For those of you interested in history (particularly military history), politics and American culture that did not see the PBS three part series, The Great War (World War One), you missed a special treat. As a military writer and one who has toured many of the major battlefields of that brutal conflict, I assumed there wasn’t much that I didn’t already know of the subject. Wrong!
Three key points of this American Experience documentary of World War One that significantly expanded my awareness of that period of history are: the personality and motivations of President Woodrow Wilson, how the war and the times affected African Americans and how culturally fragmented America was due to the high influx of millions of emigrants just prior to the war. As stated I was aware of these factors to some degree, but this PBS offering really brought home their importance.
A phrase by one of the commentator that particularly impressed me was in regard to the character of President Wilson. He was a man “of high ideals but no principles.” In other words he was a man who wanted to bring democracy to the whole world, yet went about his supreme desire by employing extremely ruthless and undemocratic methods regarding his own country. Indeed, this sophisticated, highly educated aristocrat possessed a brutal autocratic streak — my way or the highway sort of elitism.
He attempted to stamp out dissent to the war effort in ways that violated and mocked the US Constitution. He tramped over civil liberties, especially relating to African Americans, whom, reading between the lines, Wilson can’t seem to see how they might ever fit into the social fabric of America.
In fact after the war was concluded and his health began failing badly, it was this absolutism about him that caused President Wilson to end up having his own party kill the Senate vote that would have allowed American to join the League of Nations, which Wilson saw as the lynch pin that would make World War One the last major war. And since America came out of World War One the World’s preeminent super power, the League of Nations lost the clout that might have headed off the even more destructive Second World War.
Though this Great War production is suppose to be centered on World War One, and it does cover the main battles and America’s part in them, it mainly details how the American way of life reacted to the war and how the war altered America to become the modern nation of today.
As a side issue, in watching this fascinating documentary, it makes it clear (without mentioning the fact) how the Trump/Bannon view of American is an attempt to take the nation back to its parochial ways prior to its involvement in the Great War — sort of like trying to take Wal-Mart back to a mom and pop operation, a really bad idea wholly embraced by those of limited knowledge of the issues involved.
The production includes the fate of protesters, the part played by women (the suffragettes in particular), the hopes and dreams of minorities and the massive and very deadly outbreak of influenza in the US and the world during the last months of the war. Far more millions died of this disease than as a direct result of the war.
For those of you who have missed it, I highly recommend watching The Great War on line. Each of the three parts of the program can be viewed separately.