100 Years Ago, Woodrow Wilson’s Fateful Decision that Shaped our World

One hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson plunged the United States into World War One.

Wilson’s choice to push for war still baffles scholars and historians.  U.S. interests were not at risk, and the country still felt a strong aversion to dealings with other countries. Influential citizens like Henry Ford and feminist Jane Addams were vocally opposed to American participation. The war had been raging in Europe for three years already, at a terrific cost in human lives.

The atrocities of the war and the German torpedo attack on the Lusitania created an opening with the public. So Wilson, the scholar from Columbia, South Carolina, thrust America into the war at the eleventh hour.

The duration of the war, post-American entry, was 18 months. A year and a half is not a long time, in terms of world history. But it was obvious from the start that Wilson’s decision to urge Congress to declare war was momentous. 53,402 soldiers were killed. Americans were shocked when 63,000 soldiers returned home, with limbs missing, suffering the after-effects of mustard gas, and trembling from shell shock. Even those who managed to survive the war were not exactly the same when they returned home from the Western Front.

Library of Congress

Worldwide, over 17 million people died in the conflict. And as the war was ending, the Spanish flu pandemic was taking hold. The casualties inflicted by the Influenza Pandemic dwarfed those of the Great War. Estimates are broad, but between 25 million – 40 million people died of influenza between 1918 – 1919.

President Wilson was eager to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty’s purpose was to establish terms of peace. Wilson was especially enthusiastic about the League of Nations, a forerunner to today’s United Nations (UN). Wilson was eager for the country to embrace the League of Nations, which he said would prevent future wars.

Ironically, the terms of the treaty were so harsh toward Germany that it all but guaranteed a second World War.

Wilson worried the treaty would not be ratified by Congress, and set out on a grueling tour to make his case across the country. The president was in poor health though, and the tour undermined his strength. In September 1919, Wilson suffered the first of a series of strokes, and this effectively ended his leadership of the country, though his condition was concealed from the public. Without Wilson to build a coalition, the treaty was not ratified.

Would the profound cultural shifts of the late 1910s and early 1920s have been possible if the world weren’t in a collective shock? In two decades, the world moved from the Victorianism of 1900 to the hedonistic 1920s. The Model T drivers of the 1900s would have been astonished at the beautiful, polished convertibles owned by the Lost Generation. Little did the Gibson Girl fathom that, twenty years hence, the Ideal Woman would have the physique of a 15-year-old boy and bobbed hair.

Would the profound cultural shifts of the late 1910s and early 1920s have been possible if the world weren’t suffering a collective shock?

Throughout the 1910s, the world continued to turn on its axis, deaf to the agony of the war and influenza. Americans were introduced to the Federal Reserve bank; organized crime; Prohibition; easy access to moving pictures; and the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

These days, politicians say that history will exonerate their actions. With a hundred years of perspective on President Wilson, what is the verdict? Depends on who you ask. Presidential historians rank Wilson at #11 of the 44 presidents, while a recent CBS piece ranked him at #34.

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