America Goes to War

By Timothy S. Goeglein

A little over one hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. The Great War’s centennial is especially poignant because of the massive sacrifice America made in both blood and treasure, mostly forgotten and faded now as so much mist over the ocean. The dynamism of the war is deeply intertwined with the fascinating period of American political history between 1912 and 1921.

More than 53,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefields in that horrific European conflagration.  Disease alone added another 60,000 wartime deaths. More than 204,000 others were wounded, many of them maimed with terrible disfigurements. Some 15 million people lost their lives in World War I.

The late entry of the United States into the war – it had been raging since 1914 — was a major inflection point in twentieth century history.  While America’s involvement in the war indisputably assured the Allied victory over Imperial Germany by November, 1918, it left a road of ruination, blood, and destruction that even today is difficult to internalize.

Not only did those bloody battlefields soak up American lives en masse but also they reminded a restive America that President Woodrow Wilson, who had been first elected in 1912, was not infallible.

Despite an almost obsessive zeal, he was unable to gain passage in the United States Senate of the Treaty of Versailles even as he was being lionized across Europe as a colossus of victory.  That failure in the senate prevented the United States from entering the League of Nations, which the president viewed as his own legacy of international diplomacy and a fitting close to the war.

Learning About the Great War

In Washington, there are four captivating exhibitions highlighting American involvement in the Great War. Collectively they underscore the dissolution, destruction, and ghastly industrialization of those years:

  1. At the Air and Space Museum on the national mall, “Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War” is an exhibition comprised of 100 artifacts and pieces of art many of which have never been seen in public before. Half of the items in the show are derived from the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), part of a much larger 500-piece Smithsonian collection. What gives particular power and immediacy to all this is that the AEF commissioned eight artists with the specific goal of embedding them in battle.

The results are combat scenes and depictions of life on the front lines by artists who weren’t mere observers but also were participants in the war. In dozens of the show’s photos, visitors will see everything from carvings on underground quarry ceilings that became temporary homes for American soldiers to wartime moments that attempt to illustrate moments of battlefield faith so often missing or negated in wartime reportage and artistry. There is an especially affecting photo of an altar carved into a wall near the infamous trenches of France.

Physical objects in the show give a tangible sense to the reality of death and destruction on a massive scale: gas masks, wheelchairs, and other items that remind the viewer that World War I was indeed a technological war replete with airplanes, tanks, machine guns, and battlefield telephones. This is front-line art rooted in the sweep of history.

Wilson said he wanted “peace without victory,” and just as the war came to its close that November, congressional elections were underway. The president appealed to the American people to support his global efforts and to return a Democratic Congress to the Hill.  It was not to be.  Republicans made up the new majority in both houses and Wilson soon found himself eager to lead with few willing to follow.

Despite his dour congressional prospects, and against the best counsel of his closest advisors, Wilson traveled to the interminable Paris peace conference anyway, taking with him not a single Republican.

Everywhere he went he was the subject of standing ovations and sizeable crowds, an utter disjunction from how he was viewed at home.  That discordant gap between military victory abroad and political despair at home was palpable.

Wilson returned to Washington and lobbied hard for the Versailles Treaty which contained his vaunted idea of a League of Nations.  But without support on Capitol Hill, and with hostility to the League rising, the proverbial writing was on the wall.

Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led the Republican effort against the treaty which went down in flames.  Wilson referred to Lodge and his allies as “a little group of willful men.”  Almost all aspects of the treaty reflecting what became known as “Wilsonism” were eviscerated and the senate twice rejected the act that would have formally ratified the treaty.

The irony is that while the Allies and most of the civilized world saw America’s involvement in the Great War as a singular military achievement, Wilson himself was left ultimately with a massive political defeat.

Americans were wary of America’s emerging postwar dominance, dividing some of the political and cultural elites who sought that status from voters who wanted a more limited role on the global stage after the war had come to its cataclysmic close.

Wilson’s League of Nations became a major campaign issue in the presidential election of 1920 and was used as a truncheon against the Democratic Party. Ohio’s Warren Harding, a U.S. Senator, was elected with a sizeable Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and it was only when he became president that the senate formally ended a state of war and affirmed treaties with Germany and Austria in 1921.

Wilson had come to office under very different circumstances.  In the election of 1912, Republican President William Howard Taft was challenged by former President Theodore Roosevelt, splitting the GOP.  Taft and Roosevelt received 1.3 million more votes than Wilson, but that split propelled the former governor of New Jersey into office with 42 percent of the vote and 435 electoral votes.  Roosevelt received 88 electoral votes and Taft a mere 8.

