The Great War in America
World War I and Its Aftermath
Pegasus Books, New York, 2018, 432 pages
Book Review published on: April 12, 2019
Garrett Peck, author of Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.: The Civil War and America’s Great Poet; Prohibition in Washington: How Dry We Weren’t; and The Potomac River: A History & Guide, chronicles the events, arguments, calculations, and tragedies that brought the United States into the first modern war in his recent book The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. This work is a welcome addition to the study of the America’s involvement in World War I and is the result of meticulous research of primary and secondary sources on the World War I era. It goes beyond traditional literature that focuses primarily on battles, military forces, and governments in providing a more comprehensive view of U.S. involvement.
Among Peck’s many significant observations and reflections, three stand out. First, the U.S. created the American Expeditionary Force from scratch. The United States had not fought a major war since the Civil War more than fifty years earlier. The size of the regular Army on 1 April 1917 stood at 121,977 enlisted and 5,791 officers. Peck describes the Herculean effort expended by the United States in building a sizable army, equipping it with modern weapons, training it, shipping it overseas, and putting it into battle against the vaunted German army in less than a year.
Secondly, Woodrow Wilson is not the progressive president described by traditional historians. Peck counters Wilson’s label as a progressive with his administration’s attack on the Bill of Rights through the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918. The Espionage Act made it unlawful to interfere with the war effort and recruit or attempt to aid an enemy. The Act also provided unprecedented powers to Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson in denying the mailing of publications deemed unlawful. The Sedition Act of 1918 amended the Espionage Act in making any comments deemed negative about the U.S. government or the war unlawful.
Finally, the anti-German hysteria in the United States is largely forgotten. Peck describes the detestation of all things German started in 1914 but reached a high mark in April 1917. German-Americans were the largest ethnic group in the United States with major centers of German culture and population in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh. Millions of German-Americans felt the increasing anti-German sentiment following Germany’s unrestricted warfare policy and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico. Peck states that there were 522 German-language journals and newspapers being published in 1917 in the United States. By the end of the war, only twenty-six remained.
The strength of The Great War in America is Peck’s prose and style that makes for a quick read, discusses interesting, less traditionally known aspects of events and issues that occurred on the home front, and brings to light a milieu of behind-the-scenes international and domestic politics that influenced and shaped America’s involvement. Peck reminds us that U.S. involvement started from the beginning of the Great War, and the decision to join the Allies in World War II may have been predetermined from the start. Peck reminds us that wars are more than battles. There are home fronts, groups, and politics. The book is highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of America’s role in World War I. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas