The American Idea at War

One can draw a line from September 11, 2001, straight back to the decisions made by colonial mapmakers as the fighting raged in Europe 100 years ago.
After the United States entered the Great War, in 1917, a parade makes its way up Fifth Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Near the fulcrum of World War I, Ellery Sedgwick, then the editor of The Atlantic, paused to consider why the United States was about to take up arms. He concluded that, alone among the nations of five continents then in conflict, America would be fighting not for some selfish purpose but “for a world idea.” It would be fighting for a world that could sustain “security, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

There is some deft sleight of hand at work there, in the promotion of the American national idea to a world idea. But as Sedgwick noted, the United States was “a world in miniature where the nations have joined together as a single people in a supreme experiment in the art of living together.” Who better to guide other nations toward an enduring global peace, one based on truths that were, to coin a term, self-evident?

It’s not easy—in fact, it turned out not to be possible—to square Sedgwick’s very American optimism with other ideas put forward in this issue, like those of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the man who took Germany to war. (An American journalist interviewed the kaiser in 1908, but the German government suppressed his remarks, and The Atlantic published them for the first time in 1934.) He held to less encompassing truths: “The future belongs to the White Race, never fear … It does not belong, the future, to the Yellow, nor to the Black, nor to the Olive-colored. It belongs to the Fair-skinned Man, and it belongs to Christianity and to Protestantism.”

So many romantic hopes, along with Romanticism itself, disintegrated as World War I ground on, consuming some 20 million lives and desolating Europe. The Atlantic didn’t neglect the human toll. “I am cured of ever wishing to be a soldier again,” wrote one veteran whose experiences led him to question God, condemn patriotism, and long for those “clamoring for war” to volunteer “as stretcher-bearers only.” A French lieutenant described how the charnel trenches hardened him, until he found himself laughing at the corpses trapped “in the drollest attitudes” in the mud; one soldier hung his canteen from a lifeless foot projecting over a wall. Mrs. A. Burnett-Smith, an Englishwoman, recounted the night a zeppelin blew up her home, and Marcelline Hemingway Sanford recalled her relief, one evening when she happened to catch a newsreel in Chicago, at glimpsing her brother Ernest, recovering from bullet wounds in the company of a pretty nurse in the Red Cross hospital in Milan.

Most moving—to me, anyway—are the letters home to his mother from an American soldier, Edwin Austin Abbey. They are moving in part because of the shocking—even though the reader fears it must be coming and tries to brace—interruption of a letter from a commanding officer, describing the young man’s death. (“One doesn’t often meet such fine fellows.”) Abbey’s letters are full of faith in his mission, God, and the essential decency of man: “Do you not think that the war is making people less selfish in the world and in the United States? Surely it must.”

As it chronicled the costs, The Atlantic debated the big ideas in contest, from the war’s causes to its conduct (poison gas, one writer argued, was “the most efficient, most economical, and most humane, single weapon known to military science”). Often, the magazine looked ahead to the sorts of happy consequences that Edwin Austin Abbey, like Ellery Sedgwick, yearned for—that, as Barbara W. Tuchman observed in The Atlantic in 1967, “the agony must prove to have been the birth pangs of a better world.”

Presented by

James Bennet is the editor in chief and a co-president of The Atlantic. Prior to joining the magazine in 2006, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In