How America’s memory of the First World War slipped away

The Great War marked the true beginning of the American century. But 100 years later, “the war to end all wars” is largely forgotten in the U.S.

A group of American soldiers wave heartily from the deck of a ship transporting them to the fighting in France, during World War I, 1917. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Precisely 100 years after U.S. president Woodrow Wilson—“with a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking” and with millions of young men of other nations already lying in the graves of Flanders—asked the United States Congress to mobilize a neutral, jazz-happy nation to save Britain, France and little Belgium from obliteration by the German kaiser, there is little in the American capital to remind a visitor of the war to end all wars. There is no sky-piercing obelisk, no haunting roster of the fallen, no sacred shrine to Wilson himself.

As Canada ritually, dutifully, predictably embraces the grimness and glory of Vimy Ridge, the American republic and its new president gird for the inevitable next conflagration—Syria; North Korea—in place of looking backward, weeping, learning.

“The First World War is the moment when America says, ‘We’re the big dog on the planet,’ ” notes Mark Facknitz of James Madison University, a descendant of three men who fought in the Great War for the U.S., for Germany and, fatally, for Canada, respectively. “Donald Trump keeps saying the same thing,” he goes on, “but it’s no longer true.”


READ MORE: What Vimy means today, a century after the iconic battle

Physically, and allegorically as well, small residue of Wilson’s tragical gambit endures here. Across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., rests the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the city itself, a little Doric temple, 12 columns around, was erected by the District of Columbia in the 1920s to commemorate its fallen sons. There is a soaring “national” monument to the courage of the killed, but it is in Kansas City. To many Americans, the most famous battle of the First World War was Snoopy versus the Red Baron.

A block east of the White House, a small, sunken plaza stands as a minor memorial to the conflict that, for Canada, began in the summer of 1914, three years before the first Yankee boots hit Gallic soil. Here is a bronze of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander who—having failed to corral the Mexican bandito Pancho Villa in 1916—was tasked by Wilson to lead the U.S. forces on the Western Front.

But in mournful memory of the horror, stupidity, wire, gore, guns, mud, corpses, horses—in public grief for men who, in the British poet’s words, “were staunch to the end against odds uncounted / They fell with their faces to the foe”—there is nothing. “Canada’s Vimy Memorial is transcendent, a work of art,” says Facknitz. “America’s monuments say, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered.’ ”

On a blossomy spring day, a handful of visitors cross Pershing Park on their way to somewhere else. One of them, a woman in a T-shirt that says VIETNAM VETERANS WIFE is leading a half-dozen schoolchildren, none of whom has heard of the First World War.


At the Library of Congress, a curator of sheet music named Paul Fraunfelter is explaining how such anthems of non-intervention as I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier and Neutrality Rag were replaced almost instantaneously by The Yanks With the Tanks Will Go Through the German Ranks and We Don’t Know Where We’re Going, But We’re On Our Way. “No one in Washington in April 1917 thought we were going to send troops to Europe and rescue the Allies,” Fraunfelter says. But send them, and rescue them, America did.

“The First World War holds a marginal, unsettled place in the American story,” says Steven Trout of the University of South Alabama. “The slaughter is so incomprehensible that even our attempts to recognize the slaughter are incomprehensible.”

READ MORE: Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, in photos

“What do Americans know about the war?” asks Facknitz. “They say, ‘Oh, yes, we know the Second World War. What was the first?’ ”

“At the level of the purely mythic Great War battles, nothing in the American experience rivals the Canadians at Vimy, the French at Verdun or the British at the Somme,” Facknitz says. “Our deaths from influenza [60,000] outnumbered our combat dead [50,000] in France in 1918. There was nothing compared to other nations’ Golgothas, nor, for that matter, to the enduring symbolism of Civil War battles like Gettysburg and Antietam, or to the Second World War battles that followed a short generation later—Normandy, the Bulge, Iwo Jima.”


“It’s hard to study the First World War without feeling a sense of waste,” says Trout. A century later, that sense endures; among the most lasting souvenirs of war in American life today may be the cigarettes that were supplied to every soldier.

“I think the greatest legacy of the First World War is the notion that America is the greatest nation in the world and the rest of the world should respect that,” says Facknitz. “That’s a dangerous notion, much more dangerous than cigarettes.”