“War is the locomotive of history,” Leon Trotsky claimed in the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1917. Was he correct? The answer is no; at least, not in his prediction that it would inevitably bring a communist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, notably Britain and the United States. But we can still learn from his intuition about the power of war in making history on the grand scale in the 20th century.


Remarkably, by 1914 the British empire covered a quarter of the earth’s surface and governed a quarter of the global population. However, its real peculiarity was the rise of an 'Anglo-world', peopling three continents through settler colonialism. In the First World War, Britain had vital support from its dominions – Canada and Newfoundland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – but there was a price to pay for it.

Most Americans initially saw the outbreak of war in 1914 as simply another of those tiresome struggles between the atavistic societies of the Old World. Yet in April 1917 President Wilson committed the United States to fight, telling congress: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

So, was this the last of the dynastic wars of the kings and the emperors? Or the first of the ideological wars of the peoples? What kind of a peace was made at its end? Why can the Second World War be seen as a different kind of war? How can we understand its legacy in promoting a more prosperous postwar society, with full employment and a more equal distribution of wealth?

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Money, empire and power are indeed potent factors – but so is guilt. The Versailles Treaty in 1919 notoriously identified Germany as the guilty party, provoking resentments that fuelled the rise of Hitler. The fact is that guilt had long been a common thread in Anglo-American liberalism, at least since the time of Gladstone with his politics of 'virtuous passion' in the late 19th century, taking up the cause of oppressed peoples like the Bulgarians and calling their oppressors criminals. In 1914 it was a Liberal government, already proclaiming Germany's guilt over its invasion of Belgium, that took Britain into a European war and transformed it into a world war by involving the whole empire. And it was the liberal Woodrow Wilson, the 28th US president, later brought the United States into the war, declaring his Fourteen Points as the moral basis for peace – with their recognition of self-determination for subject peoples – as the moral basis for peace.

The long shadow of Gladstone thus remained a potent force in Anglo-American politics. The Locomotive of War explores these events by looking through the spectacles of five men: Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – all of them political leaders – and also John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924

The young Tommy Wilson, growing up in the southern state of Georgia in the aftermath of the American civil war, may seem the embodiment of the distinctive culture of the New World. Yet not only did he come from a line of Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterian ministers, he was also enraptured by the heritage of British politics – as a boy of 16, he hung a portrait of Gladstone on the wall of his room. Adopting his middle name to give himself gravitas, Woodrow Wilson at first set out on a legal career, although it was always politics that entranced him, first as a professor at Princeton University, and then leading to his own political career. His charmed path to the White House was paved by a split in the progressive vote in 1912, bringing the Democrats to power.

Here was a president elected on a ticket of domestic issues who soon had to face the sudden eruption of a great war in Europe. Personally, he was prostrated at this very moment by a tragedy: the death of his adored wife of 30 years. Wilson turned for political consolation to his trusted henchman Edward House, who was given the honorary title of 'Colonel' in his native Texas. Like Wilson, House agreed that the United States must remain neutral, despite their initial sympathy for Britain's Liberal government. Yet they were not covert anglophiles so much as American Gladstonians who viewed all such issues through the lens of morality.

It was the Wilsonian agenda of the Fourteen Points that dominated the Paris peace conference in 1919. Wilson himself attended; he was the first serving president to cross the Atlantic and initially idolised by those who wanted a magnanimous settlement with Germany. It was the exaction of 'reparations' in the final treaty that sullied Wilson's reputation in liberal eyes. Yet the pre-history of the concept of reparations shows that it was impregnated with the politics of guilt, by American and British liberals alike. By moralising the war, they had inevitably moralised the terms of the peace settlement. The president's physical collapse on his return home in 1919 became emblematic of liberal disillusionment.

British prime minister Lloyd George, French premier Georges Clemenceau, and US president Woodrow Wilson in Paris, France, during negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

David Lloyd George, 1863-1945

Though born in Manchester, Lloyd George’s ancestry and culture alike were quintessentially Welsh. After losing his father in infancy, he was brought up in north Wales by his uncle Richard Lloyd, who allowed young David George to assume the name 'Lloyd George' by which he is known to history. Pampered, he grew up with a deep sense of alienation from the English establishment. Even in his days as a cabinet minister, he liked to refer to himself simply as a Welsh country attorney.

In the prewar years, it was Lloyd George who supplied a new dynamic in Liberal politics through a programme of social reform, notably old age pensions – financed through progressive taxation – and state-sponsored health insurance. He was unafraid to embrace and enhance the powers of the modern state in domestic policy.

His record as a self-conscious Gladstonian in foreign policy was one of opposition to war, militarism and the conventional patriotic cries of the time. He had been a vociferous critic of Britain’s imperial war in South Africa (1899-1902) and denounced as a ‘pro-Boer’ by his Tory opponents. He had distanced himself from so-called Liberal Imperialists such as Herbert Henry Asquith, who subsequently became prime minister of the Liberal government from 1908. But although the rift between the two men was later to wreck the Liberal party, we should remember that it was Asquith who chose to make Lloyd George his chancellor of the exchequer and to allow him due latitude.

In the summer of 1914, when the European crisis suddenly gripped the Liberal cabinet, Asquith gave Lloyd George time to react to events – of which the most crucial and unexpected was the German violation of Belgian sovereignty. With its echoes of a situation that Gladstone himself had faced in 1870, this issue made an irresistible appeal to Lloyd George, enlisting all the combative instincts that he had previously directed against British dukes. His previous experiments in state intervention showed him happy to mobilise the economic resources of the country in unprecedented ways. Unafraid to seize control of the locomotive, Lloyd George was ready to mobilise the full economic potential of his country in war or peace.

