The World Remade: America in World War I
By G.J. Meyer
(2016, Bantam Books) 651 pages with photo images, notes, and index
The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24
By Richard E. Hannigan
(2017, University of Pennsylvania Press) 254 pages with notes, and index
War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
By Michael Kazin
(2017, Simon & Schuster) 378 pages with photo images, notes, and index
“Once lead this people in to war, and they’ll forget there was such a thing as toleration. To fight, you must be ruthless, brutal and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fiber of our national life.”
—Woodrow Wilson, March 19, 1917, as reported by Frank Cobb, New York World
“I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States.”
—Woodrow Wilson, Address to Congress, April 2, 1917
“I won’t vote for this war because if we go into it, we will never again have the same old Republic.”
—Sen. William J. Stone (D-Mo.), Chair, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 4, 1917
Sen. Porter McCumber (R-N. Dakota): “Do you think if Germany had committed no act of war or no act of injustice against our citizens that we would have gotten into this war?”
President Wilson: “I do.”
—Hearing on the Treaty of Versailles, U. S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, August 19, 1919
On the cold dank evening of April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson solemnly requested a joint session of Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany. “It is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars,” the president lamented. “But the right is more precious than peace.” In defense of America’s entry into the war against German submarine warfare, Wilson then uttered the passionate words most remembered from his fervently delivered address: “The world,” he declared, “must be made safe for democracy.”[i][ii]
The president’s remarks prompted an avalanche of thundering applause and repeated cheers from the audience of legislators and from observers seated in the crowded galleries overlooking the chamber of the House of Representatives where the speech was delivered. The House and the Senate, in separate votes overwhelmingly approved the declaration of war, the Senate by a vote of 82 to 6; the House, 373 to 50. Wilson signed the resolution as soon as it reached him on April 6th. America had thus entered the “Great War”, as it was then known: “Great” because the conflict was horrifically barbaric by any measure, costing so many lives, 10 to 15 million by some accounts; ”Great” also because it was a world war.
For the millions of people in Africa, the Near East and Asia under European colonial rule and the inhabitants of American ruled territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific along with Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua under United States military occupation, Wilson’s assertive insistence that entry into the war was necessary and justified to ensure an American-led democratic world order was perhaps perceived as an ironic indulgence by the inhabitants of those regions. Still, many of them would take Wilson at his word, an expectant attitude enhanced by the president’s Fourteen Points address to Congress eight months later in January 1918. The hopes for self-determination, democratic equality, and lasting peace were illusory, severely compromised by the war’s extraordinary violence and brutality, and by the bitter outcomes of the conflict.[iii]
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’s entry into the First World War, two and a half years after its beginning. For nearly a century historians and freelance commentators have debated the reasons why America entered the war and the consequences at home and abroad of the decision to do so. In the wake of the centennial observance, a raft of new books on the subject has appeared. Three are under review here.
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G. J. Meyer’s lively and engaging account (over 600 pages) is superbly well-written and deftly organized. In a fast-moving background chapter, the author traces the origins of the war and contends “[t]hat no one involved in the July Crisis [created by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife] wanted a general war, and few wanted even a regional war, [t]hat Germany was the last to put her armed forces in motion and did so to save herself from destruction, not in pursuit of any territorial ambitions [a]nd that for all of them, except perhaps Britain in the beginning, the war seemed a fight for survival [,a]nd therefore a fight to the death.”
Meyer, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch who received a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism from Harvard University, interweaves the story of America’s involvement in the war and its aftermath with an incisive narrative and interpretive framework about domestic affairs, foreign policy decisions, and military campaigns. He injects shorter episodic cameo background sections which highlight personalities and events mentioned or introduced in a previous chapter which serve as links to a subsequent chapter. These interludes nicely connect with the longer chapters and engage the reader’s attention while maintaining the integrity of the book’s central story.
Based substantially on Arthur Link’s edited sixty-nine volumes of Woodrow Wilson’s papers, memoirs of other leading characters and a trove of selected secondary accounts, The World Remade concentrates mainly on the role of Woodrow Wilson and his intimates in their response to the outbreak of the war, their actions (and inactions) during the period of American neutrality, the war itself and the peacemaking following the end of hostilities.
