Lessons From World War I

Courtesy Library of Congress/Handout via REUTERS

Joanne Butler Contributor
Font Size:

Today marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I – the war known in Europe as ‘the Great War’.  Most Americans know little about our participation in that war, possibly because for us our ‘Great War’ was World War II.  And although our involvement was short (April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918), there are lessons to be learned from it.  Here are two:

Mexico was the reason we got involved.  If you think the reason was the sinking of the Lusitania (with 128 American lives lost), you’re wrong.  The ship sunk nearly two years earlier (May 7, 1915); it was a British-flag ship sailing off the southern coast of Ireland when it was sunk by a German U-boat.  The Lusitania incident contributed to American ill-will against the Germans, but the turning point came when President Wilson learned how Germany, in early 1917, made overtures to Mexico in order to distract America from entering the war.

Specifically, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram in code to the German ambassador in Mexico City, stating:

We intend to begin on the first of February [1917] unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. [Emphasis mine.]

About a year prior, U.S. Army General John Pershing (with the assistance of Second Lieutenant George S. Patton) had launched an attack on Mexico in retaliation against Pancho Villa’s frequent raids on America soil and his planned invasion of New Mexico.  By January 1917, U.S. forces had withdrawn from Mexico, but this action had resulted in 140,000 National Guard troops being called up for duty.  A few months later they would fight in Europe instead.

The cornerstone of Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 presidential campaign was neutrality in the face of war.  But the Zimmerman Telegram, with its explicit promise of Mexico taking three border states, was too much for Wilson and the Congress, which voted to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

This war ended with an armistice, not a surrender.  An armistice means that both sides lay down their arms together; it does not mean the war is over.  A surrender means the war is over.  The loser acknowledges their loss and recognizes the winner as … the winner.  A surrender sends a message to the losing side’s military of their mistakes accompanied with an ample share of humble pie.  Nigel Farage, former leader of Britain’s UKIP party, has said the Armistice allowed Erich Ludendorff, a WWI German commander, to participate in a 1923 march in support of Hitler – something that would have been impossible if Germany had agreed to an unconditional surrender.

When George M. Cohan wrote his WWI rally song, ‘Over There’, his last line was: ‘And we won’t come back till it’s over … Over there.’

As World War II proved, the Armistice meant it truly wasn’t over – over there.

In the decade following WWII (which ended via an unconditional surrender by the Germans and the Japanese), the Korean War concluded in 1953 with another armistice.  This one was between the United Nations and North Korea (South Korea refused to participate and is at war with North Korea).

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman allowed U.S. forces to participate in the U.N.’s ‘police action’ against North Korea.  Sixty-seven years later, we still have about six active military bases in South Korea.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been active for the last 15 years.  In October 2001, the United States and Britain began bombing in Afghanistan.  The U.S. rationale was payback for the 9/11 attacks.  But this wasn’t a war; it was a ‘military operation’.  No surrender or armistice was needed to complete the ‘operation’.

On December 31, 2016, U.S. troops withdrew from that country, as promised by then-President Barack Obama.  However, it’s not really over – over there either:  8,400 U.S. troops remain, and this past January the U.S. carried out 15 airstrikes.  It seems Obama’s ‘withdrawal’ came with an asterisk.

This appears to be the norm for modern military engagements.  No formal declarations of war, no votes by Congress, with the President moving soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and Marines over a global chessboard.

Outfitting and training our armed forces is costly.  According to The Economist magazine, we spend 3.6 percent of our GDP on defense – federal monies that won’t improve our infrastructure, border protection, medical care to seniors, etc.  Plus we devote much more funding for defense than our NATO partners do.

As I am an economist, and not an expert in international diplomacy, perhaps such matters are beyond my ken.  However, on this historic anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, I believe it is appropriate to ask our leaders to consider:  when will it be over – over there?