Barack’s Obama’s official visit to Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium earlier this year was a suitably sombre occasion, but also one which showed little appreciation of the distinctive nature of America’s relationship with the First World War – a conflict that the country only reluctantly joined in 1917 and which has now been decisively overshadowed by the Second World War in the public imagination.
Obama’s decision to make his visit in 2014 suggests the USA’s official commemoration will acquiesce in following a Euro-centric narrative, rather than truly reflecting American experiences. While the President’s professed awe at the ‘profound sacrifice’ made by WWI soldiers saw him expressing a sentiment that may resonate today, it wasn’t one widely shared by Americans at the time.
Leading writers and intellectuals may have been sympathetic to the Allied cause in 1914, but the USA also contained around ten million German-Americans, who were strongly opposed to a war against their homeland, as well as great numbers of Irish Catholics who were hostile to the government offering any support to Great Britain.
American business also profited from the country’s decision to remain neutral, experiencing the financial benefits of the conflict without the risk. In 1916 around 40% of all British munitions were imported from the United States, while American bankers were offering billions of dollars’ worth of loans to the allies, a situation that massively strengthened America’s financial position in relation to that of Europe.
For most ordinary Americans, however, the general feeling was that a war thousands of miles away was simply not America’s concern, and this sentiment led President Woodrow Wilson to run for re-election in 1916 under the slogan ‘he kept us out of the war’. As a result, when, in April 1917, America responded to increased German submarine activity that threatened US shipping by joining with the allies, Wilson found himself leading the country into a largely unpopular war.
To win support for America’s involvement in WWI, he responded by presenting the conflict not simply as a necessary action to protect the USA from external enemies but as a vital step in making the world, in his words, ‘safe for democracy’. In order to frame a distant, European war in American terms, Wilson looked back to the country’s founding principles, presenting the conflict as a way to protect American liberty and democracy and ultimately to share them with the world.
This patriotic rhetoric was successful in creating a precarious consent amongst the American public for the country’s participation in the war, but Wilson’s failure to implement his plan for a post-war Europe formed around the idea of political self-determination eventually led to a general sense of disillusionment in the US. Many questioned just what the war had been fought for, leading the US to turn its back on international politics throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The contentious nature of America’s involvement in the war and its political aftermath means it doesn’t easily lend itself to the kind of uncomplicated narrative of personal sacrifice and common purpose that so often defines how we commemorate wars. It’s this, along with the relatively small number of Americans who actually fought in WWI – just four million, compared to the over 16 million who fought in WWII – that has led to the war’s gradual fading from popular memory.
So just how and why America should commemorate a war that seems increasingly remote and to which many Americans have no personal connection? One answer may be to turn to its political significance, looking at the crucial role the war played in shaping the USA’s view of itself as a nation.
Although in 1919 America wasn’t quite the superpower it would become, the war did establish the country as a major political player on the world stage. It also set a precedent for American involvement in foreign conflicts being linked with the promotion of democratic freedom, an idea which become a dominant feature of its foreign policy ever since. Certainly, George W. Bush’s claim before the US invasion of Afghanistan that ‘the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it’ brings to mind Wilson’s vision of war as a legitimate form of diplomatic intervention.
So while it may not had a direct impact on the lives of many Americans, the importance of the First World War for the United States lies in the way the political and social controversies that surrounded its brief involvement in the conflict helped it to forge a distinct political identity, which even today, a century later, still influences its relations with the wider world.
Sophie Hylands is studying for an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. You can find Sophie on Twitter @Sophie_Hylands and can read more of her work on her own blog.
Header image: A marine pays his respects to one of the fallen at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France, via American Battle Monuments Commission. Inset image: Poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917, via Wikipedia