America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience

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Robert H. Zieger America’s Great War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2000. ISBN 0-8476-9644-8. Pp. xxii, 272. $27.95.


Although America participated in World War I for a short 18 months, the war brought significant political, social and cultural changes to the country. Robert Zieger looks at how World War I directly affected both those who fought and those who stayed at home. The book examines four major themes: America’s connection to Europe; the wartime experience and the Progressive era; the rise of the National Security State and the figure of Woodrow Wilson. Using these themes Zieger looks at how the country viewed the war before America’s entry and how the war changed America. In using the four themes he chooses, Zieger does accomplish his goal of showing how the war changed America by looking at how America won the war yet lost the peace that followed. Further, he gives the reader a deeper understanding of how the war changed the lives of individual Americans.

In the first theme he covers, Zieger closely examines the relationship between the United States and Europe. He refers to America as Europe’s “offspring and heir” (p.2) which in many ways is very appropriate. In 1917, as Zieger points out, one-third of American citizens were foreign born, had one parent who was foreign born or were children of new immigrants. (p.14) Ties to Europe were strong with many still retaining citizenship to their home country. There were 10 million Americans of German descent. Many still had family in Germany and had strong feelings for the Fatherland and its causes. The United States was also bound to Europe historically and, of course, economically. Many Americans thought a showdown with Germany through America’s entry into the war was only a matter of time. In discussing the second theme, war and its effect on the country, Zieger focuses on the Progressive movement. He describes the Progressive movement as a celebration of cultural experimentation with democratic enthusiasm on one hand and calls for discipline and order on the other (p2). Zieger basically describes how the Progressives over time became, in his words, divided into two groups, the liberal Progressives and the control Progressives. The liberal Progressives welcomed growing cultural and demographic diversity. The control Progressives wanted to bolster traditional white, Protestant, Anglo-American culture. Eventually, the control Progressives dominated, viewing the nation’s move toward military preparedness as a way to help stop the erosion of traditional values, promote citizenship through social discipline and rediscover the virtues of the patriots and pioneers of years gone by (p2).

The third stage Zieger discusses is the rise of the security state. It was during the World War I the government put together powerful tools of coercion and repression. The military draft put four million men into uniform. The government regulated speech, publications and assembly of people. The government created agencies to watch, investigate and then punish individuals who the government perceived as unpatriotic. Reaction to the overzealous Red Scare and its aftermath helped discredit the security state’s repression and need for surveillance. Zieger also points out that during the 1920’s the public’s enthusiasm for arms limitations won over those who favored the build-up of the military. Although after the war the security state did not survive intact, it did leave the next generation to ponder its effects for the future.

The last theme is the figure and role of Woodrow Wilson during this tumultuous time. Although Zieger called it a fourth theme in the introduction, Wilson’s presence is felt in all the themes discussed in the book. It is Wilson’s mix of progressivism and international idealism that would frame America’s wartime experience. Zieger admits the events in Europe weren’t remotely anticipated by Americans or Wilson himself in his run for the 1912 presidency. Wilson’s presence at the Treaty of Versailles, plus his lack of cooperation from Congress, are all pieces to the puzzle to understanding his downfall. Zieger uses mostly secondary sources for the book, and the use of other sources would help. However, it is his different take on material that has been written about many times before that makes the difference for the reader.


==Pat Kelly, Fall 2007==

So many of the books on World War I look at how America’s entry into the war changed the world order. This book takes a look at how the Great War changed America. The author Robert Zieger is a professor of history at the University of Florida and has written about labor history. It is not surprising that Zieger looks more at the domestic issues of the war rather more than military issues. However, he stills does a very job capturing America’s hesitation to get involved in the war and looks into the economic realities of the war for American banks and companies. Zieger also discusses an area not often mentioned, America’s connection to Europe, especially Britain.

Looking at the large German American population and how they viewed events in Europe was an interesting angle. Also later in the chapter dealing with the security state Zieger looks at how speaking one’s native tongue could land the speaker in jail. In an interesting side note, Zieger discusses how in 1919 Attorney General Palmer created the General Intelligence Division within the Department of Justice. Appointed to head it was a young lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover (p.114).

It is chapter five on the domestic impact of the war on race, class and gender that is the strongest of the book. Here he describes in detail how suddenly what was the norm was no more. Women and blacks were given access to jobs that previously were out of their reach. Using his knowledge of labor issues, Zieger helps the reader understand what the average person was going through at the time. Zieger also does a fairly good job examining how the war affected the Progressive Party and would eventually break it apart. Zieger does solid work discussing the Selective Service Act and mobilization once America enters the war. However, those interested in the military aspects of the war, will be disappointed. Zieger gives those areas just a general overview. While books such as David M. Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society, might be considered better, this book does give a more interesting perspective on the war and how it affected several generations of Americans.

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