'Wilson's war' changed course of U.S. history

Above, U.S. troops advance on a path through barbed wire in the Somme in 1918.
Above, U.S. troops advance on a path through barbed wire in the Somme in 1918. U.S. Army Signal Corps

Ninety-five years ago tomorrow, President Woodrow Wilson asked the 65th Congress of the United States to vote a declaration of war against the Empire of Germany. In his war message before the joint session, he asserted that American participation in the global struggle would make the world "safe for democracy." Four days later on April 6, 1917 Congress overwhelmingly ratified the president's resolution.

Three years earlier, beneath seemingly tranquil skies, Europe had been a seething cauldron of bloated empires, corrupt dynasties, mismatched alliances, and nationalistic insurgencies. But few seriously considered war imminent until June 28, 1914, when a deranged Bosnian-Serb teenager assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, as they toured Sarajevo, capital of the annexed Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia. Within two months the major European and Eurasian nations were at each other's throats: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey against Russia, France and Great Britain. The conflict eventually engulfed the entire planet; and so, although it was then known as The Great War, in the context of future engagements it would be remembered as World War I.

By its conclusion in 1918, nearly 15 million - a generation of doomed youth - had perished. Empires toppled, the maps of Europe and the Mideast were redrawn, and frightening new ideologies erupted. W.B. Yeats' rough beast, newly born, was "loosed upon the world."

Did the "war to end all wars" culminate in a "peace to end all peace"? And why in the first place would the United States, a young self-reliant nation, engage in a conflict arising from the old enmities of ancient European kingdoms and empires?

America in 1914 was experiencing a dazzling technological revolution. The scholarly Woodrow Wilson, elected president in 1912, brought progressive ideas and a full domestic agenda to the office. By his second term, the Progressive movement had led to impressive pieces of monetary and social legislation. Few Americans had any appetite for a conflict bogged down in deadly stalemate along the trenches of the Western Front that cut through Belgium and France. There were exceptions, but most were intent on making money and enjoying the good life. Moreover, the United States felt protected from potential enemies by two oceans.

The nation's about-face was the result of aggressive acts against its interests by Germany, first in the renewed deployment of unrestricted submarine warfare against American shipping; second because of a German message to the Mexican government, the iniquitous "Zimmerman telegram," urging Mexico to take up arms against the U. S.

Though Wilson's campaign slogan in 1916 had been "He kept us out of the war," at heart he was an internationalist. Between 1915 and 1917, he undertook to arbitrate between the warring parties. Once committed to the battle, he conceived a quixotic postwar scenario that featured a set of propositions, his "Fourteen Points," the most significant being the proposal of a League of Nations to settle global disputes. This visionary document emblemized the Wilson Doctrine; for as the president declared in his war message, "civilization itself seems to be in the balance," and he saw America as uniquely suited to restore international comity based on magnanimity and mutual respect.

Under the leadership of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, the American Expeditionary Force, together with the exhausted but still-striving English and French armies, prevailed at last against a final German thrust across the Allied salient in the spring and summer of 1918. And so, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The titanic struggle was over - for a spell.

But the post-war situation was as treacherous as the unexploded mines still strewn across No Man's Land. Germany, bankrupted and stigmatized by the crippling terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, faced extinction until the rise of its satanic deliverer Adolf Hitler. President Wilson reneged on most of his lofty ideals by signing that harsh document, though he was able to rescue his League of Nations. His heart broke when the Senate in 1920 rejected the treaty in its entirety, due to sovereignty and constitutional reservations about the League.

Yet it was the Great War - Wilson's war - that launched the United States into the 20th century and secured its role as a global power. And Woodrow Wilson set a precedent for Franklin D. Roosevelt a generation later. His progressive social programs presaged the New Deal. His grasp of and approach to foreign affairs, particularly as commander in chief during wartime, foreshadowed FDR's. His League of Nations heralded the founding of the United Nations in 1945 (this time with the U.S. on board).

So on the 95th anniversary of America's entrance into the "war to end all wars," we continue to ask ourselves: Was this America's battle to fight? Were the victors truly the winners? Did the authors of the ruthless peace treaty reap the whirlwind in new fascist dystopias and renewed tribal blood-feuds? Ultimately did World War I draw a straight line to World War II - and beyond?

These questions will haunt us forever.

Anne Carr Bingham lives in Salem.

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