Winston Spencer Churchill, 1874-1965

Churchill began life as a predestined Tory. If there was a traditional, aristocratic, military caste in Britain, the Churchills were surely near its heart. True, Winston cherished the memory of his great ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, who had waged war across Europe in the 18th century. Yet he was also a fan of HG Wells, ready to imagine future wars, with flying machines in the air and armoured vehicles that anticipated tanks.

While Lloyd George had been campaigning politically against the Boer War, Churchill had been serving in the field as soldier, war correspondent, prisoner of war – and his own best publicist. Leaving the Conservatives in 1904 in defence of his lifelong attachment to free trade, Churchill underwent a re-education as a Liberal under the tutelage of Lloyd George, the so-called ‘Welsh wizard’. Neither had attended university; they shared the enthusiasm of the autodidact. Each relished his own command of the English language: Lloyd George with an amazing off-the-cuff facility whereas Churchill lavished care on preparing great orations, deploying his literary talent.

They were to cooperate in improvising the social reform agenda of the Asquith government, with a fiscal policy that challenged gross disparities of wealth. Admittedly, when Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, his sudden passion for naval expenditure put him at odds with the chancellor of the exchequer. Even so, their partnership survived, through peace and the first months of war.

In May 1915, however, the greatest imperial setback of the war fuelled a political crisis at home. Australians were not alone in subsequently nurturing a sense of grievance over the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, a fiasco widely seen as the quixotic folly of Churchill himself. One effect of the crisis was to boost Lloyd George’s rise, while Churchill was ejected and left to carry the can. The cry of “Gallipoli” was to become his personal burden, dimming the star of a politician who had previously only known precocious success. It was a reputation that he subsequently sought to live down through his own efforts in rewriting the history himself.

'The Economic Consequences of the Peace' (1919) by John Maynard Keynes remains the classic indictment of the Versailles Treaty, says Peter Clarke. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946

By 1915 the brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes had been recruited as a civil servant by the wartime treasury. The child of high-minded academic parents, this precocious boy had been given every educational privilege on his primrose path to becoming a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He was more than just an economist, with many cultural bonds with the group of friends that was to become known simply as 'Bloomsbury'.

Keynes's new boss at the treasury, Lloyd George, was impatient to fight a new kind of war, mobilising not only soldiers but resources on a new scale. Perhaps influenced by the fact that many of his Bloomsbury friends became conscientious objectors to conscription, Keynes argued that there was no need for it and supported treasury orthodoxy in claiming that it would bankrupt the country. Instead, he opted to finance the war effort by fundamentally conventional means: staying on the gold standard and raising great dollar loans from the United States. Yet in the event, Lloyd George's hunch was proved right – the British economy could indeed take the strain as wartime demand expanded its overall capacity.

Keynes had thus eyed the locomotive of war with uneasy ambivalence. His own success in raising dollar loans, however, came at the price of postwar indebtedness to the United States – with implications for the postwar peace settlement. In 1919, Lloyd George and the French premier Georges Clemenceau faced Germany with paying the costs of the war in the form of reparations. Keynes, at the Paris peace conference representing the treasury, resigned and wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), a bestseller that suddenly made his name famous on both sides of the Atlantic. It remains the classic indictment of the Versailles Treaty; yet its author was more deeply implicated than he admitted in the treaty's attribution of 'war guilt' to Germany. And it was not until the late 1920s that Keynes came to realise that Lloyd George's hunch about the capacity of government to stimulate full employment was valid in the peacetime economy too.

President Franklin D Roosevelt and prime minister Winston Churchill on the quarterdeck of the HMS Prince of Wales, 10 August 1941. (Photo by Lt. L C Priest/ IWM via Getty Images)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945

The world came to Paris in January 1919 when the peace conference began: Lloyd George as British prime minister, Churchill as one of his cabinet ministers, Keynes as the chief British treasury official, Wilson as the inspirational bearer of the Fourteen Points. One young American who was particularly impressed by the vigour and charisma of both Lloyd George and Clemenceau was the assistant secretary of the navy in Wilson's administration: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He was himself only a learner, but a very shrewd learner, as many people observed during the course of his remarkable career. FDR may have admired Lloyd George but he was actually more like Churchill in the almost dynastic sense of destiny that informed his political career. And, as with Churchill, he subsequently recovered from a setback even more personally devastating than that of Gallipoli; in 1921, FDR was stricken with polio, seemingly spelling the end of further political ambitions.

The Roosevelt name had been enormously helpful in bringing young Franklin to prominence. A distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, Republican president for two terms, Franklin grew up knowing everybody and was to marry the favourite niece of 'TR', in a stylish wedding where everyone present seemed to bear the name Roosevelt. Like TR, the handsome young man was a progressive in his politics, but in the latter’s case with a party affiliation as a Democrat and with connections that guaranteed him a place in Wilson's administration from 1913.

If FDR benefited initially from Wilson's patronage, he benefited later from Wilson's example. In his own career, FDR self-consciously sought to avoid Wilson's mistakes, especially in losing his own domestic constituency when pursuing visionary plans for remaking the international order. FDR was pre-eminently a man able to seize second chances, first in domestic politics in spearheading the reforms of the New Deal which aimed to stimulate the economy and rescue the unemployed in the 1930s, and then, in the 1940s, ensuring that the intervention of the United States in the Second World War carried the necessary public support. In this sense, FDR's personal battle against polio served almost as a metaphor for his political recovery, pursued with equal guile and fortitude.


Peter Clarke is the author of The Locomotive of War: Money, Empire, Power and Guilt (Bloomsbury 2017)