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World War I: America Makes the World Safe for Imperialism
An Excerpt from Building Blocks of Freedom: A History of the Greatest Federal Constitutional Democratic Republic [Teacher's Edition]
We now come to one of the most important events in introducing America as a world power. Few Americans, however, possess a solid knowledge of what their boys fought for in the “war to end all wars.” World War I, or the Great War as it was known at the time, erupted after decades of tension on the European continent. France pursued a no-speaking-terms policy with Germany because of the loss of Alsace-Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian War. The British appeared to be friendly with the Ottomans, but in reality “were talking up a storm of trash about their faltering empire.”  And then of course the Russian Empire remained “butt-hurt” over their embarrassing “spanking” in the Russo-Japanese War. All of this raises the question: what does any of this has to do with the United States? What business did America have in settling the conflicts of Europe? Over the next few pages, like dozens of historians before me, I will fail to properly answer these questions.
It is common knowledge (among millions of better educated Canadian students) that World War I was sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by the Bosnian-Serb radical Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, 1914. For decades, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, self-proclaimed pioneers and guardians of enlightenment, worked relentlessly to suppress the traditional culture of Bosnia. Emperor Franz Joseph responded to the assassination, stating, “We have brought decrees to limit your religious freedom. We have removed your leaders from any positions of real power. We have implemented laws to eradicate your garble ass language. We have separated you from your traditional home and people. And this is the thanks we get?” The emperor immediately ordered the launch of an investigation into Serbia; a country which he believed sheltered, trained and supplied the radical terrorists behind the attack on his country. Special investigators were sent into the capital, Belgrade, in search of any evidence of terrorist activity. Despite finding nothing connected to the murder, Franz Joseph uncompromising in his continued assertion of Serbia’s guilt, using the first known instance of the classic “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” argument. Thus, Vienna delivered an ultimatum to Belgrade, with a list of unreasonable demands, which if not met by July 25th, one month after the death of Franz Ferdinand, would lead to an invasion. Original drafts included the stipulations that Serbia, “without delay, give up her entire sovereignty and accept the reign of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary” and “allow the Royal Troops of Austria-Hungary to level every village in the Kingdom of Serbia and violate the honor of every Serbian woman.” However, the Vienna congress rejected these demands as being too reasonable. Even if Serbia had satisfied the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary would most likely have conveniently ignored them. As such, war was declared on July 28th. Russia immediately jumped to Serbia’s aid in order to maintain its exploitative relationship with the Serbs in the name of pan-Slavism. Germany supported Austria to piss off Russia. And France, after a best-out-of-three coin toss, declared war on Germany. Then Britain, without much else to do, decided to also go to war. Along the way, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire snuck into the war. Italy also fought, but one cannot fully tell what side they took.
Of course when news of this war in Europe hit the U.S. newspapers, Americans became outraged. Riots erupted in the streets and people demanded action. This upheaval, however, was not due to the actual onset of the war, but rather that this breaking story meant the popular racist comic strip, “the Yellow Kid,” was not published in that day’s issue. As a result, the New York World promised to limit their coverage of anything European in the future.
Before the twentieth century, America had for the most part successfully avoided contact with the European continent. But as discussed in Chapter 12, Americans entered into a war against Spain at the turn of the century. Since then, America decided it would no longer spread its imperial will over the Native Americans, but instead force democracy and freedom on Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The U.S.A. also faced increasing immigration from Europe, and unlike that of the preceding decades, these immigrants came over to escape oppression rather than spread it. Americans welcomed them with scorn, housed them in the worst parts of their cities, and made them work the worst jobs. Of course, the barring of these Europeans from proper education and respectable employment reinforced the image, already in the minds of Americans that these people contributed nothing to the country.
When war was declared in Europe, Woodrow Wilson had been the American president for a year. His popularity stemmed from his image as a man of the people, fighting for the rights of the little man. Being a Princeton graduate and later president of the university, the son of a slave-owning doctor, and a champion of slow, ineffective desegregation all contributed to his political appeal. With news of war in Europe, Wilson, furious that the principles of sovereignty, peace, and diplomacy, which he so strongly defended, were being violated, immediately vowed to do nothing about it. In fact for the first year of the war, Wilson fought to pass a bill banning any mention of the war. Since not much happened during 1914 with America and the Great War, we can just ignore it.
