The anniversary of the end of the Great War—despite President Donald Trump visiting pan-European ceremonies in France—passed almost unnoticed in the United States. This is noteworthy because 4,000,000 Americans were mobilized for the war and about 2,000,000 shipped to Europe, where 50,585 were killed in combat and another 200,000 suffered wounds. Another 100,000 American military personnel died from complications suffered by wounds and influenza. American combat deaths in World War I rank third only behind the American Civil War and the Second World War.
Indicative that Americans may be losing the historical significance of this war is that it’s the only major war in U.S. history not commemorated with a memorial in Washington, D.C. Certainly, the Great War had more significance in Europe because not only did the body count soar into the tens of millions but also major historical shifts took place in Russia, Germany, and across Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, for Americans, involvement not only made this the “first” world war but also marked our inaugural experience involving significant military intervention.
Time inexorably fades memories. For the elderly, or approaching elderly, among post-World War II baby boom generation the Great War was our grandfathers’ or great grandfathers’ war. For Americans under 40, it’s as distant as the Civil War was for baby boomers at the same age. Accordingly, in popular culture, the Great War doesn’t carry the panache of the Korean War, with 1950s blockbuster movies like Bridges of Toko-ri starring William Holden and Pork Chop Hill featuring Gregory Peck. By comparison, movies produced about the war in Vietnam generated entire college classes studying the social significance of movies from The Ugly American starring Marlon Brando to Apocalypse Now (same star), a genre of Sylvester Stallone Rambo movies, and Pennsylvania’s own reflective The Deer Hunter. World War I has Paths of Glory, a 1950s Stanley Kubrick epic staring Kurt Douglas and Adolfe Menjou bemoaning war’s futility, the 1941 movie Sergeant York with Gary Cooper in the starring role, and the 1965 semi-epic Blue Max focused on a fictitious German air ace depicted by George Peppard.
Indeed, the Great War’s significance in American history, while subtle, is nevertheless real. Socially, its impact on roles of women and African-Americans in American society was enormous. With millions of men leaving home, women stepped into jobs in manufacturing and agriculture. American women also deployed to Europe where they served as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and translators. This expanded role for women arguably played a part in passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granting female suffrage.
For the first time in American history, African-Americans played a numerically significant role in war. Despite generally accepted notions of white supremacy, 400,000 black soldiers served in the Great War, albeit in almost entirely segregated units. Many returned home determined to end Jim Crow. While the role African-Americans played in the Second World War proved more significant, the black soldiers who came back to America, particularly the southern states, were more determined and active in defying the established order despite the post-war explosion in the Ku Klux Klan as the nation’s largest “fraternal” organization numbering over five million by 1926.
Involvement in the Great War changed government policies by expanding the federal domain during the Woodrow Wilson administration, along with the concept many Americans had of the nation’s larger role on the world stage. It also prepared the public for the large growth Washington’s social programs and economic regulatory power during the Great Depression; something that set the stage for harnessing industry to support the “Arsenal of Democracy” fundamental to victory in the Second World War.
Additionally, because of U.S. involvement in the Great War, in the years that followed the American public became more attuned to the rise of dictators in Italy, Russia, and Germany, along with the militarized Japanese empire’s expansion into Asia. These events fostered a significant public debate during the late 1930s over whether the United States should be involved in the affairs of Europe and Asia before it was settled by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
While America’s role in the Great War went without much notice other than highly charged media declarations over President Trump’s interaction with European leaders commemorating the event, the fact remains that across the nation the significance of November 11, 1918 went largely unacknowledged on November 11, 2018.
Simply put, World War I doesn’t resonate with Americans to the same degree as more recent conflicts. That’s worth the cautionary note that a people ignorant of their past defile their present and risk destroying their future.
—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.