Wilson would serve two terms, leaving office a broken and fatigued man despite America’s definitive  role assuring Allied victory in the war. Even the Nobel Committee conferred its peace prize upon him in 1919.

The irony is that he had spent most of his presidency utterly self-confident and assured, convinced the country would catch-up to his own early view that America should enter the war on the side of the Allies.

The president was convicted that America’s march to war was a kind of moral obligation and his powerful war resolution speech to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, is widely considered the most important and effective of his presidency.  He was a commanding orator and stylist at the podium.

Just two days later, in the early morning hours of Good Friday, April 4, 1917, the House of Representatives passed the resolution 373 to 50.  A clerk delivered the document to the White House a little after one o’clock while the president, his wife, and a cousin were having lunch. He rose from the table and promptly signed the resolution which would direct 50,000 Americans to their demise.

For more than two years, the country had remained at peace while watching hundreds of thousands of young Europeans be slaughtered and killed with no end in sight.

On the first day of The Battle of the Somme in July, 2016, of the 110,000 British who attacked, 60,000 would be either killed or wounded. Until that time, it was the largest engagement of its kind in world history.

Learning About the Great War (con’t.)

  1. Only two former presidents have made Washington their home after leaving office: President Barrack Obama and President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s beautiful home is sometimes incongruous with sobering “Images of the Great War: 1917-1919” being shown there in a compact World War I exhibition comprised of watercolors, prints, and drawings from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University. The items on display focus on the offensives that the America military participated in once it joined the war in 1917.
  2. The Library of Congress’ centennial exhibition is one of the most affecting that that great institution has organized and mounted. “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I” is a sizable display of 200 items depicting America’s involvement and experiences in the war and on the home front. It is a cavalcade of letters, diaries, interviews, photos, original poster art, and films not seen since the war ended.

The emphasis is on the untold stories of both soldiers and civilians. That would seem to be an almost unattainable benchmark, given the vast scholarship of the war which began in earnest almost immediately after the Armistice in 1918. But the curators have rolled out story after story to illustrate the personal impact the war had on those in the military, their families, and their communities. This show underscores the power of patriotism that swept the country during the war years, in part aided and orchestrated by a massive government-led effort.

That same year in the contest between the German and French armies at Verdun, another 350,000 lives were lost.  The Battle of Jutland was yet another futile contest — this one between Germany and Britain – billowing flames, smoke, and no resolution.

Wilson had supreme confidence that America needed to get into the European conflict and leverage the country’s strength to bring it all to a decisive and victorious close.  The United States’ population had reached 100 million people, much larger than any nation in Europe with the exception of Russia, which had surpassed 170 million. Just as America entered the war, the Russians withdrew amid revolution and revolt.

While the overwhelming majority of the American people believed that European wars were not the business of America, the United States retained its right to trade with any nation at war.  But when Germany violated the neutrality of Belgium and propelled itself into unrestricted submarine warfare, it was broadly viewed as a violation of international law.

Public opinion was impacted and swayed by wanton acts of German sabotage and the use of poison gas in European warfare, which was viewed as immoral and beyond any acceptable wartime boundary. The Germans began using gas in 1914. In time, the Allies would use it as well.

Wilson believed that the very concept of democratic government was being threatened, and that if Germany prevailed, democracy itself would be under direct assault everywhere in the civilized world.

The president spent his first term pleading with the warring European nations to resolve their disputes, campaigning for reelection in 1916 on the theme “he kept us out of war.”  But his efforts failed.

Germany continued its warfare on submarines; there was no end of the war in sight as gigantic numbers of the killed and injured mounted; and the American people had come to see Germany as a matchless aggressor.

In March of 1917, Wilson was inaugurated for a second term, and less than a month later, he came to Capitol Hill on a drizzly night asking for the war resolution.  He said, in essence, the war had already come to America because of Germany’s intransigence.

It was in that speech Wilson said the goal of America’s entry into the Great War was to make a “world safe for democracy.”  The year before, Congress had already approved an enlarged army.  Astonishingly, the army only numbered 135,000 troops.  Funding was also underway for a larger navy.

On June 26, 1917, the 1st Division landed on French soil and began fighting four months later on October 23, 1917.  Major General John “Black Jack” Pershing had been named the commander in chief of the now-famous American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in May.  Pershing issued a stark and stunning challenge:  that America should have a million men in France no later than May, 1918, and that the AEF should grow as large at 4 million troops.

Wilson strongly supported a draft, and by the end of the war, nearly 5 million men had been taken into the service under the Selective Service Act.  All told there were 93 American combat divisions, 42 of which ultimately reached Europe; 30 actually saw combat there.  They were known as the doughboys.

