At A Hefty Cost, World War I Made The U.S. A Major Military Power : Parallels The U.S. was a reluctant entrant into World War I. But when America joined the battle 100 years ago, on April 6, 1917, it transformed a small military in a major international force almost overnight.
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At A Hefty Cost, World War I Made The U.S. A Major Military Power

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At A Hefty Cost, World War I Made The U.S. A Major Military Power

At A Hefty Cost, World War I Made The U.S. A Major Military Power

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The U.S. was reluctant to enter World War I. When fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, this anti-war tune became one of the most popular songs in the country.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier. I...

MCEVERS: "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier" - but after nearly three years on the sidelines, the U.S. joined the battle on April 6, 1917, exactly 100 years ago today. NPR's Greg Myre reports that's when America became a global military power.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: I'm just a couple blocks from the White House in a park that's dedicated to World War I and the top U.S. commander in that war, General John Black Jack Pershing. The park's actually looking a little bit frayed, although there is a plan underway to give it a major overhaul. I'm standing next to the statue of Pershing, who's got his binoculars in one hand and his military cap in the other, and I'm asking people what they might know about him.

Have you ever heard of him?

CHRISTINE MORRISSEY: I haven't, but I'm excited to be in his park to hopefully learn some more (laughter).

TYLER HEYDOLPH: I haven't heard of John Pershing, no.

LINDA BRENNAN: Yes, he was a soldier.

MYRE: And...


BRENNAN: He led the American troops.

MYRE: Like many people, Christine Morrissey and Tyler Heydolph didn't know anything about the general, but Linda Brennan shows he hasn't entirely been forgotten. Still, in a city full of war monuments, Pershing's relative anonymity symbolizes the way World War I is often overlooked.

Bart Hacker is curating a Pershing exhibit at the Smithsonian's American History Museum. He says World War I was the moment the U.S. became a major military force, but to many Americans, it's just a blip between the Civil War and World War II.

BART HACKER: Because Pershing was in that relative brief interlude, he has tended to be forgotten in the same way that the first world war has tended to be forgotten.

MYRE: Until that time, the U.S. had never fought a major war abroad, and it came close to sitting out World War I. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, he kept us out of war. But when German submarines began a new round of attacks on civilian vessels in 1917, the American mood changed. Wilson reluctantly called for war, but as historian Libby O'Connell explains, the American military was less than awe-inspiring.

LIBBY O'CONNELL: We had a tiny military, just a 130,000 troops before we declared war.

MYRE: The military needed to ramp up in a hurry, so the government launched a draft on an unprecedented scale. Historian Christopher Capozzola, who teaches at MIT, picks up the story.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: This machinery moves very quickly and does in fact actually register 24 million men within the space of a year and a half. Four million of those end up in uniform.

MYRE: The war had been a stalemate, and European armies were exhausted. The arrival of the fresh American forces swung the momentum in favor of the U.S. and its allies, the British and the French. Here's a very scratchy recording of General Pershing sending a message from France back to the U.S.


JOHN PERSHING: Three-thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake.

MYRE: The U.S. displayed military might that carries on to this day. Though the war claimed a hefty toll. America lost 116,000 troops. The draft also meant large numbers of young men from the same community registered together and fought side by side. Libby O'Connell explains the consequences.

O'CONNELL: Football teams would sign up together. Graduating classes would sign up together. It means that when there is a large swath of death on the battlefront, a neighborhood loses their boys.

MYRE: After the war, local communities pay tribute with their own memorials. But it wasn't until 2004 that Congress recognized a national World War I museum in Kansas City, and that's where ceremonies were held today. Christopher Capozzola offers a historian's perspective.

CAPOZZOLA: Americans should take another look at the first world war and imagine it with all of the noise and color and conflict that it included that has been handed down to us in black and white silent film. And I think we've thereby erased a lot of the intense humanity of the war.

MYRE: And remember that anti-war song from the beginning of the war? By the time the U.S. joined the fight in 1917, the country had changed its tune. This became one of the most popular songs.


CHARLES HART: (Singing) It's time for every boy to be a soldier, to put his...

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.


HART: (Singing) It's time to place a musket on his shoulder and...

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