Thursday, April 6, 2017

100 Years Ago Today

April 6, 1917, the United States joined England, France, and Russia in the war against Germany (and Austria-Hungary). Michael Kazin, professor of history at Gerogetown, has a book exploring why we shouldn't have done it. Marking the anniversary, the NYTimes has a short op-ed piece by Kazin making the case against U.S. intervention. As we now see WWI and our decision to enter set off many of the tragic consequences still playing out in Europe and the Middle East.

Kazin: "America’s decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and the course of the 20th century — and not necessarily for the better. Its entry most likely foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerent powers that were exhausted from years mired in trench warfare."


  1. My dad's uncle fought in WWI. He operated a mortuary in a conscripted monastery in Belgium. Guys from the front would be sent to work under his direction, a kind of R&R, I guess in that horror.

    He said most of them were shell-shocked. He'd give them a was of cash and send them to the local bawdy house for a few days. He had an agreement with the local madam.

    The monastery also had quite a supply of brandy, which they used liberally. He attributed their survival of the four epidemic to the alcohol intake.

    He noted that the dead soldiers were loaded with jewelry, money, and other valuables, and he was proud of the fact that this was scrupulously inventoried and sent home to the families.

    The experience had a profound effect on him. He said frequently that in death we are all alike, unprepared and vulnerable. He said he sometimes felt a deep affinity for some of the men whose bodies he prepared for the trip home. Sometimes, he said, you'd see a bit of someone's past history in their remains. Sometimes he said you could tell what their last moments were like.

    He went to work for a funeral home after the war in Detroit. They handled many august clients, but the ones he felt most tender about were the pro bono jobs, people who couldn't pay or had no family. He would always go to Good Will and pick out a decent suit and make sure those bodies were as carefully prepared as the rich folks.

    He was never religious, but ai think he had religious inclinations.

    Nothing to do with Kazin, but thanks for letting me write this.

  2. If my sense of WW1 battle territory is correct, the monastery and your great-uncle must have been under fire by the Germans from time to time...The German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war was the proximate cause of England joining on the side of France.

    Your uncle's story movingly told. Thank you!

  3. Hemwas quite a memory born character. He didn't retire until he was 95 and lived to be 104. He had some great stories!

    1. He sounds like quite a guy. I think morticians are an under-appreciated profession. Burying the dead is a work of mercy. Their patron saint is Joseph of Arimathea, I always liked him.

  4. One of the most devastating wars in history for casualties, and what did anyone really gain? My grandpa was a WWI vet. But he never saw action. His whole unit got the influenza, and by the time they were cleared for duty, it was over. Maybe the influenza saved his life. He got his citizenship out of it, though.

    1. The influenza pandemic was considerably more deadly than the war. Estimates of the death toll are all over the place all over the internet, but a consensus seems to hold at more than 50 million. By contrast, 17 million people died in the war. When I was a kid, every time we passed the C&NW Railroad station on Central Street in Evanston (which was often), my father would recall whole trainloads of wooden coffins coming from Wisconsin and headed into Chicago. They arrived, he said, day after day. The estimate of Americans who died of the flu is 650,000. Compare with 53,000 deaths in combat.

      In terms of human suffering the pandemic was worse than the war, but it's a footnote to the war. That probably has to do with the flu being seen as an act of God and the war as the result of the greed of arms makers and stupidity of general staffs. Still, we have supposedly responsible people in one political party who encourage their anti-science nitwit wing to refuse to have their kids vaccinated. If the nitwittery goes wrong God will get the blame again.

  5. Have just finished up G.J. Meyer, "A World Undone: The Story of the Great War." A very readable and thoughtful account. Toward the end influenza begins to appear in the trenches and whole units were laid low. Would that have ended the war if the Americans hadn't come in. Of course, the "dough" boys too got the influenza and brought it back as did every other army fighting in the West.

  6. I think one long lasting effect was the establishment of a pro-war propaganda machine, the establishment of techniques to herd the psychology of the masses. Edward Bernays, acclaimed as father of public relations, worked professionally to build support for the war at home and abroad. He thought of the masses as an irrational lot that needed to be led by appealing to their irrational natures. And it works pretty well. But was US participation in the war rational. I don't think so. I think one irrational lot was hornswoggling another irrational lot. I agree with Kazin's evaluation.

