A hundred years after the US declared war on Germany, I was at the main US military cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon and there was absolutely no one there at all other than me, the battlefield historian I was interviewing and my radio producer. This is a very empty part of France. You can drive for miles and hardly pass another car. The villages are very pretty but dying–not even so much as a boulangerie in most of them. There are un-grafittied Le Pen posters on the walls of seemingly uninhabited houses. We were the only guests in an old fashioned little hotel with about four rooms, a couple of old Frenchmen sitting silently in the bar. We dined on lots of well-cooked meat and bread and local wine. The most interesting, if unsurprising, thing for me was the huge contrast between the tone of the US memorials that went up in the 1920s and 30s and the French memorials at Verdun, about twenty miles to the South. At Verdun you’re overwhelmed by the enormity of the catastrophe, the architecture is modernist and you can never forget the sight of the uncountable human bones in the Douaumont ossuary. In contrast, the vast, phallic US monument to the 120,000 doughboys who were killed in the Meuse-Argonne campaign is classical in design and celebrates the “virility” as well as the valor of the American troops. It’s amazing both monuments refer to the same war and were built by nations on the same side.
So in this forgotten corner of France — and more broadly — the meaning of the part the US played in what they at the time called the “war for humanity” is simultaneously monumental and minimal. The First World War has an ambiguous place in American history and historiography. On one level the story is simple enough — Americans get drawn into a conflict they hoped to stay out of; strapping, well-fed doughboys arrive on the Western Front in time for the final allied offensive; and then an idealistic President goes off to Versailles to try and re-make the world, comes home and is roundly rubuffed by a country that wants a return to “normalcy”. Was it really a watershed for America, or was it an aberration? On the one hand, the US emerged all of a sudden as the world’s great creditor nation. For ever afterwards, US decisions–about tariffs, trade, investment, military spending, diplomacy — directly and dramatically affected the rest of the world in a way that had not been true before. Yet on the other hand, the big state that emerged all of a sudden in 1917 was wound up with alarming speed after the Armistice. The US refused to recognise the implications of its new status as the world’s creditor nation and returned to comfort-blanket protectionism, which had done little damage so long as Britain was running the global economy but in the new post-war era was to drag the world into the Great Depression. Precisely because for Americans this was not the shattering experience of a lost generation as it was for the British, French or Germans it was easier for Americans to celebrate their boys’ military accomplishments — and then move on. At first, they did not forget the Great War–almost every American city has a Great War memorial somewhere–but they didn’t dwell on it. And in America, the Great War did not seep notions of military valour in bitter irony as it did in Europe. There was no American Siegfried Sassoon.
And then because the “greatest generation” of World War II have loomed so large, it became easy to overlook the earlier conflict, one that so spectacularly failed to accomplish Woodrow Wilson’s lofty goal of an end to all war. But if its effects were delayed or obscured, ignored or misunderstood, the war was manifestly central to the American experience in the twentieth century if only because it pushed the US, knowingly or otherwise, into a position of potential global leadership.
There is an illustration by Charles Dana Gibson that appeared in Life Magazine in early 1917. It shows Uncle Sam staring across the ocean at a devastated Europe, watching a Madonna figure being abused by a German soldier. Sam’s hands are behind his back–they almost look as if they’re tied. Will he stand back and let this happen, or will he plunge across the sea and try and sort it out? If ever there was a crossing-the-Rubicon moment in modern history it was what happened next. Having gone to war in 1917, Americans made a choice that has defined their country, and the world, ever since.