NewsStreet Scribe

Horrors in Ukraine Are Reminiscent of World War I

A Mariopul, Ukraine, children’s hospital bombed by Russian forces. Credit:

“April is the cruellest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot. He may have been right. 

Images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shocked a watching world as the war slouches into its third month. Media coverage of Russian bombardment of Ukrainian hospitals and residential areas has riveted the world since Russia’s Vladimir Putin started the war on Feb. 24, but the true atrocity of the invasion was seen close-up when media showed images of executed Ukraine civilians who were murdered and left on the street like trash after Russian troops rolled through the war-ravaged city of Bucha in early April. 

The horrific images from Ukraine were reminiscent of photographs taken in Europe during both world wars, and worries are growing around the globe that Putin’s invasion could widen and worsen into even more carnage—just as World War I spread rapidly and lethally across Europe when it began there in 1914. America was drawn into that conflict when the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Though he had run for re-election in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” President Woodrow Wilson pushed for U.S. entry into the war by 1917, saying that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Wilson also cautioned that if the American people were led into a large-scale war, “they will forget that there ever was such a thing as tolerance.” He proved to be right about that. The years following the end of World War I became a time of intolerance, xenophobia and rampant racism in America that historian Frederick Lewis Allen called “a reign of terror” and “a new record in American history for executive transgression of individual constitutional rights.” Though the United States was involved in World War I for only about 18 months before the war ended in 1918, in that short length of time the war would claim more than 116,000 American lives lost from battlefield injuries or disease. 

The United States after World War I was a country of only about 100 million people, so the deaths of tens of thousands of its citizens on faraway battlefields “over there” traumatized the nation. In the aftermath of the war, Wilson’s warning about Americans forgetting tolerance came true. Black soldiers who were told that they were fighting for democracy overseas found no democracy on the streets of America when they came home from the war and faced ongoing battles against racial segregation and subjugation. After what was touted as a war for freedom, lynchings of African Americans still happened, and by 1919 race riots had spread across America during a bloody time called “Red Summer.” 

American intolerance was on full display during a postwar “Red Scare” roundup and jailing of political dissidents that climaxed on Jan. 2, 1920. Democrat Wilson was sequestered in the White House after suffering a stroke, but his attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, kept busy.  “Palmer Raids” in 33 American cities coast to coast targeted activist groups and individuals like feminists, socialists, labor organizers and antiwar protesters. Thousands of Americans were arrested during raids that were run by a young rising star in Palmer’s Justice Department, the 25-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, who later became the longtime head of the FBI. Today the Red Scare after World War I is remembered as a shameful chapter in U.S. history that was a precursor to the infamous McCarthy era political witch hunts that played out on American television in the 1950s.

World War I claimed at least 20 million lives globally from 1914–1918. In its aftermath, America was scarred by intolerance and injustice. Russia’s murderous campaign against Ukraine is yet another blow to a world already bludgeoned by war, pandemic, autocracy and environmental ruin. On April 4, 1967—exactly a year before he was killed on the cruel day of April 4, 1968— Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon warning against “those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” Vladimir Putin should read and heed those words today.