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Lessons From The World War I Centennial

Last Thursday (April 6, 2017) was the centennial anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.

Although the anniversary was largely unmarked by the establishment media, it holds some useful lessons for today’s American policymakers.

WWI DeclarationThe first and most important lesson is that there was no rush to war.

On April 2, 1917 President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. After four days of debate his request was granted.

The second almost equally important lesson was that the decision to go to war was a bipartisan one, and by no means unanimous.

The U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war against Germany, the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed the declaration by a vote of 373 to 50; among those voting NAY was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress.

“I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” Rankin told the House. “I vote no.”

The third, very important lesson, is that it took a great deal of provocation to provoke America, and Americans, into joining the carnage on the Western Front.

For almost two years prior to the US declaration of war, chemical weapons had been used in World War I.

The first full-scale deployment of deadly chemical warfare agents during World War I was at the Second Battle of Ypres, on April 22, 1915, when the Germans attacked French, Canadian and Algerian troops with chlorine gas.

While the Germans were the first to use chemical weapons in World War I both sides eventually employed them.

The horror of the first use of chemical weapons in World War I did not provoke the United States to war.

What provoked the American government to go to war, and for most Americans to back the war was the killing of American citizens.

In an effort to starve the United Kingdom into submission the Germans engaged in an off-and-on campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping entering a “war zone” it declared around the British Isles.

While the sinking of the Lusitania was the most famous and outrageous of the unrestricted submarine attacks it too occurred almost two years before the U.S. declaration of war.

On May 7, 1915, the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans. The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, but the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships.

In August 1915, Germany pledged to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels, but in November sunk an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans.

In 1917, Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters. Three days later, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany, and just hours after that the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat. On February 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war. In late March, Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships, and on April 2 President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, his request was granted.*

The fourth, and perhaps most underrecognized lesson that Americans should take from our entry into World War I was the vast series of unintended consequences that were loosed by our involvement in the war and the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations afterwards.

While President Woodrow Wilson claimed that America was entering the war to “make the world safe for democracy” the exact opposite happened.

While America’s erstwhile ally Tsarist Russia (hardly a “democracy”) was driven to revolution and chaos by the strains of the war, what emerged was not democracy, but the brutal dictatorship of the Bolshevik Communist regime of the Union Soviet Socialist Republics.

In Central and Eastern Europe, many of the newly created post-war states soon became petty dictatorships, not democracies.

And enemy Germany and allied Italy both gave rise to fascist dictatorships of unimagined brutality – the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler and the Fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini. 

World War I also gave rise to the enactment of the federal income tax to pay for it, a “temporary” tax measure that is still with us today 100 years later.

Those, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are demanding more US involvement in Syria, including boots on the ground would do well to remember these lessons – and the lesson of America’s 116, 516 World War I military dead.**

During World War I CHQ Editor George Rasley’s grandfather, Joseph Mather Stutz, served in the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in France.


**Battle deaths of 53,402 military personnel plus non-theater deaths of 63,114 military personnel, click here for details.

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