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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The World Remade: America in World War I
Reviewed by Ron Drees

The World Remade: America in World War I

by G. J. Meyer
Bantam Books, 2016

1919 Portrait of Woodrow Wilson
as a World Statesman
The World Remade is the title of this book authored by G. J. Meyer, but I believe the title should be Wilson Wages Peace, War, and Self-Righteousness as it explains the man, his thought processes, what influenced him, what drove him to the decisions he made, his insecurities, isolation, dislikes, prejudices, and aspirations. While the book is concerned with the Great War, it is the social, political, and diplomatic aspects that fill most of the pages. Military action, primarily that of the U.S., is mentioned but fills only a small portion of the book. The reader is most likely familiar with that information, which does not need further discussion.

The first quarter of the book is a biography of the president. We learn that he demanded unquestioning loyalty; his way was the only possible way. Colonel (a self-bestowed honor) House sensed an opportunity to become part of a major historical event and latched on to him when he was governor of New York, becoming the ultimate suck-up, albeit a very skilled performer. The Democratic machine elected Wilson president only to watch him ungratefully become a progressive who betters the lot of the working man—for a while. Inexplicably, he retreated from that approach and became withdrawn.

Wilson also served as his own State Department and press secretary, typing out his communications on a typewriter. He had the time as he didn't pay much attention to the operations of the government, usually playing golf every day.

The Great War began and while he claimed neutrality for the U.S., his actions favored the Triple Entente. But then Wilson had his own definition of neutrality such as Americans should be able to safely travel on vessels flagged as belligerents. Thus, the sinking of the Lusitania which killed 128 Americans was unacceptable.

When the US entered the war, Wilson would not tolerate any dissent. Much like John Adams a century earlier, he signed into law the Espionage (1917) and Sedition (1918) Acts and 850 Americans went to prison for speaking out about the war, or being Socialists, while the press was censored. It wasn't so much that the press was told what not to publish as it lost its mailing privileges as the Postmaster General interpreted the law accordingly. While men fought and died to protect the rights of their nation, an act of Congress suspended the Bill of Rights. After the war, many would be deported as part of the Red Scare.

Wilson met his Waterloo at Paris. Neither Prime Minister Lloyd George nor Premier Clemenceau liked Wilson, nor wanted him at the treaty negotiations or thought he had earned the right to be there. He hadn't served in the political trenches long enough nor had his country suffered enough to justify his presence. The U.S. lost 116,000 killed in the war while the British and French lost about a million each. They would get their vengeance by holding his beloved League of Nations hostage while they redrew the map of the world to serve their own purposes, acquiring hundreds of thousands of square miles with riches and people accordingly. Wilson paid the ransom but still lost.

President Wilson and U.S. Peace Commissioners in Paris

Japan unjustifiably got the Shantung Peninsula of China which resulted in criticism of Wilson for inconsistency when he campaigned for the League. His campaign to take the issue to the people failed as it resulted in bigotry toward immigrants while failing to explain ambiguities of the League. The combination of his refusal to negotiate or compromise with the Senate resulted in the defeat of the peace treaty and the League.

The most poignant part of the book to me was the German process of dealing with the treaty and finally signing it. The German Foreign Minister, upon grasping the consequences of the treaty, shook so badly that he could not light a cigarette. Fortunately for him, the government fell and he did not have to sign the treaty. Despite outcries from many sources, neither Clemenceau or Lloyd George would soften the treaty.
The World Remade is well worth the read if only because of Meyer's portrayal of Wilson which explains much of what happened in 1914-1919. Wilson is thoroughly unlikable, incompetent, grasping and obsessed with the belief that he had the answers which would work if only everyone else would listen. The idea that other people had thoughts worth consideration was beyond his grasp. The author also mentions several people as glimpses of the future such as Dulles, Patton, Eisenhower, Marshall and MacArthur while ignoring Fox Conner who was Marshall's Chief of Operations. Conner is not as well-known as the other luminaries which is perhaps why he was skipped over. While well illustrated with photographs, a few maps of American action on the Western Front would have been helpful.

Meyer doesn't justify the title of his book until the second to last page when he briefly discusses the tragedies derived from the War that haunt us today and almost implies that the US should have remained out of the war. Yet Meyer, like so many other authors, never discusses what Europe--or the world--would have been like if the Germans had won. Obviously, that would involve considerable speculation but imagine if US "neutrality" had not included money, munitions and finally men for the Triple Entente; General Hindenburg (the Kaiser had long been irrelevant) would be ruling France, Germany, Belgium, Poland and parts of Russia with the English blockade expanded to starve even more of Europe. We can only speculate, of course, and Meyer does not go that far. However, The World Remade remains an informative, challenging, and intriguing book-a worthy companion to the author's earlier (2007) "companion" volume, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War.

Ron Drees


  1. Thanks for the review, Ron. I'm about 1/3 of the way through this book, and the only beef I have so far is that the focus on Wilson and House makes it seem like Germany was an innocent waif. I would hope for more balance, and maybe the rest of the book will bear that out. I'd be interested in hearing other opinions, too.
    Pete Belmonte

  2. Interesting to see so much criticism of Wilson. He has had a ton of fans over the years, especially among academics.

    1. Unfortunately, Bryan, academics often tend to be sheep who will follow someone else's bad information off a cliff. Look at General Grant, whose presidency was labeled a failure by most academics and who usually contended with Buchanan for the title of worst President. Then in the 1990s, President Grant Reconsidered, a short wonderful revisionist history, was published. It turned around the negative image and a flood of new biographies have made the old ones obsolete. Prominent historians from Sean Wilentz on the left to Richard Brookhiser on the right agree that he ranks at least as a "Near Great" in part for being a forceful (and lonely) defender of civil rights while the rest of the country abandoned the former slaves.