The Day That Never Was

Monday, April 3, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 4173, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 4173, Hoover Institution Archives.

Unlike December 7, 1941, April 6, 1917 is not a date that lives, either in infamy or fame. Few Americans even know that it marks the country’s entry into World War I. It was on that spring day that the U.S. House of Representatives voted, at President Woodrow Wilson’s request, to declare war on Germany. The U.S. Senate had voted two days earlier. It was an earthquake in history, with aftershocks still reverberating but largely to silence.

Why is the date so little remembered? A congressional vote lacks the drama of a surprise attack and the Potomac is banal compared to Pearl Harbor. Then there is the nature of the conflict. The Great War, as World War I was once known, is overshadowed by the Good War, as author Studs Terkel called it, in a 1984 book whose reference to World War II needs no explanation, at least not to Baby Boomers.

A morally muddled world forgets the quality of the cause in the first war. Imperial Germany was a good regime in most ways but militarism overwhelmed it. Germany’s globalist ambitions, to be achieved by force of arms, were a threat to a free and liberal world order. The United States was entirely right to enter the war on the side of Britain and France. When U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” it was not just hot air—flawed as Wilson was.

And American intervention made a difference. Two million fresh American troops turned the tide on the Western Front and led to Germany’s surrender. The cost was high, with about 320,000 Americans killed or wounded. Then after the war came the great turnaround, with America retreating into isolation and leaving Europe to its own devices. They devised World War II.

And thereby lies a morale for today. Isolationism was in the air during the 2016 presidential campaign. Let’s hope that it was just electoral froth because American withdrawal now as a global military presence would exact an even higher price than it did in the 1920s and 1930s. Hitler had no nuclear weapons.

America’s entry into World War I echoes in other ways as well. The power of Washington and the federal government expanded greatly during the war, enough that some might claim it as the birth of the modern administrative state. Democrats and Republicans still argue fiercely about that state.

Nor are race or immigration left out of the story. The early twentieth century, like today, was an era of mass immigration to the U.S. About 20 per cent of American troops in World War I were immigrants. For African-Americans, the war was the period of the Great Migration, when 500,000 black Southerners moved north. It was an age marred by segregation in the military and race riots at home. Yet many hoped that America too would be made safe for democracy and that African-Americans could finally enjoy freedom and equality. Unfortunately, they had a long wait.

April 6, 1917 will surely remain America’s forgotten day, alas. Yet if its centenary calls to mind the values to which America should be dedicated, at home and abroad, then it will be a useful anniversary indeed.