ImageA significant anniversary passed almost unnoticed last month. April 6th marked 90 years since the USA's debut on the world stage. Our entry into World War I - then called The Great War (or the World War) - occurred on April 6, 1917. Hostilities had already been raging nearly three years by the time President Wilson declared war on Germany and the Central Powers. Thereby, Mr. Wilson honored his promise of two years earlier when he said the United States would fight if Germany resumed "unrestricted submarine warfare". Germany had done so in February 1917.

A submarine attacking a cargo- or passenger-ship without warning and sinking it with torpedoes during a war is unremarkable now, but was considered shocking and barbaric then. Germany's sinking of the liner Lusitania without warning, in May 1915, produced the president's warning. (128 Americans were among the 1198 passengers who died.) By 1917, Germany was poised to gamble everything on a final desperate push to win, so she resumed the tactic. The German High Command believed the USA's entry into the war would come too late to affect the outcome.

During my childhood, people still remembered the war because many veterans were still living. My grandma's youngest brother was a veteran of the war, and many of our neighbors had also served. One was disabled from having been gassed. He sat on his front porch every day while his children - numbering six - played nearby. (My father joked that he probably wasn't completely disabled.) The president of Wheaton College during my student days, Dr. V. Raymond Edman, was also a WWI veteran. He never tired of telling about his experiences - especially, of being cared for by a German family when he fell ill during the winter of 1918.

The Great War seems almost quaint, now - possibly because film footage looks like old, silent, comic movies. But the war was not a comedy. Its cost was ruinous in both human and financial terms. Over 10 million battle deaths and twice as many wounded resulted. (1) The Entente lost 5.7 million soldiers and 4.7 million civilians. (Russia, 1.8 million battle deaths; France, 1.4 million; the UK, 885,000; the USA, 116,000.) The Central Powers lost 4 million soldiers and 5.4 million civilians. (Germany, 2 million battle deaths; Austria, 1.1 million; Turkey, 800,000.

One estimate places the war's financial cost at $339 billion - measured in gold dollars of the time. As gold stood at $20 per ounce in 1918 ($600 an ounce now), a multiplier of 30 puts the cost in current dollars at $10.17 trillion! - a staggering sum that cannot be translated accurately into today's economy.

This ghastly cataclysm was triggered by a chance event - although a web of treaties, diplomatic intrigues, national rivalries, old resentments, and near-unstoppable war plans had erected a house of cards that was certain to collapse eventually. All Europe was an armed camp through the opening years of the 20th century, waiting with drawn breath (and sword) for the event that would kick off the long-anticipated war. Germans referred to it as "Der Tag" (The Day), and Kaiser Wilhelm was famously supposed to have said, "Some damned fool in the Balkans will start it."

As it turned out, he was right. Franz Ferdinand, crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made a state visit to Bosnia - a Balkan province under Austrian control, but coveted by Serbian patriots as part of a new "Greater Serbia"- on June 28, 1914. As the prince and his wife drove along a Sarajevo street, a Bosnian student shot them dead. Austria decided to use the event as a pretext for subjugating Serbia, which she supposed to be behind the assassinations. Austrian officials envisioned a small, limited war in the style modeled by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck during the formative years of the German Empire, which he created. (2)

By 1914, every nation in Europe had some bone to pick with another. Germany had formed its empire late (1871), by which time African, Asian and Pacific colonies were mostly divvied up among European nations. (Even puny Belgium had the Belgian Congo.) The Kaiser and his government groused about not having "a place in the sun" - i.e., Germany's share of colonies. France had seethed with resentment since 1871, when Germany took the Alsace and Lorraine provinces after winning the Franco-Prussian war. Britain feared Germany's growing sea power. The Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled Bosnia, while Serbia dreamed of a Greater Serbia unifying all the Balkan states. Russia, which considered itself the Big Brother of all Slavic peoples, kept a weather eye on Austria and Germany. Italy and Austria were bitter rivals for some disputed alpine territory. The Ottoman Turks were a dying empire, but they still had enough clout to strengthen either the Entente or the Central Powers. America was isolated and self-absorbed. European countries considered us backward and militarily weak.

Germany approved of Austria's war of retribution on Serbia, but German and Austrian statesman of 1914 lacked Bismarck's skill in crafting treaties to keep small, limited wars from becoming big ones. Thus, Russia started mobilizing when Austria attacked Serbia. This caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France was Russia's ally, so she declared war on Germany and went after her lost provinces. Germany then moved against France with seven armies, in a massive right hook through Belgium, causing Britain to declare war on Germany for violating Belgian neutrality. No one seemed able to stop the march of war-plans and timetables, so Europe slid into war, as if down a greased slide. Soon Turkey joined the Central Powers. Ultimately, over 100 countries from Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia joined the fighting.