Freight trains, locomotives, and massive amounts of supplies poured across the Atlantic to aid the Allied war effort. From the beginning, one of the greatest challenges was finding enough ships to transport the American troops.

Oddly, there were some troops who arrived fully trained and equipped while others arrived in France never having been taught how to load a rifle.

One American who was never in the dark about rifles was Sgt. Alvin York who grew up deep in the Tennessee mountain country.  He won the Congressional Medal of Honor and was the most decorated soldier in the AEP, killing 17 Germans with 17 shots and capturing 132 prisoners and 35 machine guns.

One of the most important benchmarks was reached in August, 1918, when plans were firmly in place to use the American First Army as a single unit.  This was important because, until that time, American troops were essentially used to fill yawning gaps when Allied armies broke down or were decimated as the Germans advanced.

The most important and famous battles of World War I with American participation soon followed: Cantigny in May of 1918; Chateau-Thierry shortly thereafter; and Belleau Wood which raged across the entire month of June, rapidly becoming a household name everywhere in the country.  The Marine Brigade and the Army regiments of the 2nd Division made among the most heroic stands of the entire war.

Learning About the Great War (con’t.)

  1. A fourth exhibition, “My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I” at the National Postal Museum is a simple, elegant display of personal correspondence written from both the front lines and domestically. The show delves into America’s national DNA and marrow in the war years, allowing us to read and think about how real Americans were absorbing and expressing themselves during those difficult years. These letters are revelatory in the everydayness of what it means to be on the cusp of death, or injury, or feeling like you are on the rim of the world in the emotive gap of having your son or husband or father or uncle a world away. Letters of this nature sometimes have the feel of being fleeting and evanescent. They take you back a hundred years to a time and country that seems both far away and yet familiar.

An excerpted version of this article appears in The Washington Times.

By September, Pershing made the strategically-important decision to use the American First Army as a single unit in a major offensive.  Supported by French artillery, the Americans took Saint-Mihiel from the Germans who had held that salient since their very first drive into France four years earlier in 1914.

What followed was the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, commencing in late September and lasting until November 11, 1918. In those 47 days of fierce fighting, 29 American combat divisions had been used, pressing hard against the entire length of the German line from Verdun all the way to the English Channel.  It was a stellar American effort where more than 1,200,000 Americans had taken part. When that famous drive ended, the war was over.

Not only was the human toll astonishing but so was the financial cost.  The American government allocated more money for the First World War than it had for all government expenses combined from the last 1790s till 1914.

At 11:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the Great War ended.  The American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew his Spad over the American lines to see what was happening. Fifty years later, he recalled the silence was deafening and of a sudden.  What the historian Barbara Tuchman called “the guns of August” had gone silent.  Armistice Day was considered a near-holy day for much of the twentieth century with a flourish of parades and tolling of church bells.  It was considered a near-religious duty to decorate the graves of veterans.

Less than two miles from the White House is the R Street home where President Wilson moved after leaving office, the victim of a massive stroke suffered in 1919 in Wichita, Kansas, where he had been campaigning for senate approval of the League of Nations. For a month after being stuck down, only his doctor and wife were permitted to see him.  Some believe they essentially oversaw the running of the executive branch.  Wilson never fully recovered.

A Princeton burgee pinned to the wall of his grand Washington manse reminds visitors of the Ivy university where Wilson had been president before coming to the White House.  He and the Princeton era he embodied now seem redolent of another world: the manly code of honor, the gentleman’s C, Hobey Baker and the unquestioned elevation of amateur athletics, and the WASP elite.  Some might conclude that the First World War and the Roaring 20s which followed were catalysts for the fading of that class and those ideals.

Both that infernal conflict that seemed to codify the decline of Europe and the incline of the United States, and the progressive-exemplar-president who said the war represented the end of all war, will forever be vitally linked and recalled as bookends of America in the early 1900’s.

The historian Paul Fussell observed that the Great War “reversed the idea of progress.” An entire generation of men were irrevocably lost.

This centennial underscores that fraught relationship. Wilson and the Great War into which he led America are indelibly and ineluctably linked in time and memory.  “Never such innocence again,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson told a friend from Princeton that it would be a real irony if his administration had to deal in any significant manner with foreign affairs.  But during the Wilson presidency, the Great War had in part propelled and codified the upward trajectory of United States of America as the most powerful and dominant nation in the world.

Timothy Goeglein is Vice President of Government and External Relations at Focus on the Family in Washington DC.


About the Author

Timothy S. Goeglein is the Vice President of External Relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the political memoir The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era.

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