There is no monument to the First World War on the National Mall. Along the two-mile carpet of memory we have created between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, we honor the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the Second World War, and the Korean War. But nothing there memorializes the other great American war of the 20th century, which we entered in April 1917 and saw to its conclusion the following November. This is peculiar, since no other modern war was waged by Americans with such outstandingly pristine expectations. It was, as President Woodrow Wilson intoned, to be “the war to end all wars,” the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” the war to establish a world order of “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” Measured against those slogans, no other 20th-century war produced such meager results, either, which is the principal reason Americans have chosen to forget World War I so completely.
And not just on the National Mall. No American combatants produced memoirs of wartime as powerful as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929) or Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (1920). Not even the most heralded of American fiction about the Great War, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), is a serious match for Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928). The one anniversary the war acquired on the public calendar, Armistice Day, was homogenized into Veterans’ Day in 1954. And no wonder: Fully half of the 4.7 million American soldiers mobilized for the war never even made it to the scenes of combat in France before the armistice was declared.
What was known until 1939 simply as the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — and on terms largely set forth by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points the previous January. For four years, the European continent had been torn asunder by the rival combinations of Britain, France, and Russia (the Entente, or Allies) and the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Turkish empires (the Central Powers). What began in 1914 as a war of vast, swift maneuver by armies numbering in the millions soon bogged down into an equally vast deadlock of trenches zigzagging across northern France, the impasse occasionally interrupted by doomed efforts to break the stalemate at Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme. By 1917, it was clear that both sides were fighting not so much with any confidence of victory as with dread of the consequences of defeat.
Given that almost 8 percent of the American population was (like my great-grandfather) either German-born or the offspring of German parents, and another 4.5 percent Irish, who had every reason to sympathize with the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule, the United States might have felt little incentive to take the Allies’ side. But Woodrow Wilson saw the Central Powers as the minions of military and monarchical despotism, and his crusader temperament pushed hard toward sympathy with the Allies, especially after a German submarine inadvertently killed 128 Americans in the torpedoing of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. Still, not even Wilson could nudge the country into outright war until the German empire threw off all restrictions on submarine attacks in February 1917 and began sinking American ships without notice. And even then, 50 members of the House of Representatives voted against the war resolution Wilson presented on April 2, 1917.
But once in, Americans were all in. “There was a crusading spirit in the air,” recalled one new recruit in the spring of 1917, “bands were playing martial music on the courthouse squares.” Newspapers hawked stories of German atrocities and pictured the German emperor, Wilhelm II, as “the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, who wanted to conquer the world.” Recruitment posters (led by James Montgomery Flagg’s frowning Uncle Sam) confronted young men with the demands “I want you for u.s. army” and “Uphold our honor, fight for us.” Those more hesitant would be drafted under the Selective Service Act of 1917.
After three years of watching the Great War from the sidelines, Americans ought to have been better prepared for taking up arms. They weren’t. The Army’s tactical doctrine showed no sign of any of the brutal lessons being taught in the trenches in France about machine guns, barbed wire, and poison gas.
The country would soon learn otherwise, for what the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) walked into was an entirely new and horrific way of making war, honed by three years of remorseless practice. All told, the United States put into uniform less than 4 percent of its population that was eligible for military service; from that number, 116,000 Americans died in the short span of their involvement. Britain, however, had mobilized 12.5 percent of its military-age population; Germany, 15.5 percent; and France, 17 percent, of which the French lost 1.3 million, the Germans 2 million, and the British 920,000. Nor was it merely the horrendous butchers’ bills that staggered American naïveté; it was the novel and hideous ways in which soldiers died, by chlorine and mustard gas, by air, by mines. At sea, German submarines sank 5,708 ships — a quarter of the world’s merchant fleet. “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together,” wrote Winston Churchill. And “when all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves.”
From the muck of the war, American soldiers were able to retrieve at least a few moments of glory. The first sizable American units to go into action fought at Cantigny on May 26, 1918, at Soissons and Château-Thierry in July, at Saint-Mihiel in September (where up to 14 American divisions participated), and, in October and November, in the 47-day battle to clear the Argonne Forest. The U.S. Marines earned their first great title to combat glory in the fighting for the Belleau Wood in June 1918, along with the memorable response given by Lieutenant Lloyd Williams when the French advised him to retreat: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” The Germans gave the Marines one of the names they’ve lived with ever since: Teufel Hunden (Devil Dogs).
