Jingo Unchained: What World War I Wrought

April 17, 2014

1917 Poster, U.S. Food Administration, from the National Archives.

This review essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on April 14th, 2014 and is reposted here with kind permission. To read it in full, please visit their website.

There is a venerable tradition in American politics—in many ways, it is one of our oldest inheritances, and an essential part of a real American conservative republicanism—that rejects foreign interventionism. The reasons for this rejection are both pragmatic and moral. Pragmatic, because a steadfastly neutral country can trade with all foreign states without fear of the consequences of an ultimately ruinous alliance system. Moral, because interventionism and the "foreign entanglements" George Washington warned about in his Farewell Address (which he devoted to the dangers of such imbroglios), corrupt the democratic process at home, hollow out a republic's institutions, decimate its coffers, and empower factional interests. Interventionism abroad is the surest path to the dissolution and destruction of what was once known as our "common wealth," the Respublica, the thing that holds us together as citizens in the public sphere. John Quincy Adams was merely restating long-standing principle when he said that, "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

This tradition went underground in the 20th century, with America's entry into World War I. One hundred years ago, in 1914, the United States began a radical transformation, the effects of which can still be felt today. World War I is still largely viewed through a European lens, and rightly so, since it forever altered the trajectory of the Continent. It is impossible to overstate the horror of the war in Europe, which led to the pointless deaths of at least 16 million human beings. But even though the United States only formally entered the war in April 1917—and was engaged in combat for less than six months—the war, although far removed from American soil, had a decisive effect on our democracy. It changed the presidency, forever; it changed the American military, forever; it changed our views on propaganda, freedom of speech, and surveillance, forever. Most of all, it changed our sense of ourselves.

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