy, that was the common factor impelling Hitler, Stalin, the Italian Fascists and their Japanese counterparts to such radical action.”

Evaluation: This is an excellent book, with a well-written and powerfully argued thesis presenting a novel view of a very important historical period. While some may argue about the relative influence of the new American hegemony on the ideological fanaticism of other parts of the world, it cannot be denied that Tooze gives the student of history much to consider.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Viking Penguin, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2014

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