On this date a century ago, the United States had come to the end of the first week of its involvement in a conflict that until then had mostly involved nations in Europe and their overseas territories. But when Congress approved President Woodrow Wilson’s request to go to war with Germany on April 2, 1917, the battle that had been fought for nearly three years with appalling loss of life and destruction took on a truly global meaning, leading to it being known as the World War and the Great War until 1939, when hostilities again reached beyond borders to eventually engulf the world.
That much we know from history. World War I might have been the only major conflict that defined the 20th Century had its aftermath not sown the seeds for World War II. By itself, the Great War of 1914-1918 was significant for being fought on such a mechanized scale, with technology of the day providing more efficient weapons, from shoulder arms to toxic gas, from tanks to airplanes, with higher and higher casualty rates. America, whose then-last and brief war with Spain in 1898 helped make it a world power based on its industrial might and territorial acquistions, settled in for its role for the fight across European battlefields after the declaration of war. Our involvement in The Great War seems relatively short at 19 months, but it left a lasting impression after it was over that kept us strenuously out of world affairs for two decades.
Some of the greater issues the war raised for Americans are explored in the “American Experience” entry “The Great War” that premieres Monday on PBS. One of these was a resistance to future wars, the belief The Great War had been fought and paid for in millions of lives to end all wars. Not that Americans would not fight if provoked, but not on the level of destruction created by the European conflict. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans were seen as the great barriers that protected us from being drawn into another overseas conflagration, and this sentiment lingered with many citizens until the Pearl Harbor attack rushed the U.S. back into arms late in 1941.
The Great War catapulted a previously sleepy, self-absorbed America into the role of world power, one it took seriously at the start as President Wilson joined with the victors to ensure a lasting peace, only to be defeated not only at Versailles by old enmities but by hostile political leaders at home bent on an isolationist policy. “We cannot turn back,” Wilson said. “We can only go forward, with lifted eyes to follow the vision. America shall in truth show the way.” A century later, we find ourselves again debating the merits of our status as not only a world leader but as its policeman in the never-ending quest to achieve peace.
We learned a lesson that as a power, we couldn’t avoid world events that caused the deaths of our fellow citizens, innocent victims of the Kaiser’s U-Boat attacks on civilian shipping. Another lesson forever seared into our consciousness was the sacrifice of the Americans who went into service and lost their lives on shell-shattered fields and in muddy trenches. Such a loss had not been experienced by America since the Civil War and the respect shown to those soldiers who came home, and those who did not, became evident with placement of memorials in town squares and parks all over the country.
In Gallipolis, the Doughboy Monument dedicated in 1931 symbolized the commitment of those who died overseas to defend their country. The monument was erected in memory of a Gallia countian, John Oliver, who joined up before even graduating high school and who died in France weeks before the Armistice ending hostilities was signed. Known as “The Spirit of the American Doughboy,” the monument was designed by master sculptor Ernest Moore “Dick” Visquesney of Spencer, Ind., and over the years came to represent the fallen not only of The Great War but successive conflicts in which local men and women answered the call to serve.
For Visquesney, the design and manufacture of the Doughboy monuments, which continued to be bought and erected in communities well into the next world war, were “dedicated to you, America, to the World … that it may be a constant reminder of all of what real Americanism is, what it does and how it safeguards our homes and our country.”
And perhaps the most vital of lessons taught us by The Great War is to heed what history hands down to us. The world today is a much different and in many ways a more dangerous place than it was 100 years ago, with one of our options in improving it to learn and appreciate the results of what occurred in the past. It is well worth pondering what kind of world would have emerged from The Great War had a more humanitarian approach been adopted toward its vanquished. But that’s a debate for another day.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.