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Salena Zito


Century After WWI: U.S. Still on Brink of Change

by Salena Zito
 

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Department store magnate John Sattler opened the doors of the
majestic Sattler Theater as the world entered the "war to end war" that began 100 years ago in July, one month after the June 28 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary.

The store's façade at 516 Broadway St. could stop passersby in their tracks with its beauty: an ornate Beaux-Arts architecture with friezes and whimsical brackets beneath eaves.

Surely the merchants, the people, even the U.S. leaders of that time could not have foreseen the great changes about to unfold, overseas and at home. This elaborate structure gives no hint of the unsettling economic, social and geographical changes that started with the summer of 1914.

World War I quickly snowballed, spreading through the Middle East, Europe and Asia before its bloody end four and a half years later.
"It was basically the war that changed everything," says historian David Pietrusza in Albany, N.Y. "It may not have made the world safe for democracy, but it certainly made it safe for totalitarianism."

Multiply the tragic effects of combat today by many times in order to comprehend the devastation that followed "the Great War," says Pietrusza.
"The numbers involved were greater, the casualties immense; the bitterness of defeat and disappointing victory lit many a fuse for the 20-year armistice that followed," he says, referring to the comment by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch about the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not Peace. It is an armistice for 20 years."

The war 100 years ago restructured our world, beyond the empires it dismantled.
"Just as monarchies toppled in a moment in November 1918, tradition after tradition totters today," says Pietrusza.

Yes, America in 1914 stood on the brink of social, political and economic change – just as it does today.

Motion pictures drew people to theaters; Charlie Chaplin made his film debut that May. A month earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had ordered troops to take military action against Mexico in the so-called "Tampico incident," which began with the arrest of nine American sailors in Mexican territory.

That year, baseball great Honus Wagner smacked his 3,000th hit and Babe Ruth joined the Boston Red Sox. Mother's Day became an annual U.S. holiday.

Most historians conclude that World War I ended the Progressive Era in American
politics, ended immigration of unskilled workers from Europe for a time (something for which labor unions lobbied) and hastened women's voting rights. America's population shifted toward urban areas as the Industrial Revolution took hold; rural life was about to lose its political power.

Today, Americans still witness war's harsh toll – in a volatile Middle East,
horrific civil war in Syria, a violent ISIS moving through Iraq. A truce in Ukraine might unravel; peace in the Balkans might be on unsteady footing. China and Russia are allies of Iran.

Wars still cost American lives.

And though fighting isn't on American soil, disruption can come even without war – through the breakdown of once-sacrosanct values.

Washington politics has isolated the middle class; many people say it's difficult to trust government as they once did. Corruption appears to be escalating in our nation's capital as scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Justice and Department of Veterans Affairs unfold. With a vacuum in leadership, populism is moving people away from both political parties.

As Americans reflect on the lessons of World War I, Pietrusza says one lesson stands out: Mere existence is not a guarantee of continued existence. Power and glory pass by, and no nation should take either for granted.


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