Why Americans Do Not Appreciate World War One

While Europeans marked the centenary of the First World War with a series of often solemn and contemplative exhibits, ceremonies, and other formal commemorations, the United States was auspiciously absent in any such major remembrances. This is despite the fact that the war cost some the lives of around 115,000 American soldiers — more than in all other post-1945 conflicts combined — and that the U.S. ostensibly played a major, if belated, role in the conflict.

David Frum of The Atlantic goes over four main reasons why the U.S. has left the once widely revered “Great War” out of its noted pantheon of venerated conflicts.

First, Americans prefer narratives in which they play a central heroic role. The Dwight Eisenhower of the First World War was French, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Those Americans who cared most intensely about the war found themselves enlisting under other people’s banners. John Singer Sargent painted his great war canvases for Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Edith Wharton volunteered for French relief organizations. Raymond Chandler joined the Canadian army. Ernest Hemingway drove Red Cross ambulances on the Italian front. Henry James forswore his U.S. citizenship and naturalized as British. John Dos Passos, another Red Cross volunteer, later savagely satirized the war as “Mr. Wilson’s war”—somebody else’s war, not his. So it has remained. When the great American literary critic Paul Fussell wrote his marvelous “The Great War and Modern Memory,” he focused on English writers. Their American counterparts may have had a lot to say, but somehow Fussell decided it was not an American thing.

Second, while Americans did win victories in 1918, on the whole, the performance of U.S. forces in the war was not very impressive. Americans did not lack for courage: U.S. forces showed a fighting spirit that had long before been bled out of their allies and adversaries. But they did lack experienced officers, adequate equipment, built-out logistical systems, and almost everything else necessary to fight an industrial war effectively. Their commanders resented and rejected advice from their bloodied French and British counterparts. Lacking sufficient artillery, tanks, and aircraft, they denied that those things were necessary. They drove Americans against German trenches and bunkers in 1915-style human lines, suffering monstrous 1915 casualties for pitiful 1915 gains in ground. There were few First World War equivalents of D-Day or Midway out of which legends could be made.

Third, the war does not obviously or immediately relate to contemporary controversies. We can’t talk about race without talking about the Civil War. Any discussion of America’s role in the world will soon invoke World War II and Vietnam. The Revolution will forever transfix the Republic it created. The First World War, however, now excites interest mainly from isolationist libertarians looking for a war it’s less awkward to oppose than World War II. The war’s most tragic lessons about the need for United States leadership to secure world peace have been so thoroughly internalized by the American political elite that it has forgotten where and how it learned them.

But fourth, and perhaps most importantly of all, ranks the failure of the war to accomplish the aims set by its more idealistic American supporters. It didn’t make the world safe for democracy. It was not a war to end all wars. In their reaction against those disappointments, Americans also reacted against the truths contained in the war’s overstated slogans and justifications: that American-style democracy really would have been isolated and endangered if the Kaiser’s Germany had won its bid to master the European continent; that the German war was aggressive and cruel, not on a Nazi ideologically motivated murderousness scale, but in ways that often ominously prefigured or rehearsed Nazi methods of occupation and exploitation; that the allies, for all their imperialist faults, were fighting for principles vital to Americans—who, by the way, are not without faults of their own. “Never such innocence again,” wrote the British poet Philip Larkin about the war—but he felt at least some large measure of nostalgia for that innocence, for “the sun on mustachioed archaic faces, grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark.” The innocence many Americans looked back upon after 1918 was the innocence of the mark and dupe. They resented it—and like many who feel they have made a bad bargain, they preferred not to think about it, and so have lost the evidence that the bargain was not perhaps so bad as they supposed.

The lack of recognition accorded by Americans to the war — the second largest, and arguably most consequential, conflict in centuries — is all the more troubling given that it is what made the U.S. the superpower it remains to this day. As Frum highlights in another Atlantic piece:

…As World War I entered its third year—and the first year of Tooze’s story—the balance of power was visibly tilting from Europe to America. The belligerents could no longer sustain the costs of offensive war. Cut off from world trade, Germany hunkered into a defensive siege, concentrating its attacks on weak enemies like Romania. The Western allies, and especially Britain, outfitted their forces by placing larger and larger war orders with the United States. In 1916, Britain bought more than a quarter of the engines for its new air fleet, more than half of its shell casings, more than two-thirds of its grain, and nearly all of its oil from foreign suppliers, with the United States heading the list. Britain and France paid for these purchases by floating larger and larger bond issues to American buyers—denominated in dollars, not pounds or francs. “By the end of 1916, American investors had wagered two billion dollars on an Entente victory,” computes Tooze (relative to America’s estimated GDP of $50 billion in 1916, the equivalent of $560 billion in today’s money).

That staggering quantity of Allied purchases called forth something like a war mobilization in the United States. American factories switched from civilian to military production; American farmers planted food and fiber to feed and clothe the combatants of Europe. But unlike in 1940-41, the decision to commit so much to one side’s victory in a European war was not a political decision by the U.S. government. Quite the contrary: President Wilson wished to stay out of the war entirely. He famously preferred a “peace without victory.” The trouble was that by 1916, the U.S. commitment to Britain and France had grown—to borrow a phrase from the future—too big to fail.

As a history buff, I naturally agree that the First World War, among numerous other underappreciated events, should be better studied and reflected upon in both the academic and public spheres. But setting aside my own academic biases, I think there are plenty of practical reasons why the war should be better remembered, regardless — if not because — of the fact that the U.S. played a relatively peripheral role, or lacked the glory and gusto of other conflicts, etc.

What are your thoughts?

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