The anniversary of a huge event in American history just passed, with little to no fanfare. The anniversary of our entrance into a struggle that took the lives of over 100,000 American soldiers in the span of a year in a half. The anniversary of the day the tide of the war really began to turn, a war that has shaped every aspect of the 20th century, and whose effects we are still feeling today. We didn’t want to join, but we reached a point where it seemed like the war had already been declared on us and we had no choice but to fight back. This was a war that was deemed “the war to end all wars”, and the men who returned from its battlefields were called “the lost generation” due to their scars, both physical and mental. Thursday marked the 100 year anniversary of the American entrance into the First World War.
In America, the First World War as a whole seems to be a footnote in our history; we have no official holiday commemorating it (although Veterans Day traces its roots to it), most people can’t name a single battle or general, and there isn’t even a national monument to the national war effort on the Mall in Washington DC. Truly this war is a forgotten war in American history.
Why is this terrible struggle so often forgotten? To understand that we first have to look at the causes of the war, and the circumstances that led to America’s entrance into the conflict:
The First World War has its roots reaching back years. A complex set of alliances in Europe, a naval arms race between Britain and Germany, and unrest in the Balkans turned the continent, and subsequently the whole world, into a powder keg awaiting a spark. The spark came in June of 1914 when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What followed was a chain reaction that led to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire fighting the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, and several other countries.
By 1917, the war on the Western Front between the French, Britain, and Germans had come to a stalemate, with both sides locked in bloody trench warfare. The Russians had just suffered a revolution that overthrew the monarchy, and the new government was moving towards pulling out of the war in the East. That would free up millions of German troops to come fight in the West.
Part of the German effort to hinder the economy of the allies was to attack merchant shipping vessels in the Atlantic with U-Boats, a practice that often sunk many American ships. The most well known of these attacks was the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, an attack that cost the lives of 128 Americans onboard. As the pressures of being blockaded became more and more prevalent in Germany, they increased the frequency of U-Boat attacks to ratchet up pressure on Great Britain. Hundreds of merchant ships were sunk in early 1917, including many American ships. In response to this, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson cut diplomatic ties with Germany.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the German foreign ministry sent a message to Mexico inviting them to declare war on the United States with German Support, with the goal of retaking territory lost in the Mexican-American War. This telegram was intercepted by British intelligence and turned over to the US Government. This enflamed already strained tensions with Germany, and on April 2nd, President Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and called for war against Germany.
This was a massive change in the policy of the Wilson administration; Wilson had campaigned for re-election under the slogan “He Kept Us Out of The War”. After the war broke out in 1914, the U.S. Government quickly declared themselves neutral, although they did offer financial backing to the Allies. Before this time, to describe the United States as being Isolationist is fairly accurate. The government and the people had little to no interest in getting involved in a war in Europe. We lacked interest in the war going on in Europe, it did not directly affect us for the most part. The United States’ largest immigrant group was people of German descent, and an anti-war sentiment echoed from that demographic. This was also a time where Americans heeded the advice given in George Washington’s Farewell Address, which warned against the dangers of intervening in European affairs and having large alliances with countries around the world.
Unfortunately, reality and war have little regard for the words of the past, and so on April 6th, 1917, the United States of America declared war on Germany. When President Wilson called for war in front of Congress, he framed it in a way that made the war look like a defensive one by saying “the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States”. (Basically saying that the Germans were already at war with us, and it was time for us to respond.)
Although it took time, American soldiers began to appear on the Western Front. They had to learn quickly the brutal realities of trench warfare, as they had no experience with this style of fighting. This lack of inexperience cost them dearly, with troops openly charging reinforced German positions and dying in droves. Luckily they learned fairly quickly, and the huge supply of fresh soldiers coupled with tons of new equipment and money, the Allies overwhelmed the Germans, who had been fighting this war for years and were on food rations and often lacked adequate supplies. The Americans offered the push that allowed the Allies to win over the Central Powers, who began to capitulate in late 1918. Germany surrendered on November 11th, 1918. However that is not the end of this story.
Aftermath of the War
Wilson entered the war with Fourteen Points, or war goals to shape the post-war world. One of the biggest ones of those was the establishment of an international organization of countries where nations could sort out problems diplomatically to avoid another global war. This organization was called the League of Nations, and it failed almost spectacularly in preventing the outbreak of another war. One of the biggest problems it encountered was the fact that its founders, the Americans, were not a part of the organization. The American people were not in favor of joining the League, so the United States stayed out of it. The terms of the surrender treaty with Germany were largely dictated by the French and British, who had just come out of a four-year with the Germans, and as a result were not going to be giving them kind terms. In fact, the treaty, which would be known as the Treaty of Versailles, wrecked the German economy and destabilized the government, which left a weakened state and a power vacuum that a man by the name of Adolf Hitler would soon fill.
World War I was one of the greatest turning points in history, it’s the reason for just about every event in the 20th century and effects events today. World War II was directly caused by the effects of the war and the effects of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany. The rise of the Soviet Union was a direct result of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Syrian Civil War can be traced back to the disastrous British and French policy of dividing up the former lands of the Ottoman Empire. The First World War was the ultimate turning point of history.
Remembering and Forgetting the War
For such an important war, why is it largely forgotten in American history? In my high school world history class, hardly a chapter was given to the conflict, and it only served as a way to teach us the terms nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. Why is there such disinterest in such an important conflict?
The reasons can largely be seen when WWI is compared with the war that followed it. In the Second World War, the morality of the sides of the conflict are very black and white; The Allies were fighting against regimes that massacred millions of innocents and committed genocide. There is no question as to who are the “bad guys” in World War II. The same cannot be said about The First World War. Both the Allies and the Central Powers were militaristic, overly nationalistic, and had Empires around the globe. There wasn’t a really good reason for the war, and both sides used heinous weapons poison gas against their enemies. Neither side really has the moral high ground. (If anything though, the Allies had a little more of moral high ground, due to things like the Armenian Genocide, although stopping that was not an explicit goal of the Allies).
The First World War also lacked the “excitement” that images of war usually bring about. When one thinks of WWI, it usually invokes images of people sitting in muddy holes for months, before charging over open ground against machine-gun fire. A large amount of the fighting, especially on the Western Front, was a several year long stalemate, both sides in trenches taking huge losses for gains less than a few kilometers. Some described it as “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” according to a New York Times article from 1915.
World War I changed the course of human history, and even though it appears like a boring, slow conflict, there is way more to it that mud and trenches. It had battles on every continent, from the deserts of Arabia, to the lakes of Africa, to the waters off of South America. Fascinating inventions and innovations like the tank, flamethrowers, and mobile X-Ray machines came out of the war, and technology like the airplane was drastically improved over the course of the war. Stories of heroism and bravery are everywhere in the First World War, in figures like the Red Baron and Lawrence of Arabia.
More focus should be put on it in schools and in society in general in the United States. The centenary of the war has succeeded in bringing it more attention. Resources like The Great War Youtube Channel, which follows the events of the war in real time, video games like Verdun and Battlefield One, and movies like The Promise and Wonder Woman have made the history of the conflict much more accessible and appealing.
On the 100-year anniversary of America’s entrance into the war, it is time that more attention be given to this conflict that changed the lives of so many and set the stage for the 20th Century. It is our duty to honor the men and women who took part in the war effort, increase awareness about the conflict, and become more appreciative of this paramount event in modern history.