David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: WWI, Progressivism, Advertising, Nativism, Civil Liberties.

David Kennedy's Over Here offers "a reasonably complete account of events in the United States during the nineteen months of American belligerency in the First World War." Covering in detail the period between April 2, 1917 (Wilson's war message to Congress) and November 11, 1918 (the Armistice), Kennedy's book outlines the political innovations, social disruptions, and cultural legacy of America's experience in the Great War, particularly "those aspects...that [he] take[s] to be crucial for an understanding of modern American history." (vii)

After a brief prologue setting the stage, Kennedy begins by describing "the war for the American Mind" that accompanied US entry into the war. Wilson had won re-election in 1916 because "he kept us out of war" - obviously he'd have some explaining to do on the eve of American involvement. According to Kennedy, "Wilson brought to this effort great gifts -- and liabilities. He had all his life been a moralizing evangelist who longed with a religious fervor to sway the public mind with the power of his person and his rhetoric. The war furnished him with a wider stage for the ultimate performance of the act he had long been perfecting...From the beginning of his political career to the end...Wilson had a single master strategy: appeal directly to the people, unify their convictions, awake their emotional energy, and turn this great massed force on his recalcitrant foes." (48)

Joining Wilson in this surprising move toward involvement was much of the progressive community. Although they had earlier seen the war as "a regression to medieval violence, a kind of lunatic vestige from the feudal past," progressives for the most part heeded the exhortations of John Dewey and the New Republic (and ignored the forebodings of Randolph Bourne) and got behind the war effort, envisioning the Great War as "an opportunity pregnant with 'social possibilities.'" (49-50) Naturally, conservatives rallied around the flag as well, and the left and right soon became embroiled in a contest over the meaning of the war in schools and universities (resulting in a spate of lesson plans centering on "patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice" and a crackdown on academics who indulged in "doubt-breeding complexities.") (55, 58)

Erasing these doubts in the American mind became the central task of the newly-formed Committee on Public Information (CPI), headed by the former muckraker George Creel. During the war, the CPI "distributed 75 million copies in several languages of more than thirty pamphlets explaining America's reaction to the war...sponsored war expositions in nearly two dozen cities [and] issued 6000 press releases to assist (and to influence) the nation's newspapers in their reporting on the war." (61) Although Creel preferred the soft-sell of letting the facts speak for themselves, the CPI became more a more "a crude propaganda mill" as time went along. Similarly, while Creel believed in the progressive notion of "immigrant gifts" and paid special concern to the rights of labor, the CPI eventually became inflected with the nativism, fear, and anti-labor coerciveness of more conservative elements of the population (among them Postmaster Albert Sidney Burleson and Attorney General Thomas Gregory), who were "less interested in propagandizing the people, and more disposed to direct methods of extinguishing dissent, by fair means or foul." (75) In this transition, conservatives were aided by AFL leader Samuel Gompers, who saw in the war a chance to wrest control of the labor movement for good from the Socialist party.

Indeed, for socialists, the IWW, pacifists, and other left-leaning groups against American involvement, the homefront was a war zone. Under the auspices of the Espionage Act of June 1917 (which allowed Postmaster-General Burleson to aggressively censor the mail) and the Sedition Act of 1918 (which prohibited "any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States"), outspoken members of the left (among them Eugene Debs) were arrested and locked away for voicing dissent. In a surprising move for many progressives, these acts were upheld by the Supreme Court in Schenck vs. United States, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes formulated his famous "clear and present danger" standard.

"A friend of free speech in theory [but] its foe in fact," Woodrow Wilson was more than a willing party to these many acts of wartime repression. (87) And when progressives began to question the anti-labor and anti-immigrant cast of Wilson's policies, he turned on them too. "Wilson, Amos Pinchot wryly noted, had put 'his enemies in office and his friends in jail.'...Thus the progressives and Wilson, thrust into cautious embrace in 1917, went down in defeat together at war's end." (89) Moreover, "disillusion with Wilson and disappointment at their own failure to protect the reform cause were not the only wounds the war inflicted on progressives. The cruelest damage was visited on their very social philosophy, their most cherished assumptions about the reasonableness of mankind, the malleability of society, and the value of education and publicity as the tools of progress." (90) As Kennedy eloquently puts it, the "war had killed something precious and perhaps irretrievable in the hearts of thinking men and women," namely a faith in the reasonableness, plasticity, and fundamental decency of "the people." (92)

Having covered the social dislocations of the Great War, Kennedy then turns to his attention to the economic policies of the Wilson administration, devised primarily by Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo ("The Who, preeminently Who,/Is William Gibbs, the McAdoo,.../He's always up and McAdooing/ From Sun to Star and Star to Sun,/ His Work is never McAdone.../ I don't believe he ever hid/ A single thing he McAdid.") (99) Under McAdoo, the administration decided to finance the war primarily through "Liberty Loans" (bonds aimed at citizens rather than banks), which had the benefit of avoiding any substantive interventions in the economy but nevertheless resulted in heavy inflation. Nevertheless, Congressional progressives such as Senator Robert La Follette and House Ways and Means Claude Kitchen pushed for and eventually obtained an increase in excess-profits tax rates. Although the progressive tax system would come under withering attack from Andrew Mellon in the 1920s, the war experience and the explosion of the federal debt ($1 billion in 1915 to over $20 billion in 1920) "put a permanent flood in tax rates -- to Mellon's consequent chagrin." (113)

