The Path to War: America and the First World War a Century On

Michael Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press). You can hear Mike discuss the new book here and here. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not represent those of the United States Government or any part thereof.           

People have often asked me over the past few months what I thought the United States was going to do to mark the centenary of American entry into World War I. I used to reply only half-jokingly that I figured that we would do what we did 100 years ago: we would wake up, realize there is a crisis, throw a lot of effort into it, declare victory, and then forget it ever happened.

But now that we are getting closer and closer to the event, I realize I was wrong. Nothing of the kind has happened. There have been a few conferences, terrific museum exhibits, and some efforts at the local level, but very little at the national level. The World War I Centennial Commission even failed to get any federal funding for its modest goal of building a small memorial on the long forgotten Pershing Park near the White House. I have done a few media interviews over the last few years, but the unpleasant truth is that more European media outlets have contacted me than American ones.

Why? It is certainly true that we have been more than a bit distracted here by the recent election and change of presidential administrations, but that strikes me as an insufficient explanation. There are always crises at home to discuss. If the war had been sufficiently important to Americans, they would have discussed it no matter the domestic context, and maybe even made its memory a political topic, as has happened in England and Ireland.

World War I does raise some uncomfortable questions for modern America. It is the moment when the United States directly entered the bloody game of European power politics and then tried to rewrite the rules of that game at great cost. The debates about the wisdom of that approach still echo today, most notably in the current debate about the value of international institutions to American national security.

Some people argue that the United States has a particular national amnesia about World War I. In the 1920s, Americans made an intensive effort to remember the war. Every American city and town has a major monument to World War I. They include prominent places citizens often use like Soldier Field in Chicago, the Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh. These living memorials were designed to force people to consider the war every time they went to a football game, an opera, or simply drove home.

America also has thousands of more traditional memorials to the war. New York City alone has more than 120. Art historian Mark Levitch is attempting to document them all, and I send him a photo when I come across one. They are everywhere, from plaques in New York City skyscrapers memorializing employees of a major bank to a small marker in a local college chapel to the list of the dead on a metal sign on the town square where I live.

Still, since the Great Depression, the United States has largely turned its attention away from the war. This problem of amnesia is easiest to see in Washington. The nation’s capital features an enormous, quite over-the-top memorial to World War II in a prominent place on the National Mall. It draws throngs of visitors and has become one of the most visited sites in a city full of first-class museums and memorials. It stands, of course, in stark contrast to the somber, dark symbolism of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial just a short walk away, as I imagine it was always supposed to.

But it also stands in stark contrast to the World War I memorial on the National Mall, a small marble dome dedicated to the veterans from Washington, DC. For years, it was the victim of a bureaucratic squabble. The National Parks Service, on whose land the memorial sits, refused to care for a memorial dedicated to the city, and the city claimed that it had no resources to clean and maintain it. They finally reached a deal but only after volunteers raised private money to clean it, in part so that it would not mar the view of the new Martin Luther King Memorial close by.

Americans, it would seem, have forgotten this war. Clearly, they do not hold it in their minds the way they do the Civil War that proceeded it or World War II that followed it. In part, I suspect that the frustrations Americans had with this war began quite early. Americans went to war to remove the German threat to their homeland, a threat that had been building and finally burst with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram.

When the Germans laid down their arms on November 11, 1918, most Americans thought the job was done. They therefore demanded the immediate return of their loved ones from France. But their president had a much more expansive vision of reshaping the world in America’s image. To him, the military phase of the war was only one part. That vision proved to be too much for most of his countrymen. The United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and with it Woodrow Wilson’s beloved League of Nations.

Thus, even though Americans remembered the men who fought, they rejected the war’s purpose, or at least the purpose as their president presented it. American war memorials are frequently a simple doughboy statue, symbolically recognizing those who sacrificed without saying anything about the cause itself. Also for this reason, we commemorate the war (as Europeans also do) on the day of the armistice, not the day of the peace treaty.

It is also true, however, that we Americans are not particularly good at anniversaries. My colleagues who study the Civil War were disappointed with the lack of introspection and serious discussion during the sesquicentennial of that major event. The 50th anniversary of many important Vietnam War events has also failed to generate much serious discussion, although the New York Times has run an excellent series on the subject. Notably, it has not run a similar series on World War I.

The problem may be amnesia on this side of the Atlantic, but my European friends have not been entirely satisfied with anniversary coverage on their side, either. Gary Sheffield found himself in a debate with the BBC over what he charged was overly simplistic treatment of a complex subject. Sir Richard Evans also sparred with Education Minister Michael Gove over the political ramifications of historical memory. These debates confirm my own view that for most people history is as much about confirming their own ideological beliefs as it is about a serious engagement with the past in all its complexity.

I fear that this anniversary will come and go in the United States without opening a space for us to debate issues of substance. We might have used the centenary to talk about America’s role in the war and how it changed in 1917; why the nation fights wars and how it seeks to end them; or how Americans have used their power to pursue both national interests and international ambitions. But I fear we will miss this opportunity. I had hoped for debates like the ones Gary Sheffield and others have had in Europe, but we will not get them. My hopes for a declaration of victory were premature.

Image: J. M. Flagg‘s 1917 poster based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier, via Wikimedia commons

 

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