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America’s forgotten war

You probably don’t know it, but we are now in the centennial year of United States entry into World War One. On 2 April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson had narrowly won re-election the year before by campaigning under the slogan “he kept us out of the war.” But by the following spring, and following the resumption of Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign against North Atlantic shipping, Wilson felt he had little choice but to join the conflict that had, for two and a half years, wrought unprecedented carnage to Europe. In announcing his intent to take the US into the war with “no selfish ends to serve,” and “no feeling towards [the German people] but one of sympathy and friendship,” he framed the basic U.S. war aim as simple and magnanimous: “the world must be made safe for democracy.” With this, Wilson set a course for a U.S. foreign policy of liberal interventionism with a global range that continues to this day. Washington was transformed from a sleepy administrative town to being the center of a complex and immensely powerful corporate and federal collaboration, the precursor to what Eisenhower would call the Cold War “military-industrial complex.” As the U.S. government drafted four million men, curtailed civil liberties and rigorously suppressed dissent, nationalized the railways, and ran a huge propaganda bureau, the relationship between ordinary Americans and their federal government was drastically changed, in many ways for good. 53,000 Americans died in battle, another 63,000 died of non-combat injuries or disease, and over 200,000 servicemen returned with a permanent disability. The racist and xenophobic energies unleashed by the war fed directly into the drastic immigration restrictions of the 1920s; the federal state it bequeathed served, in many ways, as the blueprint for the New Deal and the modern American welfare state. Yet there is a curious indifference to the legacy of this war in the U.S.

Even the website of the United States World War One Centennial Commission calls it “America’s forgotten war.” There is no national memorial to World War One on the national mall. The highest-ranking government official to attend the official commemoration of U.S. entry to WWI at the National World War One Memorial in Kansas City was not Donald Trump, or even James Mattis, but Secretary of the Army Robert M. Speer. Things are very different in the rest of the Anglophone world; in the United Kingdom, schoolchildren find it hard to avoid studying the so-called “trench poets” of WWI, who also happen to be the favorite verse of prime ministers. The installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” which transformed the Tower of London with nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies planted in the moat, was visited by an estimated five million people. In Canada and Australia, the battle of Vimy Ridge and the Gallipoli campaign, respectively, continue to be widely-memorialized events with central places in their stories of national formation.

“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”, by Savile Lumley. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So, why is there this gap between the war’s significance to U.S. history and the place it has in the national memory and commemorative landscape? Scholars in the past ten years have thought extensively about that question. For some, the mixed legacy of the war—the problem Americans had in settling on one consensus narrative of its effects and significance—caused it to fade from memory. For others, it was because America’s memorial construction—of extensive military cemeteries and monuments—often happened in France, far from the eyes of successive generations of Americans. And this despite WWI-era America instigating memorial practices such as the repatriation of bodies, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Gold Star Mothers that remain significant today. For Historian Michael Kazin, in contrast to other national literatures, American war literature was simply not good enough to help sustain the war in American memory; most of the poetry produced about it was ‘doggerel,’ and only one war novel—Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Armsis still widely read.

Yet perhaps one way to reconnect with the war’s legacy to the U.S. is just to look closer at the American literature we do still read from the period. War veterans populate novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925), and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). Some of e.e. cummings’ most brutally satirical political poems are about WWI. Many of the preoccupations of 1920s literature—from heartbreaking flappers to horrendous car crashes, or the urbane confidence of the Harlem Renaissance—have deep roots in trench combat and in the social and technological transformations of American war mobilization. Scratch the surface, then, and the literature of one of the great decades of American literary production—the 1920s—is saturated with reflections on the war. And perhaps a bit of such digging would be no bad thing, as the questions these authors and others considered—How does one write the truth about war, or register its horrific violence in ways noncombatants can understand? What is the value of military service to civil society? At what point do the necessary disciplines of fighting a war fatally damage the liberties one is fighting for in the first place? And how do we craft ways of remembering that are capable of including all the people who sacrificed and served?—have an undiminished relevance. Sometimes the U.S. authors who wrote about WWI had answers to these questions; sometimes not, but their struggles to address them remain, in many ways, our own.

Featured image credit: ww1-trench-warfare-one-war-world by bmewett. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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