Five Questions for Robert Dalessandro about April 6, 2017
"Our world and our generation are yet their legacy"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission is preparing for a major national event on April 6th, 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the war. Commission Chair Robert Dalessandro spoke to us about the significance of the date. A career historian, Chair Dalessandro gave us some perspective on the events that took place 100 years ago to put us on the path to war, and how those events changed the entire world.
This April 6th will be a special day. The US World War I Centennial Commission will host a major event on April 6th, at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, to mark the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I. What happened 100 years ago, on that day?
This is an important day because it marks the centennial of American entry into World War One; but more importantly, it commemorates America’s entry onto the world stage. After April 6, 1917, everything about America changed. American’s now saw themselves as active participants for all that is good in the world. As the slogan went, they wanted to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.”
What series of events happened to lead up to America joining the war? How did Americans react to this, and why?
Although America did not formally enter the war until April 6, 1917, thirty-two months after it commenced, the United States of America was actually a critical player from the beginning of the hostilities.
The United States was one of the principal suppliers of war materiel to the Allies. Great Britain spent half its war budget in the United States. There was a reason German U-Boats hunted the North Atlantic trade routes; that was how you cut the Allied supply lines.
Eventually, freedom of the seas became the major reason for US involvement. There were several incidents where American citizens became victims of German submarine attacks, but the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, with a loss of life of 1,198 souls, including 128 Americans nearly drew us into the war. Only a German promise to heavily restrict submarine warfare averted our entry.
In early 1917, the Germans, flush with victory over Russia on the Eastern Front, believed they could knock out England and France before significant numbers of American troops could deploy to Europe should America enter the war.
Willing to take a strategic risk, German planners believed their submarine force could help strangle the Allied supply lines and lay the foundation for Army success on the Western Front.
In February 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. The success of the German submarine campaign, 106 British flagged merchant vessels were sunk in February alone, along with the release of the intercepted “Zimmerman Note,” the note proposed an alliance between Germany, Mexico and Japan. After Germany’s victory over the Allies, Mexico would regain land lost during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, including Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The news of the “Zimmerman Note,” coupled with the result of the submarine campaign, proved too much for the average American to stomach. America was awake - - we joined the Allied cause in April.
How did the American People and military members, who would fight this war, feel about it?
Most educated Americans felt that we owed a debt to France , who had supported us during the American Revolution. Two prevailing themes seemed to be uppermost in the conversation. “Lafayette, we are here,” which hearkened back to Lafayette’s brotherhood with Washington and the French Alliance, and the notion of making the world safe for civilized nations; “America, the daughter of Europe, crossed the ocean to wrest her mother from the humiliation of thralldom [slavery] and to save civilization.” Of course, as with any war, many soldiers looked at it as a great adventure, that is, until they experienced the grim reality of the promiscuous destruction of war.
The subsequent impact of what happened on April 6th 1917 changed the entire country, and changed the entire world. What should be commemorated on this day?
We should pause to remember the impact on World War One on our everyday lives and the lens we view America through.
When you take two million or so Americans from their small towns and ship them overseas, where they visit New York City before waving goodbye to Lady Liberty and deploy across the Atlantic, where they pass though England and Paris and then they return. You forever alter the fabric of the society. As a popular song of the period asked, “Momma, How you Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm after They’ve seen Pariee?”
World War One changed America dramatically and forever. The service in our armed forces of African-Americans, immigrants, and women, working in the military, in industry at home, and providing humanitarian service abroad, served as the kindling that sparked a wildfire of change in American society.
Every aspect of our society was changed by World War One. How we viewed gender: before the war it was generally believed that women were far too fragile to serve as nurses on the front line. How we viewed race: before the war it was generally held by whites that people of color were unfit for combat, too servile from three-hundred years of slavery, while in the African-American community, the NAACP and other civil rights groups believed that Jim Crow would end if African-Americans bled and died for their county. Before the war, it was believed that new immigrants to America might not be trusted to loyally fight for their adopted county.
Each of these beliefs were tested during the war and each of these beliefs proved false. Standing beliefs and prejudices were shaken to the core. And the world they and we live in was changed forever.
Sykes-Picot and the Balfour agreement reshaped the Middle East, creating new nations, and new hatreds. The conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian State today are direct outgrowths of these agreements.
The fall of the Russian Empire and rise of the Soviet Union echo today in Crimea, Ukraine and arguably even into our recent election cycle.
World War I took place so long ago. Why is it important to remember the people who served in World War I?
Sadly, those who served in World War One are part of a forgotten generation of Americans.
This was a generation that came of age in what looks, to us today, a very distant time, where lives were sold cheaply and notions of idealism seemed quaint. They were the generation that bridged the Gilded Era and the Jazz Age, watched the fall of empires in bewildered awe, dreadfully witnessed the rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism, birthed the “Greatest Generation,” and opened an “American Century.” In their quest to “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” they presided over the inauguration of a violent age that they could never fully comprehend.
As we mark the opening of this centennial, we must not overlook them. They shaped the modern world, underpinning it with all of its current virtue and depravity. Our world and our generation are yet their legacy.
Author Richard Rubin once quipped, “Americans, I have found, typically don’t remember the First World War; they don’t know how it transformed their country. But the country itself cannot forget. Keep your eyes open. Look around you. Look in the mirror. You’ll see it for yourself.”