On this day in 1917, transport ships carrying 14,000 U.S. troops in the American Expeditionary Force approached the shores of France, where the soldiers joined the Allied fight against the Central Powers in World War I.
The United States had been reluctant to enter the Great War. Many Americans viewed it as a European fight of which they wanted no part. President Woodrow Wilson had won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” But German aggression, including U-boat strikes against American cargo ships, gradually changed public opinion. Wilson realized the country could not avoid a conflict that was engulfing much of the world.
As U.S. troops landed in France, Americans were mindful of an old debt owed that nation. France had been the colonists’ most important ally during the Revolutionary War. The Marquis de Lafayette had fought beside Patriot soldiers, equipping some of them at his own expense. He won the affection of George Washington and became a hero to the young nation. Urged on by Lafayette, France had sent ships, troops, and arms that played a key role in the Patriots’ victory.
In early July 1917, the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force troops marched under the Arc de Triomphe, cheered by the people of Paris. In a ceremony at Lafayette’s tomb, where the Frenchman lies buried under dirt from Bunker Hill, an American officer lay down a wreath of pink and white roses. Another officer stepped forward, snapped a salute, and declared: “Lafayette, we are here!”
U.S. troops went on to help turn the tide of World War I in favor of France and the Allies. The words “Lafayette, we are here” are still a good reminder of the need to stand fast with allies when tyranny threatens.