We Must Never Forget Lessons of WWI

USA Today, April 5, 2017

By Leon E. Panetta

One hundred years ago, 4.7 million patriotic Americans answered President Woodrow Wilson’s call and put on a uniform to help “make the world safe for democracy.” They joined the fight with our allies Belgium, Great Britain and France to defeat the German-led Central Powers.

These Americans came from all walks of life: college students, lawyers, farmers and sharecroppers. They all served: whites, African Americans, Native Americans and recent immigrants from across the globe.

Wilson made his case for war in front of Congress on April 2, 1917. Unrestricted submarine attacks against American merchant ships and Germany’s attempt to entice Mexico into a war against the United States, as outlined in the so-called Zimmerman telegram, were the primary reasons for U.S. entry into a conflict that was already more than two and a half years old. The House and Senate agreed with Wilson, and four days later the country declared war on Germany.

America’s mobilization was impressive, even by 21st-century standards. Camps sprung up to train professional soldiers, National Guard troops and draftees in the latest tools of war: airplanes, artillery, machine-guns, poison gas and tanks.

More than two million “doughboys,” as the troops were called, deployed overseas in 1917-18 where they were ably led by Gen. John J. Pershing. These untested warriors soon proved themselves in the pitched, grinding battles at Cantigny, Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry and the 47-day long Meuse-Argonne offensive that closed out the war. Other Americans fought on battlefields in Italy, north Russia and Siberia.

The brave American combatants paid a heavy cost. More than 50,000 died at the hands of the enemy, while just as many perished from non-battle injuries such as the influenza pandemic. Untold numbers of American came home maimed or suffering from the effects of poison gas.

Because of that sacrifice, America became a better democracy and a world leader. Equal rights for women, African Americans and other minorities gained momentum in the twentieth century because everyone played a role in defending the nation. World War I was the first time the U.S. engaged with the rest of the world and provided the leadership necessary for our allies across the globe to unify to confront a common enemy. We continue to bear that responsibility or world leadership today.

There will always be threats to our freedom. Future generations of Americans will, sadly, need to step forward again to protect it. Those future generations will need to look back at World War I for its lessons. They will need to remember that all these struggles are connected, a continuum of the effort to keep freedoms protected.

We should never stop thanking the men and women who stand up to protect our country. Those who served then and those who serve now are our heroes. Time cannot diminish the importance of what they have done for us.

Leon Panetta is a special adviser to the United States World War I Centennial Commission. He formerly served as secretary of Defense, CIA director and White House chief of staff; was a member of Congress from 1977 to 1993; and was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.