As a French-born woman, I always felt a debt of gratitude to the United States. It is a gratitude shared by generations of Europeans who still remember the Americans as our liberators in two World Wars. I was raised on stories of American generosity. I read about the American volunteers who served in World War I. I know about the American Hospital in Paris and its ambulance drivers. When I immigrated to Atlanta to begin my new life as an American, I was shocked and dismayed by how little those in the U.S. knew about what their country had achieved during the first of those World Wars. U.S. intervention in World War I is perhaps this country’s greatest contribution to world peace.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war on April 6, 1917, Americans united in a way they never had before. In less than two years, the U.S. military grew from less than 200,000 troops to four and a half million. More than two million Americans were serving in France on November 11, 1918. Small-town farmers and Ivy League scholars enlisted. Women joined the ranks for the first time. Native Americans signed up at twice the rate of any other segment of the population. African-Americans comprised storied units such as the 369th Infantry Regiment. And 18 percent of the Americans who served were born in foreign countries.
At the outset of the war, the U.S. had few airplanes or guns, and no tanks or gas masks. Undeterred, the government expended more resources in two years than it had in the country’s first 141 years. Steel production increased by eight times. Two million Americans were put to work in industrial jobs to handle the surge.
America mobilized with an efficiency and effectiveness that surprised the world, helping bring an end to autocratic regimes across Europe. Sadly, it came at a terrible cost. In six months of combat, the U.S. lost more than 116,000 service members, a toll higher than the number of Americans lost in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.
Much of the world we know today has roots in World War I. The war broke up European dominance and gave rise to the American century. The League of Nations created by an American president after World War I was the precursor of the United Nations, the brainchild of another American president during World War II. And, the lessons learned after World War I served to avoid repeating the same mistakes after World War II.
During World War I, American women served in the military without the right to vote. Less than two years after the conflict ended, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment. American Indians received full citizenship for their service in World War I. African-Americans were treated as equals by French forces, inspiring them to fight for the same equality back home. The pursuit of civil rights took decades, but the Harlem Renaissance bloomed in the 1920s.
The role of the United States at the peace table, the transformation of the country from a debtor country to a creditor country, and evolutions in technology, medicine and industry made during the war, established America as a world power.
Atlanta has many ties to World War I. Street names like Argonne, Marne, and Verdun echo the names of famous battles. Cox Enterprises Inc., parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was formed by former Ohio Governor James Cox. Gov. Cox visited the famed Rainbow Division, which included a Georgia machine gun battalion and an Ohio infantry regiment, at Camp Mills, New York, in the fall of 1917 before it shipped to France. He encouraged voluntary cooperation between business, labor, and government. He unsuccessfully ran for president following the war on the promise to support President Wilson’s League of Nations, which may have brokered peace prior to World War II, with U.S. participation.
America’s historic sacrifice, service and progress during this period was officially commemorated in the U.S. last Thursday, when American and European leaders joined a gathering of thousands at the National World War l Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, on the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. entering the war. The event was presented by the United States World War l Centennial Commission, which is also hosting state commemorations across the country for the next two years, and overseeing the construction of a long-overdue World War l memorial in Washington, D.C. I encourage all Americans to visit worldwar1centennial.org to watch footage from these events and learn how to participate.
During his address at the dedication of the national memorial in Kansas City, President Calvin Coolidge remarked, “No one can doubt that our country was exalted and inspired by its war experience. It attained a conscious national unity which it never before possessed. That unity ought always to be cherished as one of our choicest possessions.”
As the world pauses to reflect on the events of 100 years ago, I hope Americans begin to see World War l in the same way our allies have for generations – as the moment when the U.S. came together as it never had before, committed itself fully to defending its treasured ideals, and changed the course of history.