[April 6, 2016] During the late 1980s I lived next door to a World War I “doughboy”; a great person in all respects. He told me many stories of the war but one in particular I remember vividly. It was the one where he lost his rifle in battle (a serious problem) but, he said, “there were so many lying around it was easy to get another.”1 Today marks the 99th anniversary of the United States entering World War I … April 6, 1917.
Most historians can tell us about the many reasons for the war and that, ultimately, it resulted in massive changes in future military readiness, commercial activity, and the redrawing of the boundaries of countries around the world. What is interesting for leaders is why the United States entered the war in the first place because a majority of Americans were opposed to entering it. Americans have a long memory and a special aversion to war.
The U.S. Civil War and the Indian wars were part of America’s collective memory but it was the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippine-American War that were vividly in their minds in the lead up to WWI. Americans tend to be both Christians and isolationists. They want to be left alone and in peace so that they can conduct their commerce, practice their religion, and advance in their society. War runs counter to those desires.
The German Empire’s navy had been aggressively interdicting shipping around Britain since the WWI began in 1914. This meant that merchant ships as well as warships were being targeted. But it was the sinking of several American, Italian, and other nation’s passenger boats that got U.S. President Wilson pressured to call for war. This was a grave strategic error on the part of Germany and that would ultimately lead to their defeat.
It was the entrance of the United States into WWI that shifted the balance toward the Allies. Although, under Wilson, the U.S. was wholly unprepared to enter the war, it did so despite the obstacles of re-generating its industrial and military capacity. WWI was a war of attrition and economic strangulation. Both sides practiced it to great effect.
In June 1917, the first U.S. Army troops arrived in France to begin their training for combat.2 General John J. Pershing was appointed by Wilson to command those soldiers and although the U.S. military contribution began slowly, they would eventually mark a major turning point in the war effort and help bring the Allies to victory. My “doughboy” neighbor fought under Pershing and was proud for what he did to help liberate Europe from the scourge of a potential German colonial empire.
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- The implication was that so many had been killed and wounded that rifles were scattered everywhere.