World War I took a terrible toll on life in Europe. Russia, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary each lost about 4 million men, about one-third of all those mobilized during the war. (By contrast, U.S. deaths in Vietnam were 58,000.) Though cities were spared the devastation that would occur in World War II, the social costs were high: Widows and orphans and those mutilated in body and mind affected families everywhere. Censorship, centralization of the economy, and a profound skepticism about the political culture and moral values of European civilization continued to affect European history and culture long after the war ended, and contributed in part to the beginning of World War II.

For the United States, the decision to participate in the war has been seen by scholars as the perhaps inevitable consequence of the decision to acquire a blue water navy and an overseas empire (see Toward Empire: Overseas Expansion: 1865-1910). Moreover, the United States, long a debtor nation, became instead a major creditor as Britain and France sold off their substantial holdings in American business and agricultural concerns to fund the war effort. This new financial power was soon felt in the post-war years.

The Great War also changed the way Americans viewed themselves. "Hyphenated Americans" (German-Americans, Italian-Americans) were assumed in a new American identity (nonetheless one that still excluded African Americans from military service).

As the Armistice gave way to the peace formulated under the Treaty of Versailles , the victors inadvertently managed to sow the seeds for a still greater war a generation later.

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