100 years ago today, on April 6th, 1917, the U.S. began its entry into WW1, declaring war on the German Empire. There were two principal reasons given for this solemn and gargantuan decision.
First, by 1917, Germany was in deep trouble. It was holding its own on the Western Front of World War I, and was often victorious in the east, particularly in Romania, but at home, the picture was far bleaker. The winter of 1916-17 was the worst of the war, and the British naval blockade was choking the life out of Germany, almost literally. The essentials for life grew increasingly scarce, and the troops at the front got first dibs. The civilian population of Germany was forced to subsist on the nutritionally poor turnip, traditionally used for animal feed. Many died. Infamously, it became known as the Turnip Winter.
Germany, desperate, needed to resort to new measures or they would lose WW1. This simply couldn’t be sustained. Germany needed to find a way around the British blockade. To compensate, Germany took a high risk gamble, going back to something it had done earlier in the war which evoked condemnation around the world – unrestricted submarine warfare. Any ship bringing supplies to Britain would be subject to being sunk by U-Boats without warning, including civilian merchants and even those from neutral nations.
Germany knew that this increased the risk that the United States would enter the war, but it was a risk that the Germans were willing to accept in such dire circumstances. Predictably, unrestricted submarine warfare drew outrage in the U.S. To counter this and minimize any potential of American entry into World War 1, Germany contacted Mexico with a daring proposition. This became known as the Zimmerman Telgram when it was picked up by British intelligence. It proposed that should America declare war on Germany, Mexico would go to war in turn against the U.S. and receive in return the lost territories of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. By occupying American troops in another theater, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to affect the war in Europe as decisively, and Britain might just be forced to sue for peace after millions of tons of shipping was lost to U-Boats.
Instead, Mexico remained neutral and the United States declared war on Germany.
The War With No Glory
These may have been the reasons for U.S. entry into WW1, but the Great War was anything but great. Because it calls for bravery, spirit, and grit in the most extreme conditions, human feelings tend to romanticize war even as they abhor it. The Iliad, that first and greatest of all war stories, is full of carnage explicated in the most graphic detail, but who can forget Sarpedon’s brave, heroic push to storm the Greek rampart? Who can forget Odysseus’ and Diomedes’ daring night raid into the Trojan lines and the Thracian camp? Who can forget Meriones and Idomeneus psyching themselves up, testing each other’s courage even as the walls seem to be closing in on the Greeks at the charge of the furious Hector?
In wars less mythological, there were those glorious moments too, unforgettable by memory. World War II’s most iconic was that flag raising at Iwo Jima, a symbol of the bravery and might of an entire generation who overcame a dark, evil enemy. Brutal as it was, those are the feelings evoked by WWII in the public mind. Even the invasion of Iraq had that moment that toppled Saddam’s statue down symbolizing, so it seemed at the time, the willingness and charity of the American people to free the world from dictatorship.
But WW1 had no such moments. There was no glory in this fight. There was nothing remarkable. There was no dark, evil enemy that had to be defeated (at least in the public mind 100 years later). There was certainly the bravery and heroism of soldiers on the field, but it all seems lost, buried in the gore and mud of the trenches.
There would be no glorious Iwo Jima moments. There would be no triumphal marches into the teeth of the enemy defenses, no feats worthy of a painting like Sarpedon’s toppling of the Greek ramparts. The only compensation for loss, the only thing that WW1 gave the victors of its ferocious, vicious little battles, was a haggard, muddy trench littered with corpses. It was a world war fought over a few yards of mud.
And, strategically, what was the purpose of WW1? What good did it do? What did the U.S. entry into WW1 gain for the country? Given that we have the benefit of 100 years of hindsight, the only answer we can now give is that all those Americans, and millions of others, died in the bloody mud of the trenches for nothing except to make a second, even worse war, more likely.
And it isn’t simply with hindsight that we can say this. People at the time seemed to know it too, because after the Versailles conference there was this remarkable cartoon:
The crying boy in the background was labeled, all too presciently, as fodder for the meat grinder of 1940.
It is then understandable why the American people 25 years later saw the U.S. entry into WW1 as a gross mistake, not worthy of repetition. It is understandable that the American people wanted to retreat behind two shining seas and ignore the Second World War, after the inglorious blood of WW1. The world was an ugly place.
I’ve said on this blog before that WW1 was a profound psychological event that forever altered the feelings of the world. It was an ugly conflict, even more so, I would argue, than WWII. U.S. entry into it simply exposed America and the American people to those feelings that had already sunk into the minds of Europeans. All that blood for a muddy trench, sprinkled with poison gas, inhuman looking faces behind gas masks, mechanized monsters, death dealt out so impersonally, from thousands of feet in the air.
Hope was destroyed. Faith was destroyed. Romanticism died under those gas clouds and mushroom clouds. A darker realism, nihilism, radicalism, pessimism, and a deep aversion to conflict made its entry into the public mind instead. Conflict would never be viewed the same way around the world again.
When we view with horror the gas attack in Syria the other day, expressing an instinctive revulsion at whoever was responsible, know that those feelings originated in WW1. But it is in those feelings that we must avoid a moral panic, we must get it right, lest the U.S. has an entry into yet another wasteful foreign adventure that proves even less justified and less advantageous to the American people than its entry into WW1.
I tried to capture the feelings of this conflict in The Red War, but WW1 still turns out to be darker, because the book has its uplifting, its hopeful, its glorious moments for the characters. WW1 had none.