Why World War I Became the 'Forgotten War'


Veterans returning to the United States after World War I were honored all across the country with parades. Library of Congress

The Great War, as it was known before we started capitalizing and numbering our world wars, is remembered as anything but "Great" now. If, that is, it's remembered at all. World War I (WWI) remains the only major American war of the 20th century not commemorated with a memorial in the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. WWI lacks the deep historical reverence, at least among many Americans, that World War II or even the Civil War enjoys. It doesn't carry the hardened cachet of the Vietnam War or Korean War. It doesn't boast the acclaimed movies. Or the TV shows.

Yet 100 years after it ended — the armistice between Germany and the Allies that put an end to World War I was signed at 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 — scholars continue to highlight ways that the Great War changed America and shapes it even now. It's worth remembering.

Stepping Onto the World Stage

After years of promising to stay out of the conflict in Europe — and winning a second term with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War" — President Woodrow Wilson finally asked Congress, on April 2, 1917, to go to war. German submarines were attacking practically any boat that crossed their paths, and the Germans were working to lure Mexico onto its side. President Wilson — with at least some portion of the American public behind him (many saw an American intervention as an ennobling effort) — acted. And a full-blown world war was born.

It was during World War I that America first assumed its oversized role in world affairs, which it still holds today. The war also provided the U.S. federal government a chance to flex some newfound power at home, too. World War I began, remember, barely a half-century after the country was nearly ripped apart in its own civil war. In the early 20th century, a united American government — as united as a democracy can be — began to show its strength.

"It was kind of an auditioning, if you will, of the kind of rise of a very large militarized society that we see in World War II and thereafter," says Andrew J. Huebner, a history professor at the University of Alabama and the author of "Love and Death in the Great War."

By the time the Americans landed in Europe and were gathered enough to fight their first real fight — at the Battle of Cantigny in France, on May 28, 1918 — Europe had been at war for more than three years. (The first Battle of the Marne, in Germany's initial push into France, was in September of 1914). By the time 1918 was out, the Americans had helped win the war and justify everything it took to get them there.

How WWI Is Relevant Today

At home, as the military industry took hold, women — still without the right to vote — became instrumental in the war effort. From The National World War I Museum and Memorial, in Kansas City, Missouri:

"With millions of men away from home, women filled manufacturing and agricultural positions on the home front. Others provided support on the front lines as nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, translators and, in rare cases, on the battlefield ... One observer wrote that American women 'do anything they were given to do; that their hours are long; that their task is hard; that for them there is small hope of medals and citations and glittering homecoming parades.'"

The role of women in WWI is recognized by many as a stepping stone to passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote.

African Americans fought in the U.S. Army Infantry, though the troops were segregated. Here one of those African American units is marching northwest of Verdun, France.
U.S. Army Signal Corps/Library of Congress

African-Americans, too, played a major part in the war. Despite facing racism at home, as many as 400,000 black soldiers served, mostly in segregated companies. Many saw it as an opportunity to gain rights back home. "[C]ivil rights activists were disappointed when Wilson's war for democracy failed to topple Jim Crow at home. For a long time, the historiography ended there," historian Jennifer D. Keene writes in The American Historian. "Recent histories, however, argue that the war was a pivotal moment when new militancy, ideologies, members, and strategies infused the civil rights movement."

Says Huebner: "If you look at the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement, no one would say that World War I compelled it or created those movements. But it sort of pushed the ball down the field on those movements."

The victory itself changed the rest of the world, too, of course. Old empires toppled and new boundaries were drawn, notably in what now is considered the Middle East. Those new boundaries sparked debates that continue today.

And at home in the United States, the growth of federal power in tackling a global war created reverberations regarding civil liberties and surveillance — among many other social topics — that echo years later, notably in America's response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Keene:

"[Sept. 11] was a turning point for the nation that changed governmental policies and Americans' conception of their role in the world. The same was true of World War I. Then, as now, overseas conflicts and the actions of authoritarian regimes suddenly threatened the security and well-being of Americans. Then, as now, citizens vigorously debated whether the war was America's to fight and ultimately embraced war in the name of both humanitarianism and self-defense. There are further, rather striking, parallels. Internal threats from potential terrorist cells located within the United States justified an unprecedented abridgement of civil rights, prompting disagreements over the right way to handle internal subversion. Poorly equipped men were sent into battle, and the nation failed to prepare adequately for their return home."

History, historians like to say, will teach us if we let it. But because World War I doesn't resonate with the public as other wars do, some of the lessons of the Great War threaten to be lost. That, perhaps, is the biggest reason we need to look back on World War I today.

"We should remember it because people went through it," Huebner says. "One hundred thousand or so Americans dead. A way greater number than that wounded. Imagine that radiating across all the families that experienced it. That deserves to be remembered and honored."


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