Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the ceasefire agreement between the Allies and Germany led to the end of World War I, one of the bloodiest conflicts of all time. Also known as The Great War, WWI claimed 17 million lives in four years.
I recently visited the Museum of History and Industry to see the “WWI America” exhibition. As a military kid (my dad served in the Marines), I’m fascinated by war and military history. That the exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day is a powerful reason to check it out. It’s up through Feb. 10 at the Seattle museum.
As that aforementioned military kid, let me tell you: This isn’t your typical war exhibit.
There are the displays on American war heroes, where you’ll listen to harrowing tales of survival and see beautifully preserved weapons deployed in the trenches of European battlefields from a century ago. It also examines the factors that led the U.S. to intervene, including the infamous Zimmerman telegram from Germany urging Mexico to fight America.
These are the things you’d expect.
But the exhibit at MOHAI has an expanded scope: It also covers the suffrage movement, racial violence, fear of immigrants, government propaganda, workers’ strikes and federal crackdowns on political dissidents. This is what was happening on U.S. soil.
It may take a minute to realize, but everything covered is interconnected. Perhaps none of it would have happened if it weren’t for World War I.
America’s involvement helped end the war, but it also triggered one of the biggest upheavals in U.S. history.
“All those issues really hadn’t been at the forefront until World War I,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of the museum. “The country was big enough, diverse enough and the issues were important enough. It finally came to the national conversation and it never left.”
A lot happened in five short years between 1914 to 1919. From the push for women’s right to vote, a northward migration of African-Americans and a conflict between civil liberties and national dissent, this time period changed the course of American history.
WWI also triggered a major economic shift in the Puget Sound region: The shipbuilding, airplane manufacturing and lumber milling industries boomed during the war.
“World War I was not only important to the world, but it really changed who we are as a community,” Garfield said. “We emerged from the war with a completely different identity — more diverse and technologically sophisticated and more connected to our work because of our close location to the Pacific.”
The exhibit was 10 years in the making. It was developed by a consortium of six museums led by the Minnesota History Center.
Garfield said MOHAI contributed photographs, old newspapers clippings and other documents to the exhibit to illustrate the war’s impact in the Pacific Northwest. One of the first things you see? A story about the war breaking out reported by a Seattle paper.
Other highlights include displays of WWI weaponry — a machine gun, trench knife and mace — and listening to re-einactments of soldiers who fought in the war. There’s also a soldier’s helmet that was split in half by artillery.
But I got the most out of learning about major events in the U.S. that were brought about by a war fought thousands of miles from home.
Though America was neutral when the war began in 1914, we profited greatly from the conflict. The U.S. provided goods, materials and arms to the Allies, a market that added 2.5 million jobs between 1915-16.
But the economic boom didn’t last. The abrupt end to the war led to a violent transition in the American economy. Factories no longer needed the extra millions of hands hired. As a result, in 1919, nearly 4 million American workers were involved in 4,000 strikes — including 60,000 Seattle shipyard workers.
This time period is also significant for the women’s suffrage movement. Women fought for the right to vote for nearly 80 years, and it all came to a head during the war. Opponents argued women lacked the mental capacity to make their own judgments. Many women were arrested and abused in prison as a deterrent.
A display of a prison cell featuring a painting of two men about to force-feed a suffragette sent chills down my spine.
Featured are suffrage leaders such as Alice Paul, who spearheaded the 1913 Women Suffrage Procession. There also are original pro-suffrage badges and buttons worn from 1915 to 1919.
Suffragist efforts during the war — including calling President Woodrow Wilson a hypocrite for having America join the war in 1917 to make the world “safe for democracy” while half of the nation’s population was denied the right to vote — led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Other historical and cultural issues featured in the exhibit — such as immigration concerns, the poor treatment of minorities, political division and America’s role on the global stage — eerily echo some of today’s most poignant discussions.
“We’re having these conversations again,” Garfield said. “We do ourselves a service to understand the situation back then, not to solve our problems, but to shed light on these issues and hopefully not repeat the same mistakes.”
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
If you go
What: “WW1 America”
Where: Museum of History and Industry, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through Feb. 10
Tickets: $19.95 adults, $16.95 seniors, $15.95 students and military; free for youth 14 and younger; active and retired military get in free on Veterans Day
More: 206-324-1126 or www.mohai.org/exhibits/ww1-america
Armistice Day celebration
Also this weekend, the Museum of History and Industry is hosting Armistice Day Centennial Commemoration Weekend in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. There will be a ringing of the bells ceremony, keynote speakers and representatives from the consulates of countries that fought in the war. Find a schedule of events for Nov. 11-12 online at www.mohai.org.