Siry on Peck, 'The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath'

Author: 
Garrett Peck
Reviewer: 
Steve Siry

Garrett Peck. The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018. 400 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68177-878-5.

Reviewed by Steve Siry (Baldwin-Wallace University) Published on H-War (September, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53783

In 2017-18 the centennial of America’s participation in the Great War witnessed the publication of numerous studies about the United States during the conflict. Among the more engaging books is Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath, which is the first attempt at a detailed analytical narrative of wartime America since the publication of Robert Zieger’s America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience (2001) and David Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980). Peck asserts that the First World War “was a coming of age for America” (p. xii). As the country’s involvement in the conflict tipped the balance against the Central Powers and helped achieve victory for the Allies, “the war brought enormous and often unexpected political and social changes to the United States” (p. xii). While covering many aspects of America’s wartime and postwar society, Peck especially focuses on President Woodrow Wilson’s controversial leadership that promoted a “vision … of grand idealism in the name of humanity and world peace” (p. 339).

Based on extensive research, Peck describes America’s preparation for war, how the United States was drawn into the conflict, the mobilization of resources and troops, the war’s significant ramifications for society and culture, America’s contributions to the Allied victory, the causes and consequences of the Red Scare, Wilson’s efforts to establish an international framework for protecting global peace, and American reactions to Wilsonian diplomacy. As Peck covers this wide range of topics, he discusses the activities of many familiar characters from the era, including financier J. P. Morgan, social commentators Will Rogers and H. L. Mencken, labor leaders Samuel Gompers and “Big Bill” Haywood, aspiring writer Ernest Hemingway, presidential advisor Edward Mandell House, secretary of state William Jennings Bryan, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, future military leaders George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and George C. Marshall, former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and future presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Despite the prominent roles of many white males in his narrative, Peck also discusses women and the suffrage movement, as well as how African Americans experienced lynchings, mass migration from the South, race riots, and the beginnings of a civil rights campaign.

The main theme of the book, however, is the impact of Wilson’s presidency. Though he had struggled to keep the country out of the Great War during his first term in office, and won reelection in 1916 with his proxies using the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson ultimately decided in April 1917 that Germany’s return to unrestricted submarine warfare required America’s late entry into the conflict to make the world “safe for democracy.” His administration subsequently imposed restrictions on civil liberties, used mass advertising to spread propaganda, and mobilized the economy on a scale not seen since the Civil War a half-century earlier. While Peck provides a sound overview of America’s economic activities during the war, he unfortunately does not make use of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014). This very detailed analysis of the transformative impact of American economic and military power shows that, beginning in 1916, world financial dominance crossed the Atlantic from Europe to America and by 1925 the United States dwarfed former great European powers, though it would not be until 1945 that America fully embraced its supremacy as it took over the international role the British had played from 1815 to 1914.    

Wilson wanted a resolution of the Great War in a fashion that would avoid future authoritarianism, exploitative imperialism, and war. In January 1918 he presented to Congress his Fourteen Points that were grouped around four themes: national self-determination, freedom of the seas, transparent diplomacy, and enforcement of the peace by a League of Nations that would create collective security. As Thomas Knock notes in To End all Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1992), Wilson’s failed unilateral interventions of 1914-17 in revolutionary Mexico when he attempted to promote Mexican democracy and to create a safer Mexican-American border led the president to embrace a multilateral approach for achieving a lasting global peace after the Great War. Wilson intended his plan to prevent a return to the old order’s balance of power diplomacy and alliances while simultaneously undermining Bolshevism’s goal of a worldwide socialist revolution. 

But once Wilson arrived in Paris for the postwar peace conference, he had to make major concessions to the other Allied leaders to get his League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles. This resulted in severe treatment of the vanquished nations, which betrayed Wilson’s ideal of the postwar world as outlined in his Fourteen Points. “Most damning,” Peck asserts, “he had agreed to the war guilt clause” (p. 241), which forced Germany to accept full responsibility for causing the Great War. In addition, a majority in the American Congress and press did not endorse Wilson’s belief that the League of Nations would prevent future wars. In fact, they believed it would probably involve the United States in an increased number of interventions around the globe.  Attempting to mobilize public pressure on Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles with the League of Nations as created at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson went on a nationwide tour. But he became very ill and suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and unwilling to accept any compromise on the treaty’s ratification, which resulted in its defeat in the Senate.

Though acknowledging that Wilson made critical mistakes in his diplomacy and relations with Congress, Peck praises his “transcendent vision” (p. xiii) that promoted worldwide democracy, commercial cooperation, and international harmony through American-led collective security. It was a vision that could be more revolutionary than the Bolsheviks’ ideology. Peck thus adheres to the interpretation of Wilsonian foreign policy advanced in various liberal internationalist studies, including Arthur Link’s Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace (1979), Frank Ninkovich’s, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy since 1900 (2001), and John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).

Other historical scholarship, however, has challenged such a laudatory assessment of Wilson’s worldview and its legacy. New Left historians, such as William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), argued that the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, partly through predatory wars against native populations, promoted a continuous, expansionistic Open Door policy in search of markets and created an economic empire that stretched across the North American continent and eventually overseas. As a crucial part of this expansion, Wilsonianism primarily emerged as a counterrevolutionary ideology that defended worldwide capitalism against the rise of Bolshevism.

In contrast to the New Left interpretation, realist historians believe American leaders, especially since the Second World War, have too often adhered to the unrealistic view that the United States is destined to spread and defend capitalism and democracy throughout the world. Among such studies are Norman Graebner’s America as a World Power: A Realist Appraisal from Wilson to Reagan (1984) and Norman Graebner, Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph Siracusa’s two-volume America and the Cold War, 1941-1991: A Realist Interpretation (2010). These revisionists assert that proponents of Wilsonianism have refused to recognize that many nations lack the preconditions to embrace actual democratization, that the United States was tragically mistaken in its attempt to globalize the containment of communism, and that American resources have been drained in numerous interventionist crusades that have failed to make the world safe for democracy and, indeed, have done the exact opposite by causing worldwide mischief and creating American quagmires.

In Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (1997), neorealist Walter McDougall offers an additional perspective for understanding the long-term development of American foreign policy. He states that US diplomacy has come to represent a civil religion based on the idea of the United States globally promoting democratic and Christian values. American foreign policy has thus over time become more righteously interventionist and less realistic. As an outgrowth of this civil religion, Wilsonianism was meant to be a blueprint for world peace based on American values and enforced by American-led collective security, but instead, ironically, it became an ideological weapon against arbitrary power everywhere and has helped inspire widespread independence and separatist movements, as nationalism has trumped internationalism and initiated a new phase of conflict and interventionism around the globe.  

Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Peck has written a very readable and informative overview of the United States in the era of the Great War while making an impassioned and controversial argument for the positive legacy of Wilsonian foreign policy.

Citation: Steve Siry. Review of Peck, Garrett, The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53783

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