Why World War I Matters in American History
Jennifer D. Keene
Understanding World War I is perhaps more important than ever. The war, quite simply, shaped the world in which we live. The conflict also presented Americans with challenges remarkably similar to those confronting contemporary American society. The centennial of the war has spurred a flurry of new scholarly works and has garnered much media attention. Yet many historians still remain largely uncertain about the war's importance for the United States. The centennial offers an ideal moment to clarify the war's role in the development of the nation and to integrate the war more fully into the broader narrative of U.S. history.
Defining exactly how World War I changed American society remains difficult, in part because the answer is complex. Another difficulty arises when historians compare (as they inevitably do) the American experience to the longer, bloodier, and more socially disruptive war that Europe fought. Because the war was so obviously traumatic for Europe, these comparisons tend to obscure the harder-to-see impact of World War I on the United States.
Recent scholarship, however, underscores how the war transformed American society and why the war is relevant for understanding our contemporary world. Many of the most recent trends in World War I scholarship stem from the post-9/11 political, cultural, and social environment, which has encouraged scholars to examine World War I with fresh eyes. 9/11 was a turning point for the nation that changed governmental policies and Americans' conception of their role in the world. The same was true of World War I. Then, as now, overseas conflicts and the actions of authoritarian regimes suddenly threatened the security and well-being of Americans. Then, as now, citizens vigorously debated whether the war was America's to fight and ultimately embraced war in the name of both humanitarianism and self-defense. There are further, rather striking, parallels. Internal threats from potential terrorist cells located within the United States justified an unprecedented abridgement of civil rights, prompting disagreements over the right way to handle internal subversion. Poorly equipped men were sent into battle, and the nation failed to prepare adequately for their return home.
In this essay I review some of the recent scholarship on the war and how it is changing the way we think about the American experience in World War I. Recently, scholars of the war have re-examined Woodrow Wilson's foreign policies, investigated American humanitarian intervention overseas, established the war as a turning point in the long civil rights movement, evaluated the coercive aspects of home-front war culture, considered the role of women during the war years, investigated the battlefield with an eye on the enlisted man's experience, and examined the difficulties of war veterans coming home.
Woodrow Wilson and Wilsonianism
It is impossible to disentangle the story of how the United States entered the war and negotiated the peace without considering the personality, decision-making, and rhetoric of the nation's twenty-eighth president. A recent major biography of Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009), takes up the reasons why the United States went to war and the genesis of Wilson's peace proposals. Cooper contends that by 1917 Wilson believed that the United States needed to take an active part in the fighting to earn a leading role at the peace table.(1) However, Cooper concludes that the American military contribution was too minor for Wilson to dictate the terms of peace. The United States' unwillingness to join the League of Nations ultimately doomed Wilson's vision of using a system of collective security to safeguard world peace.
In contrast, Ross A. Kennedy's The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America's Strategy for Peace and Security (2009) offers a national-security explanation for Wilson's eventual decision to lead the country into war. Kennedy argues that Wilson increasingly saw a German victory as a threat to America's ability to steer clear of European power politics. Traditional accounts of U.S. entry into the war, he contends, overemphasize the importance of U.S. trade with the Allies or Wilson's missionary zeal to spread democracy. Kennedy instead believes that with the naval war bringing the war ever closer to American shores, Wilson wanted to rebuild the international political system to protect the United States from the global reverberations of European power struggles.(2) Kennedy emphasizes the flaws in Wilson's collective-security vision, which required all nations of the world to see war anywhere as a threat to their own national interests. He nonetheless notes the long shadow that Wilson's views cast over American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century.
Erez Manuela takes the debate over Wilsonianism in a new direction by investigating how the colonized world responded to Wilsonian ideals in The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007).(3) Manuela investigates how intellectuals in Egypt, India, China, and Korea harnessed Wilson's phrases of "self-determination" and "consent of the governed" to create the intellectual basis for nascent anticolonial movements. Those interpretations often departed quite dramatically from what Wilson intended and illustrate the power of words and ideas to move world history.
From Manuela's perspective, the failure of international liberalism lay in its refusal to embrace the principle of equality of nations inherent in Wilsonian rhetoric, rather than the American failure to join the League of Nations (Cooper's view) or the flawed concept of collective security (Kennedy's view). Debates over Wilson and Wilsonianism clearly remain very much alive.(4) Despite their disagreements, all three historians assert that Wilsonianism had far-reaching consequences for American foreign policy and America's rise as a world power. Whether Wilsonianism represents a desirable or attainable ideal will continue to be debated as the United States seeks to make the post-9/11 world safer for its citizens.
