Reason‘s Glenn Garvin reviews two new documentaries, including one called American Experience: The Great War (no relation to the YouTube channel I regularly reblog).
World War I, as American Experience: The Great War paraphrases a conclusion already reached by the cast of Friends many years ago, is probably the biggest event in U.S. history of which Americans know next to nothing. In some ways, that will still be true even if they watch The Great War, which views the events strictly through the lens of how Americans were affected. The welter of royal bloodlines and backdoor treaties that turned a seemingly isolated event — the assassination of an Austrian nobleman by a Serbian teenager — into a worldwide conflagration involving Russia, France, England, Italy, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Japan, and the United States is barely explored [*]. Nor are many of the war’s geopolitical shockwaves. Even the implosion of Russia’s czarist government, which would eventually result in a Cold War that for nearly five decades threatened to turn apocalyptically hot, only gets a minute or two.
What The Great War does do, in truly spectacular fashion, is limn the voracious expansion of the American government midwifed by World War I. When Woodrow Wilson’s uncertain attempts at neutrality floundered and he called for a declaration of war in 1917 because “the world must be made safe for democracy,” it made the United States unique among the combatants, notes a historian in The Great War: “It was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal.”
But as The Great War documents in horrifying detail, that ideal was the creation of a Leviathan state with unprecedented power: to draft young men and send them to a foreign war. To set price controls on food and impose dietary restrictions. To arrest and even deport political dissidents. To create a powerful government propaganda organ aimed not at enemy nations but the American people. (It expanded from one employee to about 100,000 in a couple of months.) To send goon squads known as Liberty Loan Committees roaming neighborhoods offering deals on war bonds that couldn’t be refused.
Wilson’s actions did not go without dissent (signs at a protest march in New York City: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?) and dissent did not go without punishment. Wilson demanded, and got, a new Espionage Act that made it a crime to collect, record and disseminate information “harmful to the war effort,” and he wielded it like an axe against the anti-war movement. By the fall of 1917, the federal government opened prison camps in Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina to house all the “security threats” Wilson’s Justice Department had detected.
Wilson’s security mania spread out into the population, too, where it unleashed what The Great War calls the “wholesale destruction of German culture in the United States. There were moves to ban German music, plays, and even the spoken language. Some of the xenophobic spasms, like beer-stein-smashing contests, were loony enough to be funny; others, like the slaughter of German dog breeds in Ohio, were almost too ugly for words. Though Wilson’s supporters managed to utter some. When an Illinois coal miner of German heritage was lynched by coworkers who thought he might be a spy, the Washington Post labeled it a nothing more than a slightly over-exuberant sign of “a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country.”
* Should you want to know more about the non-American aspects of how World War 1 began, you could read my Origins of WW1 series of posts, starting here (there are 12 posts in the series, and even so, I could be accused of omitting a lot of detail).