The first world war helped shape modern America. Why is it so forgotten? (2023)

It redefined women’s rights, race relations, civil liberties and America’s role in the world. It caused twice as many American deaths as the Vietnam war. But there is no national memorial to it in Washington DC and, on Thursday, its centenary will pass with little fanfare.

On 6 April 1917, America declared war on Germany and charged into the first world war. After nearly three years of reluctance, its hand was forced by the sinking of neutral US ships by German submarines, and by Britain’s interception of the so-called Zimmerman telegram revealing a German plot to persuade Mexico to wage war on the US.

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America mustered more than 4.7 million service members with astonishing speed and suffered 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 other deaths in service, many from Spanish flu. America’s involvement was crucial to the Germans’ defeat in 1918, profoundly shaping what came to be known as “the American century”. Yet in contrast to the extensive centenary commemorations in Britain three years ago – a memorial at the Tower of London featured 888,246 red poppies to represent each soldier who died – this has for many Americans become a forgotten war.

“America didn’t suffer the way Great Britain did, certainly,” historian A Scott Berg said during a panel discussion hosted by PBS in Washington on Monday. “Woodrow Wilson kept us out of the war for three years; we really only fought for about six months. Britain lost a generation. We lost a lot comparatively speaking, but nothing compared to what Britain lost.”

But Jennifer Keene, a historian specialising in the first world war at Chapman University in Orange, California, disagreed: “I hate comparisons like that. I feel like they’re really unuseful in terms of understanding our different experiences of war. We lost 52,000 casualties in six months. If 52,000 Americans had come back [dead] from Iraq in the first six months of fighting there I don’t think that anybody would say that that was insignificant, or that America wouldn’t feel it.”

Along with the huge loss of life, the war had seismic implications for the US economically, socially and culturally. Women played an outsized role in the mobilisation effort and seized the opportunity to demand the vote, staging protests outside the White House and hunger strikes in jail; Wilson eventually persuaded Congress that suffrage was a war measure.

The first world war helped shape modern America. Why is it so forgotten? (1)

The war was a catalyst for the great migration of African Americans, and those who returned from the war, finding inequality intact, demanded civil rights. In addition, the conflict heralded the rise of conscription, mass propaganda, the national security state and the FBI. It accelerated income tax and urbanisation and helped make America the pre-eminent economic and military power in the world.

These transformations are vividly chronicled in the American Experience TV series, The Great War, starting on PBS on 10 April. The show also reveals how immigrants were scapegoated, with those of German ancestry forced to register with authorities and pressured to prove their loyalty to America. There are references to events where steins were smashed and German dogs were slaughtered.

Donald Trump’s German grandfather, Friedrich Trump, emigrated to America in 1885. But Trump’s father, Fred, claimed to be of Swedish descent because of anti-German sentiment provoked by the war. The president himself claimed Swedish, not German, ancestry until 1990. On Thursday the president will be travelling to his luxury estate in Florida for talks with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, bypassing the official commemoration at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, where the most senior official will be the acting army secretary, Robert Speer.

But the fact that he is meeting the leader of the world’s rising superpower – an authoritarian state with little regard for free speech – will carry its own symbolism 100 years after Wilson set the tone for America as global watchdog for democracy.

Speaking on the panel at the Newseum in Washington, Berg, a biographer of Wilson, said: “With all due respect to Tom Brokaw and to Tom Hanks for that matter, I don’t think the world war two generation was the greatest generation. I think the world war one generation was the greatest generation, in large measure because that generation went to war over principles. We weren’t attacked.”

This week, he added, marked the centenary of “what I consider the single most important foreign policy speech in the last 100 years, if not the last 260-odd years, and that was Woodrow Wilson going before a joint session of Congress and asking for a declaration of war, and within that speech, Woodrow Wilson uttered eight words that have been the foundation of all American foreign policy ever since: ‘The world must be made safe for democracy’. Whether you agree with it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you understand it or not, doesn’t matter. That has been the foundation of almost all American foreign policy for the last 100 years.”

It is a thread that has, for better or worse, run through the US interventions in the second world war, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war, Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, but which Trump has now suggested he will abandon in the name an “America first” foreign policy that no longer seeks to impose democracy abroad.

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Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington, said: “Trump is the first president since then I think who’s not really a Wilsonian in his heart. He’d like the US just to bash its enemies and then get out. He says, ‘We should have taken the oil’, which is not something any other American president would say in the same circumstances.

“So we might – who knows – be seeing the end of this Wilsonian tradition – whether it’s a good one or not is a different matter – and the realists will be borne out, that America will go to war only when it’s totally in American self-interest, not for any larger ideals.”

Kazin said it is a “shame” that few in America appreciate the importance of the US entry into the war, both in terms of changing its outcome and transforming American society.

In the introduction to his book, War Against War: The Rise, Defeat and Legacy of the Peace Movement in America 1914-1918, Kazin writes: “Although combatants in the second world war and the Vietnam conflict are memorialised in large and popular sites on the National Mall, the men who fought in the Great War – and the 53,000 who died in battle – still have no such honour in stone.

“Alone among citizens of the former belligerent nations, Americans celebrate a holiday on the anniversary of the Armistice that makes no explicit reference to the war itself. When I ask students why Veterans Day happens to take place on November 11, hardly any know the answer.”

In an interview at the Wilson Center in Washington, he elaborated: “For the US, world war one is messy. Americans don’t quite understand why did we get in so late, and then why isn’t there some famous battle that we all know about as there is of course in world war two, and why aren’t there movies about it, why isn’t there serious literature about it.

“Except for Hemingway, Farewell to Arms, there’s no important world war one literature in this country, nothing compared to all the [Wilfred] Owens and [Siegfried] Sassoons and others. A lot of it’s radical poetry, pretty lousy stuff: doggerel is a better description of it. There’s no important American movie about it, nothing like [Jean Renoir’s] Grand Illusion.”

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The centenary is not passing entirely unmarked, however. Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the Library of Congress, National Archives and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, are staging various exhibitions, lectures and screenings. A centennial commission is finally planning a national memorial for Washington, although it will be in Pershing Park, not on the National Mall.

Matthew Naylor, president and chief executive of the museum in Kansas City, said it has seen a 52% increase in visitors since 2013, reaching more than 225,000 last year. “There is a deep vein of interest,” he added. “We don’t seek to compete with those other wars. We seek to take our rightful place among the monuments that honour those who served.”

But whereas Britain will again commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice in November next year with pomp, America’s reflections on a war that lacked a clear moral lesson – Wilson lost the peace when the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations – will inevitably be more muted.

Mitch Yockelson, chief historical consultant with the World War I Centennial Commission, mused: “You go into a London bookshop and it’s full of world war one books; you go into one in the US and there are hardly any.

“As one historian wrote perfectly, world war one got bookended between the civil war and world war two. Many of the soldiers didn’t want to talk about it, it was such a horrific experience. It took a while to sink in and by the time people were ready to write histories, it was into world war two.”

Yockelson added: “I can guarantee that, once the armistice is commemorated in 2018, it will be pretty much forgotten but for a core group of people.”

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