A century ago — April 6, 1917 — America entered “The Great War” in Europe after spending nearly three years resolutely determined to stay out. The war churned on for another 19 months and claimed 117,000 American lives. The last of the soldiers and sailors who survived battles “over there” are gone.
Why focus on a war fought so long ago? Because we live in a world mightily shaped by that war and the one that followed. Because we never know when America will next know war. And because war is an engine for change, just as surely as the internet or medical cures or globalization or any other force that cannot be defied or denied. Construction follows destruction.
At the beginning of World War I in 1914, a Chicago Tribune editorial, “The Twilight of the Kings,” foresaw a war that would sweep aside sclerotic monarchies and self-serving despots to let democracies breathe. Specifically, to let republics take root and grow in Europe. That editorial predicted: “… out of the sacrifice will come, we think, a resolution firmly taken to have no more wheat growers and growers of corn, makers of wine, miners and fishers, artisans and traders, sailors and storekeepers offered up with prayer to the Almighty in a feudal slaughter.”
A succession of U.S. presidents, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan, spent much of the 20th century protecting Europe from mortal danger: WWI swept aside monarchs and czars as predicted, but in their place came even worse, World War II and the axis powers Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. After that conflict, Stalin and communism crushed Eastern Europe and menaced Western Europe.
But would America’s 21st-century presidents still honor bonds forged in war?
Today we look back (easy) and forward (much harder). In 1921, three years after the end of World War I, an editorial titled “The Unknown Soldier” celebrated “the end of the greatest conflict in human history” and noted that “Only the future can read its full meaning in the fulfillment of final consequences. … While we are too close to this event to measure its scope, we can at least see that it has a significance greater and more complicated than the overthrow of one military power by another. … Vast material and political changes are in its wake.”
It is futile to predict how the repercussions of war or any other cataclysm will play out over time. There are too many moving parts. But this nation’s principles, chief among them the defense of allies, should remain constant. The world, then and now, looks to American leadership when dictators and tyrants rise and march. When American presidents slink to the corner, when the U.S. leads from behind or not at all, someone else will gladly fill the void. Perhaps an ambitious Russian president. A genocidal Syrian dictator. A North Korean madman. A theocratic Iranian tyrant.
As today’s threats loom, Europe trembles. Trembles and asks, would this American president have our back?
President Donald Trump has rightly made much of his demand that Europe pay more for its own defense. That’s slowly happening. Good, because decades of European lassitude — of refusing to invest much in self-defense — have invited adversaries to wonder: If there’s some lack of resolve, can we exploit it?
As we wrote in 2014 on the centennial of World War I’s opening shot: 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. What was once the most self-reliant continent now sniffs smoke and looks west, trusting that if fire erupts, America will strike it.
That trust has been shaken by a president who blithely disrespects allies, who bad-mouths NATO, who inexplicably embraces Western Europe’s chief adversary, Vladimir Putin.
As a result, no American ally — not Great Britain, not France, not Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Japan or South Korea — can know where Washington stands now and whether it will stand in the same place a day or even an hour from now. That’s dangerous. Twitter rants are not diplomacy. The best way to stay out of wars is to make sure the enemies of America or its friends never calculate that they’d have a chance to prevail in one.
That commitment to allies should be as inviolate as it was on April 6, 1917 — no matter who is president. The next foes of Europe, and of America, could be nation-states. Or they could be terrorists without capitals, nihilists who pledge not “the war to end all wars,” but endless war.
Today, as in 1917, Europe casts an anxious glance over its shoulder, hoping to see the reassuring shadow of the American colossus. Threats overseas change, and different presidents have varied opinions on how the U.S. should engage. But obligations, by treaty or by shared values, endure. May this nation’s commitment to its allies — again, no matter who is president — never falter.