Lessons from World War I, 100 years later

One hundred years ago this month, the United States officially declared war on the German Empire and entered the First World War. Although the conflict was short, it had a profound impact on American foreign policy. The war was the first major U.S. intervention in a predominantly European conflict and the first major instance of using foreign intervention to fight for democracy worldwide. However, the hope for a peaceful era faded as dictators once again rose to power. Though not many Americans remember it as well as they might World War II, the first war still provides lessons that can be used in American foreign policy.

Waging war came at an immense cost: countless human lives. Although the war only lasted a year and a half for America, the United States lost 117,000 people over the course of the war. Though the cause was idealistic, it still meant thousands of people would never set foot on American soil again. In addition, thousands more came back injured and psychologically damaged forever. There is no such thing as a cheap war, and there are always costs beyond the monetary price of war.

The war also required extensive planning. Before entering World War I, the United States had a clear plan of what it wanted to do and how it was going to meet those goals. Strategic preparedness helped the U.S. military focus on the goals at hand. The United States has succeeded in military interventions when it has had a clear plan of entry and exit. The United States had a plan for entry and exit in World War II. The United States had a plan for entry and exit in the 1991 Gulf War. Finally, the United States had a plan for entry and exit in the Balkans during the 1990s. When we have had open objectives and unclear exits, chaos ensued. Although we had an objective during the Iraq War, we did not have an exit strategy. Failure to prepare led to a whirlwind of consequences in Iraq. Planning and preparation is key in any intervention the United States undertakes.

These are not the only lessons WWI has to offer, but they are some of the most important. As we weigh intervention in Syria and North Korea, it is important to keep these things in mind as we proceed. It is easy to look at a situation with idealistic eyes and demand action, but there are human costs and unforeseen consequences to large-scale military interventions.

Drew Maggelet is a senior majoring in Political Science.

April 19, 2017


Drew Maggelet

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