Nevertheless, bits of news of the brutal war leaked into America. Many Americans expressed anger at Germany’s violation of neutral Belgium, an event known as the Rape of Belgium. White America was outraged that Germany was doing to Belgium what the small country had been doing to their colony in the Congo. Preoccupied with the German occupation, violent oppression of Africans in the Belgian Congo was suspended. Furthermore, Americans saw unprecedented images of trenches, gasmasks and machine guns. The alien images of the war disturbed the average reader, prompting many newspapers to instead focus on feel good local stories, such as mass lynchings of African Americans and deportations of immigrant families suspected of being communists, or anarchists, or atheists, or Catholics, or vegetarians.
Finally, 1915 brought the war right to America’s doorstep. The RMS Lusitania met her tragic fate on May 7, 1915, when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. The British liner carried 128 Americans that day. For all intents and purposes of teaching World War I to American middle and high school children, this sinking was the sole purpose of America’s entrance to the war. [If using this book for teaching American history classes at this level, please skip the next few paragraphs to America’s final declaration of war (another two years after the supposed casus belli)]. The prospect of war became more realistic for the American people, and Wilson faced the difficulty of responding to the crisis. Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, responding to the possibility of war, argued to the president, “It is not likely that either side will win so complete a victory as to be able to dictate terms, and if either side does win such a victory it will probably mean preparation for another war. It would seem better to look for a more rational basis for peace.” Bryan, who resigned before the U.S. entrance to the war, was mercilessly mocked and criticized by the American public. Government officials considered him a coward and traitor. In hindsight, Bryan’s warning was painfully prescient.
The sinking of the Lusitania intensified anti-German sentiment in the United States. Newspapers portrayed Germans as aggressive beasts. Restaurants began the tradition of changing the names of ethnic foods, in order to better reflect American values and downplay diversity. Hamburgers became liberty sandwiches. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. Bratwursts became liberty dongs. Yet in all fairness, Americans didn’t just change the names of German foods. Turkish shish kebab became liberty lamb. Bulgarian lukanka became popular sovereignty pork sausage. And the Hungarian dish, goulash, became democratically elected representative soup.
At this moment, we must examine the events and long diplomatic procedure between both sides, leading up to America’s decision to enter the war. [Editor’s Note: This section has been removed from this public school edition of the text. For the complete writing please purchase the private school or Japanese edition]. And so that’s why this war is a truly complicated matter with overarching diplomatic lessons that pertain to our modern political system.
If we want to simplify the issues of war, however, and the Lusitania was not enough for you, the Zimmerman telegram terrified America into action. In February of 1917, the British intercepted and decoded a message from German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, intended for the Mexican government. This telegram offered an alliance with Mexico, in order to keep America out of a war with Germany, further promising to allow the nation “to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.” When this news was presented to the President and eventually, the press by March, Americans became outraged at the prospect of losing New Mexico and Arizona. As discussed in Chapter 8, “The Mexican-American War: Mexico’s Immigration Problem,” the United States won a decisive war against the weaker nation, helping itself to most of its northern territories. Though the thought of Germany being able to send fleets all the way to Mexico in a timely manner seems almost impossible, the United States, gripped by fear and outrage over reason and caution, easily switched from a state of apathy to a thirst for war. Finally, on April 6, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The President proclaimed, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” And with this notion in mind, America jumped to the aide of the British and French Empires and the incredibly repressive Russian Empire. Furthermore, Wilson encouraged support from the average American by arguing that a loss to Germany would surely mean “free speech and the right of assembly would go.” The government then assured full support for the war by convicting Charles T. Schenck and many others for their opposition to the draft. And so the country, which did everything to ignore a distant conflict that never really involved them, went to war to protect the entire American value system.
Americans arrived to the French countryside, exposed to a completely unfamiliar type of warfare. Tanks, machine guns, mustard gas, airplanes, extensive trenches and flamethrowers, all represented a way of fighting never experienced even by the soldiers with practice in mowing down unarmed Native Americans. Senior officers, witnessing these sights, lamented the death of “romantic” warfare. They longed for the days of cannonballs decapitating lower class soldiers, men stabbing each other in the jugulars with bayonets, and field doctors amputating legs for splinters in the toe. Yet one aspect of the war shocked the fresh recruits far more than the brutal tactics: the soldiers, having been told their whole lives about how the French were natural artists, philosophers and creators of high culture, became the first Americans since the French-Indian War to experience on a large scale, customary French rudeness.
