Author Archives: Christopher Norris

About Christopher Norris

Media, publishing and social entrepreneur

The Month that Changed the World

A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.

In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.

However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar.  Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.

However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J. P. Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.

Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.

Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.

The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.

Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.

Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin.  Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.

However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24th February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.

On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation.  Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.

When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17th January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer “an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”

The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.

London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City.  When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.

Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20th March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion.  On 2nd April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6th April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.

Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared.  America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.

The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.

So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.

To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago

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North Korea: A Third World War?

Just like Cyprus, Korea is still officially at war.

An armistice (a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’) remains the international legal position in Korea. Just as there is still no peace treaty between Greece and Turkey for the events of 1974, there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea following the 1953 end of fighting in the Korean War.

And therein lies an almost insoluble problem. Because North Korea is now hell bent on going nuclear. And if it does, we will be confronting a serious threat to world stability and peace. Does this matter or concern us, thousands of miles away?

Yes, it does; for in the delicate balance between North and South Korea, backed respectively by China and the USA, with Japan and the South China Sea in the wings, there are now some very dangerous regional catalysts for conflict – even a major war between superpowers.

‘Fanaticism armed with power’ has always been the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Second World War. That is why the Big Five and the Security Council have strenuously tried to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.  In North Korea under its homicidal and unstable leader Kim Jong-Un, it now looks very much as if fanaticism is acquiring power – nuclear weapons. We are headed for confrontation, if not a war, because not only is the Korean dictator determined to get nuclear weapons, he is now quite openly threatening to use them.

Kim claims that his country has attained the status of a nuclear power and says he is prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against American targets. The little sealed-off communist country has carried out five nuclear tests and several missile launches recently, despite stern warnings from the UN. Only last week Kim warned that his North Korean army could ‘deal deadly blows’ without any warning against the US and South Korea. US intelligence believes that Pyongyang is in the final stages of readying itself for another yet nuclear experiment – possibly within a matter of days.

The question is; does Kim really mean it, or just blustering? The answer is, no-one knows. The fat, blood thirsty little despot has a track record of mouthing off with blood-curdling threats and then backing off.

North Korea is a strange place; a closed country with insufficient arable land and few natural resources, squeezed between China and South Korea, which is still protected by tens of thousands of U.S. forces. In the north, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has accepted Chinese protection while maintaining domestic control and military power – the so called “poison-shrimp” strategy: best to ignore, because invading it would be more dangerous.

But things are changing rapidly.  With Kim’s promise to go nuclear soon, North Korea now poses a grave risk to stability, not just in the region but to the rest of us. The situation is not unlike the alliance system just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when the small fry went to war in the Balkans and dragged the major nations backing them into hostilities. The problem today is that superpower China underwrites and backs Pyongyang; over the border in the South, superpower America guarantees Seoul’s security.  A very nervous Japan looks on, horrified.

Whatever we think of Kim, his policy is very clear and rational: to stay in power by building a nuclear deterrent. With this he hopes to neutralise the long-standing threat of America, determined to destabilise his government and forcing the collapse of the North Korean regime. But now America is facing a genuine challenge to its leadership in the Far East.  Washington has to make a big decision soon. There are some serious questions to be answered.

First, how dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear capability, really? The answer is no-one for sure.

North Korea is now thought to have some 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs, according to South Korea intelligence.  Pyongyang has also made significant advancements in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, as well as its ability to enrich uranium. The big problem is where exactly are these nuclear assets? North Korea has at least ten nuclear sites, scattered around the country, many deep underground.

Although the United States is unmatched when it comes to military power projection, any attempt to cripple North Korea’s nuclear programme by force faces some serious problems. Major intelligence gaps complicate Washington’s decision-making.  There is no doubt that if the US decides to carry out an air strike against North Korea, using B2 bombers with Ordnance Penetrators and 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs, it could destroy North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure and associated nuclear sites.

The problem is that although the immediate impact would be devastating for Pyongyang, it might not be fatal. Even with the United States’ advantage in intelligence and equipment, uncertainty about the exact locations and dispositions of North Korean nuclear assets means that the complete success of any conventional strike on North Korea cannot be assured. Realistically, without the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and total occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies cannot guarantee absolutely the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean counter-attack in some form or other.

The most immediate and expected method of retaliation would be with conventional artillery. North Korea has an incredible 13,000 guns positioned along the border, many of them within range of Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities, just 35 miles away.

Just a single volley could deliver more than 350 tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, with massive civilian casualties.  North Korea also has an advanced chemical warfare capability, as well as large commando and sabotage forces. The latter are capable of being inserted into South Korea through tunnels or off-shore, to wreak havoc by attacking key infrastructure, logistics nodes, and US command-and-control facilities, causing mayhem behind the lines.

The conclusion is that any American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear programme will come at a heavy price. North Korea’s revenge response to any attack is something that  U.S. policymakers cannot ignore. And China cannot be expected to stay neutral if America moves in. Beijing is already flexing its muscles with the US Navy over control of the South China Sea, and has warned Washington that deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defence Missiles (THAAD) to protect South Korea is ‘a hostile act.’ Things are hotting up.

Kim Wrong-Un understands that he now has very little time to field his credible nuclear deterrent. But once he has one, then the chance of American intervention becomes increasingly unlikely. A diplomatic resolution is obviously preferable to direct intervention, because attacking North Korea guarantees massive destruction in return. But that needs China’s agreement and support to rein in its erratic and increasingly dangerous neighbour. And North Korea isn’t looking for diplomacy.

Logic dictates that now would be the best time to strike, before North Korea can finalise its nuclear capability. The result is that America’s new president is now between a rock and a hard place, thanks to his predecessor’s failure to act. If Trump orders a strike, then the consequences for South Korea could be devastating, as Pyongyang would almost certainly respond. But if nothing is done, then North Korea will become a nuclear power, placing American bases in Japan, Okinawa and American carrier groups in the region at risk for the first time. Would the unthinkable then become the inevitable: would Japan go nuclear for self-protection?

There will never be a perfect time to launch an operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability. But one thing is evident: every week that goes by brings Pyongyang closer to a credible nuclear deterrent. Confrontation, even war, looms.

The omens are not good.