World War I and KC: The swell of patriotism, history and the lessons that reverberate today

Belle Saunders and her new husband, Theodore Naish of Edwardsville, Kan., were holding hands on the deck of the ocean liner and looking forward to visiting his elderly parents in England.

They were almost there when a German torpedo hit just after 2 p.m. that Friday in May 1915. Both husband and wife were tossed into the cold Irish Sea. She survived; he did not.

Nor did Mary A. Ryan, a nurse who lived at 2214 Garfield Ave. in Kansas City, now the site of Lincoln Junior High. She was going home to see her folks in County Clare, Ireland. In all, 128 Americans were among the 1,198 on the RMS Lusitania who perished.

World War I had reached Kansas City nearly two years before the United States even entered the conflict.

It’s never really left.

This city lost no time building a towering monument to those who sacrificed in the war, and that is why the nation and the world will look here Thursday for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the day the United States entered the European bloodbath.

Some scholars see parallels between the world of the early 20th century and the state of things today.

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Naish was a 59-year-old engineer from England who had worked for the city of Kansas City. Finding love late in life, he promised his new bride a trip to England. Friends advised against the crossing, given the situation raging in Europe. They went anyway.

Saunders, who had waist-length hair, was plucked out of the sea and survived the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. She lived until 1950.

Less than two years after the Lusitania, the Rev. John Sauer spoke at St. Peter’s German Evangelical Church in Kansas City. He felt the need to call upon all German immigrants here to be faithful to the American government. But he said their former homeland should not be destroyed. He said the “rape of Belgium” stories being reported were unbelievable. That prompted a letter to the editor from the Consul of Belgium assuring the public that “the rules of humanity and honor were not observed by Germany toward the women and children of Belgium.”

Things were heating up in the heartland. On March 24, 1917, The Kansas City Times announced a patriotic rally would be held that night, with two bands and drill squads from all the high schools. The afternoon Star reported that flags were flying from every flagpole, out of hundreds of office windows and “half the motor cars on the business streets.”

More than 17,000 people jammed the pro-war rally at Convention Hall, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting. The paper reported an overflow crowd “cheered the speakers. It cheered the flag. It cheered every mention of war. It cheered ‘Dixie,’ ‘America,’ the naval reserve and the Boy Scouts.”

At the same time, Russian immigrants in Kansas City were meeting at the Jewish Educational Institute to celebrate the revolution in the old country. They sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.”

The next day, Kansas Gov. Arthur Capper proclaimed April 6 would be Loyalty Day. An Army recruitment rally was held at the old Turner Hall at 12th and Oak streets. All the while, for more than 18 months, more than 50 women had been meeting at the Nonquitt Building, 1013 Grand Ave., to make bandages for the war effort.

On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson declared that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Newsboys selling extras of The Star quickly sold out. The Times reported, “The whole town was still lit up at 11 p.m. as people discussed the president’s address.”

A front-page editorial the next day said, “The United States at last has recognized the inevitable. The cause for which America is taking up arms today is the same cause of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for which it took up arms in 1776.”

Sheyda Jahanbani, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, notes that much of the ensuing patriotic fervor was encouraged by the government through the Committee on Public Information, which deployed speakers to town halls and distributed war pamphlets and posters.

“It was the first real war propaganda effort in American history,” she said. “It was incredibly modern in its techniques.”

Kansas City went a step further.

Less than three weeks after the armistice, a committee of Kansas Citians headed by lumber tycoon R.A. Long and other local big names organized an effort to create a memorial of gratitude and appreciation for those who served. In 1919, a citywide drive raised more than $2.5 million in 10 days. A national architectural competition resulted in a structure of monumental size. The commanding hill above Union Station, which was just a few years old at the time, was chosen.

When the site was dedicated in 1921, it was the only time that all five allied commanders were together in one place at the same time. When the substantially complete memorial was dedicated in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge, who presided, called it “one of the most elaborate and impressive memorials that adorn our country.”

The crowds at those dedications would not be eclipsed in Kansas City history until the Royals victory rally north of the memorial after the 2015 World Series.

During restoration of the Liberty Memorial early this century, space was prepared below the deck for an expansive new museum. The memorial was declared a National Historic Landmark and the site has been designated by Congress as the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

That’s why Thursday’s national observance of the war will be in Kansas City.

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“It’s right that it be here,” said Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the World War I museum.

American reluctance

At first, when the fragile balance of power in Europe collapsed in 1914, the U.S. was not eager to get involved.

The breakout of war was the culmination of a lot of things, including nationalism, imperialism and protectionism, said Jay Sexton, a Kinder Institute professor of history at the University of Missouri.

He and others argue many of those factors resonate a century later.

“The world (today) looks a lot more like the world in 1913 than it has at any time since,” Sexton noted.

An ocean away, America recoiled in horror.