Another intriguing new trend in World War I scholarship involves reconsidering the traditional chronology of the era. The most common chronology divides the war years into a period of neutrality racked by debates over potential American involvement in the war, followed by the war years of active engagement. Discussion of the war then ends with the Senate's refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Recent scholarship, however, rejects this chronology.
Julia F. Irwin and John Branden Little challenge the prevailing view of 1914–1917 as a time of neutrality—if by neutrality one means non-involvement.(5) They contend that the strong trading and financial ties between the Allies and U.S. industrial and banking elites suggest only a fraction of the monetary, emotional, and physical engagement of American citizens in the war. Examining the humanitarian efforts of groups such as the Red Cross and the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Irwin and Little suggest that millions of Americans sought to define an active, humanitarian role for the United States in the international arena. In particular, Little chides historians for overlooking the $6 billion American humanitarian relief effort to alleviate civilian suffering in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Near East from 1914 to 1924. In Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation's Humanitarian Awakening (2013), Irwin underscores the lasting impact of voluntary humanitarian work during World War I, which in her view established the widespread societal belief that citizen-initiated foreign aid benefited both the world and the United States. "The matter of American international humanitarianism is as vital now as it was in the Great War era. By understanding its history, we can better determine the role that foreign aid should play in U.S. relations with the world today," Irwin writes, noting that Americans then and now disagreed over whether foreign relief projects should be an alternative to, or in support of, military engagement.(6)
Recent scholarship also suggests that traditional accounts have concluded the story of the war too early. Ending with the failed ratification of the Treaty of Versailles curtails appreciation for how long and fervently the war's repercussions reverberated throughout American society. Taking their cue from the dynamic European scholarly debate over commemoration and mourning, several scholars have written pathbreaking accounts of how the war's memory shaped American society. For example, Lisa M. Budreau has contributed to a revised view of the war's cultural impact by tracing the creation of overseas military cemeteries. She contends that the "American way of remembrance" set the model for how the nation buried and honored war dead from that point onward.(7) Mark Whalen and Steven Trout have examined the forms that remembrance took, focusing on both artistic expression and popular culture.(8) Their research reveals the difficulty of establishing one unified memory of the war in a society fractured by race, class, and ethnicity. Americans remembered the war in multiple, and often contradictory, ways. These disagreements made it hard to establish a clear, satisfying war narrative to repeat to future generations; another reason why Americans today have a hard time understanding World War I's place in American history.
There were also political, not just cultural, ramifications. Stephen R. Ortiz and I have researched the impact of veteran political activism in the postwar period.(9) Ortiz argues that the 1932 Bonus March incorporated World War I veterans into the left-leaning political coalition of New Deal dissidents who pushed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to embrace income redistribution programs such as Social Security. I focus on the links between the bonus crusade and the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, arguing that the law represented a final attempt to distill lessons from the past twenty years of tumultuous veteran political activism. By granting World War II veterans comprehensive educational, housing, and unemployment benefits, the government recognized the error of sending World War I veterans home with little more than the clothes on their backs. A legacy of World War I, the G.I. Bill set the benchmark against which future veteran homecomings would be measured.
The missteps after World War I included inadequate care for wounded veterans, even as veterans gained permanent access to federally funded healthcare in veterans' hospitals. Attaining the veneer of normality became the guiding ethos of veteran rehabilitation. In War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (2011), Beth Linker notes that President George W. Bush was often photographed jogging with amputee war veterans. In both World War I and the present day, repairing dismembered bodies with prosthetic devices created and creates "the momentary illusion that there is no human cost of war—that there is no 'waste' in war," Linker writes.(10)
Taken together, this scholarship underscores the long involvement of Americans in the war and its reverberations in American society. It makes a strong case for the war's importance by connecting the war to pivotal historic transformations in the twentieth century, such as the rise of international humanitarianism, the development of the commemoration landscape, the potency of veteran political activism, the passage of key social welfare legislation in the 1930s and 1940s, and the creation of a federal medical bureaucracy dedicated to the care of veterans.
The War State
Our post-9/11 preoccupation with government surveillance of potential terrorist groups and the abrogation of civil liberties has prompted renewed historical attention to the growth of state power in the World War I era, when the nation mobilized to fight its first modern, total war. The scholarship in this area reinterprets the era as a pivotal moment in state-society relations, and the scholarly debate centers on how much citizens resisted or abetted the war-fueled expansion of state power.