In truth, few diplomats fully realized how the web of European treaties - some of them secret - would draw so many nations into what first looked like a localized scrap between Austria and Serbia. Also, no one tried very hard to stop the war-slide because there was a kind of "hunger" for war across the heavily armed continent that had known only peace since 1871. Bismarck regarded limited war as a policy-arm of his Realpolitik that could be used and controlled by careful statesmanship. Politicians, writers, scientists and philosophers across Europe actually thought a war could be a "cleansing" - a kind of catharsis, like an old-fashioned "bleeding". Old film-footage shows delirious crowds cheering as their legions marched off to slaughter. It seems unbelievable today. But both sides thought the war would be short - "over by Christmas". No one foresaw years of fighting, millions dead, whole countries laid waste, and a world-system undone.

Americans tend to think of WWI - if they think of it at all - as starting in 1917, since that was when we got involved. But the three years of desperate fighting preceding our intervention produced millions of deaths, tens of millions wounded, the brutal subjugation of Belgium, millions of tons of shipping sunk, widespread use of poison-gas, large scale trench-warfare, colossal siege-guns, artillery with a 70-mile range, aerial bombing of civilians, fleets of deadly warplanes, and (as previously mentioned) the stealthy attack-submarine. The fully automatic machine gun - the "killing machine" of WWI - changed warfare forever.

The American Civil War had already shown (to all who would learn) that frontal attacks on fortified positions were futile in the rifle-age, but European generals still did not comprehend this by 1914. Although Maxim invented the machine gun in 1884, military high commands steeped in 19th-century warfare did not appreciate its destructive power. Both sides repeatedly tried massive frontal attacks on miles-deep fortified lines, with little result but mind-boggling slaughter. At the Somme, the British army lost 60,000 men on the morning of July 1, 1916. Hundreds of thousands fell in German and French attacks on forts around Verdun. (3) Even the American Army launched a superfluous attack costing several thousand men on the morning of November 11, 1918. This was the very day of the Armistice - already announced. One old veteran said that by that time very little thinking was going on anywhere, by anybody.

An unexpected factor that kept the war going so long was the belligerents' unwillingness to quit short of victory. This varied from previous experience. In earlier, limited wars, a country that realized it was beaten usually surrendered. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox when he saw that continuing was futile. France tried to hold out against Prussia after a disastrous defeat at Sedan in 1870. But the ensuing siege of Paris - when residents were reduced to eating rats - ended in French collapse. Without allies, surrender was France's only option.

World War I was different because the belligerents had allies who could pick up the ball when others on the team were exhausted. France was spent after Verdun (1916), but Britain shouldered the war and hung on. Russia faltered in 1917 - and finally surrendered in 1918 - but America's entry revitalized the Entente. Germany consistently refused armistice terms requiring her to relinquish territory she had conquered. The sacrifices made by German soldiers, the German High Command's confidence in its preparation and its weapons, and its conviction that its soldiers were superior, would not allow Germany to agree to terms until after she saw that her retreating armies were well and truly licked.

America did not "win" World War I. Our participation was decisive - although only partly in military terms. The American Expeditionary Force - kept under American command by a determined General Pershing - did fight (and help win) important battles at Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and the Meuse-Argonne. (Chateau-Thierry was a wholly American victory.) Our soldiers fought well, supplying that final push that broke the enemy. But our biggest contribution was the great flood of men and materiel that demoralized the exhausted Germans. They knew they could not beat those 2 million fresh American troops in the field by the fall of 1918. Germans began retreating and surrendering in large numbers, and the German High Command sued for peace. War on the Western Front ceased at 11 AM (French Time), November 11, 1918.

As politicians like to say, "mistakes were made" in the final rush to end the fighting. All are much easier to see in hindsight. Without question, the biggest error was ending the war via armistice rather than with a comprehensive defeat, followed by a definite surrender. The German Army was on the ropes and in general retreat, but it was not decisively beaten. Long after German amnesia set in about their national exhaustion and the failure of German arms in 1918, the myth persisted that an undefeated Germany was "stabbed in the back" by scheming politicians. (Millions of veterans sat in beer halls telling each other, "Ve vere never defeated.") Adolph Hitler honed the tale to a fine edge by insisting that the "November criminals" were Jewish bankers and profiteers. Thus was the table set for the horror of the Final Solution - all based on a lie born of armistice.

WWI was the 20th century's formative event. Its influence persists to the present day. The war demolished three great empires: Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany. It irreparably wasted France; set Italy up for fascism; and cost Britain a fortune in blood and treasure. Germany's brief experiment with republican democracy failed and lapsed into Nazism. The Russian empire became the new Soviet empire. The entire world order was upset. Only the USA and Japan emerged stronger on the world stage. Their eventual clash was inevitable.

Britain lived to fight another day, but waited until it was almost too late to stop a resurgent Germany intent on reversing the result and settling the hegemonic issues of WWI. France fell in a few days when German arms struck a mighty blow in 1940. Russia came close to collapse in 1941, but ultimately triumphed. Japan ran rampant for a time with its Pacific Empire. But ultimately the United States - whose inauspicious world-debut occurred on April 6, 1917 - delivered the final blows against Japanese and German tyranny.

Ninety years on, it is tough being a world power. Many of our citizens don't want us to be. Like it or not, though, we are and we shall be - until some enemy's will and strength exceed ours.


(1) See list of World War I casualties at

(2) Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was Chancellor of Prussia (1862-'73) and Chancellor of the German Empire (1873-'90).

(3) See "Battle for the Ages":