How America Won World War I Cover

How America Won World War I

The U.S. Military Victory in the Great War—The Causes, the Course, and the Consequences

Alan Axelrod

Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2018, 344 pages

Book Review published on: October 19, 2018

Shortly following the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, an American journalist asked Chief of the German General Staff Gen. Paul von Hindenburg who had won the war against Germany. Hindenburg replied that it had been the American infantry. He made it even more specific, telling the reporter that the final death blow for Germany was delivered by the American infantry in the Argonne. Author and historian Alan Axelrod tells how the American infantry did it in How America Won World War I.

How America Won World War I begins in August 1914 as events spiral out on control in Europe. Few could see that it was the beginning of a dire and enduring conflict whose reverberations are felt today. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, reflecting on American sentiment, desired for the United States to remain neutral. America was profiting in selling material to both sides and was expected to continue doing so. As the German army executed its Schlieffen Plan for defeating France, Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate, delivering his “Declaration of Neutrality.”

Axelrod describes the transition that followed as America moved from neutrality into joining the Allies. Most interesting is the quick change in American opinion, which Axelrod attributes to Allied propaganda efforts, the Committee for Public Information (or the Creel Committee), and the inability of German propaganda to reach American audiences in any measurable manner. Equally interesting are the restrictive measures enacted by the Wilson administration in curtailing free speech and other Bill of Rights protections.

According to Axelrod, Gen. John J. Pershing was more than the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), he was the driving force in turning stalemate to victory in World War I. It was Pershing’s strength, vision, and character, Axelrod asserts, that persevered in creating the modern American Army. Pershing was not Wilson’s first choice to command the AEF; that honor went to Gen. Frederick Funston, who died of a heart attack 19 February 1917. Pershing officially assumed command of the AEF 10 May 1917. He immediately selected his staff and spent the summer of 1917 laying the foundations for the AEF. It was no small feat of Pershing’s staff in establishing a separate American zone of operations in France and laying out training areas within it. Pershing and his staff were creating the first truly modern American Army; it was a complex combined-arms organization in an integrated fashion unprecedented in earlier American military formations.

Axelrod’s Pershing is larger than life in creating a modern military force and withstanding tremendous pressure of British and French allies to amalgamate the AEF into British and French armies. The pressure increased on Pershing during the May 1918 allied leaders’ conference at Abbeville following the disappointing performance of the 26th “Yankee” Division at the Battle of Seicheprey. Both British and French military leaders questioned the ability of American units to fight separately, believing the Allied cause would be better amalgamating American units in British and French forces. Axelrod states that it was Pershing’s gaining of French general Philippe Petain as an advocate that won Gen. Ferdinand Foch over in allowing the AEF to fight as an independent force.

Axelrod captures the fear of senior German army leaders when America joined the Allied forces. Gen. Erich Ludendorff, senior German army commander, decided to launch four major offensives between 21 March and 13 June 1918 in hope of defeating the British and French armies before the American Army could arrive in significant numbers. While these offensives resulted in tactical victories on the battlefield, they were only temporary in nature and served to hasten Germany’s defeat. The German army simply had no way of replacing their losses or withstanding the arrival of fresh American forces in the lines.

The author tells of an event where the German government sent a message on 5 October 1918 to Wilson, requesting to negotiate terms based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Wilson initially hinted that Kaiser Wilhelm II would have to abdicate as a precondition of peace. He followed with another message that Germany would have to withdraw from all occupied territories, immediately recall all submarines, and the kaiser would have to formally abdicate. These were only preconditions for negotiations. This proved too much for the Germans who decided to continue the war. One can only wonder how many of the 192,000 Allied and the 126,000 German casualties of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would have been spared if Wilson had been more flexible in his demands.

Unlike previous works on America’s role in the war, chapter 17 describes our involvement on the Italian front. The 332nd Regiment of the 83rd Division served in the Italian Third Army at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. The 332nd would remain after the Armistice on occupation duty in Austria before returning stateside in February 1919.

The strength of How America Won World War I is Axelrod’s exhaustive research coupled with a writing style that breathes life into century-old events. This book is more than America’s entry into World War I, it describes the birth of our modern Army and the transition of the United States onto the international stage. It is for students and those interested in World War I.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas