In April 1917, 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to approve a declaration of war. He concluded his speech with the following words: “It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us.”
In this speech, Wilson addressed not just America’s armed forces, but the country as a whole. America rose to the occasion: the country mobilized not only to fight, but also to support the fight.
Soldiers enlisted. Women left their homes to work in factories. Children collected money for war bonds. Families restricted their diet on “Meatless Tuesdays” and planted Victory Gardens. Recruiting posters appealed not only to men who wanted to join up, but also to women who wanted to nurse and volunteers who were willing to work behind the lines as mechanics or in the Veterinary Corps looking after the cavalry’s horses.
Although not everyone agreed with the reasons that war was fought, they nonetheless understood the importance of pulling together in a time of crisis. And even more importantly, the home front supported the troops. School children adopted soldiers as pen pals. Women organized into groups to knit socks. Letters and parcels were sent regularly. These actions were repeated in the Second World War, demonstrating the country’s willingness to support that war effort.
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Contrast America’s behavior in those wars with the attitudes of Americans today. Our country has been involved in many conflicts since 1945: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War. In those conflicts, the home front was not called upon to make the same sacrifices, and it is unclear whether they would have made them if asked.
Why were the reactions to these conflicts so different?
In all cases, just as in the two world wars, our soldiers went to fight, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes reluctantly. Both the Korean and Vietnamese entanglements saw extensive numbers of soldiers drafted, but so did the First and Second World Wars, and this did not decrease the country’s support. At the same time, the all-volunteer armies that fought in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts didn’t receive the same wholehearted approbation as those who fought in the more massive wars in the first half of the century.
After the widely unpopular Vietnam War, in fact, many soldiers were reviled as war criminals upon their return home. Service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq may have seen a lot of yellow ribbons on the backs of cars, but they also saw wide-ranging cuts to VA services that left them without the necessary support for the physical and psychological damage caused by war.
And how many people sent parcels and letters to those serving overseas to let them know that the home front appreciated their sacrifices? A whole lot fewer than did in the two world wars.
The nationalism that embroiled the world in the First World War is not a worthy model for our country today. Given the massive loss of life in that war, it’s evident that war by nature is horrific and should certainly not be blindly supported. An informed citizenry that challenges its leadership is essential for a functioning democracy.
We are, however, arguing that if our country does get involved in a conflict, everyone has a responsibility to know about it, and understand (if not agree with) what our military is fighting for. If our soldiers are fighting, then we should make the kind of sacrifices needed to support them. If more taxes are needed to pay for veterans’ services, then we should be willing to pay them.
We should make sure that service members see that our support extends beyond car decals, and that we are knowledgeable about, and appreciative of, what they do to keep us safe.
We should inform ourselves about the nature of these conflicts. We should challenge our elected representatives to make sure that we send our military forces to fight only when it’s necessary.
In the First World War, America pulled together and everybody “did their bit.” Support for our service members is as important now as it was then, and as historians we urge everyone to learn from our past and set higher standards for our future.
Terri Blom Crocker teaches a University of Kentucky class,“First World War and Memory.” Student contributions to this commentary:Christen Donohoe, Kaci Guy, James Marston, Bob Miller, Felicia Mobley, Eric Poore, Sean Rittenhouse, Bryan Ross, Kassi Satterly, Zack Short, Will Slusher, Sarah Smith, Tara Steiden, Isaac Sympson, Tyler Ward and Sam Wilhelm.