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 12, 2023

More Precious than Peace: A New History of America in World War I

By Justus D. Doenecke
Notre Dame Press, 2022

Publisher's Synopsis:

In More Precious than Peace, the long-awaited successor to his critically acclaimed work Nothing Less than War, Justus D. Doenecke examines the entirety of the American experience as a full-scale belligerent in World War I. This book covers American combat on the western front, the conscription controversy, and scandals in military training and production. Doenecke explores the Wilson administration’s quest for national unity, the Creel Committee, and “patriotic” crusades. Weaving together these topics and many others, including the U.S. reaction to the Russian revolutions, Doenecke creates a lively and comprehensive narrative.

An Excerpt from More Precious than Peace, from the Publisher

America’s participation in World War I marks one of the most remarkable periods in the nation’s history. The United States sent nearly two million troops overseas, created an unparalleled war machine, and established a propaganda apparatus the envy of any nation. Such efforts are particularly extraordinary in a nation whose leadership was totally inexperienced in such matters. A decade before the nation entered the conflict, its president headed a major eastern university, its secretary of war served as a solicitor of a leading Midwestern city, its secretary of the navy edited a metropolitan daily in the South, and the secretary of the treasury had just helped create a subway connecting Manhattan to Jersey City. Its postmaster general was the attorney for a judicial district outside of Austin, Texas, while its nation’s leading general administered a fort outside of Manila. The man who headed the nation’s war propaganda ran a newspaper in Kansas City. The president’s alter ego, a confidant who would be entrusted with the most delicate of diplomatic missions, had recently been an intimate of several Texas governors and was just becoming immersed in national Democratic politics. Only the secretary of state had some experience befitting his station as he was a respected international lawyer whose specialty lay in arbitration. Of all the wartime ambassadors to Europe, just one had ever held a diplomatic post before.

Given such lack of experience, in some ways the American war effort achieved remarkable success, especially as the United States participated as a belligerent for merely a year and a half. While yet a newcomer to the coalition fighting the Central Powers, President Woodrow Wilson articulated peace aims that forced all the warring leaders, friend or foe, to respond to his agenda. Presenting an alternative vision to V.I. Lenin’s dictum of an immediate peace with no annexations or reparations, he captured the popular imagination both at home and overseas with his stress upon self-determination of peoples and an entirely new global order, thereby strengthening liberals everywhere. Even his military intervention in Russia drew little contemporary dissent, with quarrels over his motives remaining left for historians to debate decades later.

Certain other cabinet members possessed genuine strengths. Secretary of State Robert Lansing framed an agreement with Japan, nebulous to be sure, that reduced tensions at a critical juncture in the conflict. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels directed massive convoy operations and engineered a “Bridge of Ships” that sent hordes of Doughboys overseas with minuscule single loss of life. William Gibbs McAdoo, secretary of the treasury, raised $17 billion in massive publicity drives while authorizing $7.3 billion in loans to the Allies, money crucial to their survival. He also coordinated a complex railroad system, one that had been so chaotic that in winter 1918 that much of the economy was barely functioning.

The Wilson administration suffered less corruption than had existed under Abraham Lincoln. It showed more imagination than did a host of subsequent wartime presidents, ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, particularly in the ability to propagate its war aims. Waging its first total overseas conflict in its entire life—manpower, factories, farms, indeed its thinking—the nation was welded into a militarized behemoth. As part of a production miracle, several million inductees were supplied with 30.7 million pairs of shoes, 21.7 million blankets, 13.9 million wool coats, and 131 million pairs of socks. George Creel, chairman of the nation’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), distributed close to 100 million pieces of literature throughout the world. Most important of all, American shipments to Europe, ranging from steel and copper to textiles and raw cotton, were crucial in making victory possible. Furthermore, in the fall of 1918 the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in the Allied triumph.

As expected, the Wilson administration set a premium on national unity. Americans, the president pledged in his war message of 2 April 1917, would “dedicate our lives and fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have” to the common effort. Two weeks later, in a proclamation urging sacrifice, he remarked, “We must all speak, act, and serve together!” In his Flag Day address delivered within two months, he warned, “Woe be to the man or group of men that seek to stand in our way in this day of high resolution.” Speaking to Congress in May 1918, Wilson went so far as to claim “politics is adjourned.”

The story of the war, however, is not one of consensus. Although the success of four Liberty Loan campaigns indicates massive popular support for the military effort, few realize the degree of dissidence manifested in the nation. Not only was politics never “adjourned.” From the time the country entered the war, attacks on the Wilson administration remained strong and bitter. Early in April 1917, six senators and 50 members of the House voted against entering the conflict. At the time, at least four additional antiwar senators and up to 50 representatives still opposed American belligerency, though they felt pressured by the need to express national unity and, if they were Southerners, by Democratic party loyalty. Final congressional tallies supporting conscription belie strong initial dissent over the matter, expressed over several weeks and lodged within the highest ranks of the president’s own party. The CPI and particularly director Creel drew impassioned congressional attack as did the original espionage bill of June 1917 and the sedition act of May 1918. The nation experienced persecutions of German-Americans, an ethnic group totaling at least eight million people. It saw as well wide-sweeping repression of political radicals, who nonetheless offered surprising resistance that continued until well into the war.

Moreover, in other ways as well, the war was no success story, the administration showing itself woefully inept and occasionally downright destructive. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson refused mailing privileges to scores of dissident journals, especially if they were on the political left. Before the U.S. entered the conflict, Colonel Edward Mandell House, Wilson’s primary adviser, had already proven himself out of his depth in negotiating with the British. Critically as important as the war drew to an end, American and Allied obstinacy concerning any sort of negotiated peace cost countless lives on all sides.

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