The Great War. Part III

On the highway to hell: The reasons behind the First World War (Part 3b).

The third stage: At the gates of Hell, 1890 – 1914 (Continuation)

The Titans’ Rush into a Clash: The rise of the New-comers

Of all the belligerents in the Great War, it was the United States and Japan who benefited the most, and Italy the least despite joining the Allies. Such outcomes where not a surprise however, since the first two were already on the ascending path long before the War started.

The United States was enjoying the recent fruits of its victory against Spain in the 1898, where Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico became part of the territory under American control, while Cuba became independent but continued to be influenced by the United States[1]. Moreover, the United States was not as quiet as we commonly think, since it was actively intervening – especially in the last half of the 19 century and the first year of the 20th century – in Latin America and the Caribbean. The war with Spain, which will be briefly reviewed in detail, reflected the importance given by the United States to the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia and the Pacific. The latter was increasingly important for the United States mainly because of the markets in China, secured by the “Open door policy”. Therefore, the United States concentrated more in these three regions. This focus contributed to its rise, and would later turn it into an important and decisive player in the upcoming Great War (Segesser, 2013; Kennedy, 2004).

Indeed, the United States benefited (and its own rising fuelled) from high economic development (like the railroads, for example), and it was enjoying an important level of industrialization that allowed it to invest in a fleet. This fleet played an essential role in the US’s rise as a Great Power and allowed it to secure its own interests in the abovementioned areas; it was also the key element for its victory against Spain in 1898. As a result of both its fleet and its economic development, it became an important financial hub and a Power with significant economic influence around the globe. That economic aspect would be decisive for the outcome in the Great War and its accelerated ascension in the international system (Kennedy, 2004).

In detail, those events were not a product of mere luck but of a calculated strategy, whose grounds where at the ‘American Weltpolitik’[2]. There was a strong moral approach that imprinted America’s foreign policies of the time with a special trait, but there were also pressure from the industrial and agricultural sector to secure the overseas territories. The Monroe Doctrine and the ‘Manifest Destiny’ doctrines were already present and helped to craft the American strategies and actions. They both made America seek for supremacy in the Western Hemisphere, yet they did not impede America’s intervention beyond such a hemisphere (Kennedy, 2004)[3].

Like the British Empire, it tried to avoid any permanent alliances yet diplomacy was proactively used and regarded as an important element for the foreign policies. Still, the United State had little, if any, trust at all in the other Powers. Some neutrality policy was kept in regards of the Great Powers disputes, yet the Navy was increased in order to provide support to America’s diplomacy. As a result, a possible war against the British Empire was estimated as a feasible event; a worldwide visit by the ‘White Fleet’ (The US Navy as it was known then) was made in 1907 as a demonstration of power and influence. The United States controlled a valuable and strategic asset – the Panama Canal. Those actions and the increased naval build-up where also the result of their lack of confidence in the other Great Powers, being a measure of power demonstration and deterrence[4]. Interestingly, the United States was reluctant to have a big army (Kennedy, 2004).

Adding to its fleet and its presence in Asia would inevitably set that Great Power into a collision course with Japan, but the latter’s alignment with the Allies only postponed such clash until 1941. Japan also followed a similar path as of the United States. It enjoyed industrialisation, following its period of modernization[5]. The crisis in Europe and the continuous clashes between the European Powers meant for Japan a wide open window to meet its interests in China, Manchuria and Korea, while attempting some expansion towards the south and the Pacific[6]. But within the last stage towards the war and the war itself, Japan slowly secured and strengthened its positions in the mentioned area, thus acquiring more territories or zones of influence in Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), Liaodong and Pescadores. Diplomacy for Japan was also a useful tool, mainly by the alliance it established with the British Empire. It made Japan the main and uncontested Great Power in Asia (Segesser, 2013).

Japan was increasing its military assets and complementing them with its diplomatic actions as well. It increased and created a new and powerful navy, following the Royal Navy model, but unlike America, it was very prone to give way to a big army, following the German model. Moreover, the military began to exert a strong influence on the political and economic situation in Japan. The defence sector had the lion’s share in the production plans and the ‘zaibatsu’ – an important portion of the Japanese society and the heads of the private enterprises – worked hand-in-hand with the army. This became even stronger following the privatization of the Japanese industries and their controlling by the ‘zaibatsu’ (Segesser, 2013).

That gave good results. In 1894 and 1905 Japan was victorious against China and Russia respectively. An example is the Battle of Tsushima, where the Russian Fleet was literally decimated, and the Battle of Port Arthur in 1905, where both the Russian Fleet and the Army were severely damaged. The victories of Japan came not only after the mere expansion of its fleet and army, but also by the careful preparations in both tactics and technical aspects prior to the wars. The Navy followed the Royal Navy model and also had some British-made ships or locally made ships with British technical assistance[7]. The artillery in turn was acquired from the Krupp factories. Also in qualitative aspects Japan prepared its soldiers and sailors, by giving them a highly motivated combat spirit. However, the cost were dangerous since Japan came close to a bankruptcy, although it was being financed by the British Empire and the United States (Kennedy, 2004).

On the contrary, Italy was not in the same league as the United States and Japan. Like Germany it was also a newly-formed state by the same time and received a certain degree of industrialization, especially in the period from 1896 to 1908, yet the productivity was very low. National unity was very weak, as well as the relations between the military and the civil sector: as a consequence Italy was not so prone – very reluctant, on the contrary – to any military expansion and a more proactive foreign policy. As a result, the few attempts for an active foreign policy lacked strength. Italy was the only nation by those times to be defeated by a non-European power (or army) in the battle of Sadowa, in 1896. The war in Libya in 1911-1912 was almost a disaster, and to make things worse, the Navy was too small and insignificant to give any support. The only success scored by Italy was its alliance with the British Empire, aimed at neutralizing France, who was a rival for the control of the Mediterranean Sea, but it was also a move against Austria. All in all, Italy was the weakest of all the emergent and eccentric Great Powers, thus playing a very little role in the following war (Kennedy, 2004).

Those small wars…

Three were the wars that either contributed to the rise of certain Great Powers or the weakening of others, or accelerated the already fast speed towards the Great War of 1914. The first was the Spanish – American War of 1898, the second was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905, and the Balkan Wars. Despite being local conflicts, they had strong repercussions that led to the First World War and that still can be felt nowadays.

The night of February 15, 1898 at the Havana harbour: An American battleship, the USS Maine, is anchored at the bay. A sudden explosion rips the ship apart, sinking it. That explosion sparked a war between a rising Power and a decadent Empire, and along with the battleship, the Spanish’s last traits of power sank as well. However, the United States emerged victorious. The reasons of the war can be summarized in the interests that the United States had in Cuba (it wanted to purchase it from Spain), with important investments of around $50 million in the sugar plantations, and the unrest that took place during those times[8]. The Spanish inability to solve the crisis forced the American intervention following the imposition of martial law and the allocation of population under Spanish troops’ control. The sinking of the USS Maine decided American intervention and took down the moments of hesitation prior the war (Library of the Congress, 2011).

Like the battles of Tsushima and Port Arthur, the Spanish naval assets at Manila Bay, Havana harbour and San Juan were entirely decimated by the American Navy, while the Spanish army suffered high casualties inflicted by the American, Cuban and Filipino effectives and guerrillas. The outcome then was inevitable and it has been already pointed out – The United Stated gained control over Puerto Rico and Guam, while it purchased the Philippines and secured the independence of Cuba (Library of the Congress, 2011)[9].

The Russo-Japanese war was also a war between a rising Power and a decaying one. The rivalry for the control over Manchuria and Korea led the two Powers to collide in 1904, following a Russian pressure on China in 1898 to grant a leasing of Port Arthur, strategically valuable for Russian interests in Asia and the Pacific. This port would allow Russia not only to have access to the mentioned ocean, but it also allowed them to build across the Chinese-held Manchuria the Trans-Siberian Railroad until Vladivostok following an alliance agreement with China and aimed against Japan. Japan did not stand passive and began to augment its military power in the area, which it was basically doing after its victory over China in 1894, and utilized it after Russia decided not to fulfil a 1903 agreement to withdraw its troops (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014a).

