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The Great War: A Cautionary Tale

This year, the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, has seen a long parade of commemorations—a New York Times feature, a presidential visit to a Belgian cemetery, and even a few Buzzfeed listicles. But when compared to commemorations of the Second World War, memorials of this milestone anniversary have been muted in this country. While World War II battles like D-Day and Iwo Jima occupy hallowed ground in America’s collective memory, First World War campaigns like the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (the largest battle in American history) are scarcely remembered. This is a shame, because the First World War, not the Second, offers the most important lessons for America’s place in the world today.

Consider the causes of the two wars. World War II offered a clear moral justification for going to war. Although the Allies committed their share of atrocities, the world is unquestionably a better place without the genocidal dictatorships of Nazi Germany and Japan. Finding clear moral lessons in the causes of World War I is much more difficult. While President Wilson later tried to justify America’s entry into the war as making “the world… safe for democracy”,the Great War (as it was known at the time) was largely a struggle between two rival camps of colonial empires. Both sides made extensive use of colonial soldiers, and the ostensibly democratic Allies included Russia, a backwards autocracy. True, one of the chief causes of the war was Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium, but it’s also worth noting that France’s long-discussed grand military strategy, Plan XVII, called for a counter-invasion of Germany.

The ethical ambiguities and diplomatic confusion of World War I are far more relevant to today’s world than World War II’s clear tale of good and evil. War is rarely a morality play, and seeing Nazi Germany in every potential threat can be counterproductive. In American politics, invocations of World War II have become something of a cognitive crutch to avoid nuanced debate—President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech is the most infamous offender. On the other hand, an appreciation of the contradictions and confusions of alliance building, à la World War I, provides ample lessons for navigating today’s emerging multipolar world.

Indeed, the geopolitical order that fought the Great War bears eerie resemblance to the world today. In 1914, Britain, the declining hegemon, a maritime and commercial power, tried to contain Germany, a rising economic power with imperial ambitions. Today, the United States, the world’s financial and military leader, faces China, an economic juggernaut with growing naval aspirations. Britain’s containment network of alliances and territorial guarantees eventually dragged it into war. It remains to be seen if America’s alliances will do the same.

There are also important lessons to be drawn from the disappointing conclusion to World War I. At Versailles, Wilson’s high-minded ideals were muscled aside by the ruthless pragmatism of France’s Clemenceau and Britain’s Lloyd George. Disillusioned, the United States, already the world’s largest economy and now its preeminent military power, chose to withdraw into isolationism. American nonparticipation made the League of Nations irrelevant from the start.

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By contrast, after World War II the United States enthusiastically engaged with the world, creating a host of political and economic institutions to preserve the hard-won peace. Today, with the American public’s diminished appetite for global engagement, America’s mindset seems closer to 1918 than 1945. The disappointing conclusion of World War I offers a cautionary tale against disengagement—after all, the mistakes of Versailles made World War II possible.

One hundred years on, World War I remains one of America’s leastunderstood wars. Perhaps this is understandable; its muddled causes and disappointing conclusion offer little of the moral clarity of its successor. But it would be bring some small measure of closure if America learned from its Great War experience.

Oliver W. Kim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator living in Leverett House.                                            

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