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The Great War at age 100

British troops go over the top of a trench into battle.
British troops go over the top of a trench into battle.

According to the CDC, there are now approximately 100,000 Americans who are aged 100 years or more, a figure that has doubled since 2000. These people were alive at a time and on a day when American history changed forever: Friday, April 6, 1917. As we reach the centennial of that date it is troubling that many Americans are unaware of its significance. 100 years ago the United States entered World War 1 as a combatant ally to Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy, and their Empire nations. After three years of desperately sought neutrality, President Woodrow Wilson was forced by the spring of 1917 to engage the U.S. in the most dreadful, costly and far-reaching conflict of human history to date, a “Great War” that had ravaged Europe and other global theaters for three years since August 1914. How did American get embroiled in this titanic struggle and what did it mean for the next 100 years?

A war America didn’t want to fight

Wilson and most Americans had possessed no wish for U.S. engagement. Just months earlier Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 on the slogan, “he kept us out of the war.” Election promises, however, often go awry. Certainly, Wilson had endured a tough path in sustaining American neutrality for three years.

Firstly, most Americans sympathized with the Allied cause, seeing Germany and Austro-Hungary as the aggressors in the war. Secondly, the war had benefited the U.S. economy and given birth to the world’s most powerful military-industrial complex. The three years of neutrality had enabled the U.S. to produce and sell the vast quantity of materiel that the first World War relied upon, at an unimaginable scale. American military might was borne in the years of neutrality, with U.S. armaments used on the killing fields of Flanders and beyond. And thirdly, America was still a young and militarily unprepared nation, not sure of its relationship with the Old World. In that context, why send young Americans to fight the wars that belonged to its past?

American neutrality had withheld even through the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat in 1915 off the coast of Ireland, and the loss of many American lives. But Wilson doggedly sustained national neutrality, despite the nation’s instincts that German militarism, if unchecked, would finally embroil the world.

The end of neutrality

U.S. neutrality was finally shattered in the early months of 1917. Germany was, by that time, exhausted through fighting war on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Three years of conflict had already resulted in millions of dead and injured on all sides. The British naval blockade of European ports was starving Germany into submission. Germany was thus desperate to conclude peace with Russia, then in the throes of revolution, and a final victory on its Western Front before conditions could deteriorate further.

In German logic, the entrance of the U.S. into the war would represent a trump card that would produce an Allied victory and so doom Germany to the devastation of defeat. In this scenario, German strategy was to make sure that the U.S. stayed outside the war, but German methodology proved a colossal miscalculation that produced exactly the opposite outcome.

Germany chose to gamble on American neutrality by getting into the middle of US-Mexican tensions, at fever pitch by late 1916 after “Pancho” Villa’s raids into Texas. Indeed, Wilson had already sent Gen. John J. Pershing and federal troops into Mexico to seek out the bandit Villa. Germany hoped to keep the U.S. military focused solely on Mexico, and not be distracted by the European war. Germany chose to do that by promising Mexico its support for Mexican sovereignty of Texas and Arizona in the event of a full scale war between the U.S. and Mexico. Germany communicated its support for Mexican territorial ambition by means of a coded telegram, known thereafter as the Zimmerman telegram, sent first to the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., and then onto Mexico City. The British intercepted the secret telegram, successfully decoded it, and then gleefully presented it to Wilson, the Congress and the American people as proof of German hostility to the United States.

This massive backfire of German strategy was enough to force Wilson’s hand. On April 2 he requested a Declaration of War from Congress, and four days later he secured it, reversing America’s isolationism and instead promising that America would fight to “make the world safe for democracy.”

U.S. enters World War I

The entrance of the United States finally made the Great War a global war. Ten million lives were lost, 25 million additional casualties were incurred, and after the war a ravaged world lost another 10 million to Spanish influenza. Although the United States only participated in the final 15 months of combat, twice as many Americans paid the ultimate sacrifice as those Americans who did so in the entire Vietnam War. Another third of a million Americans returned scarred for life. The brutality, scale and mass industrialization of combat was utterly new in human history and it removed an entire generation of young men from humanity.

By the time of the Armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day in 1918, a third of all French men aged between 18 and 32 had died in combat. My two grandfathers fought and survived, but my great great uncle never returned. The Doughboys of the United States arrived just in time to help turn the tide and rescue civilization from German militarism – for one generation, until the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. By the spring of 1918, two million American soldiers were in France, resisting the final German Spring Offensive and ensuring an eventual Allied victory by that November.

The war’s shadow

The war has left its shadow across the past century. The “War to End All Wars” in fact spurred an even greater cataclysm 20 years later in World War II, which historians commonly describe as an extension of the first world war. It also gave legacy to the 20th century struggles of western ideals versus communist ideology, and stirred up a Middle East hornet’s nest that we live with today. It destroyed the colonial and empire building policies of the 19th century, and introduced the United States as a superpower active in the preservation of freedom. The war ensured that Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy” was the guiding principle of foreign policy until the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Only now has American returned to a more non-interventionist strategy.

The Great War produced enormous social and cultural forces of change, including the voting emancipation of women, the search for equality of minorities, and the integration of religious and cultural peoples within the public square of democracy. While we often talk about the Greatest Generation of World War II, we seldom give thought to the Forgotten Generation of World War I. That is odd, given that they are the same family caught up in similar struggles for freedom over oppression, across the generations.

On this day it is worth remembering the Forgotten Generation that President Woodrow Wilson sent into the fray and harm’s way. Americans today can be thankful that much of what we love and enjoy about our lives and our world was created through the crucible of the Great War. This week we remember the painful birthday of the modern era, 100 years ago.

Christopher Blake is the president of Middle Georgia State University.

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