100 years ago: A commemoration of World War I by Yale historian Paul Kennedy

The campus commemorated the United States’ entry into World War I a century ago at an event in Woolsey Hall on April 6.
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Historian Paul Kennedy delivered remarks at a the World War I Commemoration in Woolsey Hall. He noted that the war transformed both America and Yale. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The campus commemorated the United States’ entry into World War I a century ago at an event in Woolsey Hall on April 6. It featured remarks by President Peter Salovey; a performance of the national anthem by the Yale Concert Band; an invocation by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler; the presentation of a memorial wreath by members of Yale’s Naval and Air Force ROTC unit (Midshipman Forrest Simpson ’19 and Cadet Alex Tymchenko ’17); the playing of “Taps,” by student trumpeters Eli Baum ’19 and Jacob Zavatone-Veth ’19; and a benediction by former Yale Chaplain the Reverend Harry B. Adams ’45W, ’51 B.D. who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces 1943-1945. In addition, Paul Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies, delivered the following remarks at the afternoon ceremony. (See Yale Remembers World War I for more.)

View slideshow: World War I Centennial Ceremony

One hundred years ago today, acting on a request from president Woodrow Wilson, the United States Congress declared war upon imperial Germany. The cause, the immediate cause, was Germany’s blatant and unrestricted U-boat attacks on shipping, together with other unfriendly acts. This American nation, which had managed to stay aloof from the First World War for nearly three years of the struggle in Europe, was now in a state of hostilities. It had not wanted war. And it certainly was not ready for war. Consequently, the next 19 months, until the coming of the armistice in November 1918, were months of trial, stress, improvisation, of mistakes and triumphs, of courage, and insights, and leadership, as well as of misunderstandings, compromises, and half-achieved purposes.

When those 19 months were over, two million [to repeat, two million] American men were over there, along the various battlefields of Europe, and another two million had been conscripted and were preparing to go. Among them was a considerable number of Yale men, soldiers, airmen, some sailors; some doctors and medical specialists; there were surgeons and ambulance-drivers. The transformations the war caused to many peoples’ lives were astounding. Some of their stories, including those of various Yale students and graduates, are quite remarkable. 

Looking over this whole story, I cannot help but think how surprising, and transformative, it all must have seemed, and in so relatively short a number of years. Perhaps a Yale administrator or professor of the year 1912, seeing the university bustling and growing under the reformist President James Hadley, would not have been too surprised if some new, large building  — a dining room, a commons — were to be erected soon on the central campus. But he would have been totally surprised to learn that the exterior of such a future building would have a run of names inscribed along it, and that those names would refer to obscure places in northern France: villages, a wood — the Somme, Argonne, Belleau Wood, the Aisne  — where American troops, including Yale men, fought and died. He would be surprised that, by 1920, the United States had both plunged into, and then come out of, the greatest military struggle in all of history.

It’s rather hard to recapture that story today, in the year 2017. The First World War does not have, in the minds of the American people, the memory and the power of the two other great conflicts that lie on either side of it — the U.S. Civil War, and the Second World War. But it has a large place in Yale’s story because, well, Yale played such an active role in and around this conflict. It is hard to imagine nowadays all the things that were happening here, on campus, within just a few months of the declaration of war. The upperclassmen were all virtually gone, rushing off and rushed off to the conflict. “No Bonesmen Left Around,” the Daily News noted, “Wolf’s Head All Gone.” Some were in the special coastal patrol units, some in the signals and wireless corps. Those twenty-plus remarkable young men who made up the number-one naval aviation unit were packing up, with their crated seaplanes, for the Belgian coast. Others were becoming artillery officers. The entire Yale campus, but especially Old Campus and the New Haven Green, had become the leading training ground in the country for the fast-growing U.S. artillery arm. Younger students, 18-year-olds, were being processed through the newly-founded Yale ROTC. Science and engineering professors were at work for all branches of the U.S. military, as were many members of the medical school, which pioneered the country’s first mobile hospital unit in France. By 1919 Yale was a sort of giant Gothic training camp, hardly a university at all.

