The Forgotten War

Monday, August 12, 2013

Until World War II came along, World War I was called “the great war” and “the war to end all wars.” It was the first war featuring airplanes and armored tanks and chemical warfare and submarines. (Although submarines had been used in earlier wars, their design turned them into one hit wonders. See my August 6, 2012 blog post on the H.L. Hunley.)

So why are there so few World War I memorials compared to World War II memorials? At least it seems that way in our U.S. travels, where Roland and I have seen several memorials and museums dedicated to World War II and its various battles but none (that I remember) dedicated to World War I.
Until last month, that is. On our vacation to Kansas City, Missouri, we visited the
World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, pictured above. The second picture shows the grounds as taken from the top of the tower.

Why did we enter World War I? After all, the war was happening “over there” and had little direct impact on the U.S. Although some Americans travelled to Europe to volunteer to fight or to serve as nurses in field hospitals and many immigrants worried about their relatives in Europe, the war didn’t touch most people living in this country. Then Germany sank the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, and American lives were lost. (See my July 2, 2012 post.) Even then, the U.S. was reluctant to enter the war.

Historians don’t agree on the actual precipitating event, and it may be a combination of several factors, including the Lusitania. Then there was the British interception and decoding of what is known as “the Zimmerman note.” The message from Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico involved a German plot to persuade Mexico to declare war against the U.S. in order to keep us occupied and out of the war against Germany. And it didn’t help Germany’s cause that its submarines seemed to be targeting U.S. cargo ships after Germany had promised President Wilson that it would leave neutral shipping alone. If Germany was trying to discourage our participation, its actions had the opposite effect.

There is practically no one left who remembers World War I, and that may be part of the reason it tends to be forgotten. But the Civil War was even earlier, and that war still generates significant interest. So the problem is probably the seeming remoteness of the war’s effect on Americans. The Civil War was fought on our soil: World War I was not. U.S. involvement in World War II also started on our soil—or at least in a U.S. territory at a U.S. military base—when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and it took us by surprise. Our involvement in those wars also lasted longer and had more American casualties.*

Still, World War I was a significant episode in U.S. history, and it is worth remembering.

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* The Civil War lasted for four years with approximately 625,000 casualties (Union and Confederate combined), and our involvement in World War II also lasted almost four years with just over 400,000 U.S. casualties. The U.S. involvement in World War I, in contrast, lasted less than two years (April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918) with less than 125,000 casualties.

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