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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The American Experience: The Great War
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

The American Experience: The Great War

Presented by PBS Television
10–12 April 2017

This documentary, premiering on 10 April on PBS, consists of three two-hour episodes. It follows the standard documentary format of showing period photos and film footage presented by a narrator, in this case Oliver Platt. Actors portray participants through voice-overs, and historians add their perspectives to carry forward the narrative.

Heading for France

The first episode covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914, down to the American declaration of war in April 1917. Woodrow Wilson is the central character of this episode, which traces the arc of Wilson's evolution from a neutral leader to an ambitious peace broker, to finally a reluctant belligerent. One of the key themes of this episode, and indeed the entire series, is how the United States in the early 20th century was such a diverse and divided nation. Due to several decades of high immigration from Europe, one third of the American population in 1917 was either foreign-born or first-generation American. Germans were the largest ethnic group. Other ethnic groups such as Jewish Americans and Irish Americans were very much against aid to the Allies due to their hostility to Russia and Britain. At the same time, many young men chose to go to France to fight or to otherwise help the French cause. There was a strong anti-war movement, and one of the largest was led by Jane Addams of settlement house fame. The biggest song hit of 1915 was "I Didn't Raise My Son to be a Solider."

The major story of Episode 2 is the mobilization of the United States both in terms of getting Americans to support the war at home and in organizing and training of the American Expeditionary Forces. Wilson is replaced as the central figure by General John Pershing. America, starting almost from scratch, drafted an army and began training it to fight on the Western Front. African Americans as well as immigrants were included, both groups hoping to gain respect and acceptance in return for their service. As Pershing went to France in the summer of 1917 to prepare the way for his American Army, George Creel built a government public relations empire designed to sell Americans on the war. On the home front, Creel was successful, but support for the war soon grew beyond enthusiasm into repression, acts of vigilantism and an anti-German hysteria. Episode 2 ends as American soldiers join the fight in the summer of 1918 to stop the last desperate German offensive designed to capture Paris.

Episode 3 opens with the Meuse Argonne Offensive and ends with the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in the U.S. Senate at the end of 1919. Wilson again becomes the central figure for most of this episode. In terms of the fighting, much time is given to the story of the Lost Battalion. Harry Truman, Alvin York, and Eddie Rickenbacker are some of the more famous participants whose war experiences are featured. Some new names are introduced as well. Solomon Lewis and his seven fellow Choctaw Doughboys became the first Indian code talkers. It is ironic that these men, who as children had their mouths washed out with soap when they spoke Choctaw, were called on to used their native language to confuse Germans who were tapping American phone lines. Back in the states, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the activity of suffragettes, as well as increasing repression are the major stories. When the war ended, Wilson was at the height of his influence, said to be the only Allied leader offering the promise of a better world. Most of the last quarter of this episode is spent retelling how Wilson failed in his attempt to make the U.S. the dominant power in the postwar world. His efforts resulted in his physical collapse and his single-minded stubbornness is blamed for killing the treaty and America's participation in the League of Nations.

War Protesters

In all, I enjoyed this program, but I have to give it a mixed review. On the positive side, it presents several stories that have not been told as well before. I have already mentioned the Choctaw code talkers. In addition, I thought they did a remarkable job presenting the African American experience during the war and after, highlighting the exploits of the Harlem Hell Fighters and then going on to described the brutal treatment of black Americans at the hands of white mobs during the Red Summer of 1919. Other very good vignettes include those on the Suffragettes and the Spanish Flu pandemic. For me, the best parts of the documentary are the interviews with various historians, including David M. Kennedy, Richard Slotkin, A. Scott Berg, Jay Winter, and around 20 more. While Kennedy and Winter represent an older generation of historians, the others are historians who, in the last decade, have written new and valuable books on various aspects of America's participation in the war. Much of this documentary appears to have been based on their work. The second time I watched this documentary I jotted down each of their names and then researched what they had written. As a result, I have what I believe is an excellent list of books on World War I for future reading.

