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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Woodrow Wilson & World War I: 1917–1921
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Woodrow Wilson & World War I: 1917–1921

by Robert E. Ferrell
Harper & Row, New York, 1985

Woodrow Wilson will always be associated in American minds with World War I. Thus in Woodrow Wilson & World War I: 1917–1921, Robert Ferrell examines Wilson's role in the war and the war's influence on his career. The book actually has more to say about the war than it does about Wilson.

President Wilson Visits General Pershing and the Troops
Christmas Day, 1918

The narrative begins in April 1917 when the president of the United States abandons neutrality and takes his war message to Congress. It continues with a recitation of the strengths of a nation that had grown so in numbers and economic power since Wilson's Southern boyhood during the Civil War and its aftermath. The developments in Europe that created the conflagration into which Wilson led his country are also considered. The saga then turns to the soldiers and cabinet members who organized America's great effort. Readers are introduced to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge who amended the draft bill, the men with whom the draft filled the ranks, war secretary Newton Baker, who had to reform his department, and Chief of Staff Peyton who organized a greatly expanded Army to be ready for the unprecedented demands of the war.

The U.S. Army had no effect on the war until it was transported "over there". That required convoys to carry the American Expeditionary Force across the Atlantic, on which so much Allied shipping had fallen prey to German U-Boats. This task fell to the Navy, who performed it without losing a troopship. Then there are sections about the AEF itself, its leaders, its men and the equipment they used, the mobilization that produced the weapons and munitions with which the Army fought, and the campaigns in which the AEF was involved.

Mobilization of industry was on a much more modest scale than that of World War II, for which the Great War served as a model. The description of the expansion of shipping to replace Allied losses demands admiration, as does the explosion of domestic railroad capacity. Financing of the war, through the American government and in loans to Allied nations, was the daunting task of Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo. Once the U.S. entered the war as an "associated" power, the need to cooperate with allies became a consuming interest for Gen. Pershing and President Wilson, working through his aide, Col. House.

After the entry of the AEF into combat, the German war effort collapsed and diplomacy moved to the fore. Initial German peace feelers were directed to Wilson, rather than to European players, and Wilson used his position to advance the Fourteen Points that he proposed to form the basis of a peace settlement. The many issues involved included the dismemberment of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, the status of Poland, the place of the Bolshevik government of Russia in the new world order and, most important to Wilson, the establishment of the League of Nations.

The war could never be separated from domestic politics and the restoration of peace brought them to the surface. The peace treaty had to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, and that set off a confrontation into which Wilson threw his heart and soul and, ultimately, his health in an unsuccessful appeal to the people to demand ratification of the treaty. Demobilization drove millions of men back into the workforce right as the nation was facing rising demands by women for suffrage and other Progressive Era reforms. Throughout and after the war the civil rights of Americans were debated and, by the standards of later days, abridged for German-Americans and those suspected of Bolshevik leanings. Race riots erupted in cities across the land. Finally, all must be submitted to the people, and the Democratic ticket of 1920, which gave some support to Wilson's postwar program, suffered a crushing defeat that was taken as a repudiation of his stewardship of the White House.

I found Woodrow Wilson & World War I to provide insights into America's involvement in the war and Wilson's role in it that I had not gathered in other reading. I had never read that submariners who survived a depth charge attack were shell shocked for days to the point that they could not function effectively. Americans were urged to voluntarily endure meatless and wheatless days and clean their plates. This book was originally copyrighted in 1985, so it does reflect the judgment of a different time, a time when the war was still a living memory for some. Wisdom was not invented in the 21st century. A balanced appreciation of history requires a distillation of many viewpoints gathered by historians over a span of time. This book has much to add to our understanding of its subject.

James M. Gallen

1 comment:

  1. "the place of the Bolshevik government of Russia in the new world order" - the place being one of ostracism, civil war funded in part by the Allies, and the occasional invasion?