The first World War transformed America, but its impact is often forgotten. Here’s how teachers can draw connections between that time and now to make WWI relevant and current for students.
Through most of my career, I worked as a futurist, a technologist and tech entrepreneur, so it was a personal shock when I joined the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission 10 years ago and suddenly found myself immersed in history. One of my early research analyses in 2014 was ascertaining Americans’ collective interest in WWI. I did this by comparing how often key WWI search terms were being typed into Google in the US, versus in Europe. It turned out that World War I, arguably one of the most consequential events in American history, was of little interest to Americans—especially in contrast to the massive public interest in the subject in Europe.
This unprecedented global cataclysm raged from 1914 through 1918. As a nation, America was officially neutral (while supplying raw materials and financing, mostly to the allied nations). That was until the spring of 1917 when America, as a resource-rich, industrious, but primarily agrarian country, with a tiny standing army smaller than that of Portugal, stood up among a world of empires to transform itself into a global military force virtually overnight. Within a short 18 months, the United States put 4.7 million men and women into uniform. The U.S. equipped and shipped nearly 2 million soldiers to the battlefields of Europe, transformed its industrial, political and social foundations to decisively help to end a nightmarish global war.
The effect of WWI permeated every aspect of American life and culture, including the role of women, immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, the bill of rights, our financial foundation, our technologies and most of all, our standing on the world stage.
As I’ve discussed this with teachers over the past decade, there is clear consensus that “how WWI changed America,” is a subject that has not received the focus it deserves.
Why did WWI fade from memory?
This is a question I have asked for the past 10 years and have received wonderful answers from renowned academicians, authors, bartenders and some of my favorites from Uber drivers. I won’t insult the question with a quippy answer, but we do know this:
In the 1916 presidential incumbent Woodrow Wilson ran on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” He won the election in November, was inaugurated in March, and asked Congress to declare war on Germany less than a month later, which they did on
To sell the war to the American people, Wilson tapped a newspaper guy named George Creel, who had worked on his re-election campaign. He made Creel the head of the Committee on Public Information, which was a federal propaganda agency designed to promote the war effort.
Creel was incredibly successful. He created the Four Minute Men, who would take scripts anywhere people gathered, including movie theaters, churches and union halls, and deliver speeches about why American involvement in the war was important.
Newspapers were the major news medium of the day, so Creel created a federal government newspaper to publish all the war news the Wilson Administration wanted to get out, and none that it wanted kept quiet. Creel bet that by putting all this news into the public domain, the commercial newspapers would simply re-report his coverage to save time and money. It worked, and the major newspapers, for the most part, published what the US wanted them to (aided by some serious laws against criticizing the war).
President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress to declare war on Germany in World War One 1917. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Wilson appointed John “Blackjack” Pershing as the U.S. General of the Armies (the first since George Washington). Pershing declared that America would not offer the allies its men to Europe as cannon fodder, but instead America would enter the war on its own terms, with its own command structure, and fight as an independent force. When told he did not understand trench warfare, Pershing declared that he had no intention of participating in that. Instead, his forces would restore mobility to warfare through American grit and marksmanship.
To this day, Woodrow Wilson is the only American President to hold a doctorate degree. With his learned perspective in political science, in 1918 he gave a presentation that outlined a vision for creating a peace out of the WWI conundrum. It was called the Wilson 14 Points, and it included the idea of the League of Nations, an international body charged with international conflict-resolution to avoid future global conflict. When the German Empire approached the allies to propose an armistice, they did not go to France or Britain, instead they approached Wilson.
On the darker side of the coin, the Wilson administration used draconian methods to turn the American ship into the winds of WWI, including a massive draft, wartime control of industries, and severe encroachments on the Bill of Rights. Neither dissent nor criticism was tolerated. If you spoke up against the war or the U.S. government, you would very likely find yourself in jail. Wilson made a lot of enemies.
To their credit, the Wilson Administration relinquished those authoritarian controls as the war ended. Nevertheless, anti-Wilson sentiment ran high, and his Democratic party lost both the House and the Senate in the 1918 midterms. Wilson left the U.S. to sell his vision for a new world order at the Paris Peace Talks, but the U.S. never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the League of Nations. Wilson’s political opponents did whatever they could to wipe out everything the Wilson Administration stood for.
Is this why WWI faded from US consciousness? Maybe in part. History is complex and there are plenty of ideas about how WWI became an overlooked era of our history. I was always impressed with what an Uber driver quipped to me on a ride to the airport: “It’s simple!” he said “WWII had Pearl Harbor, Hitler, the Atom Bomb and Tom Hanks… What did WWI have!?”
Connecting WWI with today’s world
For a few years, I hosted a history podcast where the format was to look at current events each episode and find their roots in World War I. The war may have ended more than a century ago, but these prompts should help your students understand how we live with WWI’s consequences every day.
- Conflict in the Middle East: The Middle East is top of the news these days, but the nations of the Middle East are a direct result of WWI. Prior to WWI, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Middle East, but siding with Germany and the Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the Allies divvied up the region, telling disparate tribes and clans of nomads that they were now part of a nation. This created a quagmire of cultures within and among adjacent borders. Even a declaration for creating a “Homeland for the Jewish People in Palestine” was drafted in 1917.
Air travel: During Thanksgiving week, the news is sure to be filled with stories of airport challenges, with millions of passengers casually taking to the skies. Although Orville and Wilbur Wright flew 850 feet at Kitty Hawk in late 1903, it was WWI that accelerated the airplane into common usage. In 1919, a year after the armistice, the first nonstop transatlantic flight was made in a WWI Vickers Vimy bomber. By 1926, commercial passenger services began in earnest. Your casual cross continental visit for Thanksgiving is rooted in WWI.
- Immigrant identity: America is a nation of immigrants. Immigrants and immigration have always been in the news. Imagine the United States in 1917, as the government declares a military draft, cultures are thrown together in new ways, with many people who may have been in the U.S. less than a generation being drafted to fight with—and sometimes against—their mother or fatherlands.
- The Civil Rights movement: World War I took place just one generation after emancipation from slavery. Wilson’s call to fight to “make the world safe for freedom and democracy” resonated with many Black Americans. Many experienced a respect and treatment that did not reflect the segregation and Jim Crow laws they came home to. The Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t really kick off for a couple more decades, but its roots were watered by the self-esteem and discontentment of Black soldiers’ treatment after WWI.
- Women’s rights: The women’s suffrage movement was well under way before WWI. Though everyone knows Rosie the Riveter from WWII propaganda posters, it was Rosie’s mom who held down the home front during the First World War. That generation of women took on many traditional male roles and transformed how women were seen and saw themselves. As examples, they kept the postal system running, ensured food production continued and provided the munitions for the war machine. They went overseas and helped the war effort directly, taking over many jobs that there were simply not enough men to handle. As a result of WWI, women moved into the workforce in numbers and ways never before seen. Two years after WWI, the 19th amendment passed.
In summary, When World War I started, most U.S. citizens were farmers, loggers, or other resource-based laborers. Then, over the course of a mere 18 months, our entire economy was remade into a manufacturing powerhouse capable of putting 4.7 million people into uniforms and deploying and supplying 2 million of them overseas. A quarter of all draft-aged men entered that war. Every family, community, town, city and state was embroiled in fundamental and transformative change. It was the foundation for what would be known as the American Century. It is worth remembering, considering, learning and teaching.
Theo Mayer is the chief technologist, program manager for the World War I Centennial Commission & the Doughboy Foundation, where he maintains WWI Teaching Resources for use in schools. He can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.
A version of this article can be read on the SmartBrief web site.