World War I Changed America and Transformed Its Role in International Relations

So why don't we pay more attention to it?

HUMANITIES, Summer 2017, Volume 38, Number 3

The entry of the United States into World War I changed the course of the war, and the war, in turn, changed America. Yet World War I receives short shrift in the American consciousness. 

A colorful recruiting poster for the U.S. Army
Photo caption

Recruiting poster for the U.S. Army by Herbert Paus.

—Library of Congress

A colorful recruiting poster for World War I with women marching together
Photo caption

Detail of a recruiting poster for YWCA by Ernest Hamlin Baker.

—Library of Congress

The American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Europe in 1917 and helped turn the tide in favor of Britain and France, leading to an Allied victory over Germany and Austria in November 1918. By the time of the armistice, more than four million Americans had served in the armed forces and 116,708 had lost their lives. The war shaped the writings of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. It helped forge the military careers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and George C. Marshall. On the home front, millions of women went to work, replacing the men who had shipped off to war, while others knitted socks and made bandages. For African-American soldiers, the war opened up a world not bound by America’s formal and informal racial codes. 

And we are still grappling with one of the major legacies of World War I: the debate over America’s role in the world. For three years, the United States walked the tightrope of neutrality as President Woodrow Wilson opted to keep the country out of the bloodbath consuming Europe. Even as Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic put American sailors and ships in jeopardy, the United States remained aloof. But after the Zimmermann telegram revealed Germany’s plans to recruit Mexico to attack the United States if it did not remain neutral, Americans were ready to fight. 

In April 1917, President Wilson stood before Congress and said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” With those words, he asked for a declaration of war, which Congress gave with gusto. For the first time in its history, the United States joined a coalition to fight a war not on its own soil or of its own making, setting a precedent that would be invoked repeatedly over the next century. 

“For most Americans, going to war in 1917 was about removing the German threat to the U.S. homeland,” says Michael S. Neiberg, professor of history at the U.S. Army War College. “But after the war, Wilson developed a much more expansive vision to redeem the sin of war through the founding of a new world order, which created controversy and bitterness in the United States.”

The burden of sending men off to die weighed on Wilson’s conscience. It was one reason why he proposed the creation of the League of Nations, an international body based on collective security. But joining the League required the United States to sacrifice a measure of sovereignty. When judged against the butcher’s bill of this war, Wilson thought it was a small price to pay. Others, like Wilson’s longtime nemesis Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, believed that the United States should be free to pursue its own interests and not be beholden to an international body. America hadn’t fought a war only to relinquish its newfound stature as a military power. 

As soldiers returned home and the victory parades faded, the fight over the League of Nations turned bitter. The sense of accomplishment quickly evaporated. “Then came the Depression (a direct result of the war) and another global crisis,” says Neiberg. “All of that made memory of World War I a difficult thing for Americans to engage with after about 1930.” 

Even as the world has changed, the positions staked out by Wilson and Lodge have not evolved much over the past one hundred years. When new storm clouds gathered in Europe during the 1930s, Lodge’s argument was repurposed by isolationists as “America First,” a phrase that has come back into vogue as yet another example of the war’s enduring influence. “The war touched everything around the globe. Our entire world was shaped by it, even if we do not always make the connections,” Neiberg says. 

Historian and writer A. Scott Berg emphatically agrees. “I think World War I is the most underrecognized significant event of the last several centuries. The stories from this global drama—and its larger-than-life characters—are truly the stuff of Greek tragedy and are of Biblical  proportion; and modern America’s very identity was forged during this war.”

A biographer of Wilson and Charles Lindbergh, Berg has now cast his eye as an editor across the rich corpus of contemporaneous writing to produce World War I and America, a nearly one-thousand-page book of letters, speeches, diary entries, newspaper reports, and personal accounts. This new volume from Library of America starts with the New York Times story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 and concludes with an excerpt from John Dos Passos’s novel 1919. In between, the voices of soldiers, politicians, nurses, diplomats, journalists, suffragettes, and intellectuals ask questions that are still with us. 

“What is America’s role in the world? Are our claims to moral leadership abroad undercut by racial injustice at home? What do we owe those who serve in our wars?” asks Max Rudin, Library of America’s publisher. With 2017 marking the one-hundredth anniversary of America's entry into the war, the moment seemed ripe to revisit a conflict whose ghosts still haunt the nation. “It offered an opportunity to raise awareness about a generation of American writers that cries out to be better known,” says Rudin. 

The volume shows off familiar names in surprising places. Nellie Bly and Edith Wharton report from the front lines. Henry Morgenthau Sr., the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, files increasingly terrifying reports on the Armenian genocide. As Teddy Roosevelt leads the fight for American intervention, Jane Addams and Emma Goldman question the aims of the war. Writing from Italy, Ernest Hemingway complains to his family about being wounded. While Wilson and Lodge fight over American sovereignty, Ezra Pound expresses his disillusionment and grief in verse. 