Along with economic plans, it also befell the Wilson administration to create government institutions that could help mobilize American productive capacity for the war effort. The most notable of these were the Food Administration, under rising star Herbert Hoover, and the War Industries Board, headed by stock speculator Bernard Baruch. Both of these advocated voluntary cooperation between government and business (and later became fondly-remembered exemplars of Hoover's progressive "associationalism" during the New Era and New Deal) and, as with the CPI and Liberty Loan movements, relied more on exhortations to the people than on federal authority. According to Kennedy, "the war thus demonstrated the distasteful truth that voluntarism has its perils. Reliance on sentiment rather than strengthened sovereignty to mobilize a people for total war compounded the problem of requiring all people to do what but few people wished. That kind of coercion, no less insidious for its indirection -- perhaps doubly objectionable on that count -- had deep roots in liberal democratic culture, and was to become a salient feature of twentieth-century American life." (143)

Of course, not everything came down to "coercive" voluntarism - for soldiers, America had to rely on conscription, and thus the Selective Service was born. The onset of conscription posed a host of new problems for the government, including how to handle African-Americans, non-English-speaking immigrants, and conscientious objectors. Once constituted, the American Expeditionary Force (headed by John J. Pershing, who was adamantly against amalgamating Americans into already-existing Allied armies) also became the locus for such Progressive social experiments as sex education (via the American Social Hygiene Association) and intelligence testing (which successfully ascertained that more native whites than blacks or immigrants knew who painter Rosa Bonheur was.) Finally, with passages from Walter Scott dancing in their heads, the AEF - two million men strong - set out for Europe, where they spent most of their time hiking and seeing the sights of France. In Kennedy's words, the AEF "were, first of all, as much tourists as soldiers." (205)

But, of course, there was a war on - and, while the AEF probably didn't alter the course of the war much on the battlefield, they did hasten the end of hostilities through sheer strength of numbers (and by freeing up English and French troops to fight elsewhere.) As Kennedy puts it, "the AEF had an immense numerical superiority over the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne, and made most of its advances simply by smothering the enemy with flesh. One American commander estimated that ten of his men perished for every dead German...There was bitter irony in the fact that attrition, not mobile strategy, proved to be Pershing's greatest contribution to the western cause. But the American Commander in Chief nevertheless had reason to be proud. The presence of the AEF had been indispensable in freeing the Allied reserves that made the counter-offensive of 1918 successful. Pershing's triumph at Saint-Mihiel had at a crucial moment lifted the morale of the Allies and equally dampened that of the Germans...His men for the most part did not want for courage. Their errors and losses on the battlefield were largely attributable to their lack of preparation and to the inexperience of their officers...At Allied insistence, [Pershing] had prematurely thrust his raw and ill-trained army into the Meuse-Argonne, and it had suffered for its greenness. But the AEF's exertions in 1918 undoubtedly helped shorten the war by perhaps as much as a year, and helped, therefore, to avoid still further bloodletting on both sides." (204-205)

As a result of this comparatively brief foray into the horrors of trench warfare, the writings and reminiscences of American WWI soldiers rarely if ever display the same type of disillusionment and despair characterizing the works of European authors (perhaps most notably Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.) Instead, Kennedy argues, many American writings on the war reflect a Ivanhoe-like romantic idiom of knights errant and romantic crusades. Indeed, the disillusionment we associate with the "Lost Generation" is, for Kennedy, "derived not from denouncing the violence of the actual, historical war, nor simply from exploiting the traditional American motif of resentment at authority. It came, rather, from the enlistment of that literature in another war altogether -- a war between two concepts of culture, a conflict whose first skirmishes had been fought even before 1914." (224) In effect, writers such as Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Cummings use the way to "launch a second attack on the cultural authority of the Old Guard -- the Old Guard that had promoted American entry into the war, and employed the full force of its rhetorical power to describe the war in terms compatible with its ancient values...The postwar writers of disillusionment protested less against the war itself than against a way of seeing and describing the war." (225) Indeed, the war became for these authors a way for indicting the entire culture of the previous generation, and, by associating the war as such, these writers "slammed shut for many of their readers one of the imagination's last remaining exits from the enormous and uncomfortable room of modernity." (229) According to Kennedy, the authors' deprecation of modern war differed substantively from the relatively benign memories of countless doughboys-turned-American Legion members, and helped to further widen the gap between the intelligentsia and "the masses." (230)

Kennedy concludes Over Here with a brief encapsulation of the failure of both the League of Nations and Wilson's health after the November 1918 armistice, and the social tumult that characterized the "Red Summer" of 1919 -- steel and police strikes, race riots, Palmer raids, and the further dissolution of the progressive coalition. His last chapter, on international political economy, notes how Americans "employed their profits from the war years to fuel a spectacular expansion of the home economy, rather than extending still farther their position in the world economy." (346) Despite being vaulted to "the position of world economic leadership that the British had taken nearly a century to reach" after WWI, America "had neither the skills, nor the wisdom, nor the compulsion of interest, to play that role as productively as Great Britain had played her part in the nineteenth century." (346) It would take another World War before America felt comfortable assuming the mantle of international leadership thrust upon it after the devastation of the Great War.

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