“One of the pillars of U.S. foreign relations was to never get into a European conflict,” said Jahanbani. “George Washington in his farewell address talks about entangling alliances, about how the U.S. should never engage with the sort of corrupt alliance system of Europe.”

Another factor was that the U.S. was a nation of immigrants, many of them originating from the belligerents in Europe. Nearly a fifth of the soldiers who would eventually serve this country were foreign-born.

It could get complicated, as the case of Christian Celius Nicolaisen illustrates. He was born of Danish parents but was subject to compulsory German military service. During World War I, he defected to America to join his brother in Connecticut. After the U.S. declared war, Nicolaisen was drafted into the American army and sent back to Europe to fight the Germans. His great-nephew recently donated both uniforms to the World War I museum.

Americans had been repulsed by reports of atrocities by German soldiers as they swung through neutral Belgium in a flanking attack on France. Then there was German submarine warfare aimed at preventing munitions from reaching the Allies.

“The U.S. is deeply committed to international free trade, and the U-boat campaign of Germany is a direct attack on the freedom of the seas,” said Jahanbani. “Wilson and his administration feel pretty strongly that it’s really attacking one of the central objectives of U.S. foreign policy at that moment.”

There was also an intercepted German telegram with plans to entice Mexico into the conflict against the United States. It dangled the prospect of recovering the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The news hit front pages March 1 and further stirred up anti-German feelings among Americans.

“It goes straight to the heart of another key principle of U.S. foreign policy relations, and that’s the Monroe Doctrine, the supremacy and hegemony of the United States in the Western Hemisphere,” said Jahanbani. “That’s taken as a real broadside against American sovereignty.”

Five months after Wilson won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” he was standing before Congress asking for war.

The United States had a standing army of about 100,000 men. The first 14,000 landed in France on June 26. Congress had already enacted a draft by then, and by war’s end about 4.7 million Americans had served, 2 million of them in France.

The infusion of fresh troops tipped the stalemate.

“Americans win the war just by showing up,” said Richard S. Faulkner, a military historian at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and the author of a new book about World War I. “The British, the French, the Italians and the Americans are all pushing together, and the Germans simply can’t stand up to the onslaught.”

The fighting on the Western Front finally ceased at 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

In America, the war had a profound effect on a people that had remained deeply divided since the Civil War. The soldiers of World War I were grandsons of soldiers of the Union or the Confederacy and had been raised hearing those stories. Now they saw each other as brothers.

“World War I played an enormous role in unifying this country,” said Monique Seefried, a member of the U.S. Centennial Commission and a historian. “They were full-fledged Americans because they fought side by side.”

The U.S. lost more than 116,000 soldiers during the war, many to the Spanish flu outbreak. Another 42,000 American soldiers would be rated as disabled because of “shell shock.”

Global engagement or America first?

In an about-face to prewar isolationism, Wilson called for an international framework to ensure a peaceful future, arguing that American democracy had matured to the point where it could save Old Europe from itself. That was either sincere idealism or cold realism born of the understanding that modern warfare could destroy everything.

But after the war, the mood of the country shifted. Despite Wilson’s efforts, Congress did not ratify the Paris peace treaty, nor did it agree to join Wilson’s League of Nations.

“Back home, we weren’t ready to take on the role yet of being the world’s policeman,” said Faulkner. “This was the first time we had gotten involved in European politics.”

It took a second world war for America to firmly commit to global engagement.

“America became the driving force in establishing a global web that defines the world to this day — NATO, the United Nations, a strong U.S. military presence in Asia, open seas, a host of trade agreements,” observed National Public Radio.

President Donald Trump, during the campaign and in office, has expressed a different view.

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

Trump has also said the U.S. cannot be the world’s policeman. He has been described as a unilateralist, or someone who thinks the U.S. can be engaged around the world but on its own terms, unconstrained by alliances or multinational groups like the United Nations. He argues that NATO allies aren’t pulling their weight and that trade agreements are costing American workers their jobs.

“What’s really remarkable to me is this seeming amnesia of the world that existed in the 20th century and why American power was what it was and what role the U.S. played in the world,” said Jahanbani.

Sexton said that is the conclusion to draw from World War I.

“No matter how much we wanted to wall ourselves off from the wider world, the lesson in the first half of the 20th century is that we couldn’t do that,” he said. “It was impossible to do that. And it took two wars until the U.S. took a leading position in the construction of new international institutions to avoid a future war. And people have sort of forgotten that today.”

Faulkner said that back and forth is part of American history.

“History doesn’t repeat; the realities and the times change, and the more you become tied up with the global world, the harder it is to retrench,” he said. “We were able still to pull back in 1918-19. But the world is a lot more connected now, so it’s a little bit more difficult to pull out, though it’s still a cry that resonates with Americans.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC