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Editor's Letter

The War to End All Wars

April 2019

One hundred years ago, the bloody fighting finally stopped in the forests of eastern France. We commemorate that event with this special issue of American Heritage.

For many years, it was called simply the Great War. Only later, after a larger, even more horrific, more global fight, did it take on the Roman numeral I, to distinguish it from what had come next. World War I created the modern era, the world in which we live, as historian John Lukacs so eloquently explains in his essay in this issue, “The Meaning of 1918.” 

It did so by sorting out the winners and the losers and fostering conditions that sparked upheaval in Europe and elsewhere. But it also banished the past. Old technologies, accepted practices and mores, the way things were: All were reconsidered and found lacking after the bombs stopped falling in the forests of eastern France in the fall of 1918.

World War I was a turning point on the battlefield as well. Begun barely a decade after the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, it was the first war fought in three dimensions. The inventiveness of the Industrial Revolution — the mechanization of war came face to face with the horrors of trenches, barbed wire, and mustard gas. It was when German stormtroopers arrived with lethal fury on the Western Front and nearly bulldozed their way to victory. Jeffrey Miller details new research on the trauma of the German atrocities against civilians in Belgium in his essay.

The United States was a late, perhaps even reluctant, entry to World War I. For most of the fighting, the country thought what was happening in Europe was Europe's war and Europe's problem. The anti-interventionists had ample reason to look past Germany's aggression and not help England. But that attitude eventually lost ground as German U-boats stepped up their attacks on American merchant ships. The United States entered the war in April 1917, and nothing would ever be the same on either side of the Atlantic.

In this issue we publish the last writing by the late Gene Smith, who contributed 31 essays to our magazine over the years. His essay, “In Search of ‘Black Jack’ Pershing,” looks at the life of that extraordinary leader and his son and grandsons. The death of Col. Jack Pershing marked the end of a family’s military tradition from the Revolution to Vietnam.

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