Americans now mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. As meaningless as that war was, it served notice that the U.S. had become a world power, rivaling the British Empire.
The war ran for more than four years. The massive deployment of American troops in six months in 1918 brought it to an end. Europeans were surprised by the rapid pace of U.S. involvement, but also by the dominant role it expected to play in the post-war world.
Exhibits across the country now remember American involvement. The Maine State Museum in Augusta has an informative and appealing exhibition showing that Mainers supported the Allies even before American entry into the war by sending food to the beleaguered Belgians and others.
Once the war ended, the U.S. pulled back into isolationism, reducing its ability to influence world events. Leaders believed it could act unilaterally and other countries would have to follow. But it would withdraw behind its oceanic moat.
Americans took national pride from events such as the trans-Atlantic solo flight of Charles Lindbergh. He would later see no reason for the U.S. to take on the Nazis from his position at the top of a movement called “America First.”
Of course, the rest is history. The Great Depression spread across the world. Pearl Harbor, the London Blitz, merchant ships torpedoed, and Nazi aggression led to millions dead. Whether a continued American involvement in the world would have yielded a different result is beyond knowing.
It is certain is that the U.S. backed away from global leadership as the world descended into economic crisis and war. As a result, it was less able to take care of its own economy and stay out of a new and bloodier war.
After World War II, the U.S. and other countries showed they had learned their lesson. The U.S. was now the greatest world power. Modern transport and communications meant it could no longer withdraw behind the moat.
More importantly, the U.S. had learned it was part of a world economic and political system and could achieve its objectives only by cooperating with others.
Out of the war came NATO, a mutual defense arrangement designed to discourage aggression against America and its allies. The United Nations, led by the U.S., was to develop peaceful solutions to major issues. Trade agreements were to promote national economies by boosting international efficiency.
And all of that began to work. It did not meet the highest expectations, but it produced some positive results. The world avoided major war and the biggest threat, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Health improved, and poverty and hunger were reduced, though there is still a long way to go.
But progress is uneven and does not benefit all people equally. Some costs are inevitable. Horse-drawn wagons gave way to pick-up trucks. Tough for the wagon makers. Natural gas and renewable resources push back coal. Tough for the coal miners.
Money became the standard of success. Some profited at the expense of others, resulting in the Great Recession that began a decade ago and has just ended. Many people came out of that crisis finding their jobs no longer existed as technology had moved on.
Some voters rebelled against these changes. They longed for their past. Some resented the rise of minorities, who could be falsely blamed for taking their jobs.
They chose as their president a man who promised to revive the past and the wholesale repeal of the policies of the first minority president.
President Trump, a success in the New York real estate business, convinced voters that the art of his deals would work better than the deals of the post-war world. Don’t criticize Russia for tampering with American elections, he implied, but butter up its leader in hopes that he will accommodate Trump administration policies.
Trump chose “America First” as his model, though, like Lindbergh, he meant “America Alone.” In less than a year, America has shed its role as the undisputed world leader. China has moved to the front row as a world power as Trump has focused his policies inward to promote corporate interests and his own standing.
“Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address.
Trump needs to understand that Roosevelt’s words remain true.