America’s Great War amnesia
The gravestones at Florida National Cemetery on the eve of Veterans Day. Photo: Stephen Morton/Getty Images   

Remembrance Day is a time for solemn mourning and recollection throughout the United Kingdom. Not so here in the United States. Celebrated as Veterans Day, nary a thought or word will be given specifically to the 50,000 Americans who died during the First World War.

There’s a collective amnesia in the States not only about the Great War, but also about how that eventual involvement set the stage for the Second World War and beyond.

Even though America’s eleventh-hour intervention turned the war’s tide and saved the Allies, it was not a uniformly popular act. Millions of Americans were German immigrants or descended from German stock, and they remained decidedly unenthusiastic. The country’s isolationist tradition also remained strong.

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The first President, George Washington, had left office in 1796 warning against “entangling alliances” with any nation. Over a century later, the majority of the country still backed that ideal. Nonetheless, Democrat President Woodrow Wilson steered the country into war in April 1917, just a month after his second-term inauguration, despite having secured re-election on the slogan “he kept us out of war”.

Even though America helped the Allies win the war, he would come to rue breaking that promise. Much of what happened between the end of that war and the start of the next stemmed from this dichotomy between an America whose world involvement had been decisive and an American public that wanted nothing to do with the outside world.

In 1919, Wilson went to Versailles committed to creating a liberal international order that would end future international conflict. This vision found root in the creation of the League of Nations, which he envisioned as a supra-national entity where countries would peacefully resolve their disputes – and whose willingness to use overwhelming collective force to suppress dissenters was essential to this new world order.

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America would have none of it. It did not want permanent involvement in global affairs. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or enter the League of Nations, preferring to return to those traditional, introspective ways.

Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate to succeed Wilson in the election of 1920, capitalised on this. He campaigned for a return to normalcy –  a return to the insular and commercial focus that had typified pre-war America. He won the nomination with over 60 per cent of the vote, then the highest share ever awarded.

His “America First” emphasis had immediate consequences. The Allies had depended upon American loans as well as American arms to defeat the Central Powers. With their economies either exhausted or wrecked by the conflict, Britain and France asked America to forgive a substantial portion of the debt.

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Nothing doing, the Yanks replied. The Harding Administration insisted upon repayment, which strained the already weak economies of Europe. As Harding’s equally tightfisted successor, Calvin Coolidge, said: “They hired the money, didn’t they?”

Unable to repay America, the Allies turned to a prostrate Germany. But Germany was in an even weaker economic position and was struggling to honour the post-war reparations it had been saddled with after Versailles.

Germany’s unwillingness, or inability, to meet its repayment obligations led to the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923. The French intended to use the resources in the industrial area to make up for those unpaid reparations. It led, however, to the hyperinflation of 1924 which wiped out the savings of millions of ordinary Germans and weakened the nascent Weimar Republic as the nation was humiliated and impoverished.

The debt crisis was ultimately resolved in the most American way possible: more loans. Under the Dawes Plan of 1924, American banks would loan money to Germany, which would then use that money to pay reparations to the Allies, who could then use that money to repay the US government. The American government effectively shifted debt from its balance sheet to that of its banks. Germany initially benefited from this substantial investment, but America’s Allies languished. The alliance that had won the war now lay divided.

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This division was exacerbated by another post-war American fetish, naval disarmament. Britain had a global empire and needed a global navy to supply and protect it. But post-war Britain lacked the resources to maintain this, especially since the Americans wanted the war debt to be repaid. Eventually Britain complied with treaties that limited the world’s navies, establishing that America’s and Britain’s navies would be roughly equal in size, and Japan’s would be 60 per cent the size of theirs. At a stroke, Britain surrendered its ability to unilaterally control the seas and became dependent upon the Americans to protect its Pacific interests.

Fortunately for the world, America learnt from its mistakes. Virtually every part of the world order constructed by the US following the Second World War can be understood as a reversal of the post-Great War errors.

The United Nations would include America and would be housed on American soil to boot. America would be involved in supra-national economic bodies such as the World Bank that would seek to stabilise world economies and foster global trade and interdependence.

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When the Soviet Union threatened, America abandoned its traditions and established permanent entangling alliances with the remaining non-communist nations to contain the Soviet threat. And, through its Marshall Plan, America freely gave rather than loaned its wealth to rebuild the shattered nations of Europe.

This new new world order had its price, of course. Allies were gathered together under an American umbrella, and consequently lost a fair amount of their ability to act alone on a global stage. This became clear during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when American pressure forced Britain and France to abandon its invasion of Egypt to prevent the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. America was now not only involved in the world; it dominated it.

Having now lived for nearly 70 years within this stable, American-dominated world, Western nations are rightfully unsettled by today’s American President whose foreign policy seeks to return, in some sense, to the pre-First World War approach that eschewed foreign entanglements and placed America’s commercial interests ahead of global prosperity and stability.

America changed the name of its November 11 celebration from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 in order to forget that time when its errors had helped to plunge the world into unspeakable horrors. But it might be better if Americans remembered too – and wore poppies on their shirts. For to do so would remind them how unusual these seven decades of peace and prosperity have been, and how much this new world requires America’s continuing engagement and subsidy to make it work.