100 years later: Reflecting on the lessons of World War I

On November 11, 1918, Allied leaders signed an armistice agreement with Germany, effectively ending World War I. The conflict is estimated to have left more than seventeen million soldiers and civilians dead, wreaking havoc on most of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1917. Among the dead were 116,708 American soldiers.

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The Atlantic Council community reflects on the war and the lessons that can be drawn from it, one hundred years after its end.

Madeleine K. Albright, member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board and US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.

“The disastrous miscalculation of World War I was that leaders believed that an all-out competition between nations for power and influence could end in victory for some. Instead, it led to ruin for all.  Today, we recognize that the path to stability and prosperity can only be found in cooperation. One century after the guns of the Great War fell silent, we see the need for such collaboration in every sphere—from the economy, to controlling the spread of dangerous arms, to broadening respect for human rights, to preserving the health of our global environment.”

R. Nicholas Burns, Atlantic Council board director and US undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008.

“We should remember with pride and gratitude November 11 the enormous sacrifice of the American Expeditionary Force that did so much with Britain and France to turn the tide of the Great War in 1917-1918. We live today with the historical consequences of that terrible conflict and of the imperfect peace of Versailles. An abiding lesson for the United States is that we must remain committed to Europe—to our democratic allies in NATO as well as to our strategic partnership with the European Union.”

Stephen J. Hadley, executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council and former assistant to the president for national security affairs in the George W. Bush administration. 

“The First World War ushered in a new era not just for the continent of Europe, but also for the United States. Gone were the days of ‘splendid isolation’ across the Atlantic, as the United States dedicated much of the next century to liberating and then preserving peace in Europe. The terrible toll of that conflict should give pause to anyone who believes disengagement from the world and shunning of international cooperation leads to anything more than mistrust and open conflict.”

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., interim chairman of the Atlantic Council and national security advisor in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2010.

“The First World War saw monumental sacrifice not just by the people of Europe, but from men and women around the world. More than a hundred thousand American troops gave their lives on the fields of Europe, joined by hundreds of thousands of others from Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The promise of the ‘War to End All Wars’ went unfulfilled, but that aspiration and the memory of the Great War’s enormous human toll must continue to inspire our devotion and hard work toward building a future of lasting global peace, freedom, and development.”

Michael Morell, Atlantic Council board director and former acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“World War I was fought to make the world safe for democracy, and an astonishing number of people died to ensure that outcome.  A hundred years later the world is once again divided as to what form of government is best. And, in America, we seem to be at odds with each other over almost everything. I hope this special Veterans Day, as we look back on the Great War and pay tribute to our heroes who have fought for us in all our wars, that we can begin to unite as one country and to work to ensure that America plays a leadership role in the world, fighting for democracy everywhere.”

Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

“The First World War forced Americans to assume global responsibility to restore peace. They did so reluctantly, and welcomed their nation’s retreat after victory. It was only the painful lessons learned from that retreat — the ensuing sacrifice required to defeat tyranny in World War II — that convinced Americans their entry onto the world stage in World War I needed to remain a permanent posture of global engagement. While the costs were high 100 years ago, the benefits to the American people are evidenced in the security and prosperity the nation has enjoyed over the past century.”


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Image: The headstone of James Leonard Dean from Missouri is decorated with U.S. and French flags at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery dedicated to the U.S. soldiers killed in the Belleau Wood battle during the World War One at Belleau, France, November 6, 2018. Pictute taken November 6, 2018. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)