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100 years later, effects of US entry into World War I still present

April 4, 2017

The United States’ dominant role in the economic world, conflicts in the Middle East and other major world events can all be traced to a single event that happened 100 years ago this month—America’s entry into World War I, said George Mason University professor Kevin Matthews.

The United States officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, after four days of debate in Congress.

“We started off [in 1917] with an Army that was around a 100,000—maybe—and within a year and a half we had four million men in uniform,” Matthews said.

The United States didn’t win the war, but its entry on the side of the Allies provided a psychological boost to the other nations who had been at war for four years.

“It made the U.S. a world power even though we didn’t want to be,” he said.

The U.S. as an economic power

Many of the countries that fought alongside the United States in the war would also borrow money from it.

“In 1914, we were a debtor nation; in three years, we became the world’s creditor nation,” Matthews said.

Before World War I, London was the center of the financial world. Books on international trade and similar subjects printed before World War I are denominated in the British pound, Matthews said.

“After World War I you start seeing more and more denominated in U.S. dollars,” Matthews said. “It’s like this center of gravity shifts across the Atlantic Ocean.”

The Middle East

Before the war, the Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East, but after the war, the region was divided up among the French and the British.

“They all wanted the oil, especially the British,” Matthews said.

The British went on to promise Palestine and other parts of the Middle East to the Arabs.

“The British also promised [Palestine] again in 1917 to the [Jewish] Zionist movement,” he said. “By the end of War World I, you’ve got the Middle East promised at least three different ways. And of course, the British and the French had no intentions of giving up this land to anybody.”

Zionists continue to come into the area until a British ban on further Zionist settlements went into effect. It stayed that way until the British left the region when Israel was established in 1948.

Iraq and the emergence of ISIS

“Iraq is a creation of the British from World War I,” he said. That area used to be ruled by the Ottoman Turks as three provinces, one for the Kurds, one for the Sunni Muslims and one for the Shiite Muslims.

Since the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—a Sunni—a Shiite government has ruled Iraq. Some Sunni who felt disenfranchised formed the Islamic State, or ISIS.

The creation of Iraq during the World War I era can be linked to the ongoing issues between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq today, Matthews said.

For more information contact Jamie Rogers at 703-993-5118 or jroger20@gmu.edu

Charles Kevin Matthews is a history professor at George Mason University and an expert on modern Europe, specifically the United Kingdom and Ireland. He can be reached at 703-993-1250 or cmatthe2@gmu.edu

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.