From the Kennebunks to the Argonne Forest: The Great War That Changed America
[This exhibition originated as a physical exhibition at the Museum from April through December 2018]
World War One altered the trajectory of the United States forever. It redefined public views on women’s rights, civil liberties, government’s role, race relations, immigration, and America’s place in the world. For the first time in modern history, profound questions about American values, institutions, and ways of life were raised. The consequences still reverberate 100 years later. In this exhibition, you will find two outcomes of World War One on the United States: the war changed how Americans see the world, and how the world sees us.
As Erik Larson described in his book, Dead Wake, the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a rogue Serbian group on June 28, 1914, was the “geopolitical equivalent of a brush fire.” In retaliation Austria surprised the world by declaring war on Serbia. The dispute should have remained a small war between the two countries. But within a week, it had resurrected animosities and triggered old alliances. The Great War, or “The War to end All Wars”, (later known as World War I) raged in Europe and Asia for over two years before the United States joined the effort- it had already proved ruinous to almost every other nation on Earth.
Only recently have historians shed light on the Great War, asking questions that were controversial a century ago and remain so today. Why did we really join the fight? Was our decision necessary? Was the outcome justified? How much responsibility does the U.S. bare for the events that followed? What exactly were the two sides fighting for? Why did they not discuss peace even with the death toll rising, submarine attacks on passenger liners, and the systematic starvation of millions? Even as more research has confirmed facts surrounding the war, the reason for American intervention remains unknown to many within the U.S.
For 150 years the United States followed George Washington’s advice “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” It avoided European wars and, indeed, declared itself neutral when the Great War broke out in 1914. Up until 1917 the United States had never fought in a war beyond it’s own North American continent.
Since the battles occurred across the Atlantic Ocean, Americans felt detached from the warin it’s early years; and they expressed a broad range of attitudes about the war’s validity. With millions of Americans having recently immigrated, a large proportion of our population had significant ties to at least one of the embattled nations of Europe. In fact, more than one third of the Euro-American population was either foreign born or had at least one parent who had been. Some retained foreign citizenship and many cared deeply about the fate of their motherlands. Memory, nationality, and family played a role in which side Americans supported. Historical memory of France’s role in the American Revolution and common culture with Great Britain prompted pro-allied sentiment. Additionally, over ten million German Americans lived here, and often openly supported the German cause. Millions of Americans of Irish descent regarded Britain as a tyrant, and saw Germany as the means of liberation. Millions of Euro-Americans held personal concerns for relatives still living in their native lands.
Woodrow Wilson continued to push the idea that America was the World’s last great hope. “We are at peace with the World”, he said in December 1914. However, the United States, and Wilson became increasingly uncomfortable with Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare as the war went on. Anyone sailing on a British liner was subject to attack, but American and European travelers continued to board ships anyway. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania- one of the world’s largest and well-known passenger lines, which sailed from New York to Britain. The attack killed 1,198 people out of 1,962 passengers on board, including 128 Americans. This did not sit well with the American public. Germany apologized and pledged to end unrestricted warfare. But six months later, in November 1915, another German U-boat sank an Italian liner with more than 270 people on board, including 25 Americans. Public opinion began to turn against Germany. On January 31, 1917 Germany announced it would resume unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters. This was an effort to slow down American shipments of arms and cargo to the Allies. Three days later, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Germany- and hours after that, Germany sunk the American ship Housatonic. On February 22nd Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill to make the U.S. ready for war. On April 6, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, officially ending it’s neutral stance and entering the Great War. In what seems like an instant, America changed it’s collective mind and rallied it’s citizens to believe in the cause wholeheartedly. With astonishing speed, the U.S. mustered more than 4.7 million service members.
Woodrow Wilson was determined that the war would be a “progressive” war- one that would lead to a more peaceful world, which would sustain free and democratic societies. Wilson told Americans that this would be “The War to End All Wars.”
At a joint session of congress, asking for a declaration of war, Wilson made what historians name as the single most important foreign policy speech in the last 100 years. Within that speech, he said eight words that have been the foundation of all American foreign policy ever since: “The World Must Be Made Safe for Democracy.” This is the moment that America began seeing itself as the world’s police man.
The state of Maine sent more than 35,000 men and women to war in 1917. Maine civilians purchased over $118.4 million in war bonds. Relief programs like the Red Cross and the YMCA and the YWCA received support and volunteers. Maine also supplied the U.S. and it’s allies with ships (via Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard) and food and materials through it’s two largest industries: farming and manufacturing.
For families in Kennebunk and throughout the nation, this war was just one or two generations removed from the Civil War, 55 years prior. Local families like the Clarks, the Butlands, the Junkins, and the Huffs all sent multiple male relatives to both the Civil War and the Great War. According Kennebunk’s American Legion Post, the town of Kennebunk sent more men to serve during World War I -per capita- than any other Maine town. In all, 160 men left for war from Kennebunk, which had a total population of 3,050 people at the time, making it 5.25% of the population. In 2018’s community, that would mean 567 men and woman leaving for war.