by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
After nine months of war editorial comment, unlike today, cut through the rhetoric and could more clearly assess decision by virtue of our not, yet, having a dog in the fight. Editorial opinion in the Salem papers generally saw the war for what it was – a mutually destructive exercise in entirely out of scale with the triggering event.
The Oregon Statesman’s criticism of Italy’s entry into the war was pointed. Prior to the war Italy was ostensibly allied with Austria and Germany – that is until the battles were joined. Italy had long-standing territorial grievances with Austria and used those greens as bargaining tokens.
Italy entered the war on the side of Great Britain and France for approximately the same foolish reasons that Turkey deleted to side with the Central Powers, Germany and Austria. Here are excerpts of the paper’s assessment:
To persons of neutral mind, Italy today presents a curious and not very admirable spectacle. Most Americans, perhaps, look on her preparations to enter the war with tolerant acquiescence. They feel that her participation will not really change the current of events, but will make the end come quicker. but even those who believe Italy may thus be acting for the best interests of the world are inclined to give her little credit for her conduct.
The plain fact is that Italy is playing a role which history will probably call dishonorable. In no other development of this complex war has there been an exhibition of such cold-blooded opportunism, such indifference of a nation to considerations of morals and honor that a private citizen usually considers binding.
Italy’s entry into the war was a disaster for this still young nation, which achieved unification only in 1871. Benito Mussolini and fascism was an unanticipated consequence of her decision to enter the war. The editorial continues:
Every other nation entering the war has done so for some ideal which neutrals can understand and even sympathize with. The German people, rightly or wrongly, believed they had to wage an apparently aggressive war for the sake of their own safety. Austro-Hungary doubtless felt the “Slav peril” as a real thing, and considered her aggressions against Serbia as broadly defensive. Russia, though actuated partly by jealousy and fear of the growing power of Germany and Austria, seems to have been moved no less strongly by a racial sympathy for her fellow-Slavs of Serbia which is unselfish and admirable. France, of course, had to fight for her life when attacked. Of Belgium’s justification there is no question in America. As for Great Britain, she was evidently influenced at least as much by a desire tisane and avenge Belgium as by a desire to crush her greatest rival where there was a chance.
This assessment remains a fair analysis of why each party went to war. The paper’s critique of Italy also remains valid:
Italy has no such quarrel as any of these nations. And in the light of her recent history, her entrance into the Armageddon is hardest to justify.
She is fighting for an “ideal,” to be sure – for what her statesmen call “Italy’s national aspirations.” That means, she is fighting for enlargement of her territory. It is to her credit that the territory she demands – the provinces of Trieste, Trentino and Dalmatia – are mostly Italian in population, and in a perfectly re-organized Europe these “unredeemed” provinces ought to be joined to Italy for good. But for all that, the impartial world cannot overlook the fact that Italy undertakes to wrest them from Austria at a time when Austria is prostrate; she demands them not from a recognized enemy, but from an ally; and she alleges no offense – she simply wants the territory.
The editorial then proceeds to criticize the craven decision of Italy to enter the war:
When Italy forsook her allies, Germany and Austria, on the ground that their war was aggressive, and she was not pledged to help them in such a contest, the neutral world approved. If she had maintained neutrality, she would have come through the war with honor unsullied and would have set a noble example to the world. But to turn on her recent ally, in that ally’s darkest hour, without cause or offense, without pretending to avenge a wrong – unless it be ancient, half-forgotten wrongs – that can win her no foreign praise.
The unanimity of Italy for the war is half calculating statesmanship that does not feel itself obliged to weigh moral considerations, and half the enthusiasm of an unthinking populace drunk with the false wine of militarism.
The editorial then comments of the wisdom of Italy’s decision and the lost opportunities entry into the war will bring:
Modern Italy has the reputation of never having made a diplomatic mistake. Its people are not yet sufficiently used to their new freedom and nationality to feel the responsibility of it. The nation is dreaming of its ancient glories when Rome ruled Europe. The world has despised Italy, in the long ages when she was under the heel of upstart nations; now Italy, her youth revived, will show them whether she is to be scorned, or whether she is a world-power. So she will seize what she wants of Austria, as she seized Tripoli but lately.
The paper’s observation regarding Italy’s seizure of Tripoli should not be disregarded. War is often the result of wheels-within-wheels and Italy violated an unwritten agreement regarding seizure of territory from the already weakened Ottoman Empire. Italy’s actions in Tripoli contributed to the two Balkan wars preceding the outbreak of general war in Europe in 1914.
And to gain the husk of territory, she will sacrifice the kernel of domestic development and prosperity. The money the war will cost her would suffice to finance steamship and railroad lines, to create government banks, to dredge rivers and harbors, to build docks and warehouses, to open mines and erect factories. Her banking, industry, transportation and commerce today are largely in the hands of foreigners. Yet she turns away from those opportunities for peaceful, productive conquest to squander her borrowed money and her wealth of young manhood in a deceptive quest for mere territory.
And the worst of it is that she does this in a way that makes it hard for her best friends to defend her honor.