We also meet Floyd Gibbons, a Chicago Tribune crime reporter. Before the war he covered plenty of shootings, but “I could never learn from the victims what the precise feeling was as the piece of lead struck.” He found out in June 1918 at Belleau Wood when a German bullet found him—“the lighted end of a cigarette touched me in the fleshy part of my upper left arm.” A second bullet also found his shoulder, spawning a large burning sensation. “And then the third one struck me. . . . It sounded to me like some one had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub. A barrel of whitewash tipped over and it seemed that everything in the world turned white.” The third bullet had found his left eye. 

Stepping into an operating theater with Mary Borden, the Chicago heiress who established hospitals in France and Belgium, the smell of blood and death almost leaps off the page. “We send our men up the broken road between bushes of barbed wire and they come back to us, one by one, two by two in ambulances, lying on stretchers. They lie on their backs on the stretchers and are pulled out of the ambulances as loaves of bread are pulled out of the oven.” As a wounded soldier is laid out, “we conspire against his right to die. We experiment with his bones, his muscles, his sinews, his blood. We dig into the yawning mouths of his wounds. Helpless openings, they let us into the secret places of his body.”

When the American Expeditionary Forces shipped off to Europe, so too did approximately 16,500 women. They worked as clerks, telephone operators, and nurses; they also ran canteens that served meals to soldiers and offered a respite from battle. “These women often had complex motivations, such as a desire for adventure or professional advancement, and often witnessed more carnage than male soldiers, creating unacknowledged problems with PTSD when they returned home,” says Jennifer Keene, professor of history at Chapman University.

Of course, most women experienced the war stateside, where they tended victory gardens and worked to produce healthy meals from meager rations. They volunteered for the Red Cross and participated in Liberty Loan drives. As Willa Cather learned when she decamped from New York to Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the summer of 1918, the war could be consuming. “In New York the war was one of many subjects people talked about; but in Omaha, Lincoln, in my own town, and the other towns along the Republican Valley, and over in the north of Kansas, there was nothing but the war.” 

In the Library of America volume, W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in the wake of Booker T. Washington’s death, assumed the mantle of spokesman for the black community, provides another take. From the beginning, Du Bois saw the war as grounded in the colonial rivalries and aspirations of the European belligerents. 

Chad Williams, associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, says Du Bois was ahead of his time. “His writings also vividly illuminated the tensions between the professed democratic aims of the Allies—and the United States in particular—and the harsh realities of white supremacy, domestically and globally, for black people. Du Bois hoped that by supporting the American war effort and encouraging African-American patriotism, this tension could be reconciled. He was ultimately—and tragically—wrong.” 

Along with Du Bois’s commentary, there are reports on the race riots in East St. Louis and Houston in 1917. Such incidents prompted James Weldon Johnson to cast aside sentimentality and answer the question, “Why should a Negro fight?”

“America is the American Negro’s country,” he wrote. “He has been here three hundred years; that is, about two hundred years longer than most of the white people.” 

The U.S. Army shunted African-American soldiers into segregated units and issued them shovels more often than rifles. Some, however, fought alongside the French as equals, prompting questions about their treatment by their own country. African-American soldiers came home as citizens of the world with questions about their place in American society. “Understanding how the war impacted black people and the importance of this legacy is endlessly fascinating and, given our current times, extremely relevant,” says Williams.

To accompany its World War I volume, Library of America has launched a nationwide program, featuring scholars, to foster discussion about the war and its legacy. One hundred twenty organizations, from libraries to historical societies, are hosting events that involve veterans, their families, and their communities.

“There are veterans of recent conflicts in every community in America for whom the experiences and issues raised by World War I are very immediate,” says Rudin. “We all have something to learn from that.”

“Every war is distinct, and yet every war has almost eerie commonalities with wars past,” says Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, a collection of short stories about his service in Iraq that won the National Book Award. “I don’t think veterans have a unique authority in these discussions, but our personal experiences do inevitably infuse our reading. In my case, I find myself relentlessly drawn to pull lessons for the future from these readings, as the moral stakes of war have a visceral feel for me.” 

For community programs, Library of America developed a slimmer version of its volume, World War I and America, while adding introductory essays and discussion questions. Keene, Neiberg, and Williams, along with Edward Lengel, served as editors. “There is truly not one part of the nation that was untouched by the war,” says Williams. “This project has the potential to remind people of its far-reaching significance and perhaps uncover new stories about the American experience in the war that we have not yet heard.”

Berg echoes the sentiment. “I hope audiences will appreciate the presence of World War I in our lives today—whether it is our economy, race relations, women’s rights, xenophobia, free speech, or the foundation of American foreign policy for the last one hundred years: They all have their roots in World War I.”