Meyer wrestles anew with the question of exactly why Wilson chose to cross the line between pro-allied neutrality and armed intervention. He rejects the argument that the president had no choice despite the latter’s insistence that “the United States was entirely innocent, with no responsibility for the conflict that was entirely of Germany’s making.” On the contrary, Meyer affirms, “[t]here were no innocent victims” and “Wilson was never without options.”
Meyer argues that The World Remade did not imply that it was necessarily a better world for either the victors, including the United States, and certainly not for the losers. He adds his voice to recent histories of the conflict which have refuted the claim that Germany was wholly responsible for initiating the war or America’s entry into it. The author demonstrates, for example, that Wilson’s policies from 1914-1917 were never neutral but rather constituted “flagrant violations of international law” and yielded to Great Britain’s superior “rule of the waves” and “waiver of the rules” pertaining to combat and neutral conduct in times of war. As Meyer describes it, Britain’s dominance of the seas effectively assured that goods shipped from the United States, including munitions and other contraband products such as cotton and oil, went exclusively to Britain and her allies during the time America was officially neutral (1914-17). British warships instituted a naval blockade not only of Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary but of European neutral countries, a violation of the Declaration of London (1907) of which Britain was a signatory. The blockade was a starvation strategy intended to severely weaken domestic stability and livelihood, particularly in Germany, force its capitulation and, following the armistice of November 11, 1918, compel German compliance with the terms of the Versailles peace treaty.
The Wilson administration, Meyer contends, did not undertake serious and sustainable measures challenging the British blockade while yet holding Germany to “strict accountability” for its retaliatory submarine warfare. Moreover, Wilson insisted that American citizens had the legal right to travel in safety wherever they wished on whatever vessels they wished, including the merchant and passenger ships of nations at war even if carrying contraband. But, as Meyer correctly affirms, “there existed in [international] law no such thing as the right to a guarantee of safety if one chose to travel on the ship of a nation at war.”
The implicit sanction by the United States of the British blockade, which tightened its iron grip as the war dragged on, convinced key German officials that American exports of mammoth quantities of food, raw materials, finished goods, arms and munitions, financed by large private American corporate and banking loans and credits to the allies was tantamount to U.S. participation in the war despite Wilson’s declaration of neutrality. To break the blockade, impede the shipment of goods to the Allies and end the military stalemate on the Western Front, Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, effective February 1, 1917.
Germany’s naval chief of operations, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff scoffed at warnings by other German officials, including the German Chancellor and Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, that this action would risk the certain intervention of American armed forces into the war. “Not a single American soldier would ever reach the continent,” Holtzendorff bragged. (Quoted in Meyer, 163) Two months later, Wilson asked for a declaration of hostilities against Germany and its closest ally, Austria-Hungary. “The die was cast.”
Meyer wrestles anew with the question of exactly why Wilson chose to cross the line between pro-allied neutrality and armed intervention. He rejects the argument that the president had no choice despite the latter’s insistence that “the United States was entirely innocent, with no responsibility for the conflict that was entirely of Germany’s making.” On the contrary, Meyer affirms, “[t]here were no innocent victims” and “Wilson was never without options.” The president held the power and the means to compel Britain to lift or modify its illegal blockade (a possibility greatly feared among British policymakers). He could have warned Americans that they traveled on the ships of the belligerents at their own risk. He could have refused government permission for American bankers and investors to issue credits and loans to allied governments and could have supported legislation proposed in Congress to ban the export of contraband arms, munitions, and other military related goods to the allies. Wilson, Meyer emphasizes, did none of these things.
On the other hand, Meyer reminds us, Wilson declined punitive actions against Germany following the May 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner, Lusitania, by a German U-2 submarine, causing 1,193 fatalities, including 128 Americans. Even though Germany had warned Americans not to travel on the vessel which sailed into the war zone and which secretly carried a large shipment of arms and ammunition (unknown to both the passengers and the German submarine commander), Colonel Edward House, Wilson’s closest confidante next to the president’s wife Edith, predicted shortly after the sinking that “the United States would be at war with Germany within the month.” (Quoted in Meyer, 78)
Wilson, however, responded with the speech in Philadelphia in which he famously declared “that there is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight—there is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” (Quoted in Meyer, 100)
Meyer is less clear about exactly when Wilson did choose war. He suggests that it was after his close re-election (running as the candidate who “kept us out of war”) in November 1916 and after the president’s proposed mediation of a “peace without victory” among the warring powers in January 1917 was rejected by Germany and by the Allies (Great Britain, France, Italy, and Russia). “By the end of 1916,” the author observes, “the actions of the U.S. government made it impossible for the Central Powers [Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire] to accept Wilson as the peacemaker he wanted to be. The president had poisoned the well by favoring the Allies too often, too openly and in so many ways for the Germans to take another drink.” Nor, Meyer points out, were the Allies prepared to negotiate for anything less than total victory.