During World War I the United States broke with its tradition of relying primarily on volunteers and used conscription to raise the bulk of its military force. Jeannette Keith's Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (2004) takes a grassroots approach to studying draft resistance in the rural South. The creative means that men devised to evade the draft impresses Keith more than the centralization of state police power.(11) In Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War (2003), Christopher M. Sterba challenges the longstanding assumption that nativist demands for complete assimilation (100% Americanism) defined the immigrant experience during the war. Sterba argues that Italian and Jewish immigrants, both on the home front and overseas, used the war to assimilate into mainstream culture on their own terms.
In contrast to Keith's and Sterba's emphasis on the haphazard application of state coercive power, Christopher Capozzola's Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (2008) argues that the modern surveillance state took shape during World War I. He sees the willingness of local communities to cooperate with federal directives as essential to the government's success in mobilizing for war. Capozzola coins the term "coercive voluntarism" to describe how local civic groups secured their communities' compliance with wartime edicts on food conservation, the purchases of liberty bonds, and dissent. Self-policing by community leaders on the local and state level, Capozzola contends, helped the federal government create a culture of patriotic obligation that successfully pressured citizens to provide manpower, material, and food. Even more importantly, World War I militarized the notion of citizenship, forever linking civic rights to the male obligation to serve. The present-day requirement that all male residents between the ages of 18 to 25, citizen and immigrant alike, register for selective service perpetuates this notion.
The Long Civil Rights Movement
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments represented tremendous civil rights achievements. However, civil rights activists were disappointed when Wilson's war for democracy failed to topple Jim Crow at home. For a long time, the historiography ended there. Recent histories, however, argue that the war was a pivotal moment when new militancy, ideologies, members, and strategies infused the civil rights movement.
In Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (2009), Adrianne Lentz- Smith traces how African American soldiers and their civilian advocates experienced a rising political consciousness. Within the black community, wartime committees sold liberty bonds, publicized food conservation measures, and recruited volunteers. Lentz-Smith contends that those wartime committees served as incubators in which future civil rights leaders learned how to organize, publicize, and fund community-based grassroots campaigns. In Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (2010), Chad L. Williams investigates the extensive postwar activism of African American veterans, emphasizing the role they played as symbols and leaders within the civil rights movement. In several articles, I trace how military service served as a vehicle for politicizing black soldiers and consider the structural, not just ideological, opportunities for soldiers to organize. I also examine how civil rights activists took up the banner of equal medical treatment for black veterans as a strategy to advance the entire civil rights movement.(12)
These works balance an acknowledgement of the state's coercive power and pervasive racial violence with narratives that emphasize individual agency and empowerment. The predominant narrative now focuses more on movement building than it does short-term successes, which were few and far between. The recent historiography thus depicts World War I as a formative moment in the long civil rights movement, demonstrating the importance of activism by the World War I generation for the civil rights successes of the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, civil rights activists embraced the goal of creating an American democracy in which black lives mattered.
Writing Women into the History of the War
The 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, guarantees the World War I era a prominent place in historical works devoted to the suffrage movement. Yet the most innovative recent histories focus less on the national suffrage movement and more on incorporating the story of female leadership into the main narrative of the war. This scholarship makes it impossible to disentangle the history of the war from women's history: one cannot be understood without the other.
Capozzola and Lentz-Smith, for instance, discuss how middle-class women who belonged to an array of social clubs became essential grassroots organizers, mobilizing white and black communities across the nation to support the war. Irwin details a different sort of political awakening among women by focusing on their humanitarian relief work, often initiated to help women overseas. Moderate-leaning suffragists found multiple ways to use the war to their advantage. The service of women on federal wartime committees organized by the Food Administration, the Department of the Treasury, and the War Department helped normalize the sight of women exercising political power. On the local level, suffragists blended calls for the vote into their voluntary patriotic activities, as they promoted victory gardens and recruited volunteers for the Red Cross.(13)
In Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (2008), Kimberly Jensen offers a less sanguine vision of female advancement during the war, exploring how violence against women became accepted as a legitimate method of controlling unruly women who protested loudly and directly (such as striking female workers and radical suffragists who picketed the White House). Military officials often looked the other way when U.S. soldiers assaulted female nurses and military workers. Jensen recovers that history of violence against women, seeing the fight for full-fledged citizenship as a struggle to both protect the female body and acquire the right to vote. Her portrait of gendered violence within the armed forces is especially timely given the recent revelations that rape and sexual harassment are too often experienced by female service members.
