Magazine article Humanities

America in World War One

Magazine article Humanities

America in World War One

Article excerpt

THE entry of the United States into World War I changed the course of the war, and the war, in turn, changed America. Yet World War I receives short shrift in the American consciousness.

The American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in 1917 and helped turn the tide in favor of Britain and France, leading to an Allied victory over Germany and Austria in November 1918. By the time of the armistice, more than four million Americans had served in the armed forces and 116,708 had lost their lives. The war shaped the writings of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. It helped forge the military careers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and George C. Marshall. On the home front, millions of women went to work, replacing the men who had shipped off to war, while others knitted socks and made bandages. For African-American soldiers, the war opened up a world not bound by America's formal and informal racial codes.

And we are still grappling with one of the major legacies of World War I: the debate over America's role in the world. For three years, the United States walked the tightrope of neutrality as President Woodrow Wilson opted to keep the country out of the bloodbath consuming Europe. Even as Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic put American sailors and ships in jeopardy, the United States remained aloof. But after the Zimmermann telegram revealed Germany's plans to recruit Mexico to attack the United States if it did not remain neutral, Americans were ready to fight.

In April 1917, President Wilson stood before Congress and said, "The world must be made safe for democracy." With those words, he asked for a declaration of war, which Congress gave with gusto. For the first time in its history, the United States joined a coalition to fight a war not on its own soil or of its own making, setting a precedent that would be invoked repeatedly over the next century.

"For most Americans, going to war in 1917 was about removing the German threat to the U.S. homeland," says Michael S. Neiberg, professor of history at the U.S. Army War College. "But after the war, Wilson developed a much more expansive vision to redeem the sin of war through the founding of a new world order, which created controversy and bitterness in the United States."

The burden of sending men off to die weighed on Wilson's conscience. It was one reason why he proposed the creation of the League of Nations, an international body based on collective security. But joining the League required the United States to sacrifice a measure of sovereignty. When judged against the butcher's bill of this war, Wilson thought it was a small price to pay. Others, like Wilson's longtime nemesis Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, believed that the United States should be free to pursue its own interests and not be beholden to an international body. America hadn't fought a war only to relinquish its newfound stature as a military power.

As soldiers returned home and the victory parades faded, the fight over the League of Nations turned bitter. The sense of accomplishment quickly evaporated. "Then came the Depression (a direct result of the war) and another global crisis," says Neiberg. "All of that made memory of World War 1 a difficult thing for Americans to engage with after about 1930."

Even as the world has changed, the positions staked "out by Wilson and Lodge have not evolved much over the past one hundred years. When new storm clouds gathered in Europe during the 1930s, Lodge's argument was repurposed by isolationists as "America First," a phrase that has come back into vogue as yet another example of the war's enduring influence. "The war touched everything around the globe. Our entire world was shaped by it, even if we do not always make the connections," Neiberg says.

Historian and writer A. Scott Berg emphatically agrees. "I think World War I is the most underrecognized significant event of the last several centuries. …

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