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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

World Overturned

The end of the war on November 11, 1918, brought tremendous relief around the globe but left in its wake questions about the new world the Great War had molded and about Americans' role in it. World War I was a world-changing event. During the war, four large powerful empires—Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German—fell apart. In Africa and Asia, the wartime contributions of colonial troops, a weakened Europe, and Wilson's promise of "self-determination" planted the seeds of decolonization. Revolution took hold in Russia under the communists and threatened the governments of Germany, Italy, and others. Facilitated by the flow of millions of people put in motion by the war, the exchange of ideas, customs, and artistic expression spread new forms of global culture, even fueling an international jazz craze.

In this transformed world, Americans confronted the challenges of how to help negotiate a lasting peace, how to uphold the principles President Wilson and others claimed the country had fought for, and how to redraw the map of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—the former imperial territories of the defeated Central Powers. At home, they considered what the role of the United States should be in this emerging international order, how to reintegrate veterans returning from the war, and how to remember the war and those who served and sacrificed. World War I had shaken the lives of Americans and shaped a modern world to which they now needed to adapt.

Peace and a New World Order?
Returning Home
Remembering the War

Peace and a New World Order?

Even before the end of the war, Woodrow Wilson, in his "Fourteen Points" address, outlined a vision for a new peaceful postwar world order that fostered global collaboration and free trade among nations. The international conference that convened in Paris in January 1919 to negotiate a peace settlement presented the president with the opportunity to realize this vision. However, the war had transformed the world, and U.S. allies and other Americans had ideas contrary to Wilson's proposals. As the conference delegates negotiated compromises, Wilson placed his hopes in a new League of Nations, an organization where disputes between countries could be addressed. The resulting Treaty of Versailles imposed severe terms on Germany, arousing criticism within the United States, but most objections centered on the League of Nations. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty or join the League. The United States would play a very different role in the postwar world from the one Wilson had envisioned.

Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points"

E. N. Clark, artist. Dead—But the Remains Are Still with Us [Mars, the Roman god of war, lay vanquished over the earth], 1918. Published in the Buffalo Courier-Express. Pen and ink drawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (167.00.00)

Returning Home

Reintegrating soldiers into American life greatly concerned government policymakers. In addition to the War Risk Insurance Act of 1917, which established disability pensions for AEF soldiers, Congress approved the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (VRA) in 1918. The VRA sought to retrain wounded returning soldiers for new roles, particularly if they were unable to return to their previous vocations due to disability. The implementation of this controversial legislation was met with resistance. The agency responsible for delivering training to disabled veterans largely failed in its mission. Numerous veterans argued that they were being forced into vocations while being denied access to academic courses that might serve as a bridge to more lucrative professional careers. The ongoing activism of World War I veterans would lay the groundwork for the modern disability movement. By 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, veterans organized a mass protest in Washington, D.C., over compensation promised to them as a result of their activism. Referred to as the "Bonus March," veterans demanded immediate payment of bonds that were not scheduled for conversion until 1945.

Returning Home

Paul G. and Robert R. Rugh. Hand-colored photograph, 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (182.00.00)

Remembering the War

Immediately following the armistice, Americans worked hard to assure that future generations would remember the catastrophic war and honor those who served and sacrificed. Medals and military decorations signified the extraordinary contributions individual veterans had made. Local monuments, erected around the country, and publications memorializing soldiers and their war service embodied community sentiments and memories of the war. American military cemeteries in Europe provided a somber reminder of the human cost of the Great War. To honor U.S. soldiers missing in action with no known grave, the government erected the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. What and how to remember were not always easy questions to answer, and Americans offered an array of ways to memorialize the war. However, each of them testified to the profound impact and lasting significance of the Great War.

Medal of Honor Recipient

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt pinning the Medal of Honor on Joel T. Boone's uniform, ca. 1919. Joel T. Boone Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (186.00.00)

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