Marking the Centenary of World War I in America

The following is by from Kimberly J. Lamay Licursi, author of Remembering World War I in America (March 2018). Lamay Licursi is an adjunct instructor of history at Siena College in New York. 

When I first began studying the United States in the First World War it was primarily because it seemed to be relatively uncharted territory. Even a casual history buff could observe the many shelves in bookstores dedicated to the Second World War and the Civil War, and the paltry number of books on World War I. Those few selections that were available rarely focused on the American aspect of the war. The depth of research and writing has improved in the last ten years as the centenary of the war grew closer, but there is still a decided lack of interest. The country has a long history of apathy regarding the First World War. Americans tolerated the conflict through the armistice in November 1918, but it was quickly forgotten thereafter. Moreover, there was not sufficient time to allow veterans to fully reflect years later because the Second World War came so swiftly on the heels of the First. Sadly, most Americans today would not be able to identify the warring countries or the cause for which they were fighting. In 2013, Congress formed a commission (along with many state governments), to commemorate the centenary of the war but few quantifiable reminders of the war are being produced. The agenda pales in comparison to what is happening to spur remembrance in Europe.

The Civil War centennial commemoration in the 1960s was a much larger undertaking aided by Civil War Roundtable groups. Local and regional roundtables were a pivotal part of the commemoration and worked in their communities to generate remembrance activities. The roundtables, made up of history buffs and re-enactors, have no corollary for the First World War, and the events planned in the 2010s are insignificant in comparison. State and local museums are presenting exhibitions related to the war and historical societies are hosting talks by scholars, but these activities are not likely to generate significant interest among the American public.

Many would argue, of course, that the Civil War had a much greater impact the shape of our country, meriting a more significant commemoration, but that discounts the exceeding relevance of the First World War today. Americans not only won the war but gained global preeminence. The United States truly came of age during and after the Great War. The nation had vanquished a formidable foe, become the largest industrial power, touted the American way of life in Europe through jazz and later through Hollywood, and set the stage for the continued ascension of American might during the Second World War. However, the war marked a rise in American prestige at the same time it portended a crisis of identity in many Middle Eastern countries. The British and French victors carved up the spoils of what we consider most of the modern Middle East to suit their needs. Little thought was given to the long-term ramifications of the British invitation for Jews to settle in Palestine, or to nation building in Syria, Iraq, and other states created after the war. At the height of his influence, Osama bin Laden made it clear that the humiliation World War I inflicted on the defeated Ottoman Empire still simmered quite powerfully in Arab imagination. It is from these actions that many military and terrorist-related conflicts we confront today were born.

9780803290853-JacketBlue.inddRemembering the First World War in all its horrific detail not only serves a real purpose in helping to prevent future wars, remembering the war could give us all more perspective on some of the biggest threats to our security today.  I fear that November 11, 2018 will come and go with little notice, yet understanding this war and its disturbing legacy would serve all Americans well.

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