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.”

H. G. Wells proposed the most utopian vision. “Under the lurid illumination of world war,” he declared in 1919, in a co-written essay that appears in this issue, “the idea of world unification has passed rapidly from the sphere of the literary idealist into that of the methodical, practical man.” Warming to his optimistic theme, Wells went on to validate his reputation for prophecy by delivering a TED Talk decades ahead of its time: “We live today in a time of accelerated inventiveness and innovation,” he declared, “when a decade modifies the material of intercommunication far more extensively than did any century before.”

Wells saw a world shaken awake from “a dream of intensified nationality.” But others recognized a far darker place, in which the forces of national grievance and righteousness were not dissipating but gathering. As our inside report on Woodrow Wilson’s negotiations for peace at Versailles showed, he strove, unsuccessfully, against a harsh settlement that he rightly feared would make “dreams of vengeance an obsession.” In April 1919—just two months after The Atlantic published Wells—another writer was warning in these pages that the defeat of Germany “is not likely to diminish her hatred” of other nations. “It is far more likely to intensify that hatred … The world should make its plans accordingly.” It didn’t, of course. Subsequent writers tracked the rise of Hitler.

Rather than globalize the American idea, as Sedgwick had hoped, the Great War inflamed other national ideas, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where the breakup of the Ottoman empire created the crisis of legitimacy, in state after state, that we are living with today. 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, as well as forward to the conflicts of our time.

Reading this issue, you might find yourself wondering whether people in general, and Americans in particular, ever really learn. Across the generations, do we grow any wiser? In Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine, we Americans find ourselves once again struggling to reconcile our faith that our own national idea is self-evident with the reality that it is not self-executing, as Barack Obama put it in his second inaugural address. In these staggering collisions of nations and tribes, we are forever surprised, as we were a century ago, to encounter evidence that the American idea is not necessarily a world idea—along with fresh rebukes to the conviction that that idea can be spread at the point of a gun (or a drone), and harsh reminders that, sometimes, it has to be defended that way.