“The Great War” and “The war to end all war” proved to be neither. The conflict that would bleed to death some of Earth’s proudest empires—while killing 16.5 million soldiers and civilians—later would be christened World War I to distinguish it from the next, even deadlier slaughter.
One hundred years ago this week, the interlocking machinery of European alliances creaked into action: Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on July 28; Russia mobilized to defend the Serbs; Austria’s ally, German Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern, declared war against his cousin, Russian Czar Nicholas Romanov II; war would ensnare France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and eventually the U.S.
For Americans the war lasted only 16 months and didn’t scar their soil or their cities. And while any casualty causes suffering, the U.S. death toll of 117,000 was less than 1 percent of the total carnage.
The U.S. was more than Europe’s military rescuer. The old continental notion of invincible monarchies—of noble empires as the world’s organizing principles—lay in ruin. And if the war itself hadn’t wrought enough human havoc, the mobility of armies during and after it helped spread an influenza pandemic that killed 50 million to 100 million people—perhaps 5 percent of Earth’s human population. As all of this settled, one nation stood strongest:
Instead of territorial gain, the U.S. had earned a vast reputational gain. In the eyes of the world, the formerly isolationist Americans were strong, resolute, and willing to pay their own blood and treasure to buy the freedom of others.
In succeeding decades, with U.S. involvement in the growth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in a long list of geopolitical crises, America’s service to Europe has exacted high costs.
Today the guns of August that savaged poppy-dotted fields in 1914 echo faintly in wheat fields strewn with airliner wreckage and body parts. The crisis in Ukraine has startled those in the West who had come to see Russia as subdued, tamed. Again, a Europe unable and unwilling to resolve its disputes turns to Washington.
Print Headline: Eyes on us, again