Global politics, US civil liberties, and the popularity of wristwatches and trench coats all have their roots in a transformative but often forgotten moment in history: World War I.
As the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War approaches in April, Vejas Liulevicius and Ernie Freeberg, two experts from UT’s Department of History, reflect on the how the conflict’s impact continues to be felt today.
Many of today’s news headlines, particularly of strife in the Middle East, are a result of decisions made after the war, said Liulevicius, the Lindsay Young Professor of History and director of the UT Center for the Study of War and Society.
“The borders drawn then are the ones being contested today,” he said.
The June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, triggered the war, which would last four years. His death drew Germany and the Ottoman Empire, Ferdinand’s allies, into a war with Russia, Great Britain, and France.
The war eventually led to the collapse of Germany, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. The territories they had previously controlled fell to Britain and France, which redrew political borders. New countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia appeared. Britain and France also carved up the Middle East along arbitrary lines and created borders for modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia without regard to how they divided tribes or pushed together ethnic groups that had centuries-old feuds.
President Woodrow Wilson had hoped for the United States to remain a neutral arbiter of the conflict but eventually entered America into the war—on April 6, 1917—in part to support its allies.
“People have such strong memories of patriotism and victory parades related to World War I, but we forget how strongly contested it was,” said Freeberg, head of the Department of History. “Many felt the European war was not America’s problem to solve, and the sympathies of American immigrants were torn. Many people of German, Irish, and Jewish ancestry were reluctant to support the Allied Powers.”
Wilson’s plan to garner support for the war by mobilizing public opinion led to the rise of propaganda. Out of this came stylized “I Want You for U.S. Army” Uncle Sam posters, Liberty Bonds, and films featuring actors like Charlie Chaplin. Wilson also enacted the draft, which conscripted 2.8 million American men for the army.
Wilson’s efforts had a dark side, however, Freeberg said. There was a strong move to silence dissent, and the Sedition Act came into being. More than 2,000 dissenters were arrested. The move brought to light the argument over how much power and control the federal government should have over public dissent.
“The American Civil Liberties Union emerges out of this, initially to try to protect the rights of conscientious objectors and then trying to get them out of jail,” Freeberg said.
He added, “We have far more freedom to speak against the government today than 100 years ago. The organized defense of free speech started then and continues today.”
World War I made items that previously had been tools of war commonplace, Liulevicius said. The heavy pocket watches men wore on chains were too clumsy to coordinate attacks on the front lines. Enter the idea to design something smaller to be worn on the wrist.
And those fashionable trench coats? They began as military uniforms with belts on which to clip grenades and other weaponry. They were later repurposed for civilian use.
Certain words became synonymous with war and “the English language was never the same,” Liulevicius said. “Words like honor, sacrifice, and duty could never be completely unproblematic again.”
When the war first began, many in European cities welcomed the conflict. Droves of men rushed to sign up to fight because they thought it would be fast and a great adventure. But as it dragged on, many became disillusioned, Freeberg said.
“People who had been enthusiastic about it experienced disappointment because they worried it had been a war about nothing,” he said.
This would eventually lead to an “America First” impulse and isolationism, which kept Franklin Roosevelt from responding to the rise of fascism. It also would play into America’s slow and muted response to World War II as news of atrocities about the Holocaust began coming to light.
By the end of the war, 10 million people had perished. The war set the stage for the rise of communism in Russia, fascism in Italy, and World War II, instigated by Germany.
But it also laid the groundwork for good—ideas of diplomacy and self-determination. The League of Nations, a precursor of the United Nations, was born to promote the idea of collective security for countries and open diplomacy instead of deals behind closed doors, Freeberg said.
“People need to understand what happened in World War I to understand what might be possible today,” Liulevicius said.
To ensure that people do not forget the legacies of World War I, the UT Center for the Study of War and Society has organized a series of events this spring. The center recently received a $1,200 grant from the Library of America to support the effort.
The programming kicked off in in February with a lecture about the role of 380,000 black soldiers who fought and labored in the US Army during the conflict. It highlighted the legacy and struggles of the solders on and off the battlefield, at home and abroad.
The program continues with other events, including an April 6 talk at Maryville Public Library and an April 7 program at UT’s McClung Museum.
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)