The United States entered World War I one hundred years ago [this month]. Much has changed since then, obviously. And a lot of what’s changed has done so because the United States finally entered the fight.
Here are seven of them — not even counting the simple fact that the U.S. entry on the Allied side saved a mutinous French army and blunted Germany’s last-ditch offensive in 1918.
1. Woodrow Wilson and America’s liberal internationalism
After winning re-election on a promise to stay out of the war, Wilson took the doughboys in, effectively launching a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy that lasts, with variations, to the present day. Sure, the League of Nations was spurned by the Senate and ended up being a toothless organization that failed to stop World War II, but the notion that European affairs can threaten the United States took hold, as did the idea of collective security — which led directly to the creation of the United Nations at the end of WWII.
2. 1930s Germany
Wilson’s insistence on an end to Prussian militarism meant that Germany’s socialist government, and not the military dictatorship, was associated with the armistice, which did not exactly help the Weimar moderates’ reputation and helped fuel the “stab in the back” meme that simmered for years in Germany. That, coupled with France and the United Kingdom’s insistence that Germany pay dearly for the war, helped ensure that the Great War was not, in fact, the war to end all wars.
3. All those “little countries”
Wilson loved national self-determination. He loved it so much he made it one of his 14 Points. And so the American entry into WWI can also be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Europe’s land empires. Austria-Hungary? Auf wiedersehen. That transformed the map of Europe and created a quiltwork of smaller, ethnic nationality-based countries out of the Hapsburg ruins, like Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. (Self-determination also set the stage for U.S. animosity toward Europe’s colonial empires, with consequences like the Britain’s Suez Canal debacle decades later.)
4. The Importance of oil
Lord Curzon, days after the Armistice, noted that the “Allies floated to victory on a flood of oil.” That crude was mostly American — as were the trucks that gave Allied armies an edge over their rail- and foot-bound Central Power rivals. (That same motorized edge would again pay off in WWII, and help power the Red Army’s eastward march.) U.S. preoccupation with securing an ample supply of oil for itself and its friends was a key theme after the war — and continues to this day with the 5th Fleet’s patrolling of the Persian Gulf.
5. America started spy-hunting
Two months after the United States entered the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act, formally criminalizing spying, sharing national security information, or hampering U.S. war efforts on behalf of a foreign power. The following year, Congress cracked down on spying further with the Sedition Act, which outlined harsh penalties for a broad array of subversive acts, from spying to interfering in war efforts, to even insulting the U.S. government or military. Congress repealed the Sedition Act in 1921, but the federal government wielded the Espionage Act as a blunt legal instrument to crackdown on socialists, anti-war activists, and later “suspected communists” during the Cold War’s Red Scare. The act remains in place to this day (it even cropped up this year, when some constitutional experts warned President Donald Trump could, in theory, pursue criminal charges against journalists and government leakers under the law).
6. It foreshadowed the U.S.-Soviet Cold War Face-Off
While the United States was still wrapping up World War I, Wilson decided U.S. troops needed to intervene in another part of Europe: Russia. While war was raging on the western front, Wilson deployed two contingents totalling some 13,000 U.S. troops to northern Russia to shore up imperialist “White Russian” forces fighting Soviet revolutionaries. It was the first and only time U.S. troops deployed to Russian soil. During their 19 month stint in the harsh Russian north, some 420 American soldiers died. It’s an oft-forgotten chapter of American history, but the victorious communist forces didn’t forget. And it didn’t exactly get U.S.-Soviet relations off to a great start, foreshadowing the U.S.-Soviet standoff that defined the post-World War II order.
7. The start of U.S. global naval supremacy
Washington was still on the sidelines as Britain’s and Germany’s “steel castles” duked it out in big naval battles like Jutland. But Wilson knew that naval power was key to American security. The 1916 naval bill, and U.S. entry into the fight against German U-boats, laid the groundwork for an unmatched U.S. naval supremacy the world still sees today. (When warned in 1916 building a big navy could anger seafaring power Britain, Wilson replied “Let us build a navy bigger than her’s and do what we please!” So they did just that.)