A century later, here is a look at the events of 1918.
World War I and the Fourteen Points
Beyond the main military and geopolitical consequences of the war — which The New York Times explored in 2014, the centennial of its outbreak — the United States’ intervention had its own lasting impact. The roots of that impact can be seen in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, delivered 100 years ago this month
Though delivered to Congress, the Jan. 8 speech was not a State of the Union message. Wilson, a Democrat in his second term, had revived those annual speeches, which had been abandoned by Thomas Jefferson, but he gave them in December.
The points, intended as a blueprint for postwar peace, ranged from specific demands to grand principles — perhaps none grander than Point 14, which called for “a general association of nations” that would guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
The first attempt at such a thing was the League of Nations, established two years later. The League crumbled after failing to prevent World War II, but from its ashes grew the United Nations.
The fact that Wilson — the president of a nation more than 3,000 miles removed from the closest battlefront, a nation directly involved in the war for less than a year at that point — presumed to dictate conditions for peace at all was remarkable, and it presaged the outsize role the United States would soon take on.
“The question of what place America should play on the global stage — that was something Woodrow Wilson really introduced and thrust into the national consciousness,” said Chad Williams, a historian and associate professor of African-American studies at Brandeis University. “Should it be ‘America first,’ or does the United States have a larger moral role to play on the global stage as far as promoting ideals of democracy and intervening when those ideals are being challenged?”
Revolutions and civil wars
The words “Russian Revolution” bring to mind 1917, when Lenin and his Bolsheviks toppled the czar, paving the way for the Russian Empire to become the Soviet Union.
But it was in 1918 that the Bolsheviks forced other political parties out of the Constituent Assembly and enacted a constitution, creating the world’s first formally socialist nation. And it was in 1918 that the Romanovs — the deposed Czar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children — were executed with clubs, guns and bayonets in the basement of the house where they were being held.
Many Russian territories sought to break away. Finland, which had declared its independence in December 1917, descended into a civil war along the same lines as Russia’s: socialists versus non-socialists. (The non-socialists won in May.)
Elsewhere, Poland declared its independence from the collapsing German Empire and promptly went to war with the new West Ukrainian People’s Republic. Czechoslovakia broke away from Austria-Hungary. Austria and Hungary split three days later. And in November, Germany began a revolution that would last well into 1919.
Together, World War I and the myriad revolutions, civil wars and treaties it spawned helped set the boundaries of modern Europe.
The Spanish flu
In January 1918, a plague came to Haskell County, Kan. By the end of the year, it would engulf the world.
The virus may not have originated in Kansas, but that was where the first cases were recorded. From the rural homes of the Great Plains, it spread to Camp Funston and other Army bases, and from there to the civilian masses.
By 1919, the disease had killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide, a toll matched only once in recorded history. The Black Death killed 75 million to 200 million — but it took four years to do so, while the Spanish flu took little more than one.
Beyond the staggering human suffering, a “very progressive” reaction took shape, said David Blanke, a cultural historian at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. Into a frightened populace stepped doctors and nurses, who cared for the sick and vaccinated the healthy. At a time of crisis, Americans put their faith in them, which reinforced the Progressive Era push for public health legislation.
Yet a century later, the world remains deeply vulnerable to another pandemic — perhaps even more so, given the pathways modern transportation has created for people and viruses to leap from continent to continent. And Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, the authors of “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” wrote in a Times Op-Ed this month that our medical systems are wholly unprepared.
Citizenship and suffrage
Away from the trenches and sickbeds, one of the year’s biggest themes was citizenship, and who qualified for its privileges and protections, Dr. Blanke said.
In Britain, most women over 30 gained the right to vote. In the United States, the 19th Amendment cleared the House of Representatives (though the Senate narrowly rejected it), and President Wilson threw the support of the White House behind women’s suffrage.
“We have made partners of the women in this war,” Wilson told Congress in September. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
African-Americans, too, demanded the rights their nation was evangelizing overseas.
“You have an expectation on the part of many disadvantaged, marginalized groups in the country that the war is going to bring about fundamental change in the nation’s democracy,” Dr. Williams said.
But those demands provoked a fierce backlash. The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1915, picked up steam. White vigilantes lynched Hazel and Mary Turner, a black couple in Lowndes County, Ga., in May; Ms. Turner was pregnant. In December, a white mob hanged four black people — two young men and two pregnant women — from a bridge over the Chickasawhay River in Mississippi.
Citizens also saw their rights curtailed with the Sedition Act of 1918, an extension of the Espionage Act of 1917. Among other things, it forbade Americans during wartime to obstruct military recruitment or to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the United States’ armed forces, Constitution or form of government.
“The attack on peace advocates, the suppression of freedom of speech, the emergence of a wartime surveillance state, the beginnings of our modern intelligence apparatus,” Dr. Williams said. “People suspected of dissent being investigated, imprisoned — I think we see the legacies of that even today.”
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