On April 6th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, and brought the US into the “Great War.”
To mark the centennial of this critical moment in the global conflict today known as World War I, a series of commemorations will take place during the month of April, and into 2018. The biggest events will be planned and carried out under the leadership of the US World War 1 Centennial Commission, assembled and put into place by former President Barack Obama.
The commemorative events will begin with a ceremony in Kansas City, Missouri, home of the National World War One Museum and Memorial, in the presence of numerous dignitaries, including Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister of Defense. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been invited, but neither has confirmed their presence at this point.
Monique Seefried, the former president of the International Baccalaureate Organization, is a commissioner on the organizational committee for the centennial. She spoke with Frenchly about the upcoming events.
Monique Seefried: I fully agree with that statement. It must be explained in several ways. One is linked to the fact that, even though there were 2 million Americans sent to France, only a quarter of them actually fought. For that quarter, the duration of the fighting was largely reduced, with the exception of certain units who fought between 150-200 days. But in comparison to the four years of combat experienced by the French, the English, and the Germans, the war [for American troops] was much less significant.
Secondly, the conflict was not on their own soil. It was very far away, with an enormous censorship by the press. The soldiers couldn’t recall where they were and what they did. When the soldiers returned to the US, very quickly they were thrown into an economic crisis that was quite intense, and the priorities of the country shifted. Then, the Second World War came about. Today’s generation of adults are the children of people who served in that war, which, for Americans, began with an attack on home soil at Pearl Harbor.
Most importantly: the causes of World War I are far too complicated to understand in the United States. The Second World War was much more cut and dried, the heroes and the villains were more easily identified. This clarity really plays an important role. The first World War was met with profoundly divided opinions in the United States, as many Americans were immigrants from Germany. It was only after World War I that schools stopped teaching German.
In addition, America did not play a large role in the victory because the United States Senate did not sign the Peace Treaty, and the US continued to practice a policy of isolationism. Unlike with their victory in World War II, the first World War was not a great moment of glory and political pride in US politics.
In only six months of combat, there were more direct and indirect (illness, etc) deaths than those two wars, which lasted for many years. Americans erected more monuments to commemorate deaths after World War I than World War II. During the 20 years between the wars, they truly honored the lost soldiers well. But, unlike Vietnam, there are no more veterans alive today to represent the soldiers of 1914-1918. Now, in the US, veterans play an essential role in these commemorations.
The main issue is that, unlike Europe, the US doesn’t pay much attention to history. Could this change? I’m not optimistic. There are two main problems: because of the focus right now on the pedagogy of teaching, teachers are not specialists of the subjects they teach, but rather specialists of techniques for teaching. In many cases, they lack the passion for the subject required to get students interested. It’s especially a shame for history class, because if you don’t have a captivating teacher, the subject will pass completely over your head! The other very serious issue is that schools are financed at a district level. So for students in low-income districts, their schools don’t have enough resources. As long as this system is in place, you won’t have an absolute right to education in the US.
Despite having been created by Congress, the Commission is financed by private investors. Fundraising takes up a large part of our time and energy. It’s very different from France, other European countries, and Australia, where the government supports efforts to commemorate World War I. The lack of support in the US is mostly due to budgetary constraints, and the widespread lack of understanding about this war by most elected officials.
It placed the US on the global stage. Before, the great European powers weren’t paying the US much attention. Additionally, the war unified the country. The US was still living in the shadow of the Civil War, which brought about enormous numbers of casualties, early forms of trench warfare, and the types of injuries sustained during World War I. And in the Southern states, people still considered themselves Confederates. World War I was an opportunity for the millions of men who left to fight in Europe to meet and realize that they were all Americans, instead of Northerns and Southerners.
The project is underway, slowed by the bureaucracy of obtaining permits from different commissions. We hope to lay the first stone on November 11th, 2017 (Remembrance Day).