One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on imperial Germany. The First World War was the pivot of the 20th century: It took the lives of 17 million people and resulted in the collapse of three major empires (the German, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian). In the aftermath, totalitarian regimes both right and left came to power, leading to a second, far bloodier global conflict. Alas, for most Americans, the “Great War” holds little interest, particularly compared with the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam — all conflicts remembered as titanic moral struggles that transformed the nation. This neglect has given rise to some serious misconceptions about the war in which more than 116,000 Americans died.

The United States was neutral, in fact as well as name, until 1917.

America was an “exemplar of peace,” according to the title of the first chapter of Margaret E. Wagner’s forthcoming history of the United States during the war, sponsored by the Library of Congress. The keepers of Woodrow Wilson’s post-presidential home in Washington echo that conventional wisdom: His “primary goal at the outset of the European war . . . was to maintain American neutrality and to help broker peace between the warring parties.”


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