America’s entrance into the war couldn’t have come at a better time, with the Russian Empire caught in a revolution. The revolution came as a complete surprise to Tsar Nicolas II, who had grown bored with the war, as well as domestic politics, an aspect of his rule he usually described as “About as interesting as a Chekhov play.” [For students or instructors who are unaware of who Chekhov is, don’t worry, he’ll probably never come up again in your life. Just tell your students he’s some old, Russian guy who wrote plays that had guns in them or something]. As such, Russians overthrew the royal family and a power struggle began, with the terribly confusing Provisional Government taking control. Eventually, however, the young charismatic leader of the more left-leaning Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, gained popularity by promising change and a quick removal from the unpopular, devastating war, with the hopes of a utopian peace for the future. The Bolsheviks gained power in November of 1917 and good on his promise, Lenin waited until March, with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty to remove Russia from the war. Finally free from the horrors of the Great War, Lenin engaged the country in an even bloodier and far more confusing civil war.
When Americans arrived in the trenches, the Entente powers had made virtually no progress against the German troops. Gaining territory was a back and forth game, with officers randomly deciding to send soldiers running towards the opposing trench, producing no real result. Soldiers often became scarred by their experiences in the trenches and moving across “no man’s land.” Their condition would later be labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, however, their behavior was attributed to cowardice and “an unfortunate invasion of irrational, female traits, obstructing the rational, masculine qualities necessary to kill another man.” Furthermore, rather than treat these men for a mental disorder, they were either beaten with hopes of returning them to sanity, or if that failed, they were court marshaled.
Individual battles in World War I prove boring and not really worth talking about. Just know that a bunch of people died in some French forest, and we’re all grateful. Don’t worry about the battles and loses that Americans suffered in other fronts. Instead, the focus on the individual hero provides much more interesting material. The man who stands out most among these troops of course is Sergeant Alvin York. York was a pacifist, who originally sought conscientious objector status. This soft spoken, God loving Christian killed 20 Germans and took 132 prisoners during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This figure is triple the accomplishments of the entire Italian army in both World Wars. Besides that, the Allies would gain a few feet then the Germans would take them back, and back and forth and back and forth. The end of the war wouldn’t come with the most decisive victory but whoever would grow bored with this fighting first.
As fate would have it, Germany, facing a series of unsuccessful offensives, crippling casualties and governmental instability, grew most weary of the war first. On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918, the war came to an end. America had fought for only a little over a year and accumulated some 200,000 casualties, a figure, which in light of the larger casualties of World War II, allows us to say, “Well I guess it could have been worse.” Furthermore, since the this number ranks third behind the Civil War and World War II, all other wars in American history can be seen as not too bad.
The aftermath of the war actually provides a much more interesting and complex story. Plus America takes the main role, as the European powers expected Wilson to clean up their mess. To guide the peace process, the president developed his “14 Points,” a series of proposals aimed at improving national self-determination and democracy in Europe. Representatives from ethnic groups across the globe descended on Paris with the hopes of gaining their own nation. However, Wilson became overwhelmed and picked the first ten countries to arrive at the Versailles Palace. In addition, the president was ignorant of the complexities of Eastern European ethnic groups, so to simplify matters he stuck Czechs and Slovaks together and Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Slovenians, Macedonians, Albanians, and Hungarians into Yugoslavia, since, as he argued, “They all sound the goddamned same to me.” The consequences of Wilson’s careful establishment of ethnic borders will be discussed in Chapter 45: “Balkan Intervention: Whose Side Are We On?” Wilson also hoped that in the peace talks, Europe could engage in reconciliation. Britain and France, however, entered with the hopes of getting revenge. The losing empires were dismantled, creating a series of new and expanded countries. However, the people of India, Vietnam, Ukraine, all African colonies and Middle Eastern territories, who had sent troops to assist the victorious powers, usually being put into the most dangerous fronts, were immediately denied access to self-determination. To France and Britain, the most important matter in the various peace treaties, was completing destroying their enemies, financially, militarily and politically. They demanded outrageous reparations and extreme disarmament. Without any bargaining chips, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire all agreed to the conditions. With no competition, France and England could return to terrorizing their colonies.
