Before leading the US into World War I a century ago, President Wilson won reelection on a familiar slogan: 'America First.' That era's American isolationism bears similarities to that of today.
BEAUMONT-HAMEL, FRANCE—When President Trump takes his place as guest of honor on the Champs-Élysées on Friday to watch US soldiers march with French troops in France’s annual Bastille Day parade, he will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the US entering World War I.
But the “doughboys,” as American troops were called in WWI, weren’t there for most of the conflict. As war was raging in Europe, American President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for reelection with the slogan, “He Kept us out of War/ America First.” Some of the bloodiest battles of the war – in fact, of history itself – were playing out. In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million British, French, and German soldiers were killed or wounded – and Americans were adamant about not getting involved “over there.”
Today, visitors to the now grass-covered trenches mark the sacrifices of those who were there. For Loralea Wark, a social studies teacher from the Northwest Territories visiting with a group of fellow Canadians, the parallels of an America then and now, pulling away from the world, are discomfiting.
“This is what happens when we don’t cooperate,” she says, pointing to fields that were once sloughs sliced with furrows, and now comprise the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.
This site is particularly moving because it allows visitors to walk through the trenches, which have naturally filled in over time but still run six feet deep. As scars of the Battle of the Somme, they let visitors glean a physical understanding of soldiers’ inability to advance to the enemy line, from the first day of battle on July 1, 1916, to the battle’s end 141 days later.
“Our generation owes it to these troops. We are here because of what they did,” Ms. Wark says.
Questioning the basic architecture
French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to host Mr. Trump has been criticized in some circles. They say the US leader, who in his nationalist inauguration speech proclaimed “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” is undeserving of the pomp of Paris’s annual Bastille Day parade.
But Mr. Macron is hoping that his invitation will mark a turnaround: that Trump’s positions on trade, borders, security – and key from the French president’s vantage, the Paris climate accord, from which the US pulled out – could get a rethink after his state visit. After all, if President Wilson won the 1916 American election on an isolationist pledge, he entered “The Great War” just weeks after his inauguration, a key to the Allied victory a year and a half later.
In fact, Wilson’s vision behind the League of Nations – even as the US retreated deep into isolationism between the world wars and refused to join the body – gave shape to the postwar order that has dominated, until now.
With the march of nationalist populists and xenophobia in the West and questions about open borders, historians are quick to make comparisons between today and the 1930s. But in many ways those between today and WWI are just as apt: a disillusionment with war, with unbridled globalization, fueling an instinct to turn inwards.
Brian Balogh, the co-host of the podcast Backstory and a history professor at the University of Virginia, says there’s never been a timelier moment in history to reflect on World War I. “The pre-World War I Woodrow Wilson who campaigned on keeping the US out of the war, that Woodrow Wilson was very consistent with America’s history up to that point, going all the way back to George Washington,” he says. The US was an avid free trader, but at that point only maintained a small army. “World War I really marks a watershed in terms of America’s permanent engagement with the world, especially militarily,” he says.
More than 2 million American troops arrived on the Western Front between 1917 and 1918, and their entry was key to boosting the morale of the Allies, who were ultimately victorious.
And now, Dr. Balogh says, “Donald Trump is questioning the basic architecture that has been in place for roughly a century.”
'There are still links'
French government spokesman Christophe Castaner told TV channel LCI that the invitation extended to Trump is meant to honor America’s role as Europe’s liberator in both world wars – but that perhaps it can serve to bring Europe and the US back to the same page.
“There’s also a strong political dimension. Emmanuel Macron wants to try to prevent the president of the United States being isolated. [Trump] sometimes takes decisions that we disagree with, on climate change for example,” Mr. Castaner told the station. “But we can do things: either you say ‘We're not speaking because you haven’t been nice’ or we can reach out to him to keep him in the circle,” he explained.
Gauthier Marseille, a guide for the Museum Somme 1916 in the town of Albert – also known as the town of the “leaning virgin” because German artillery tipped over the gilded statue of Mary atop its basilica – says he also worries about the parallels between the “America First” of then and now.
“Of course the figures aren’t the same, but the [US] is today a country that wants to go back to protectionism, make its economy work and [say] ‘So what’ about the others,” he says. “Donald Trump wants to make things good for Americans, and the rest are cast aside.”
The museum, housed in a 32-foot-deep, 250-yard-long tunnel that served as a bomb shelter during World War II, traces life for soldiers in the trenches of the Somme. Because Americans only entered this area in the Second Battle of the Somme, a much smaller clash in 1918, they aren’t represented.
He supports Macron’s invitation to Trump. “I think it’s good because the Americans helped us in 1917, and we cannot forget it. They came for the Second World War. And despite everything, they have always been our allies, since [the Marquis de] Lafayette,” he says, referencing the French military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War. “Even if Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron aren’t in agreement on many points, there are still links between our countries. And I think it’s a good idea he comes here.”
“It’s not because he has different ideas that we should turn our backs on him,” he adds. “Maybe this is a way to find agreement, a way to stay open, and stay intelligent.”