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

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898–1920

by David Traxel
Vintage Books, New York, 2007
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

American Progressivism on the March, 1912

When the United States entered the Great War it was in the midst of over a decade-long progressive crusade that changed America and that would have a great impact on its involvement in the war and the peace that followed. Crusader Nation is that story.

Author David Traxel begins by introducing the gigantic characters who would play their parts on America’s stage during those years: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Supporting actors are numerous and varied, including William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover, Wild Bill Donovan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Bernard Baruch, and others.

The narrative continues with the sequence of events that guided the isolationist country to war. The sinking of the Lusitania aroused ire. Disruptions in Mexico that resulted in Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, brought war home. The Zimmerman Telegram encouraging Mexico to make war against the United States and offering support during the war and the recovery of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona; the German campaign of terrorism that included a bombing of the U.S. Capitol; the stabbing of H. P. Morgan, Jr.; an explosion at Black Tom Island; and the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare all drove President Woodrow Wilson (“Who kept you out of war”) to ask for a declaration that it existed. 

1916 Presidential Election Cartoon

The anomaly of a nation heading to war with pacifists serving as Secretaries of State (William Jennings Bryan), War (Newton Baker), and Navy (Josephus Daniels) is consistent with its unpreparedness for war, dissent over mobilization, and failure to appreciate the implications of belligerency. A belief, even after the declaration of war, that financial loans may be sufficient contribution was so strong that testimony of an aide to the Secretary of War that “(W)e may have to have an army in France” unsettled the mind of Sen. Thomas Martin, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who exclaimed “Good Lord, You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”

Crusader Nation focuses almost exclusively on the domestic American scene during the war, the “Over here,” rather than the “Over there.” It is a complex tale. Progressivism had been the dominant political movement through the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but it was a motley amalgamation of imperialists (TR, et al) and pacifists (Bryan, et al), moderate and socialist labor leaders, segregationists and advocates of civil rights for blacks, and Greenwich Village bohemians and suffragettes, miners and conservationists. The coalition would fracture over issues of war and peace. Bryan had earlier resigned, and when war was declared, the vote in favor was 82 to 6, with 8 abstentions in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House. Labor unions would strike, while leftists, such as Soviets admirers Lincoln Steffens and John Reed, would encourage resistance to the draft, while denying their actions to avoid conviction for espionage or sedition.

The Great War experience is shown to have had an influence on persons and the nation. Liberty Bond rallies enhanced the public personas of actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Woodrow Wilson, who had a long history of being frail, sacrificed his health in the cause of the League of Nations. Later, as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt would justify the internment of Japanese Americans with the observation “We don’t want any more Black Toms.” [referring to the German sabotage of munitions at Black Tom Island, NY] The progressive energy would be spent as an exhausted nation turned to Warren Harding for a return to "normalcy."

Much, but not all, of the information contained in this work I already knew from other reading. The value of Crusader Nation is that it pulls the disparate elements together in a unified saga. More than others, author Traxel shows how war and peace in Europe, industry and America’s cities, were all intertwined strands in the American pageant rather than unrelated events that happened to overlap. I recommend this for readers seeking an understanding of the Great War in America, rather than America in the Great War.

Jim Gallen


  1. This certainly was a complex time with a lot of players in the game. Your review helps straighten things out for me, however, and I appreciate the insight. Thank you!