USA TODAY US Edition
‘We’ll never be World War II’
As 100th anniversary nears, WWI fights for relevance in the U.S.
The president who says he’ll make America great again will skip the ceremony marking the nation’s entry into the war that helped make America great in the first place.
When the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I is officially commemorated Thursday in Kansas City, President Trump will be at his Florida estate, hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Perhaps that’s just as well. Although the war established the United States as a world power, it doesn’t fit Trump’s definition of a good deal — or a famous brand.
“We’ll never be World War II,” admits Chris Isleib, spokesman for a commission Congress created to promote the centennial. “We don’t have a
Saving Private Ryan.” Nor a hero like Patton or a villain like Hitler. “We joke, ‘The sequel was so much better.’ ”
Steven Gillon, the History Channel’s resident historian, says the commission has a tough job: “To most Americans, it’s a distant war that seems irrelevant today.’’
Perhaps, but Isleib says “the sacrifice of 4.7 million Americans” — who served in the military during WWI — “should not
World War I was, as Trump would say, huge. It led to the downfall of four major dynastic empires, paved the way for the rise of communism and fascism and gave birth to nations such as Poland. It set the stage for the even greater conflagration two decades later.
Fighting began in 1914. After the United States, provoked by German submarine attacks on shipping, entered in 1917, about 2 million Americans in the armed services went to Europe. About 53,000 died in combat; a similar number died of disease and other causes. On the home front, the war sped the growth of the federal government, expanded opportunity for women and blacks and produced cultural artifacts such as Irving Berlin’s song Over There.
In combat, the Americans tipped the balance in favor of Britain and France against Germany and the other Central Powers.
About 1.2 million Americans fought, and more than 26,000 died, in the decisive Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918, the largest, bloodiest battle in U.S. history.
After the Armistice, President Woodrow Wilson advocated a peace program — “the Fourteen Points’’ — based on self-government by national groups, such as the Poles; a world organization (which became the League of Nations); arms reduction; and generous terms for the losers.
America’s allies frustrated some of Wilson’s plans, and the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations. Americans retreated into isolationism — or attempted to. “It was like losing your virginity and then trying to regain it,” says Dan Carlin, host of the podcast Hardcore His
tory. The 1930s saw the rise of the “America First” movement, whose cry Trump adopted in his presidential campaign.
He’s questioned the role and cost of NATO, complained about bad foreign trade deals and criticized American attempts at nation-building. “He might ask of World War I, ‘ What was in it for us? Our idealistic leaders were taken to the cleaners by shrewd European politicians,’ ” says Brian Balogh, co-host of the publicradio program Back Story.
The war seems to have an image problem in the Trump camp. When then-senator Jeff Sessions nominated Trump for president at the Republican convention, he compared Washington political gridlock to “the trench warfare of World War I.”
Its successor, on the other hand, ushered in the era of “greatness” that Trump seeks to re-create. “President Trump would never skip a World War II commemoration,” surmises Chris Mauriello, who teaches history at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
President George H.W. Bush went to Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, and President Obama joined the Japanese prime minister there to mark the 75th anniversary. President Clinton attended ceremonies in Europe and Asia marking the end of the war. President Reagan gave a famous speech at Normandy on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
World War I’s centennial has been a big deal in Europe, but the president’s apparent disinterest is shared by many of his constituents. Some reasons:
It was short. The United States entered only in the war’s fourth year and took an active combat role only six months before the Armistice (Nov. 11, 1918). The first troops did not arrive in France until June 1917, and not until July 4 did an American officer utter the famous pronouncement, “Lafayette, we are here!”
It was static. Much of the war, aside from the beginning and the end, consisted of trench warfare along a front from Switzerland to the North Sea.
It was a long time ago. Unlike World War II or the Korean or Vietnam Wars, World War I has no living veterans. The last American, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at 110. “It was fought by people we never met,” says Libby O’Connell, a member of the centennial commission. “Not our grandparents, but our greatgrandparents.”
A FORGOTTEN WAR
The centennial commission says interest will pick up with the anniversary of U.S. participation. PBS, for example, will air a threepart, six-hour series, The Great
War. Washington is awash in exhibitions, including ones at the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, the Capitol Visitors Center, Arlington National Cemetery, the Postal Museum and the National Cryptologic Museum. Communities across the nation hold lectures, readings, symposia and workshops, some involving veterans of more recent wars.
The impact is unclear. “There’s an official recognition that we have to mark this occasion, and there’s a spate of books and exhibitions, but it hasn’t seeped into the public consciousness, or my students’,” says Gillon, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma.
He says popular, commercial culture hasn’t bought in: “If NBC or HBO was doing a three-part series, that would be different.”
Yet in some ways, World War I is more relevant than ever.
“The war mirrors our disillusionment with war, fear of terrorism and the tension between civil liberties and national security,” says Jennifer Keene, a Chapman University historian who’s on the commission’s advisory board. “There are parallels to our time that are more striking than those with World War II.”
Take the Middle East, she says. Thinking of Saddam Hussein in WWII terms — as Hitler — ended up making little sense. But the Islamic State and militant Islam are products of instability dating back to the end of World War I, when the winners carved up the region arbitrarily out of what had been the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
More generally, “I don’t think there could be more timely a moment for Americans to think about World War I, when our role in the world may be shifting dramatically,” Balogh says.
Two of the war’s personalities are quite relevant for Trump: Woodrow Wilson and John J. Pershing.
Wilson is popularly regarded, Balogh says, “as a woolly-headed Princeton professor whose ideas for peace failed after the war.” But he was skilled at leading public opinion — against the war before 1917, for the war in 1917 and in favor of international cooperation after the armistice.
Pershing is, for most Americans, no more than a memorable nickname (“Black Jack”) and a grainy photo from high school history. He was a shrewd strategist who resisted French and British demands to throw his green troops into battle with insufficient training; insisted on preserving a separate identity for the U.S. force; and stressed maneuverability over trench warfare.
How America looks back at World War I reflects how it looks at the present. The war has gone in our imaginations and textbooks from a pointless slaughter to a crusade for democracy to a squandered opportunity to a cautionary tale to a Cold War rallying point to a pointless slaughter.
After 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, is America too weary of war to enthusiastically commemorate another one?
That would be a shame, says Richard Rubin, author of several books on the war: “There was a time when the war was terribly important. What did people once know that we’ve forgotten?”