Once an armistice was negotiated, no one was happier to celebrate than Americans. Some units had, in fact, already worked out informal truces with their German counterparts days before; inspection officers from the 2nd Army arrested 40 Americans from the 110th Infantry whom they found “all laughing, talking, and fraternizing” with the Germans — aided by the numbers of Americans who spoke German. Nor did American officials show much taste for participating in some grand post-war reconstruction of the Central Powers, all of which were collapsing internally and installing new republican regimes in place of their kings and emperors. Although, under the terms of the armistice, the Allies were to occupy both the bridges crossing the Rhine River and the bridgehead zones beyond them, the AEF proceeded with demobilization at an almost frantic pace. Within four years, the American military presence along the Rhine would be reduced to just 6,800 men, and even those would depart by the end of January 1923. It was a haste the whole world would eventually regret.
The Allies seemed equally willing to be free of any need for Americans. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, with their promise of “a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment” and a post-war League of Nations, was the basis on which the Central Powers were willing to embrace an armistice. But when the Allied Powers convened a peace conference at Versailles in January 1919, the treaty’s 427 articles lopped off large swathes of German territory, dismembered the old Austrian empire, saddled Germany with punitive reparations, and forced Germany to accept “the responsibility . . . for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied . . . Governments . . . have been subjected as a consequence of the war.” The Germans protested, but in vain, that this was not what Wilson had led them to believe would be the shape of the post-war settlement. Meanwhile, the Allies themselves felt no compunction about treating their own colonial subjects with much the same brutality that they had just accused the Germans of displaying. The British crushed protests and uprisings in Egypt and India; so did the French, now ruling the former Ottoman domains in Syria.
Wilson, who took the unprecedented step for an American president of leaving the United States to attend the peace conference in person, was appalled at the Allies’ treaty demands. But his protests were neatly outmaneuvered by the British prime minister, Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clémenceau. “The result,” complained secretary of state Robert Lansing, “is that the president has been outplayed and persuaded to do a lot of things he would six months ago have flatly refused to do.” Wilson managed to salvage the League of Nations from the wreckage of the peace conference. But Americans had had enough of unrighteous bargains with their erstwhile Allies, and U.S. participation in the League of Nations was rejected not once but three times by the Senate.
The First World War left deeper shocks than just the ones inflicted by the campaigns and the Versailles Treaty. The folly that had led Europe’s leaders into a pointless four-year nightmare tore the heart out of Western civilization’s self-confidence. Never again would the nation-states of Europe be able to call so easily on the loyalty of their peoples for war; never again, the Oxford Union declared, would “this House . . . fight for its King and Country” quite so eagerly as it had in 1914.
Purely in monetary terms, the Great War cost its participants a mind-numbing $208 billion; the British empire, which had been the world’s economic and financial colossus since the 18th century, had only four weeks’ worth of gold in reserve at the war’s end, and at the armistice was actually in debt to the United States. The Versailles Treaty made matters worse, not only by imposing impossible schedules of reparations but also, through division of the old empires of Central Europe into new nation-states, by creating 4,000 miles of new national trade boundaries. But the United States staggered under the war’s costs, too. For Americans alone, the bill amounted to $32 billion, at a time when the last pre-war federal budget had been only $725 million. As late as 1970, pension costs related to First World War veterans amounted to nearly $2 billion a year; and even though the last American veteran of the Great War died in 2011, the government still paid $16.1 million in survivors’ benefits in 2014.
But the most profound transformation wrought in America by the Great War was in the nature of government itself. Woodrow Wilson came to the presidency in 1913 as the prince of the Progressives, and he at once began to assemble the scaffolding of a new administrative state through the Federal Reserve Act. His efforts were aided by constitutional amendments to secure the levy of a national income tax, to institute the popular election of U.S. senators, and to impose a national prohibition on alcohol. Entrance into the Great War widened the scope of administrative control, justifying the creation of a Fuel Administration, a Food Administration, a War Labor Policies Board, a War Industries Board, and a Shipping Board, which created an Emergency Fleet Corporation to build dry docks and piers, commandeer privately owned vessels, and even seize enemy ships. That control reached even into the schools: In Philadelphia, the School Mobilization Committee organized 1,300 public and parochial schoolboys as farm workers. The war, complained Randolph Bourne, licensed the Progressive state to become “what in peacetime it has vainly struggled to become — the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”
The armistice and the debacle of the League of Nations stemmed the onrush of Wilsonian Progressivism but only until a new crisis loomed in the Great Depression, when the Wilsonian banner was taken up again by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had served in Wilson’s cabinet during the Great War, and his response to the crisis of the Depression was to treat “the task as we would treat the emergency of war.” The administrative state has marched to that beat ever since.
The Great War lived up to few of its promises and brought in its wake a century of sorrows. Even those who saw only the war’s opening months knew that it would change the face of human history in irrevocable and ugly ways. Looking back from 1915, the Belgian poet Émile Adolphe Gustave Verhaeren wrote, “Il dédie avec émotion, ces pages à l’homme qu’il fut autrefois” (He dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be). That might well be a general motto for the century after the guns fell silent. And it also might well be that the best monument, like the Vietnam War Memorial, would be a vivid scar in the ground.