History, History Column

WWI: The Centennial

By Sarah Becker ©2017

WWI: The Centennial

“Woodrow Wilson may well have witnessed more dramatic changes in national and global affairs than any other president since [George] Washington,” Carter Smith wrote. “He entered Presidential office [on March 4, 1913] a highly regarded reformer.” His foreign policy was not nearly as aggressive as his domestic. Then talk of war in Europe divided America.

On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia; on France two days later. President Wilson, a Democrat elected on an anti-war platform, responded by ordering wireless telegraph stations to remain neutral. Neutrality was policy with a presidential pedigree.

“The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls,” Wilson explained on August 19, 1914. Europe’s continental war expanded when Germany raided Great Britain in January 1915.

On May 7, 1915 Alexandria resident, British national and second cabin passenger John Booth lost his life while cruising aboard the RMS Lusitania. The 32,500 ton RMS Lusitania was traveling from New York to Liverpool. Booth, age 35, was sunk; German U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger—with the blast of a submerged torpedo—buried him at sea.

London, May 7, 1915…“The giant Cunarder, Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk off Old head, Kinsale at 3:38 o’clock this morning,” the Alexandria Gazette related. “All details are lacking but, it is reported the passengers and crew have taken to the boats and were saved.” In fact 1,198 passengers died including 128 Americans.

Philadelphia, May 10, 1915…“The example of America must be a special example, not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world,” President Wilson said. “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that is does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”

On January 31, 1917 Germany notified the United States unrestricted submarine attacks would continue. They announced Germany would sink on sight all merchant vessels found in a zone around the British Isles or in the Mediterranean. President Wilson, narrowly reelected to a second term in 1916, broke off diplomatic negotiations and ordered the arming of American freighters.

“Although we have centered counsel and action…upon the [domestic] problems…to which we addressed ourselves four years ago, other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention—matters…which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence,” President Wilson said in his second Inaugural Address.

In February 1917 the Germans sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping; in March 578,000 tons, and 874,000 tons in April. On April 6, 1917—one hundred years ago—America responded by declaring war. The United States entered World War I on the condition that it could legitimately demand universal liberal democracy from the world.

“It is fearful to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” President Wilson said. “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal domination of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

Europe’s 1914 conflict was “a quarrel…between nation and nation, culture and culture.” President Wilson’s 1917 world war was about competing ideologies, competing visions of the European and international orders. To what extent is President Donald Trump’s rejection of globalization, his tweeted December 23, 2016 denunciation of United Nations Security Council Res. 2334—Israel’s growing West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements—a reflection of yesterday?

WWI’s peace Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. In 1979—sixty years later—George Kennan, author of the 1947 Russian Containment policy, called the 1914-1918 war “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” Without it fascism and communism, the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Cold War and today’s Middle East crisis especially, would be unthinkable.

By 1900 Jewish anti-Semitism had become a way of life. Weary of the hatred, Jews of different political persuasions aligned to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Jews had not had an independent kingdom in Palestine since the 2nd century B.C. With WWI, with the 1916 fall of the Ottoman Empire new opportunity(s) emerged.

Palestine was an Arabic country but Great Britain, instead of promoting Arab nationalism, changed political course. Its Balfour note of 1917 promised to support the idea of a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine. The Jewish ‘homeland’ became a partitioned state in 1948. The US acquiesced in part because of World War II’s Jewish Holocaust. The District’s US Holocaust Memorial Museum “tells the full story of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945.”

The Arab League formed in 1945, with the end of WWII. To the Arabs, Zionism and the resulting Republic of Israel seemed like a new form of Western invasion. In 2003, on the heels of the 9/11 attack, the US invaded Iraq an independent country since 1937. President George W. Bush rationalized the invasion in Wilson-ian fashion.

“The years since the end of the Cold War have epitomized the enduring influence of a historical democracy tradition…,” analyst Nicholas Bouchet wrote. “More than ever America’s leaders have tried to translate this tradition into a set of specific policies to promote democratization abroad.”

Nearly 4.7 million American soldiers served in WWI. Although state and city memorials abound no national WWI Memorial exists. That will change when the national WWI Memorial is unveiled in the District of Columbia’s Pershing Park in 2018. Let us not forget the date!

In Virginia, Alexandria’s 1941 WWI Memorial is located in Union Station Plaza. President Wilson’s 1916 shipbuilding program included the 1918 Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation located at Jones Point in Alexandria.

President Trump has yet to fully articulate his foreign policy. Maybe he copies Richard Nixon. “We shall do our share in defending peace and freedom in the world,” President Nixon said in his 1973 Inaugural Address. “But we shall expect others to do their share. The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own….”

“Just as America’s role is indispensable in preserving the world’s peace, so is each nation’s role indispensable in preserving its own peace,” Nixon persisted. “Let us continue to bring down the walls of hostility which have divided the world for too long, and to build in their place bridges of understanding—so that despite profound differences between systems of governments, the people of the world can be friends.”

The Library of Congress opens its centennial exhibit Echoes of the Great War on April 4. The NTHP’s Woodrow Wilson House is located in the District. President Trump was awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Tree of Life in 1983.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com.








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