And why did Wilson wish to play the central role in mediating an end to the war and then, failing that, choose war? The answer, Meyer tells us, is if not a participant in the war and victory by the Allies, “the president feared that United States and he, as president, would be left with no major part to play in the postwar settlement. The only way to change that … was to enter the war. If the United States not only went to war but even became the nation that broke the [military] stalemate that made victory possible, Wilson might find himself at the head of the table.”
And why did Wilson wish to play the central role in mediating an end to the war and then, failing that, choose war? The answer, Meyer tells us, is if not a participant in the war and victory by the Allies, “the president feared that United States and he, as president, would be left with no major part to play in the postwar settlement.”
It was an outcome relished by Colonel House who wrote Wilson in July 1917 that “when the war is over, we can force [the Allies] to our way of thinking because by that time they will … be financially in our hands.” (Quoted in Meyer, 254) The president reiterated the claim when he later sought U.S. Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and American membership in the League of Nations. “We will be the senior partner,” he proclaimed in St. Louis in September 1919. “The leadership will be ours. The financial leadership will be ours. The industrial primacy will be ours. The commercial advantage will be ours and the other countries will look to us for leadership and direction.”[iv]
Vainglorious and presumptive of America’s primacy in the world (America First), the sentiment was hardly one of disinterested altruism or of detached idealism. Wilson’s self-inflated ego, Meyer tells us, was emotionally charged, shaping the president’s rhetorical delivery, often brilliant but also highly vindictive against those with whom he disagreed. “[Wilson] was inclined to think himself always right about everything,” Meyer reflects. “He found it difficult–could find it impossible–to imagine that those who disagreed with him might sometimes be right.” Increasingly seeing himself as the “indispensable man” and leader of the American empire, Wilson pursued a paper thin pro-Allied neutrality until he decided that neither the Allies nor the Central Powers were willing to accept his proposed role as mediator and therefore that America’s inclusion in a postwar peace conference made United States participation in the war necessary.
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Robert Hannigan comes to a similar conclusion about why Wilson chose to enter the war and for what purposes. In terse and unambiguous, if less eloquent, language, Hannigan asserts that “[t]he entire course of United States belligerency (before and after entry into the war) was dominated by the Wilson administration’s desire to play a major role in the settlement of the conflict, this so as to reconstruct and stabilize the world along the lines that it wanted.”
Arguing that Woodrow Wilson and others in his administration were well aware of the challenges posed by their broad objectives, Hannigan diminishes the originality and uniqueness of Wilsonian diplomacy, explaining that policymakers had developed and pursued the same objectives (even if employing different strategies or tactics) since the 1890s and that continuity of purpose “was inherited and adhered to by the Wilson presidency.”
Moreover, Hannigan argues in a section of his book entitled “The Republicans Try Their Hands, 1921-1924,” Wilson’s presidential successors, Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge sought to achieve Wilsonian foreign policy objectives (if by other means): “U. S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere, retention of the Open Door framework in China, and a Europe where the United States could trade and where unwelcome reconfigurations of power [such as communism] would not take place, in particular, those that might present a challenge to United States interests … ” In earlier chapters Hannigan discusses in some detail Wilson’s prior policymaking in these same regions. A Scholar-in-Residence in the history department at Suffolk University in Boston and author of a previous work, The New World Power: American Foreign Policy: 1898-1917 (2002) which informs his current book, Hannigan makes his case for continuity particularly documenting parallels between the foreign policies of Wilson’s predecessors and those of their successor. He notes, for example, that the United States had conducted military interventions abroad “at least seven times in the period between the Spanish-American War and the outbreak of World War I.” Wilson’s attempts to oppose or control revolutions had already been tested in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America before the United States entered world conflict and continued thereafter, including in Russia (1918-1922). At the Versailles peace conference, Hannigan argues, “Wilson was not anticolonial in the context of 1919.” The president advocated the mandate system established by the League of Nations which assigned control of previously held German colonies and Ottoman Turkish lands to the victorious Allies rather than formal annexation by them. In Wilson’s view, according to Hannigan, the mandate system “would promote the international order being reconstructed by providing supervision for those peoples ‘incapable’ as yet of independence … under imposed conditions (such as maintenance of the open door,” [a key objective of American foreign policy]. The resources of each colony under the mandate system “should be available to all members of the League,” the president insisted. Though the United States did not join the League of Nations, Republican policymakers pressed hard for such privileges during the 1920s. More generally, Hannigan recounts, “Wilson … described the thrust of his league as an effort to have the doctrine of President [James] Monroe adopted as the doctrine of the world. The idea was to get countries and peoples to accept the international order Washington desired and in their domestic affairs uphold … their obligations to outsiders.”
