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Let's not forget the anniversary of our entering WW I

Apr 7, 2017

I was listening to one of the dumber stories of the week Thursday, about a Twitter squabble between two Republicans, a White House staffer and Congressman Justin Amash.

The staffer, clearly imitating his big boss, urged voters to defeat Amash in next year’s primary. Amash told him “Bring it on,” and linked his tweet to a place to donate to his campaign. I’ve seen more intelligent fights in a day care center. The story went on to explore whether either were guilty of ethics violations.

I realized I didn’t care. I wasn’t in a happy mood, possibly because I was on my way to an emergency root canal. Later, in the chair, I realized I’d seen virtually nothing all week about the centennial of one of the most important stories in history – the United States’ entry into World War I, on April 6, 1917.

Michigan Radio’s Stateside did, to its credit, do a piece on one soldier’s letters to his mom. But there was little or no recognition that not only was World War I arguably the single most important event in modern history, it helped create the Michigan we all grew up with: An ethnically diverse manufacturing powerhouse.

Here’s how that happened: America was only in what was called “the war to end all wars” for a little over a year and a half. Our entry turned the tide of battle, and the allies won. It was a flawed victory followed by a worse peace, which ensured World War II would follow barely twenty years later. Fifty-three thousand Americans died in battle; somewhat more of diseases, and a flu epidemic that swept the world at its end killed half a million in this country alone.

Michigan sent 135,000 soldiers to the war, and thousands died. But the war had an even greater effect on civilian life. The assembly lines of the auto industry had been running for barely a decade. Not only were many switched to war production, but the war began the Great Migration of southern blacks and whites to Detroit.

Prior to World War I, black population in the city was barely one percent. But that increased exponentially, something for which we were sociologically and politically ill-prepared. Some of what followed included ghettos, the Ossian Sweet trial, and, during World War II, the first of two vicious and bloody race riots.

World War I, however, also helped transform Michigan from a fairly undistinguished farm state to the manufacturing powerhouse and arsenal of democracy it became.

With that came recognition that we had a place in the wider world. This sometime took on absurd dimensions, such as the first Henry Ford thinking he could charter a “peace ship” and go over and end the war he knew essentially nothing about.

Sheryl James, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer in northern Michigan, told me last night she’d spent the day reminding people of this anniversary. For years, she and I both interviewed veterans of the Great War, and I covered a couple of their reunions.

That’s something no one will ever do again.

They are all gone now, their war overshadowed by the even bigger one that followed. But this essay is a tiny way to say that they, and it, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.