You could think of World War I as the last of 1,200 years of conflicts between the rival royal houses of Europe. Or you could think of it as the first war of the American era of world history. But if you’re like most of us, you usually don’t think of it at all.
The “war to end all wars” saw its memory overwritten by the carnage that began two decades later and would surpass the horrors of 1914-1918. World War II more than tripled the 15 million or so lives lost in the first conflict. But there’s another reason World War I so easily slipped from our collective memory. The animating idea behind America’s entry into the war and that guided – or misguided – our efforts to secure a lasting peace have fallen far out of favor.
Woodrow Wilson, the first Democratic president of the 20th century, pushed America into the war to fulfill the vision of the first Democratic president of them all, Thomas Jefferson. Like his fellow Virginian, Wilson dreamed of America using its might to, as he put it, be “champions of the rights of mankind.” This tenet of Democratic doctrine was strengthened by the success of World War II, but destroyed by the Vietnam War. What Jefferson dreamed and Wilson implemented, Lyndon Johnson would discredit.
Many Republicans opposed Wilson’s efforts to enter the war and successfully scuttled the League of Nations, his intended instrument for bringing his progressive vision to the world. When Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon each ran on the promise of ending wars begun by their Democratic predecessors, they were returning to their party’s roots. Both Presidents Bush tried Wilson’s approach in the Middle East, but their party soon rejected it. By the 2017 centennial of America’s entry in World War I, both major parties were staunchly opposed to the idea that Americans should fight so the world could be “made safe for democracy.”