What does World War I mean? A century of answers

How the lessons of the conflict have changed along with us

Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

When World War I began 100 years ago, on July 28, 1914, every nation fighting thought it knew why. England, France, and Russia blamed Germany and Austria-Hungary, while the latter blamed the former. Socialists blamed imperialists, pacifists blamed warmongering leaders, and Americans blamed the Old World for succumbing to its usual barbarism.

A century later, the guns have long been silenced, but the war over the war continues. To an extent that seems amazing for a modern conflict, there is still no consensus over who was responsible for World War I, whether it was a just or unjust war, or even whether it needed to be fought at all.

Instead, the war has enjoyed a long history as a political football, invoked by politicians, pundits, scholars, and activists to support all kinds of views, and influencing US foreign policy in different ways with each generation.

Today, as the war has faded from America’s political consciousness—it’s World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq that tend to be invoked more often—it remains a point of contention among academics, who continue to joust about its meaning and publish books exploring the war’s origins. A quick tour of how we’ve seen the war through history suggests that the shifting American story of WWI may not always tell us much about the war itself, but offers an excellent window into the outlook of the nation at any given time.

Someone else’s problem

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was reelected president with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Two years after shooting began, the prevailing American sentiment was that the war was an uncivilized exercise conducted by savages—“a violent eruption from the pit of corruption that was Europe,” as the historian David Kennedy later put it. The United States was a paradise blessed by geography, ideology, and God; part of its mission was to stay free of such senseless carnage, which it did—until 1917.


An opportunity for heroism

Six months after Wilson was reelected, he asked Congress to declare war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy.” Though the war policy was a U-turn, the idea behind it wasn’t. Europe was still barbaric—but instead of hiding from the old continent, America needed to redeem it. The war was, for a time, immensely popular. Millions of men enlisted in the military—fitting for a nation bursting with enthusiasm and self-confidence, an emerging continental power with a new sense of its role in the world.


A mistake

To say that Americans were disappointed with the aftermath of WWI would be an understatement. Immediately following the war, the Versailles Peace Treaty swiftly disintegrated, Germany collapsed, Russia warred with Poland, and Europe in general returned to its old ways. Instead of a new world made safe for democracy, Americans got back an old world still safe for traditional power politics. The 1920s also saw the beginnings of a cultural revolution: flappers, bootleggers, and jazz. There was enough change at home—maintaining large-scale commitments in Europe was too much. Instead, America returned to “normalcy,” a word Warren Harding coined in his successful presidential campaign.

A warning

As assistant secretary of the Navy during the war, Franklin Roosevelt saw up close the Wilson administration’s handling of the conflict and its aftermath. From this, he drew many lessons, among them that simply showing up and winning isn’t enough: What matters is constructing a lasting postwar peace. He cultivated Republicans to ensure continued US engagement, acceded to the reality of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, and insisted on rehabilitating Germany. In many ways, this cautionary version has remained the dominant interpretation of the war by American leaders and pundits. That’s what President Clinton meant when in 1995, making the case for intervening in the former Yugoslavia, he lamented that, “After World War I, we pulled back from the world, leaving a vacuum that was filled by the forces of hatred.”


An accident

In 1962, historian Barbara Tuchman published “The Guns of August.” A history of WWI’s origins, the book argued that none of the combatants wanted a war—but by ignoring the fact it might happen, they blundered into what was then the costliest conflict in history. A Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestseller, Tuchman’s book influenced how President Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. (“I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] ‘The Missiles of October,’” JFK told his brother.) Tuchman’s view would become the most popular one among an American public scarred by the futile-seeming war in Vietnam, but today few experts believe that Tuchman’s thesis holds up. They may not agree whose fault it was, but the mounting aggression of the time made the war something considerably more than a mistake.

Germany’s fault

Today, the most widely accepted explanation among American historians is that Germany wanted a war to prevent Russian enlargement, to increase its overseas colonies, and to become the dominant European power. This wasn’t initially an American idea, however: It came from a 1961 book by the German historian Fritz Fischer, whose work blaming his own country rocked the nation. West Germany had rebuilt itself as a responsible country after Hitler’s death, and the last thing it wanted was to be found guilty of yet another global catastrophe. Fischer’s argument found a sympathetic audience in America, reassuring doubters that US participation in the war, and its ultimate role in stopping Germany, hadn’t been futile after all.


An affair of the East

If one thing can be said to characterize the emerging modern worldview, it’s the recognition of the importance of what happens beyond the actions of traditional Western powers. In 2011 Sean McMeekin, an American historian who works at a Turkish university, released a book in which he pointed to a new culprit: Russia, whose territorial ambitions in the crumbling Ottoman Empire led it to provoke Germany in the hopes of swiftly winning a war. (This theory was more counterintuitive even than Niall Ferguson’s 1998 book, “The Pity of War,” that—controversially—held England responsible for the war’s huge toll, in taking a smaller conflict and transforming it into a catastrophic global struggle.) Framing the war as an Eastern land grab that just happened to lead to the deaths of millions of Europeans might not ever become the standard narrative, but at a time when those former Ottoman lands are again a huge preoccupation for America, it may be just the angle for our times.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.