  7. I know little about WWI, and will look up the books mentioned. However, the conclusion given in the NY Times article seems to be simply a form of speculative hindsight.

    "If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred."

    This is a statement full of speculative "absolutes", but no supporting evidence is provided to support it.

    Of course, a short op-ed piece does not have space to provide the supporting data and arguments for such a sweeping conclusion. It may be accurate, but it is still speculation.

    The entry of the US into the war did shorten it, according to what I have understood from the little history I know of the war. If the US hadn't entered, how long would the war have continued? What would have happened if Germany had prevailed? What terms would it have imposed on Britain and France and their allies?

    Nobody can know for sure, nor can anyone know that the later history would have been prevented. There is no evidence given in the short article indicating that the victors would have been more generous to Germany in the treaty if the US were not among them. They suffered far more than we did, so may not have been inclined to less punitive terms.

    Were the terms a mistake?. That seems to be the judgment of most military historians, who made those judgments with the benefit of hindsight. But it seems possible also that if France and England had prevailed without the help of the US, the terms of the treaty may still have been harsh and would have triggered the negative consequences that followed.

    1. Kazin's piece is a "what if." I suppose his book makes a case for his position, but I haven't read it.

      The case I have heard for American non-intervention is that no side would have been victorious. By 1918 all sides were exhausted economically and physically. Mutinies were common in the French army and food riots broke out in Germany. Ludendorf, the head of the German army, made a last desperate attempt to break through English and French lines in Spring and Summer 1918. That pretty much failed, but the allies were hardly in a condition to pursue victory either.

      So the argument goes, and Wilson tried to make it before the U.S. was drawn in, that the U.S. and other neutrals should call for an armistice and peace conference. Without victor or vanquished, the belligerents would settle without the recriminations and penalties.

      That may seem improbable. But historians looking back at the 1919 Peace Treaty point to its vindictive requirements, especially on the part of France. They ask: would Hitler and the Nazis have come to power, and would there have been a WW2, if WW1 had ended differently.

    2. We'll never know what might have happened. It's a nice theory, but I don't totally accept the idea that neither side would have "won". Some nations seem to have a lot of stamina for prolonged war and suffering, perhaps more than some of their opponents, especially when they see their national "honor" as being at stake. So it becomes a matter of who caves first. Then the winner defines the terms.

      Nations could learn from the events that followed the treaty imposed on Germany at the time. Could, but this is not assured, as the history of the last century has shown in various places at various times.

      I would love to be a pacifist, but then I wonder - who would stop the Hitlers?

  8. Philip Jenkins has a book called THE GREAT AND HOLY WAR; How World War I Became A Religious Crusade. I haven't read it although I have read several of Jenkins' books.

    Has anybody read it? Does anyone have an opinion on his thesis that it became a religious crusade?

    1. Haven't read Jenkins..don't know it.

      Did WW1 become a religious crusade? Only if you count hyper-nationalism as a religion. And I'll throw in racism...if you look at the French-English division of the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. Their colonial mentality and arrogance toward Arabs, Turks, and Indians is hard to credit today.

    2. Glancing through the book, he seems to make his case on the use of religious themes and imagery in propaganda, crusaders, Christ crucified, angels (nurses) evils (the enemy). But what else would you use as imagery? I haven't read the book largely because I don't know much about the era, and could not evaluate his thesis against alternatives as an important engine in the event.
      Your answer of "unlikely" is what I was expecting.

    3. Two books worth reading for general info on WW1:

      1. G.J. Meyer, "The World Undone." I mentioned above. It is well written. Does not get into scholarly quarrels and is a straightforward account.

      2. Scott Anderson, "Lawrence in Arabia," about the war in the Middle East...not just the battles, but the diplomacy and intrigues. Also well written, a bit gimmicky in that if follows four major figures, including "Lawrence of Arabia," who had an impact on events in the failing Ottoman Empire.