Wilson’s last point in his doctrine was a League of Nations. This organization would allow for free communication between all member states, with conflict being solved diplomatically. Ironically, the country to show the least amount of support for this was America. Having grown tired of the lengthy peace process, Congress not only voted against joining this league, but also refused to ratify the treaty, complaining, “We kicked ass already, this peace crap is pretty lame.” This established a precedent for future American policy of entering a conflict and not dealing with the aftermath (see chapters 18, 19, 22, 24, 31-37, 45-48, 51, 58, 67 & 71-93). Wilson returned to his home country in shame and facing virtually no support.
According to Professor Franklin Carleton’s Wikipedia page on World War I, the final results of the war “are kinda all over the playse [sic]” Many referred to this as the war to end all wars. To an extent this proved true as the world saw a brief period of peace between the two World Wars, excluding the Polish-Ukrainian War, the Russian Civil War, Soviet expansion wars, the Armenian-Azerbaijani War, Romanian invasion of Hungary, Japanese conquests of the East-Asia, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Wars of Independence and Irish War of Independence, to name a few. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, Wilson hoped the war would make the world safe for democracy. The new fragile states established mostly democratic systems. On an unrelated note, Europe experienced a sharp rise of fascist and fascist-like states, including Italy, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and Portugal. On the other side of the spectrum, we cannot forget the totalitarian state that would arise in the Soviet Union, all in the name of the people. Furthermore, a small, right-wing, fringe group in Germany, complaining about the failing economy and problems with minorities in the country, slowly gained popularity in the 20s and early 30s, promising to restore honor that they believed had been stripped away by the liberal president. But we won’t have to deal with them for a bit.
America on the other hand, having played a major role in changing international diplomacy forever, would enter into extreme isolationism, distancing itself completely from the settlements of the war. So now we can return to the questions initially asked in this chapter. Have the answers to the great question of just what American soldiers did and died for in a distant conflict become clear? To use vague clichés, our boys fought for the greatest cause of all: freedom… kind of, or maybe democratic republicanism. Either way, they assured that a large-scale war would never be seen again… for about 20 more years.
The next chapter will examine what is usually called the inter-war period. We will analyze the policies of three very forgettable presidents, a lengthy, expensive and overall pointless war on substances, and finally how an economic boom led to a period of some economic difficulties.
- Bruce Camden, World War I: WTF Happened There? (Fargo: University of Northern North Dakota Press, 2003), 104.
- Camden, 105.
- Franz Joseph I of Austria, “Shame on You Serbia,” Bad Speeches from Histories Dumbest Leaders, From Nero to Bush, Vol. 3, Ed. Nancy Groette (Dover: Dover Press, 2008), 302-303.
- Donald Rumsfeld, How to Justify Going to War (Hell: Satan’s Press, 2006), 666.
- Martin Turman, One Day in July: How the July Newspaper Crisis Nearly Destroyed America (Sturgis, SD: Found on Some Napkin in a Denny’s, 1988),1.
- Eric Shun, Turning the Other Cheek against Injustice in American History (Hot ‘Lanta, GA: Crap Classics, 1973), 258.
- Chariley Grattan, Why We Fought (United States: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1969), 199.
- Rumsfeld, 15.
- Zimmerman, Arthur. “The Zimmerman Telegram.” Primary Document-The Zimmerman Telegram, 19 January 1917. (22 August 2009), http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/zimmermann.htm.
- Jennifer D. Keene, the United States & the First World War (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd., 2000), 17.
- Keene, 18.
- Keene, 34.
- Keene, 38.
- Zalupa Mudakhov, Russia & the Soviet Union’s Worst Leaders: Featuring All of Them (Lublyanka: Rodilsya Cherez Jopu Press, 2006), 219.
- Seymour Butts, Are You Actually Still Reading These? (Detroit: Detroit Community College, 1500 B.C.), 28493.
- Robert S. Zieger, America’s Great War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), 106.
- Brian Stockham, Paris Peace Conference: Lessons in Laziness (His 10th Grade Term Paper, 2004), 2.
- Stockham, 3.
- Stockham, 6.
- Franklin Carleton, “World War I,” Wikipedia.
Actual Works Consulted and Cited
- Keene, Jennifer D. The United States & the First World War. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd., 2000.
- Grattan, Chariley. Why We Fought. United States: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1969.
- Lyons, Michael S. World War I: A Short History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
- Zieger, Robert S. America’s Great War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
- Zimmerman, Arthur. “The Zimmerman Telegram.” Primary Document-The Zimmerman Telegram, 19 January 1917. (22 August 2009), http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/zimmermann.htm.
- and of course, Wikipedia.