In words oft quoted and all too true, George Kennan called the outbreak of war in August 1914 “the great seminal catastrophe” of the last century. It led to the deaths in battle of more than 10 million men, the collapse of four great multinational empires, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, years of further violence, a crisis of democratic government, the rise of fascism, Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany, and then a new and more terrible war with scores of millions dead. You might say that Gavrilo Princip, who fired the first shot on June 28, 1914, had much to answer for.
Over the weeks that followed the assassination at Sarajevo, one great European power after another was dragged in: the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary ranged against the Entente of France, Great Britain, and Russia. But one great power stood aside—if such a power it was. No American troops had ever fought in Europe, and the US Army, while adequate for the purposes of extirpating the indigenous inhabitants and beating up the Mexicans, barely existed beside the larger European armies. All the same, in the half-century between Civil War and Great War, the population of the United States had more than doubled, from 38 million to 92 million—more numerous than any European state save Russia—while an explosive industrial revolution saw coal production double in the two decades before 1914 and the production of crude steel increase sevenfold. These were the raw materials of modern war. Whether the American people liked it or not, their country looked like a great military power waiting to be born.
Many did not like it. Apart from a deep traditional aversion to war, and the unforgotten sufferings of the Civil War, half of the country’s industrial workers were European immigrants or the children of those immigrants. As President Woodrow Wilson said, “the people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war.” When the First World War began, well-informed observers reckoned that more Americans, if forced to choose, would rather fight against than for that Entente. German Americans were then nearly a tenth of the population and had no desire to fight against their ancestral homeland; millions of Irish Americans didn’t want to fight for England; and nor did many Russian-born Jews want to fight on the side of the czar, whose persecution they had fled.
For the better part of three years, Wilson “kept us out of the war,” as the slogan for his 1916 re-election campaign claimed. But in early 1917, he decided that entering the conflict was inevitable, and Congress declared war. The vote was not unanimous—373 to 50 in the House, and 82 to six in the Senate—and it came after a bitter debate that stretched over a whole weekend, with the Senate sitting all through Saturday, and ended only with those changes in the upper house’s procedural rules that recently made possible the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee. Yes, history does come around in unlikely ways.