Hannigan diminishes the originality and uniqueness of Wilsonian diplomacy, explaining that policymakers had developed and pursued the same objectives (even if employing different strategies or tactics) since the 1890s and that continuity of purpose “was inherited and adhered to by the Wilson presidency.”
Both Meyer and Hannigan describe Woodrow Wilson’s excruciating and unsuccessful efforts to obtain ratification of the Versailles Treaty which included the covenant of the League, Meyer more graphically and extensively than Hannigan. Meyer holds Wilson primarily responsible for the outcome and while recognizing the objections of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to the League of Nations Covenant, the author exonerates Lodge. The stolid and stern Massachusetts senator, he reports correctly, was prepared to accept the mildest reservations and thus the League. Wilson was having none of it, bitterly condemning those who dared to modify the treaty. Meyer carefully deciphers the debate and the abstruseness of the voting process in the Senate; when the final vote came on March 19, 1920, it was most of the Democratic Party senators who sided with Wilson in opposing even mild reservations and doomed the treaty. “‘Senator,’ Lodge is reputed to have said to a dejected Democratic Senator, ‘the door is closed. You have done it yourselves.’” (Quoted in Meyer 557)
Alone of the three authors, Meyer writes about the military role of the American soldiers in France during the conflict. Slow to arrive after war was declared, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) experienced combat action for the first time in November 1917 and major engagements only in the last six months of the war.
The “doughboys” (as they were known) were led by the pugnaciously determined Major General John J. Pershing, born and raised in Laclede, Missouri, whose nickname, “Black Jack,” was a sanitized version of “Nigger Jack” and derived from his service with one of the army’s then two black regiments in Cuba during the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War in 1898.
Trained in 19th-century military tactics, Pershing “appears to have been prepared to pay whatever price in lives was required to show the world that his army … was invincible at every moment and in every circumstance.” Pershing ordered frontal military assaults already proven ghastly disastrous in prior offensives of the war by all sides. The Major General “brooked no retreat” and “authoriz[ed] officers to shoot any man who tried to run away.” Despite the order, 150,000 members of the AEF deserted from the front. For his part, Pershing was ready to carry the war deep into Germany and was quite upset when the armistice was announced on November 11th, 1918.
The price for victory had been high: a total of 320,518 United States casualties of whom more than a third (116,708) died, including 25,192 deaths from the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 which killed at least 50 million people worldwide. There is no doubt, however, that the ever continuing flow of American troops on the battle front [according to Meyer “ … hundreds of thousands … of them were … arriving every month.”] shortened the war and broke the military stalemate on the Western Front which, together with the oppressive British naval blockade, defeated Germany and its allies.[v]
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The horror and tragedy of the war was captured even before the United States entered the conflict by the American radical writer, Max Eastman, who in 1916 declared that “[i]t is no longer questionable that modern war and the joy of existence are incompatible. War makes it impossible to live. It makes it impossible even to die for a noble purpose.”[vi] Eastman, editor of the leftist journal, The Masses, is one of a number of anti-war activists who are the subject of Michael Kazin’s fine historical study, War Against War: The American Fight For Peace, 1914-1918. Kazin, a well-known historian of the American left, professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of the journal, Dissent, examines the diverse nature of the opponents who worked to prevent the United States from entering the war and those who continued to protest the war until its end in 1918. He does not disguise his own partisan views about America’s participation in World War One: “I wish the United States had stayed out of the Great War,” Kazin writes. “Imperial Germany posed no threat to the American homeland and no long-term threat to its economic interests, and the consequences of Germany’s defeat made the world a more dangerous place.”