A New Look at the Battlefield
Violence was a defining characteristic of the World War I experience for civilian and soldier, male and female, black and white. New studies of the battlefield underscore the brutality of combat, while simultaneously investigating the learning curve that the U.S. army experienced as it fought on the western front. The fighting man's experience forms the center of these new approaches, which all seek to better understand the mindset and actions of those sent into battle.
Rather than focusing on generals and their staffs, Mark E. Grotelueschen's The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I (2006) and Edward G. Lengel's To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (2008) argue that the most substantial and effective learning on the battlefield occurred from the bottom up. The authors contend that improved decision and war-making capacities within companies and divisions enabled the entire army to improve its combat effectiveness against the German army. In Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (2005), Carol R. Byerly considers a different foe, the influenza virus, which killed nearly as many American soldiers as enemy weapons. Byerly challenges the conventional narrative that traffic congestion and straggling during the Meuse-Argonne battle revealed ineptness and a reluctance to fight. Reinterpreting those events through the prism of the epidemic, she suggests that the onslaught of the flu sent a stream of victims to the rear to seek care.
Learning to cooperate with allies and one another served as another important adjustment to modern warfare for both generals and enlisted men. Robert Bruce's A Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War (2003) and Mitchell Yockelson's Borrowed Soldiers: Americans under British Command, 1918 (2008) emphasize that the United States fought as part of an Allied coalition. In Doughboys, The Great War, and the Remaking of America (2001), I argue that discipline was often negotiated, rather than coerced, and thus gave enlisted men the power to shape the disciplinary structure of the military. Collecting and evaluating enlisted men's opinions became standard practice in the military during World War I. To this day, the military employs large numbers of sociologists and psychologists who administer survey after survey to devise manpower policies that the enlisted population will accept.
The World War I era is a rich and vibrant field of study. Challenging old paradigms, the new scholarship underscores how the war permanently transformed individuals, social movements, politics, foreign policy, culture, and the military. The historical scholarship connects the war to key issues in twentieth-century American history: the rise of the United States as a world power, the success of social justice movements, and the growth of federal power. Collectively, historians of the war make a compelling case for why the war matters in American history.
The experiences of Americans during World War I also offer important insights into our own times. Today we wonder about the ongoing relevance of Wilsonian ideals in guiding U.S. foreign policy, debate whether our humanitarian efforts do more harm than good, worry about the Patriot Act and government surveillance programs as we fight a war on terror, and lament the readjustment difficulties of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Keeping Americans "safe from terror" still goes hand in hand with making "the world safe for democracy." Defining an unambiguous and uncontested place for the war in the mainstream American historical narrative depends on disseminating these insights more broadly to the American public and in history classrooms.
JENNIFER D. KEENE is professor of history and chair of the history department at Chapman University. She has published extensively on American involvement in the First World War. Her works include Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America (2001) and World War I: The American Soldier Experience (2006). She is also lead author for the textbook Visions of America: A History of the United States (2009). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
(1) John Milton Cooper Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).
(2) Ross A. Kennedy, The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America's Strategy for Peace and Security (2009).
(3) Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007).
(4) See for example the collection of historiographical essays examining Wilson and the war years in A Companion to Woodrow Wilson, ed. Ross A. Kennedy (2013).
(5) John Branden Little, "Band of Crusaders: American Humanitarians, the Great War, and the Remaking of the World" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkley, 2009).
(6) Julia F. Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation's Humanitarian Awakening (2013), 212.
(7) Lisa M. Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919–1933 (2010).
(8) Steven Trout, On the Battlefields of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941 (2010). Mark Whalen, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro (2008).
(9) Stephen R. Ortiz, In Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era (2010). Jennifer D. Keene, Doughboys, the Great War and the Remaking of America (2001).
(10) Beth Linker, War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (2011), 181.
(11) Jeannette Keith, Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (2004).
(12) Jennifer D. Keene, "The Long Journey Home: African American World War I Veterans and Veteran Policies," in Veterans' Policies, Veterans' Politics: New Perspectives on Veterans in the Modern United States, ed. Stephen R. Ortiz (2012), 146–72. Jennifer D. Keene, "Protest and Disability: A New Look at African American Soldiers during the First World War," in Warfare and Belligerence: Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Pierre Purseigle (2005), 215–42.
(13) Elizabeth York Enstam, "The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association, Political Style, and Popular Culture: Grassroots Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1913–1919," Journal of Southern History, 68 (Nov. 2002), 817–48.