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Penn History

This exhibit was created in 2013 by Rebecca Sokolow, University Archives Summer Research Fellow and an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania

The Great War was unlike any war that had ever been fought. The scope was larger, and the technology was deadlier than that of previous wars. For the United States in particular, this formidable conflict was the beginning of a new era. For more than a hundred years the country had more or less kept itself out of the complex game that was European politics. In the early days of the nation’s existence, it was not strong enough to protect its own interests in any conflicts on the Continent, and it did not want to become entangled in them. But by the time World War I broke out, the United States was indeed strong enough to protect itself, and was able to join the war with confidence. What was at stake for the United States? International law, neutral rights, justice, and democracy were at stake. These were President Woodrow Wilson’s causes. World War I was the height of political moralism in the United States, and the country responded to the idea that it needed to fight not just for neutral shipping rights, but for greater causes, like the American way of life. There was a sense that the Germans were destroying age-old rules of the civilized nations by using unrestricted submarine warfare and chemical weapons. As a result, the country on the whole was quite patriotic during the U.S. involvement in the war. The University of Pennsylvania whole-heartedly exemplified this patriotism, with much of its community feeling an obligation to contribute to the war effort in some way. But, however sure the University was about its commitment during the war, there was quite a bit of uncertainty both before and after about how the war would affect the future.

World War I forced the whole country to chart a new course for itself in both domestic and foreign affairs. Would the United States be better off remaining a neutral nation, or should it intervene in the Great War? Should the nation be militarily prepared for an emergency, even during peacetime? Would wartime changes to American society be temporary or permanent? These were not easy questions to answer, especially for a nation that had kept its interests in the Americas and out of Europe for so long. Some members of the University of Pennsylvania strongly believed that military training and preparedness would, and should, remain a permanent part of American life after the war. Ultimately, however, the United States demobilized after World War I, contenting itself with maintaining only a small fighting force. In addition, the United States Senate refused to join the new League of Nations on Wilson’s terms, while Wilson refused to compromise his terms with the Senate. Thus, the U.S. retreated from the idea of peace through international interdependence, finding it a potential risk to American interests.

It was not until the end of World War II that the United States began to maintain a large armed force in peacetime. In 1939, the country would not have been prepared to join World War II, even if public opinion were in favor of doing so. The United States needed the two years between the German invasion of Poland and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to rebuild its armed forces. But by 1945, the U.S. had the military and economic capabilities to intervene in international conflicts at its will. 1945 was the beginning of the United States’ role as a global superpower and the protector of democracy, a role that manifested itself in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and many other smaller political conflicts.

Yet, despite the differences in the United States’ international status in the post-World War I and post-World War II periods, the question at the heart of U.S. foreign policy has remained the same since World War I: how much should the United States involve itself in these international conflicts? Is a threat to democracy or freedom in a foreign country enough of a threat to American interests to warrant U.S. involvement? We ask these questions today as Syria continues its civil war, Egypt falls into crisis, and American troops in Afghanistan remain on active duty. But it was World War I that first forced the United States to face these questions. It was World War I that first affirmed that the United States was even capable of having a global influence, and of being a leader among the powerful nations of the world. Fighting far from home and for a short period of time, the country lost far fewer men and resources than the major European powers, leaving it in a far better immediate (that is, before the Great Depression) post-war situation. But with that capability developed an uncertainty of what the right way to use this new power and influence was.

Therein lies the connection between the World War I era and our country today: there still is no perfect answer of how best to use American influence and power in foreign affairs, or whether to use it at all. But, understanding how the country’s role in global politics has developed over the last century, since the beginning of World War I, sheds light on the global issues that exist today, and the options that the United States has for handling them. This is why the debates and discussions that occurred at the University of Pennsylvania during the Great War era are still so important and relevant today. Those debates about military training, preparedness, and internationalism expose the way in which the United States started on the path to becoming a global superpower, and provide a basic historical context for the American foreign policy decisions of the last century, thereby allowing for a better understanding of today’s foreign policy. In this way, the Penn faculty, students, administrators, and alumni who walked the University’s halls during the Great War have made permanent and invaluable footprints on the nation’s history.