The date was April 2, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson, a mere 28 days into his second term, stood before a joint session of Congress.

“I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making,” he declared.

The gathered Senators and Congressmen had watched the growing conflict in Europe with rapt attention over the past two years, but especially since a German U-boat sank the Lusitania only weeks earlier, killing over a thousand civilian passengers, including 128 Americans. To make matters worse, the decoded Zimmermann Telegram revealed that Germany had solicited Mexico into a proposed military alliance against the United States. Increasingly, America’s general neutrality seemed untenable.

Wilson had won reelection with his popular “He kept us out of war” slogan. But all that was about to change.

As he stood before Congress, he laid out the wrongs Germany had inflicted on the nation and why, he believed, military action was now necessary.

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“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

Four days later, Congress took his advice, officially declaring war on Germany.

“Whereas,” the resolution declared, “the recent acts of the Imperial German Government are acts of war against the Government and (the) people of the United States… the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government which has been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared….”

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More than a month later, on June 26, 1917—exactly 106 years ago today—the first U.S. troops landed in France. Their arrival marked a turning point in American history. According to the Library of Congress, it was “the first time… that the United States sent soldiers abroad to defend foreign soil.” This colossal shift in foreign policy—emblematic of America’s shifting role on the world stage—impacted more than just the four million men who would serve in the United States Army by the end of the war; it would impact Americans for generations to come. Wilson had more than ushered in a new phase in the war; as writer Erick Trickey put it, he had transformed America “from an isolated, neutral nation to a world power.”

“Until the dual shocks of unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegram, Wilson had truly intended to keep the United States out of World War I,” Trickey noted. “But when he eventually altered course, “[h]e forsook George Washington’s 124-year precedent of American neutrality in European wars. His idealistic justifications for that decision helped launch a century of American military alliances and interventions around the globe.”

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Indeed, when 14,000 U.S. troops arrived in France 106 Junes ago, they bore with them not a message of self-defense but Wilson’s high-minded pretext of protecting Democracy and vindicating “the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.” In other words, he gave us the responsibility to promote those American principles globally, a responsibility we have carried with us—for good or ill—ever since.

“Those ideas have defined American diplomacy and war for the last 100 years, from World War II and NATO to Vietnam and the Middle East,” Trickey concluded. “A century later, we’re still living in Woodrow Wilson’s world.”

Historians have debated our 28th president’s quest for global peace for decades. But one thing is clear: he unquestionably ushered in a new era of American heroism.

The United States suffered 320,000 casualties in the war. (In a popular story questioned by historians, Wilson reportedly grieved after he delivered his war address: “My message today was a message of death for our young men,” he privately mourned in response to the thunderous applause the speech elicited. “How strange it seems to applaud that.”) It was a tremendous price, indeed. But whatever the pretext, our boys stepped up and paid it with courage.

We were wrong to assume that the Great War would end all wars. But whoever assumed it would end all American courage in the face of war was equally wrong. Far from it, it inaugurated a century in which we would prove our heroism again and again.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project.

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