Another positive is the visual quality of the documentary. I assume they must have spent time repairing and restoring old photos and film footage, because the detail and clarity of some of the images are stunning in HD. On the negative side, many aspects of the war are not covered in any detail, such as the mobilization of the economy, training and tactics of the AEF and the growth of government. Pershing, Truman, Whittlesey, and Rickenbacker are the only officers of the AEF to get any mention. The military narrative skips the period between the 2nd Battle of the Marne in July, and the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September.

One of the biggest gripes I had was that in spite of all the resources behind this production, there are many errors in the use of film and photos. For example, while describing fighting on the Western Front in 1914 and 1915, film clips are used showing soldiers wearing steel helmets and gas masks that were not put into service until 1916. In the last episode, describing the final days on the Western front in 1918, footage shows German troops wearing 1914-era Picklehauben, the spiked helmet which was replaced by the iconic Stahlhelm in 1916. Their worst error in my opinion takes place during an otherwise excellent segment about Eddie Rickenbacker and the growth of American air power, when a film clip is used of a squadron of British Hawker Hart biplanes from the 1930s. I really think they should have had someone on the payroll familiar enough with these things to catch any errors.

I'm sure this program will be shown on PBS again as we pass through the last year of the Centennial of World War I. The program can be purchased on DVD from PBS and Amazon, and it can be streamed on Amazon as well. It's well worth watching.

Clark Shilling


  1. I really enjoyed the series, though I had problems with it. I know there were anti-war movements throughout our time in the war, but I thought they focused more on that than on really anything else (especially given the country mostly rallied behind the flag).

    Mostly, I wish they had more on the combat overseas. They left out so much of that. But still, I it was a hit among several people I know who knew next to nothing about the war. I was asked many questions about WWI among those who watched the series, so I think it did its job.

  2. I was very disappointed in the series. I agree with CJ's comment on over focus on the anti-war movement and other peripheral topics (not that I am pro-war). Nothing much on the heroics of the troops, a bit on the suffering they endured, but hardly scratched the surface on that. It was like the great war through a 2017 lens.

  3. I believe a lot of this has to do with the changes in the way history is presented that started with the publication of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen in 1995. Loewen said American History as it was being presented was too Eurocentric and perpetuated myths in order to always present a positive picture of American leaders and American actions. Loewen poked a pretty good hole in several of those myths and since the 90's there has been more emphasis on telling a more diverse and less flattering version of American History. While I think Loewen made many good points, you can carry this too far, creating distortions in the other direction. Yes obviously, someone supported the war, as we were able to find millions of men to serve and millions more at home supported the war effort.

  4. This documentary was poorly done, the audio and video were often out of sync. And, they completely missed the greatest social change. They ignored the role of nurses in The War, there were 20,000 of them and they were the icons of mercy and caring. Songs were written about the Red Cross nurses, posters were on display across America. And, even worse, they ignored the obvious social landmark that was propelled by the liberation of women? As a result of the 19th amendment to our constitution women got the vote in 1920.

  5. It was heavy on Wilson and his efforts and effects on the war- and the first episode had excellent data and backgrounds on how the US entered the war and the overall pre-war situation in the US- but then I think once into the war the whole thing lost focus. Much still on Wilson but I thought the overall rise of American Military fortunes - and the complete ignoring of the Battle of St Michael ( sp?) when the modern US Army was born seems like a huge gap. Plus it really didn't show much about the experiences of the AEF. Overall a c+ effort. Frankly I was disappointed.

  6. Thanks for the review, Ron, and I just ordered the book. One of the comments on the Amazon page is from Mark Perry. It was in his book on Marshall and Eisenhower that I first learned of General Connor, Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, 2007.

  7. Yes a history of the U.S. effort in the Great War is certainly a monumental undertaking, sure to fail in such a short production - especially with all the nay sayers out there and real experts. BUT it presented an important aspect of American History that is not well known by most of TODAY'S generation. AND FOR THIS REASON ALONE, it was very valuable as historical entertainment, presenting an awareness of what we have done to become who we are.