After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, Europe quickly became engulfed by war. The political murder pushed the continent's diplomatic alliances of the nineteenth century past their breaking point, drawing the continent into one of the twentieth century's deadliest conflicts. Few imagined that the war between the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (France, Britain, and Russia) would last more than four years, leave thirty-seven million dead and wounded, and bring Europe to the brink of ruin. The United States initially chose a policy of nonintervention, but by 1917 it was clear that America could no longer remain neutral.
On the evening of April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and called for America's entry into the war. Wilson asked that his country "fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free." Although Congress heeded the president and declared war on Germany on April 6, U.S. Senator William Joel Stone of Jefferson City and four of Missouri's sixteen U.S. representatives were among the minority who voted no.
America sent two million men to join the fight. The troops who crossed the Atlantic faced a hellish nightmare of trench warfare and deadly new technological innovations such as tanks, poison gas, submarines, and military aircraft. A Missouri native, General John J. Pershing, was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and 156,232 Missourians joined every branch of the military, with almost half of them serving overseas. Civilians also traveled abroad to support the war effort, including Mary Paxton, the first female graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who served as a YMCA canteen worker in France.
On the home front, Missourians contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. The Missouri Council of Defense was established to organize the state's war effort. Citizens participated in war bond campaigns, children planted war gardens, women entered the workforce to fill the labor gap, and farmers increased agricultural production. Families signed food pledges vowing not to waste food, volunteers raised money for the Red Cross, and boys fourteen and older were permitted to stay home from school to work on family farms.
Some of Missouri's citizens, however patriotic, did not escape scrutiny. First- and second-generation German immigrants constituted almost 12 percent of Missouri's population. Some communities banned the use of the German language; others burned German textbooks. As historian Petra DeWitt has noted, "Missouri Germans did not entirely escape charges of disloyalty. Nevertheless, they were not the subject of widespread hate crimes and ethnically targeted legislation," both of which were experienced by German-Americans in other states.
On January 8, 1918, President Wilson delivered his "Fourteen Points" speech in which he laid out his vision for postwar peace, calling for open seas, transparent treaties between nations, and free trade. With thousands of fresh American troops in Europe and the other Central Powers on the verge of surrender, an exhausted Germany recognized that the end of the war was near, and by the beginning of November, the German people turned against their government. Two days after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and went into exile, a new German republic was born. The newly established government quickly moved to end the war.
At eleven o'clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 Germany and the Allies signed an armistice that brought an end to the war. Wilson traveled to Europe to broker an agreement at the Paris Peace Conference, but found his efforts often stymied by his European counterparts. Although the Treaty of Versailles articulated the agreement reached at the conference and formally ended the war between Germany and the Allied Powers, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the treaty. Instead, the United States brokered a separate agreement with Germany that was finalized with the U.S.-German Peace Treaty of 1921. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Versailles did not create a lasting peace, and in twenty years Europe would once again be engulfed in war.
By war's end, 11,172 Missourians were among the dead and wounded. Five native Missourians received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Veterans, including Missouri National Guard Captain Harry S Truman of the 129th Field Artillery, returned home after witnessing the horrors of the first modern war of the twentieth century.
War diaries, letters from home, photographs, newspaper articles, and the papers of organizations such as the Missouri Council of Defense can be found in the collections of the State Historical Society of Missouri. These records from those who participated in the war help us to better understand Missourians' experiences during World War One, both at home and overseas. Researchers are encouraged to explore additional resources at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial and Over There: Missouri and the Great War.