A hundred years ago this month, the United States entered the First World War in Europe after three years in which President Woodrow Wilson had done his damnedest to stay out of the fight.
At the same time, Russia, which had been in the war since the beginning in 1914, was undergoing a political upheaval of historic proportions: the end of the Romanov dynasty's 300-year rule and the beginning of what would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under communist rule.
The shattering impact of these events would shape the course of world history for the remainder of the 20th century and well into the 21st century — some would say unto this very day.
A huge amount has been written about the First World War and events influenced by the conflict before and after. A new book titled "March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution," by Will Englund is one of the most delightful I have ever read on the subject. Mr. Englund is a very talented writer of vast experience. For many years he was a reporter and foreign correspondent for this newspaper (he and former Sun reporter Gary Cohn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for their Sun investigation into the international shipbreaking industry). Mr. Englund and his wife, Kathy Lally, served two tours as Sun correspondents in Moscow in the '90s — beginning with the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and later for The Washington Post from 2010 to 2014.
So Mr. Englund brings a lot of personal experience to the story he tells. Baltimoreans will be particularly interested in the frequent references to what was going on in the city at the time and what some prominent Baltimoreans were up to, including The Sun's most famous writer, H. L. Mencken. He had gone to cover the war from the German side and was in Berlin when Germany announced the resumption of unrestrained submarine warfare, which would ultimately bring the U. S. into the war against Germany. Another factor was the outrage generated by the revelation of a message intercepted by British intelligence, from Berlin to the German ambassador in Mexico, instructing him to tell the Mexicans that Germany would help them to reclaim territory such as California, Arizona and New Mexico lost to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War 70 years before if Mexico came into the war on the side of Germany.
Some 117,000 Americans died in Europe during the war that President Wilson had vowed would be the "war to end all wars" and "make the world safe for democracy."
A century later we know that neither promise was ever fulfilled, no matter how hard President Wilson tried to keep them. He was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, but his best efforts to make the world safe for democracy for all people were defeated by his own legislature and trampled by his allies in the war, redrawing maps to their own liking to advance political and economic agendas that served British and French interests but not the interests of the foreign populations they governed, undemocratically and often brutally.
This is particularly true of the Middle East following the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the extension of French and British — but chiefly British — suzerainty into what was then known as the Arab World.
Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, sharif of Mecca, led the Arabs into joining the British in the war against the Turks, full of expectations (encouraged by the British) that once the Turks were defeated, he and his heirs would rule over a united kingdom of Arabia. Secretly, though, the British and the French had agreed to divvy up the Arab world, giving Syria, then including Lebanon, to the French and keeping Palestine and the newly defined countries of Iraq and Transjordan (now Jordan) for themselves. Hussein's son, Abdullah, was installed as the emir of Transjordan, and his son, Hussein, became King of Jordan. Hussein's other son, Faisal, was made king of Iraq and Syria until the French drove him out of Syria, and he held the throne in Baghdad until his death in 1933. His heirs held the throne in Baghdad until they were overthrown in 1958.
At the same time, in November 1917, the British government issued the so-called Balfour Declaration, confirming its support for the development of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine "... it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."
From the Arab point of view, nothing ever turned out as promised. Ironically, the Jewish population of Palestine, now Israel, also felt the British let them down. Two men who would become prime ministers of Israel were labeled terrorists by the British mandate authorities: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Thirty years after the U. S. entry into World War I, following the end of the Second World War, the United States picked up the mess left behind by the old imperial powers, and not a single lesson seems to have been learned. The abiding distrust of Western power and decades of resentment have generated horrifying consequences internationally and in our own homeland.
The promise to end all wars seems to have transformed into a reality of wars that have no end, and Woodrow Wilson's present-day successor in the White House seems even less likely to make the world — or even our own land — safe for democracy.