Historians love anniversaries. It not only celebrates or commemorates the past, but gives us an excuse to write and talk about the past. Since the past is our specialty, bring on the anniversaries!
Five hundred years ago, this year, the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, posted his Ninety-Five theses on the church doors of Wittenberg in Germany (Oct. 31, 1517) and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Now that is a great moment to commemorate and we’ll be doing that occasionally in this column.
But only one hundred years ago, another event marked a major transition in our modern history. On April 2, today, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and asked them to declare war on Germany:
WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and that the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.
Congress declared war four days later, on April 6. Curiously, it was not unanimous. Six senators voted against the resolution and eight, including our own John H. Bankhead, did not vote or abstained. As with all political decisions, there were many forces at work.
Today, with the benefit of historical hindsight, or one hundred years to contemplate it all, it seemed inevitable that the U. S. would be dragged into “the Great War,” now better known as World War I. Wilson in his address to the joint session of Congress this day a century ago said the war would “make the world safe for democracy” and toward the end of his speech, he promised it would be a “war to end war.”
These were noble, altruistic goals, wholly unrealistic given the nature of man, but Wilson wanted to lift the sights of Americans upward and give our entrance moral authority.
He argued that the future was being determined on the battlefields of Europe and on the German submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean and America needed to have a voice in det
ermining not only the outcome of the war, but also the future of the world order.
We represented in Wilson’s lofty language, democracy, liberalism and independence for all peoples. To promote and defend not only our ideals but also our commercial interests in the world, we needed to play a major role.
Besides the German decision to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare on all commerce going to England in early 1917 was all but guaranteed to provoke the U. S. entry into the war. The Germans knew this, but figured that they could bring England, France and their allies to their knees by cutting their seaborne commerce before the Americans could build up enough of a force to make a difference. This proved to be a major strategic blunder by the normally astute German high command.
In our home state, the Alabama National Guard had been mobilized in June 2016 for service on the Mexican border. The largest of five regiments was the 4th Alabama, a descendant of a Confederate unit with the same name and number. In August 1917, the 4th Alabama was renamed the 167th United States Infantry Regiment and — under the command of Colonel William Preston Screws — put into the 42nd “Rainbow” Division.
In October-November, 1917 the Rainbow Division shipped out for the battlefields of Europe. Other Alabama regiments were assigned to become the nucleus of the 31st (Dixie) Division forming up in Macon, Georgia. They reached the European battlefields in September 1918, only two months before the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, brought the war to an end.
On Friday, April 14, at 4 p.m. in Room 205 of Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama, join three major scholars of war and society for a presentation “Remembering the Great War” sponsored by the ROTC units and the UA Department of History.
John Beeler will speak on the Great War as a watershed event, Andrew Huebner on American involvement in the conflict and Harold Selesky on the changing face of battle.
Published in The Tuscaloosa News, April 1, 2017 as Marking the Anniversary of Our Entry into the First World War