An unnoticed centennial: The day the U.S. entered World War I
U.S. Army troops in the trenches in France during World War I. | AP

April 6, 2017 marked an unnoticed, but extremely important, centennial for workers and for everyone else, in the U.S. Indeed, you could even say that day was when we reluctantly, with kicking and screaming, joined the rest of the world.

It was the day the U.S. entered World War I.

The First World War is often overlooked in the current carnage around the globe, and dwarfed by the even more enormous carnage of World War II. Yet it led to both – and to dramatic changes at home, too. We now live with many of them.

If you trace your history back, in whatever field you prefer, you will find World War I as a key turning point. Below are just a few examples.

End of isolationism

The U.S. was, until the war, relatively isolationist, tucked behind two oceans. We couldn’t be attacked, or so we thought.

That was until the Germans hatched a plan to have Mexico, which still remembered losing half its territory to the U.S., do the attacking on its behalf, while trying to entice Japan to join in as well.

The plan was detailed in the infamous Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany promised Mexico its support for “the return of her lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” When the scheme leaked, Americans awoke with a start.

The national security state

The “national security” excuse for a government crackdown on dissenters and dissent is another legacy that came out of World War I.

The federal government goes after today’s “leakers” like Edward Snowden using the 1917 Espionage Act, for example. And the “national security state” has persisted and enlarged itself ever since, in the form of a larger and more menacing FBI, Red Scares, midnight raids, and deportations of dissenters.

Not coincidentally, since workers challenge the corporate powers-that-be, many of the dissenters and deportees were unionists, organizers, or both.

Government as labor mediator

Business and labor were marshaled to “the greater good” of winning the war. That meant price controls on business and the beginnings of labor law for unions.

Indeed, large sections of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act are taken almost verbatim from language promulgated in the 1917 order setting up the (temporary) War Labor Board.

So is the idea that business-labor conflict should be settled by mediation or agreement, without the “big stick” of enforcement behind it. Why do you think labor law is so weak?

The war to end all wars?

Many of the conflicts that workers and their sons and daughters are involved in today can be traced to the World War I, its settlement, and its aftermath.

The Balkans, for instance, were split into several small states by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war. One of them, Yugoslavia, an amalgamation of distrustful factions, itself later broke up.

And the U.S. ended up intervening – including with bombs – in those Balkan conflicts.

The Middle East, conquered by the Allies from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, was partitioned into spheres of influence. The result was the creation of nations whose battles dominate today’s headlines: Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and, at that time, Palestine. It, in turn was later divided into Israel and Jordan.

Same thing happened in Africa, in complete disregard for the inhabitants’ own yearning for freedom and self-determination. Britain got what became Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, and a protectorate over Egypt. France got a protectorate over Morocco, plus Tunisia and Algeria. Italy got Libya.

The current faceoff against Russia is, in a way, part of World War I’s legacy, too. The Russian empire was an ally then, but its czarist absolute monarchy was tottering, people were hungry, soldiers were deserting, and it collapsed, just before the U.S. came in.

Russia stayed in the war only for a few months, until the Communist Party staged a successful revolution that fall. Then it made a separate peace with Germany. Russia, by then part of the Soviet Union, later suffered even more enormous losses – an estimated 20 million people, soldiers and civilians, in World War II – then rebuilt itself into a superpower. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to restore the prestige and power of the old empire by any way possible.

Anti-immigrant prejudice, never entirely absent in the U.S., reached new heights as a result of World War I. An immigration act of 1924 slammed the doors on anyone who, in so many words, wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant from northwestern and northern Europe. That law wasn’t repealed until 1965; the prejudice remains.

We could go on but you get the idea. Obviously, U.S. entry in World War I is not a centennial to celebrate. Yet it had – and has – much more impact on our lives today than many of our current reasons for hosannas.

Instead, the centennial of the U.S. entrance to what was then called The Great War should give us all pause for reflection, maybe even about one more law: The law of unintended consequences. After all, we’re living with them.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.