Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Reviewed by Jolie Velazquez

The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America

by Michael S. Neiberg
Oxford University Press, 2016

For those who read and appreciated Dr. Neiberg's earlier book, Dance of the Furies: Europe and The Outbreak of World War One, you will be extremely pleased to hear that he has turned his efforts to the United States' entry into the Great War. He has once again trained his analytical eye onto a complex subject and delivered a cogent and highly readable book.

Ordinary American Linked Germany to the Issues
with Mexico. Pancho Villa (Shown Here as a Snake)
Had Bragged About His Support from Germany, and
Mexico Was Believed a Base for Spies and Saboteurs

The Path to War takes a bottom-up approach toward understanding why America finally associated itself with the Entente (France, England, Russia, etc.) in the fight against Germany and its allies after three years of carnage. In the absence of today's kind of polling techniques, Dr. Neiberg scoured a mountain of primary materials to get at what the general public was thinking about the war.

His major thesis is that Americans were way ahead of the government, and especially President Woodrow Wilson, in understanding that we had to be part of the war "to save civilization" and suppress Germany's aggressive ambitions. Other approaches that concentrate only on the diplomatic and power-center players are important, but the author manages to upturn the narrative we are used to hearing—that the American public suddenly changed its peace-at-any-cost opinion as soon as war was declared.

Using memoirs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, private and public letters, and the speeches of Preparedness advocates, Dr. Neiberg shows us the organic change taking place from 1914 to 1917 in our so-called isolationist population, and how the pressure from ordinary people, and his own advisers, dragged Wilson to a place he did not want to go. The chapter titled "Awaiting the Overt Act" is especially suspenseful, and even if you know what's coming next, you let out your breath when the dénouement arrives.

Having done some research on this subject myself, I do have a contrary opinion on some points. For example, Dr. Neiberg insists that there was no economic imperative for the American decision to go to war, a belief that he has repeated on the book tour circuit. I appreciate all the other indicators he has brought to light to bolster his argument, but I think he discounts economics (i.e. war debt) too much. Knowing what we do about American bankers and newly-created millionaires, this could not have been an insignificant consideration. However, his refreshing viewpoint emphasizing the idealism, thoughtfulness, and good sense of the American public is certainly persuasive. Once again, his natural writing style makes this book an enjoyable as well as informative endeavor that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone interested in the subject.

Jolie Velazquez


  1. No economic motive? I thought the financial aspect was pretty well settled.

    Otherwise it sounds like a grand book.

  2. Thanks for the fine review. The economic aspect is interesting and, I think, important. Perhaps "economic determinism" is too strong a concept, but economics can never be discounted.

  3. Having read (and reviewed) his Dance of the Furies, I'm sure you're right about the natural writing style that's a pleasure to read, Jolie. Thanks for a fine review! David Beer

  4. Thanks for the review - this work sounds most interesting. I seem to recall reading or hearing (and am not sure where) that this period saw the greatest transference of wealth than at any time in modern history. Basically the world economic "center of gravity" shifted from London to New York during these four years where it has remained ever since.