WWI Anniversary: A Reminder of American Exceptionalism

One hundred years ago this week, the United States entered World War I after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany to “make the word safe for democracy.” Unlike Europe, America did not enter the war for survival. Instead, it entered the war because of a philosophy – the notion that freedom and democracy are noble virtues worth defending in blood. The anniversary offers a stark reminder that for much of its history the United States believed it was worthy of influencing the world with its virtues and proud of its accomplishments in the grand arc of human history. Now that notion seems antiquated, outdated, and even immoral. Americans, including our representative leadership in government, are reluctant to assert their moral authority to lead the world.

Of course, this was a principle conservative criticism of President Barack Obama. He was reluctant to spread our virtues in other nations without sufficient qualifiers that such actions were only necessary for American security. Matt Drudge and other conservative news sites frequently broadcast images of Obama bowing to foreign leaders, traditionally taboo for any American president.  The message was clear: no one nation or civilization’s values are superior to another’s, including America’s.

However, President Obama’s outlook is in many ways shared by President Donald Trump. His foreign policy also asserts the United States has no interest in asserting American values or moral leadership in the world. “America First” does not mean he wishes to promote or defend American values. Instead, it means withdrawing from the world stage and looking out for us and only us. When Trump was asked about Vladimir Putin’s brutal atrocities, he simply replied, “You think our country is so innocent?” The implication is clear: from slavery, to Hiroshima, to Vietnam, to Iraq, our hands are dirty and thus we have no business pretending otherwise. America will no longer be the “world’s policeman.”

America’s competitors and enemies certainly don’t share a cynical view of themselves. China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran all draw from a deep well of confidence in their civilization’s history and mission for the future. They know and understand their past includes plenty of wrongs and sins, but that does not stop them from asserting their values and working to shape the world in their image.

The reasons for American retreat on the world stage are numerous and diverse. Most empires, from Rome to Britain, eventually grow tired of the weight of the responsibility. We take for granted the benefits that come with it and we grow complacent in the prosperity and security it brings. Despite whatever political headaches we may have at home, we are richer, healthier, and more at peace than at any other time in our history. Like Seinfeld or Michael Jordan, we as a society have reached the top and have no aspirations or motivation to achieve more. We simply wish to maintain the status quo and minimize what burdens remain for us.

Besides, even if we did aspire to spread our values, what values would those be? Does America even have a collective vision or set of values anymore? One of our few unifying beliefs -- opposition to ideological terrorism -- doesn’t offer much direction because foreign intervention to stop it is seen as causing more of it. We generally agree on equal rights and more liberties at home, but we’re willing to turn a blind eye toward abuses of it abroad if it doesn’t disrupt our own peace and prosperity. Even free trade, once a cornerstone of American foreign policy, is under attack from both sides of the political aisle.

This cynical view of America’s purpose now appears to be the commonly accepted position in Washington and it’s certainly the dominant philosophy offered at most schools and universities. America no longer knows what it’s about or why its values and virtues are worth defending.

It was not always this way. There was a time when America revered the concepts of freedom, liberty, and democracy and was willing to shed blood in defense of it. This week we remember such a time with America’s entrance into World War I. Our place in that war, and indeed our place on the world stage in the 20th century, is best described in the words of Vera Brittain, an English nurse serving in France:

Only a day or two afterwards I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp. They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest.

They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed. At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven. Had yet another regiment been conjured from our depleted Dominions? I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect. But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent.

Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.

‘Look! Look! Here are the Americans!’

I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so God-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine! There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.

…An uncontrollable emotion seized me – as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front. The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.

That’s the America that was. Will it be that way again?

Joshua Claybourn is an attorney and author in Indiana. In his legal practice he advises corporations, governmental entities, and elected officials on a wide range of issues, including regulatory compliance and economic development. Joshua’s work has been published in the Federalist, National Review Online, World Magazine, and The Washington Times, among others. He’s also been a featured guest on numerous radio and television shows, including the Hugh Hewitt Show, CNN, and MSNBC. Joshua’s personal home page is at JoshuaClaybourn.com.

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