Turmoil and Transformation: The Great War

On November 11, 1921, three years to the day since the Armistice ending the First World War, Warren G. Harding spoke at Arlington National Cemetery at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Republican President’s address, consistent with his famous pledge to “return to normalcy,” in some ways marked a departure from Woodrow Wilson’s idealism. Harding honored the sacrifices of the American military more as service to the Republic than as service to an abstract crusade for democracy. The fallen had died for their country. This was the measure of true patriotism.

While Harding did acknowledge more idealistic aspirations typical of his time, he balanced them against the more immediate task of defending “national rights.” Like so many of his generation he could not refrain from speaking of the war in terms of “righteousness,” and ended his remarks by leading the audience in the Lord’s Prayer. But he deplored the costs of modern warfare—the horror of industrial and scientific slaughter the world had just witnessed—and vowed to American families that he would labor to avoid such disasters in the future.

This speech makes a fitting conclusion to a new and impressive anthology, World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It. Whatever “normalcy” meant to Harding in the 1920s, this collection makes it clear that there was no way for the United States to return to the status quo ante bellum of 1914. Too much had happened. The scope and sweep of this volume bring home just how much turmoil America endured in its first engagement in global war. The nation’s transformation from stunned observer to unbalanced neutral to crusading interventionist to a somewhat naïve adolescent in cynical postwar Europe left Americans by turns hopeful, ambitious, bewildered, disappointed, and betrayed.

The Library of America’s selection of A. Scott Berg to edit the volume shows perfect pitch. Berg has written critically acclaimed biographies of Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Woodrow Wilson. His finest achievement to date is the Pulitzer Prize he won in 1999 for his biography of Charles Lindbergh, a courageous book that rescued Lindbergh as an American hero.

Berg opens his editor’s introduction to this worthy addition to his oeuvre with an epigraph from George Kennan, who said he came to see the Great War “as the great seminal catastrophe of this century—the event which . . . lay at the heart of the failures and decline of this Western civilization.” In setting the tone in this way, Berg avoids merely celebrating America’s emergence as global superpower and avoids, on the other hand, casting doubt on the sacrifices of those who fought and died on land and sea, or served as doctors, nurses, and journalists, or even dared dissent from America’s mood of self-congratulation.

Every entry in the anthology comes from an eyewitness, lending it a rich texture. Berg understands Wilson’s centrality to American intervention—especially his infusion of moralism into U.S. foreign policy—but he never allows Wilson to crowd out others who thought of the war in very different terms. Above all, his selections capture a sense of history as highly contingent. There is no assumption of inevitability woven into them.

One paragraph from the introduction ought to serve any student of this conflict as a model of historical consciousness.

All the selections that follow capture moments of the past when they were the present. One hundred years after the events depicted in these pages, readers know the outcomes of World War I; but the authors of these pieces did not. The immediacy of their observations and the rawness of their emotions are all fraught with electrifying uncertainty.

That “electrifying uncertainty” is what makes real historical study so compelling. The firsthand accounts of the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, or of Germany’s aerial bombing raids on London from late 1914 to nearly the end of the conflict, are the best proof of the intensity of lived experience. The reader cannot help but ask what it must have been like for an urban population to endure war from the sky for the first time, and cannot help pondering what awful things have become ordinary in our world.

It is unavoidable that such a collection will be “literate” in the sense that its selections are  mostly by articulate people who felt compelled to explain the war through the written word and for a literate audience, even if that audience was just the family or fiancé back home. (An added pleasure is just how good the prose is.) Berg draws from William James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, a very young Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Ezra Pound; from George Santayana, Randolph Bourne, Jane Addams, Walter Lippmann, and W.E.B. DuBois; from Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Herbert Hoover and, of course, President Wilson.

Every selection is prefaced with a short and judicious introduction, and there are over 150 pages of supporting material, including a chronology of events from 1914 to 1921, biographical entries on each author, annotations, and a detailed index. All of these aids make the anthology as useful to the lay reader as to the scholar.

Compiling the volume had to have been daunting, given the need to sift through what looks to have been a nearly infinite number of primary sources. The right mix of voices had to be found and when it comes to the First World War, it is not self-evident who should make the cut as one of “the Americans who lived it” and who shouldn’t. That said, if there were any criticism to be leveled against the anthology, it would be the way it adheres to our current preoccupation with race, class, and gender. Fortunately, the editor, although highlighting problems of “identity,” does not let the book sink into a cliché of academic and political fashion. He is never heavy-handed.

But if we were to pursue a bit more rigorously Berg’s goal of letting the past be the past, what would we notice? More specifically, how might an American in 1921 have reacted to this collection? Yes, they might be surprised by the inclusion of so many Socialists, radical reformers, African Americans, and women. And surely we have learned something important since World War I about who in the past deserves the historian’s attention. But this imaginary reader would also notice that large parts of the American experience are missing.

To give one example, millions of Americans from a range of sects and denominations heard from the pulpit and the religious press each week what the war was all about: a popularized “war theology” defined America’s mission, Germany’s threat to that mission, and the epic spiritual and historical significance of the war. Millions sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in their flag-draped churches. Many thousands attended Billy Sunday’s revival meetings. Legions of young men and women volunteered with the YMCA, even those who never deluded themselves that their nation could redeem the world through war. Countless Americans were called upon week after week to mobilize their faith for the sake of a war that their President spoke of as transcendent, emancipatory, and final. Even “secular” authors of all ideological and political persuasions (as this anthology makes clear) could not refrain from promising international “righteousness” as the goal of this war.

Also lacking here is any ordinary member of the largest ethnic group in the country at the time, German American citizens and resident aliens. Berg includes selections from two elite Americans of German background, Hugo Munsterberg and Ludwig Lewisohn, the one defending Germany’s declaration of war in 1914, the other exposing the petty yet dangerous persecution he faced as a professor at Ohio State University. Other than these fascinating yet less-than-typical experiences, the reader comes away with no understanding of the systematic repression faced by German schools and churches, German musicians, German-language publications, and conscientious objectors among the Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren communities in the United States. The volume includes only one incidental mention of the federal prison in Atlanta and its unfortunate inmates.

For the sake of American memory, it is important to know that far more than Socialists opposed this war, and that the military draft was more controversial than the declaration of war. Then, too, these experiences contribute to our understanding of the problems of American identity for a wide range of ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities.

But these omissions aside, A. Scott Berg has gathered an important body of testimony to the sacrifices for the Republic to which the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier still pays tribute. This is a book to read and ponder.