Debatable though several of these assertions are, as no doubt the arguments will continue, Kazin’s study of the dissenters is well researched, objectively analyzed and artfully composed. The author rescues a number of peace advocates from historical oblivion and skillfully reveals the diverse character of the men, women, and organizations engaged in the campaign for peace. Dismissive of past historians and politicians who confined the anti-war movement to the “isolationist” upper Midwest, Kazin repudiates the term “isolationist” in describing the activists. “Americans who tried to stop their nation from fighting [until then] history’s most destructive war … came from a variety of backgrounds: wealthy and middle working class, recent immigrant and ‘old stock’, urban and rural, white and black, Christian, Jewish and atheist.” They “lived in every region of the country and belonged to every political party.” Kazin says isolationism “accurately describes neither the thought nor the actions of key participants in the peace coalition.”
Kazin’s study of the dissenters is well researched, objectively analyzed and artfully composed. The author rescues a number of peace advocates from historical oblivion and skillfully reveals the diverse character of the men, women, and organizations engaged in the campaign for peace. Dismissive of past historians and politicians who confined the anti-war movement to the “isolationist” upper Midwest, Kazin repudiates the term “isolationist” in describing the activists.
Kazin provides generous and lively portraits of leading individuals active in the anti-war movement, including North Carolina Democrat Claude Kitchen, a Southern populist who denounced Northern bankers and industrialists he held responsible for taking America into the war but shared a white supremacist ideology with another opponent of the war, Mississippi Democratic Sen. James K. Vardaman. Also prominently included and discussed in the book are women suffragists Frances (Fanny) Garrison Villard and Crystal Eastman (Max’s sister), social reformer and pacifist Jane Addams, a founder of the Women’s Peace Party, Socialist Morris Hillquit of New York City, industrial capitalists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, black socialists Chandler Owen and Asa Philip Randolph, Harlem precursors of the modern civil rights movement, Sen. Harry Lane, Republican from Oregon, a fierce proponent of women’s suffrage and Native American civil rights, Issac Sherwood, a pro-labor union Democratic congressman from Toledo, Ohio, Sen. William J. Stone, Democrat of Missouri and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the iconic Republican Senator from Wisconsin, “Fighting Bob” Robert Marion La Follette.
Kazin does not, however, shy from criticism of the anti-war activists. He explains that many of them held contradictory views about social and political issues and that their loyalty to such causes often distracted from or undermined their anti-war sentiments and activities. This was profoundly demonstrated in the presidential election of 1916 when many, if not all, anti-war activists favored Wilson’s re-election as the candidate who had thus far kept the country out of war and whose progressive domestic agenda won their support. “But unlike the peace activists,” Kazin argues, “the president was [determined] to advance the nation’s power and status at the expense of peace.” Wilson rejected a popular referendum on peace or war despite pleas from peace activists such as Jane Addams who lobbied for it at meetings with Wilson at the White House. “… the president showed no sympathy at all for their cause,” Kazin comments. “’War,’ Wilson said, ‘had become all but inevitable; victory would enable him to sit at the Peace Table to insure a just and lasting settlement.’”
The president’s appeal for patriotic loyalty in his war declaration speech bolstered supporters of the war, unleashed chauvinistic fervor and severely pressured and strained the anti-war coalition. Some, like Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, “abandoned their repugnance for war and rallied to the flag and the president.”
The congressional opponents of the war (6 in the Senate; 50 in the House of Representatives) had large numbers of constituents who were of German and Scandinavian heritage and many farmers and workers in the upper and lower Midwest which had long been the heartland of populism and progressivism. They mistrusted large corporations and big banks, accusing those institutions that profited from the “war trade” as responsible for American intervention in the conflict. (184)[vii]
American civil liberties were a major casualty of the nation’s participation in the war, tarnishing Woodrow Wilson’s liberal, progressive reputation and America’s claim of democratic exceptionalism. The Espionage Act of 1917 (still on the books) and the Sedition Act of 1918 (repealed after the war) were enacted by a war-frenzied Congress and implemented by the Wilson administration. Meyer denounces Wilson for “mounting the most savage attack on individual rights in American history before or since.” Accepted by a largely compliant public, executive actions and congressional legislation gave the government the power to define dissent as treason and authorized the seizure and destruction of printed publications critical of the war and the military draft. Under the Sedition Act “it was possible,” Kazin reports, “to indict people simply for uttering ‘disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language’ about the government, the flag or even the uniform of the armed forces.”
