Lecture 8: The Great War


This lecture treats what we now call World War I, but at the time was just called the Great War. Some called it also the "War to End All Wars," and President Wilson said it was fought to "make the world safe for democracy." Here we look at the origins of the war in Europe, how the U.S. was drawn into the fight, America's role in winning the war, and what the war means to American democracy.



By this time, as seen in the past two lectures, the U.S. was a nation with international involvements and a crusading attitude.  Both these qualities became evident in the events leading up to American participation in the Great War.

War in Europe, 1914-17

In 1914, due to a combination of causes, the major nations of Europe fell into the Great War—the Central Powers versus the Allied Powers.  The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary set off the conflict, but other, underlying causes made Europe a tinder box ready for this spark.

The Perils of Neutrality

It was both desirable and profitable for the U.S. to remain neutral while the bloody war dragged on Europe.  The protracted stalemate in Europe, however, made it ever more difficult for the U.S. to stay neutral.  Americans, of course, had their sympathies in the war.  Moreover, the belligerent nations began to interfere with American trade.

Are the Yanks Coming?

For two years, beginning in February 1915, the U.S. moved ever closer to war with Germany.  The obvious problems were associated with the German blockade and with U-boat warfare.  In the end President Wilson, who campaigned in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” led the nation to war.

The Rationale for War

Economic interests, democratic sympathies, and U-boat warfare all played a part in American entry into the Great War.  Once in, however, President Wilson outlined Fourteen Points the U.S. was fighting for.  Prominent among these were freedom of the seas, national self-determination, and a League of Nations.

Contributions & Costs

The U.S. put a million men into the fight under command of Black Jack Pershing.  They helped the Allies turn the tide, and Germany sued for peace, resulting in the armistice of November 1917.  Although American losses were commensurate with the nation’s relatively brief participation in the war, the total cost was ghastly—and made worse by the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Download Lecture 8




“Why Democratic Nations Are Naturally Desirous of Peace, and Democratic Armies of War”

In 1917 President Wilson led the nation into war to "make the world safe for democracy." The U.S. is a democratic nation, he said, and we are fighting for democracy throughout the world. This is a good place to talk about how democratic Americans think about war.


·         The United States was reluctant and slow to enter the Great War. It started in 1914; the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917. What would Tocqueville say about this?


Check out these American propaganda posters. See if you can relate these to the causes of the war as discussed in lecture.

Film Review

All Quiet on the Western Front

Sergeant York


Book Review

Kennedy, Over Here

The home front—effects of the war on American society

Barry, The Great Influenza

Story of the great pandemic that killed more people than the war did

Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I

Events leading up to American entry into the war

Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Translated from the German, Remarque’s novel of  horrific trench warfare