It has been a century since the United States broke its traditional continental isolationism to “Make the world safe for democracy.” On April 6, 1917, the US entered World War I and started a cascade which lead us to where we are today.
Without this event, the US Dollar would never have become the global currency, and indeed globalism would not be as closely associated with Americanism as it is everywhere but here. The American Century began on this date and ends roughly where we are today, for better or worse.
The world, as we know it, was born.
Like the entire war, US entry into this conflict seems capricious and stupid in retrospect. Germany submarine activity did kill many Americans, sailing in British ships, and commerce across the Atlantic was severely disrupted. But sentiment remained strongly anti-war until the publication of the “Zimmerman Telegram” on March 1, 1917.
This was a message from the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to his embassy in Mexico asking them to push for a Mexican attack on the US if we entered the war. Nothing gets the US as paranoid as Mexico, so this was the final straw. Our involvement in the affairs of the globe really started as nothing more than our constant fear of our southern neighbor.
At the time we entered, the war had become essentially a stalemate. Germany had taken Belgium, had its way with Russia in Ukraine, and held a strong foothold in France. But progress had been stopped short of Paris and was mired in the trenches.
The allied war machine savored the idea of American troops to provide fresh meat for the machine guns, somehow believing that one more rush “over the top” would win the war for them. Gen. Pershing would have none of it, understanding the (obvious) point that the war had to become more fluid for anyone to possibly win it regardless of how many men were there.
At Belleau Wood, on the Marne, US Marines learned how deadly this war was. Nearly 10,000 casualties later it became clear that even this strategy had its terrible costs.
Within a scant 19 months of our entry into the war, and really just a few months after a significant deployment, the US troops had worn down Germany. The armistice of November 11, 1918 was a triumph by the US over an exhausted Europe, putting us in the position to dictate terms – or so President Wilson thought.
The principles of democracy and self-determination were supposed to rule the Versailles conference, but of course they did not. There were only three functioning democracies in the world at the start of the war and solid examples of stability were thin at best. While many new nations were created out of the charred hunks of empires, Europe largely passed from being a delicate balance dictated by the Congress of Vienna a hundred years previously to a hegemony of the UK and its junior partner, France.
The US tasted globalism for the first time and under the stench of Versailles it was a foul meal.
Though we largely retreated back to our own continent, the precedent had been established and our presence was known. More importantly, the only large developed nations undamaged by the war became the US and Japan, both of which were free to expand their military and economic might through the next two decades.
It would take another world war to cement the US hegemony, clean out the British Empire, and put Japan down. But it was essentially inevitable.
While there is little doubt that advances in communications and trade would have brought the world together no matter what, the arrival of the US in Europe started the process by which the world would be remade in the US image. Democracy and freedom are the key principles, at least when it suits everyone, and the US Dollar reigns supreme.
It all started just 100 years ago, a mere blink of the eyes in the long march of history. It may well be ending today as the US finally, firmly, turns back in on itself in ways that it could not after Versailles.
Where the 20th Century has been called “The American Century”, the truth is that it has only been a full 100 years as of today. For better or worse the long period of American expansion around the planet has finally completed itself. What will the future bring us as we pass this milestone?
It is hard to say, but it is worth contemplating as we head into the second century of the United States as something other than an isolated experiment.