American civil liberties were a major casualty of the nation’s participation in the war, tarnishing Woodrow Wilson’s liberal, progressive reputation and America’s claim of democratic exceptionalism. The Espionage Act of 1917 (still on the books) and the Sedition Act of 1918 (repealed after the war) were enacted by a war-frenzied Congress and implemented by the Wilson administration.
Immigrants from any one of the Central Powers, workers on strike or trying to organize unions, pacifists and leftists were particularly targeted. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were prosecuted and imprisoned. Eugene Victor Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, received a 10-year sentence for delivering a speech in which he said that “the working class [has] never yet had a voice in declaring war” but was taught “it was their patriotic duty to serve and face slaughter on the battlefield.” (Quoted in Kazin, 246) Republican President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence in December 1921.
“[Other] sentences were later reduced,” Meyer notes, “and some convictions were even reversed. But this generally happened years later, after the war had ended and passions had subsided.” In its prosecutorial campaign, the Department of Justice had the vigorous assistance of the American Protective League (APL), theoretically a private citizen organization but in reality an arm of the Justice Department. Nearly a quarter million volunteers in 600 communities were members of the APL, conducting surveillance hunts to ferret out draft evaders, alleged spies, suspected disloyal persons or accused traitors under the badge of the APL-“Secret Service.” Meyer concludes that the APL “grew to become the most intrusive and far-reaching (and also the most irresponsible) threat to free speech and the right of assembly in the history of the United States.” Even so, as Kazin reveals, three million eligible draft age men were never registered and “a higher percentage of American men successfully resisted conscription during World War I than during the Vietnam War half a century later.”
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No one has ever labeled the First World War a “good war” and Meyer devotes the last hundred pages of his book (Part Three-“Sowing Dragons’ Teeth”) retelling and mourning “The World the War Made.” Not just the immediate human costs of the conflict (the military and civilian casualties, the mentally and emotionally wounded, the physically dislocated, the disillusioned of the literary “Lost Generation”) but also the crushed hopes of colonized peoples that endured for the rest of the Twentieth Century into our own time, the flawed performance of the victors at the Versailles conference and other peace negotiations ending the war between the Allies and the Central Powers, America’s futile intervention in Russia, 1918-1922, the hysteria in the United States unleashed by the Russian Bolshevik revolution that spawned the “Red Scare” and the Palmer raids by the Justice Department, the race riots (including the East St. Louis massacre in July 1917), the surging of nationalist nativism (which in America resurrected the Ku Klux Klan and produced immigration restrictive legislation in 1921 and 1924), and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia.
Kazin agrees with Meyer’s articulated legacies of the war and also defends those who opposed it. “A grand cause that fails may, sometimes, matter as one that succeeds,” he writes. While posing an alternative scenario if America had not entered the conflict, a risky endeavor for any historian, Kazin plays into Meyer’s catalogue of legacies and exceeds it.
Meyer dodges the question of whether the United States should have entered the war, conceding that joining the battle ensured an Allied victory but implies that more bad than good things happened to America as a result. The United States “was changed profoundly, aggravat[ing] Americans’ susceptibility to hubris, believing they are inherently superior to all other nations, her warriors inherently superior (and uniquely benign) as well.” Meyer is also adamant that the government’s “unprecedented assault on the Bill of Rights, on freedom of speech and assembly, on due process of law” was the most pervasive change in American society and a lasting legacy, “part of the price that the United States paid for intervention” however perceived necessary.
Kazin agrees with Meyer’s articulated legacies of the war and also defends those who opposed it. “A grand cause that fails may, sometimes, matter as one that succeeds,” he writes. While posing an alternative scenario if America had not entered the conflict, a risky endeavor for any historian, Kazin plays into Meyer’s catalogue of legacies and exceeds it. The American anti-war crusaders, Kazin declares, “made the last mighty attempt to prevent the establishment of a political order that most Americans now take for granted: a state equipped to fight numerous wars abroad while keeping a watch on potentially subversive activities of its citizens at home, a military establishment funded by income taxes and a state surveillance apparatus in the name of national security.”
Most of America’s wars have been “wars of choice,” Kazin concludes, adding also “unnecessary,” exempting only the Second World War “[that] stands out as an unavoidable conflict in which Americans were arguably fighting for national survival.”
Each of the books discussed here are valuable additions to the literature of America and the First World War, both for a general audience and the specialist. Together they contribute information and interpretations that will challenge readers to think or rethink their ideas about the subject and its significance for understanding our present predicaments.