Last week my US History classes took part in a simulation that explored the reasons for American involvement in WWI. I use a lesson plan originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of the OAH Magazine of History and fine tune it in ways that allow me to fit it into two class periods. Students are divided into groups of two and each team is given a state to represent. Each state has a list of facts that must be considered as the team debates whether to go to war. For instance, the representatives of Massachusetts must remember that they have a large Irish population, the state has strong ties to England along with economic ties with the rest of the continent. Wisconsin representatives must consider its Progressive history (Robert LaFollette was governor of the state), along with its German-American population and agricultural economy. There are nine states in all from around the country that are represented in this simulation.
We proceed year by year; students have a handout from each year that describes everything that has taken place both internationally and domestically. Based on their own local concerns they must debate whether to declare war, and if so, on which side to join. My students tend to automatically assume that Germany was the aggressor nation at the start of the war. In addition, they assume that if the United States were to join the war earlier it would have to be on the side of the Allies – let’s forget that czarist Russia was aligned with England and France up to the 1917 Revolution.
The simulation usually goes as planned in that very few states are ready to even consider war until 1917 and even then they are wary. With such a diverse set of interests between the states represented students gain some appreciation of how difficult it is to come to agreement over what to do about foreign affairs. They ask if this is really our war or whether they can ask young men to fight and die for this specific cause. The problem becomes more acute when after they’ve declared war in 1917 I ask them what they believe this war is about for the United States specifically. The most common answers center on trade interests, but few are able to argue just how American involvement will improve the situation. What is striking is how few of my students focus on "making the world safe for Democracy."
To set us up for todays discussion I ask them to spend some time thinking of how they are going to market this war to the rest of the country. How exactly do you convince the average American that what they most want to do is go off to the bloody battlefields of Europe and kill Germans. Even with the sinking of the Luisitania and the Zimmerman Telegram they find it difficult to view Germany as a natural enemy.
Enter the Committee for Public Information and the work of George Creel.