In 1925 the official Yale study, a dense two-volume work entitled “Yale in the World War,” provided all the details. A grand total of roughly 9,500 Yale graduates and students had served in the war, including in the Red Cross, YMCA, and other non-governmental bodies. Yalies had served in every conceivable military unit, from the air service and medical corps to the signal corps, the motor transport corps, the engineers, the chemical warfare service, even the coast artillery. Over 1,100 men were officers in the Navy; 88 in the Marine Corps; 1,700 in the field artillery; 50 were chaplains; and 880 of them were in the various air services — there was a huge rush to be a pilot, and this a mere 14 years after the Wright brothers had taken to the air.  Quite a number of Yalies also fought in allied armies, some also in their air forces; 50 fought in the Royal Tank corps. Thirteen of them gained the British Military Cross, and three the distinguished Flying Cross; a full 162 Yalies were awarded the Croix de Guerre for valor, which is truly remarkable.

After all this, it was going to take some time to return to normal, even as the war itself ended so fast. After 1919, of course, and when the U.S. Senate voted against American membership of the League of Nations and other treaties negotiated by Woodrow Wilson, the country as a whole did try to return to normal. But there was no going back to 1912, or 1916, or to any pre-war time. The old world was gone. Huge empires across Europe had disappeared. The Communist revolution had occurred. The Middle East was convulsed. Japan was rising in Asia. The global economy was out of joint. The aircraft, the telegraph, radio, the submarine, pulled the world together, into one fate. New York had replaced London as the central financial hub of the world. And by 1919 America’s GNP was equal in size to the GNPs of all of the other great powers put together — a truly amazing fact, and an inescapable position of eminence. Trying to escape into isolationism, though this country tried so very hard to do that for a full 20 years, was never possible. The next disruptive forces were waiting in the wings; the next contest was looming, in great measure caused by the first. At the end of the second great conflict, by 1945, America stood ahead of every other nation, the head of the grand alliance, the head of a Western-dominated world. Seventy years later, it has still not escaped that fate. And it all began when German submarines, and other German actions, caused an American president to ask the Congress to go to war a century ago, today. 

To fight that war, as I mentioned at the beginning, some four million men [actually, 4.3 million men] had been recruited to the American Armed Services. Their casualties in this war were approximately 53,000 battle deaths, and 115,000 deaths from all causes, including the flu, which ravaged the troops’ ranks; approximately 206,000 Americans were wounded.

This university and its families, of course, did not escape from the sacrifice. Two hundred and twenty-seven Yalies died in the conflict.

One of them was Kenneth MacLeish, the younger brother of the poet Archibald MacLeish, later librarian of Congress, also a Yalie, who himself served in the war. His brother Kenneth had flown in the Royal Flying Corps. His Sopwith Camel was shot down over Belgium in October 1918, and he was killed when thrown to the ground. He was therefore among the deceased Yalies whose virtues and valor were eulogized in the poetry that was composed for the 1919 and 1920 Commencements. That poetry was, in truth, stilted, lacrymose, sometimes bombastic, full of purple prose. It was therefore quite unlike the poetry which Archibald MacLeish himself later produced, after a memorial to his brother was unveiled, in Belgium, in 1928. For by that time he had become bitterly critical of the war, its futility, its unnecessary losses, the distortion of America’s purpose. 

Ten years later, 15 years later, MacLeish was coming to a more balanced view. Another German challenge to the world order, another assault upon western democracy, the recognition that isolationism was just not an option for America, let him see, I sense, the broader, 20th-century picture. The First World War was not just some shallow intrigue, some reckless step, but rather a halting move towards 1945, when America really assumes the mantle of world leadership. So the decision in 1917 was, then, the occasion when this nation, while not really wanting it, had had to step a lot closer to the center of the world stage. It was when the United States had had greatness thrust upon it. And it was in that context that its leading universities, Yale, Harvard, Columbia in particular, had had to respond. Viewed in that sense, then, Yale had done very well indeed.

There are many lessons here, ladies and gentlemen, if we wish to draw them. But that is another lecture. It is sufficient today that we mark an event when the United States took a gigantic step forward, into the newer 20th-century world, and from which it could never look back. And the same, surely, was true of Yale.

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