Russia fared poorly during the war and even a case of incompetence and corruption took place when the commander of Port Arthur’s garrison surrendered the position without any consultation with his superior and having enough supplies to sustain a three-month fight. This poor leadership led to inefficient military actions. And although Japan did not have an easy campaign at the sea, it had the opportunity to destroy the Russian Baltic Fleet on its way to relieve the Russian forces at Port Arthur and trying to make into Vladivostok at the Tsushima strait. Along with the defeats suffered in both land and sea, the unrest decided the whole war in Japan’s favour and even affected Russia two months after the armistice. Nonetheless, and after American mediation, Japan gained control over the Liaotung Peninsula, Port Arthur, the South Manchurian railroad, half of the Sakhalin Island, and a full recognized control over Korea, while southern Manchuria was restored to China (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014a).

Finally, the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, an often forgotten set of conflicts, marked the last stage of acceleration towards the Great War. Unlike the two previous conflicts, those involved the European Great Powers, placing each of their interests against the others’. The wars depended of the Great Powers intentions, mainly Russia and Austria, but also France, Germany and the British Empire, acting as a replacement of the Ottoman Empire. Their intentions, of course, were to secure their own territorial, economic or political interests, puppeteering the young Balkan nations against each other (Segesser, 2013).

The first war was waged by an alliance promoted by Russia and comprised by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire’s last territories in the Balkans and for the control over Macedonia. As a result, Macedonia was divided amongst the Balkan allies and Albania was established as an independent state upon the Great Powers insistence. Yet in 1913 another conflict between the former allies broke due to disagreements over their conquests on Macedonia, resulting in a Bulgarian defeat and with Serbia and Greece dividing most of Macedonia among them. Bulgaria, then, sought Austria for support and Serbia was forced to give up its Albanian advances due to Austrian pressures, thus being resentful against Vienna and looking at Russia for further support. The final outcome was increased tensions between Austria and Russia and in the end, the Balkan Wars were the last but fast mile towards the Great War (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014b).

In the next section, the plans of War will be reviewed, along with the structural explanations of why the War took place and the discussion about the Great Powers’ responsibility for the war.


[1] This meant that America were controlling strategic locations that allowed it to secure its own trade and to support and protect the markets it has on those areas, especially in China. Not to mention it was acquiring territories where it could expand its influence. In addition, it was having access to resources located in the mentioned places.

[2] As it was stated before, the United States of America was not entirely passive.

[3] The most prominent examples are the abovementioned “open door” policy and the mediation in the Russo – Japanese war.

[4] For instance, the German brief naval blockade of Venezuela came to an end after an American warning of intervention, and it contributed to the definite border between Venezuela and the British Empire (Guyana) following a dispute between both countries.

[5] Although a great part of the economy consisted yet of the economic sector.

[6] And the Great War represented a much wider opportunity for Japan to control the territories it sought.

[7] The alliance with the British Empire served Japan to access the British naval technology and know-how, and this could have been another objective behind its establishment. Nevertheless and following Kennedy (2004), it served also to ward-off any intervention against Japanese interests and interventions.

[8] Such investments began to take place after the Ten Years War (1868 – 1878).

[9] It is important to point out that the United Stated supported the independence movements in Cuba and the Philippines, with the pro-independence parties having their headquarters in American territory. See:



Encyclopædia Britannica (2014a). Russo-Japanese War. Retrieved from:

Encyclopædia Britannica (2014b). Balkan Wars. Retrieved from:

Kennedy, P. (2004). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987).

Library of the Congress (2011). The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. Introduction. Washington DC, USA: Hispanic Division, Library of the Congress. Retrieved from:

Segesser, D. M. (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag.


Cover image: ‘Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a Scout‘ by Barry Lewis, released under Creative Commons 2.0 (CC BY 2.0) license

2 responses to “The Great War. Part III

  1. Pingback: The Great War V | Global Public Policy Watch·

  2. Pingback: THE GREAT WAR. PART III | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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