A chronicle of the American experience during World War I and the unexpected changes that rocked the country in its immediate aftermath—the Red Scare, race riots, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition.
The Great War’s bitter outcome left the experience largely overlooked and forgotten in American history. This timely book is a reexamination of America’s first global experience as we commemorate World War I's centennial. The U.S. had steered clear of the European conflagration known as the Great War for more than two years, but President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly led the divided country into the conflict with the goal of making the world “safe for democracy.” The country assumed a global role for the first time and attempted to build the foundations for world peace, only to witness the experience go badly awry and it retreated into isolationism.
Though overshadowed by the tens of millions of deaths and catastrophic destruction of World War II, the Great War was the most important war of the twentieth century. It was the first continent-wide conflagration in a century, and it drew much of the world into its fire. By the end of it, four empires and their royal houses had fallen, communism was unleashed, the map of the Middle East was redrawn, and the United States emerged as a global power – only to withdraw from the world’s stage.
The Great War is often overlooked, especially compared to World War II, which is considered the “last good war.” The United States was disillusioned with what it achieved in the earlier war and withdrew into itself. Americans have tried to forget about it ever since. The Great War in America presents an opportunity to reexamine the country’s role on the global stage and the tremendous political and social changes that overtook the nation because of the war.
Peck's workmanlike volume, which examines America's role in WWI and subsequent events, often reads like a textbook. Peck produces a faithful, conventional chronology of President Woodrow Wilson's trajectory from seeking "peace without victory" to joining the war. A heavy emphasis on Wilson's personality and speeches, with little depth or illumination of American life beyond what happened in Washington or soldiers' experiences, makes this more of a political biography than the comprehensive history it's packaged as. The account of Wilson's prickly, often arrogant idealism at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference is detailed, though, and the argument that Wilson's call for a Democratic Congress provoked lasting domestic political enmity is insightful. One exception to the Wilson focus is Peck's exploration of American belligerency among a large portion of the U.S. population with German heritage. His accounts of famed columnist H.L. Mencken's pro-German writings and other Americans of German descent reflect a population mobilized by government propaganda and media reports (for example, that German-Americans were planning to attack American cities) to, among other things, rename frankfurters "hot dogs" and sauerkraut "liberty cabbage." Passages on labor, leftist politics, the government's stifling of dissent, women's suffrage, and the dire state of race relations cover the facts, but have a bolted-on quality. This account fails to give life to a period whose events still affect the U.S. 100 years later. Photos.