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 1, 2018

Over Here:
The First World War and American Society

Reviewed byJames M. Gallen

Over Here: The First World War and American Society

by David M. Kennedy
Oxford University Press, 25th anniversary edition, 2004

The war was fought Over There, but it was also lived Over Here. This volume is David Kennedy's study of the American Experience during the Great War and how it reflects and shaped American society in the 20th century.

The author sets the stage for the momentous spring of 1917 when America finally entered the war. The campaigns of 1916 included the five-month siege of Verdun, during which 350,000 Frenchmen and 330,000 Germans died, and the British offensive along the Somme, in which men, horses, and guns disappeared in the mud leaving over one million casualties. During spring 1917 cracks in Reichstag solidarity began to appear in wake of privation occasioned by the blockade of north German ports and martial demands. It was a season in which French discipline was breaking down under the horrendous casualties and Britain worried about its food supply being cut off by German submarine warfare. Russia was in revolution and President Wilson made his case to Congress for a declaration of war.

Seattle at War

The first item on the Allies' wish list was money, and loans were readily supplied. More controversial was the call for troops. A prominent senator's proclamation that "Congress will not permit American soldiers to be sent to Europe" went unrefuted by the administration, while the suggestion that an army may be sent to France elicited a senator's response "Good Lord! You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?"

How to raise the army was a hotly contested issue. Some favored traditional volunteer units, whereas others proposed universal military training, a concept denounced as Prussian to the core. Ultimately a Selective Service System was adopted that included authorization for volunteer units that was never implemented. Both title words were important in describing the system. Although initially envisioned as a fallback plan if voluntary enlistments were insufficient, it was used to enable the government to be selective in choosing who would serve. Selections were made with the need to minimize disruption of the labor supply and social stability in mind; however, the concept of patriotic service was elevated above individual self-interest. The common spirit of service did not eradicate ethnic differences as companies of Slavs and Italians were organized and the induction of black troops into segregated units was halted. Conscientious objectors were accommodated to a point, while draft dodgers were prosecuted.

For many of those troops who got Over There the experience was their first travels from home, the initial sight of an ocean, plus introduction to the age, sights, and sounds of the Old World. The enthusiastic spirit of service turned to disappointment as the troops returned home and the Versailles Treaty was rejected. Postwar literature, some of it by veterans, replaced notions of romance and nobility with senses of disillusionment.

Those who remained at home contested questions of whether to finance the war by taxation or borrowing. Balancing between ensuring support for the war effort and protecting civil liberties was troublesome. The transformation of industry from civilian to military production, while on a much smaller scale, provided a model for World War II conversions. Prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts and censorship of the mails provide case studies into how patriotic enthusiasm can become a threat to the ideals that made for American exceptionalism. As with any major social movements, the war was a political football tossed by Democrats, a divided Republican Party and Socialists, with a sharp partisanship and personal attacks to rival anything in the contemporary scene.

Although this tome has been available for some years, it remains an excellent study of the impact of the Great War on the United States from political, economic, and social aspects. Author David Kennedy has skillfully crafted a continuum following prewar movements through the conflict and into the uneasy peace that followed. Over Here assists the reader in placing the Great War in the pageant of American history and appreciating how it affected the lives of the World War I era people whom we have known.

James M. Gallen

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