The American WWI Centennial (Don’t Wait for 2017)

Last Friday I got to give a presentation to Bethel alumni and students — a “class without a quiz” for Homecoming — entitled “Remembering the Great War: Christian Perspectives on the Commemoration of World War I.” It’s a theme that I’ve explored often on this blog, and I’ve written an article about it that hopefully will come out before too long.

"Lest We Forget" poster in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral
One example of the “Lest We Forget” theme, posted in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral this past January

That piece starts with the observation that, more than any other symbol or statement, students on our WWI travel course encounter the phrase, “Lest we forget.” Here’s a taste of where I go from there:

At first glance, the phrase can seem rote, unnecessary. Surely a world war — fought by 65 million people and involving far more — cannot pass from the memory of anyone who experienced it, or heard about its glories and horrors second hand. Nor from the collective memory of a community broken, defined, or otherwise affected by it.

And yet, we forget. Time marches forward, carrying our attention with it. The complicated riches of contemplating the past don’t stack up against the urgent needs of the present and the terrifying anxieties or tantalizing possibilities of the future.

So like the poet Laurence Binyon, watching the first Tommies cross the English Channel in 1914, people for a hundred years have pledged themselves against their nature:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

That vow has been renewed again for the war’s centenary. The BBC plans over 2,500 hours of TV and radio programming, and the British and French governments have jointly budgeted €65 million ($70 million) for commemoration. Australia’s public and private sectors plan three times that much spending, though a lackluster public response so far has led one historian to warn of “Gallipoli fatigue.”

The remainder of the article, like last week’s talk, is dedicated to a critique of the (much smaller) American commemorative effort, spearheaded by a private commission that is trying to build a new national war memorial in Washington, DC.

This is the first, I suspect, that many of you are hearing about that effort. After all, the U.S. didn’t enter the First World War until April 1917, so our tendency is to think of the American centenary as being a couple years away.

But as several historians argued in an October 2014 conversation now available to the public through the Journal of American History, we shouldn’t wait that long. Here’s a sampler of arguments for why Americans ought already to be paying attention, and thinking about the period 1914-1917 in American history:

STEPHEN ORTIZ (Binghamton): …It is important intellectually to show both our students and our public(s) that the old narratives of American isolationism are simply not correct. Moreover, that conception allows an interpretive, quasi-moralistic position about the United States as a reluctant belligerent dragged into the world’s dark affairs only as a last resort (and as a savior of sorts). Starting our discussions of U.S. involvement with a 1917–2017 centennial perpetuates those misconceptions.

Williams, Torchbearers of DemocracyJENNIFER KEENE (Chapman): …It is striking how vehemently Americans disagreed throughout the 1914–1917 period. Understanding the pervasiveness and reasons for those disagreements allows us to better understand the draconian measures that the Wilson administration took to silence dissent once the United States entered the war and why so many local communities believed such measures were necessary to defend the nation.

CHAD WILLIAMS (Brandeis): …adopting a perspective that begins in 1914 also allows us to appreciate fully how the war dramatically reshaped the African diaspora and the relationship of African Americans to it. The outbreak of the war quickly brought its imperial dimensions and direct connection to Africa into stark relief. This did not go unnoticed by African Americans…. The war exposed the global nature of the color line and caused African Americans to think about their own conditions in a broad global and diasporic context. It also marked the beginning of a mobilizing process, which would continue throughout the war and its aftermath, of African Americans and other African peoples connecting in ways both literal and imaginative.

ANDREW HUEBNER (U. Alabama): …Many of my students take as a foregone conclusion that the United States would intervene (and win) in both wars. Teaching the debates of the 1914–1917 period can help interrupt such certainties.

JULIA IRWIN (U. South Florida): …For many recent immigrants, the war was extremely personal from the very beginning. If we only think of “Americans” as those citizens who were born in the United States, we risk neglecting the histories and experiences of the millions of first-generation immigrants living in the United States.

Read the full interchange — which also covers causes of American involvement, the war’s effects on the U.S., what’s new in WWI historiography, and Jay Winter’s suggestion that we decenter “1914-1918” and place the war within the larger story of “international violence from 1898 to 1923” — here.

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