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Impressive ‘The Great War’ offers a morally complicated picture of World War I

The film is full of surprises and avoids the simple-minded America-helps-the-good-guys-kill-the-bad-guys-and-saves-the-world narrative.

My dad, Irving Black, of blessed memory, fought in World War II. Growing up a baby boomer, it seemed like everyone’s dad had done so, and that The Big One, as WWII is sometimes called, was the biggest deal ever and a very necessary fight against pure evil. Maybe it still seems that way. By contrast, World War I, which we were taught was somehow caused by a Serbian nationalist shooting an Austrian prince (whatever sense it makes that the world would need to have a war over that) seemed ancient, obscure and confusing.

Nowadays, as a minor history nerd, I view World War I as the larger of the two events in terms of world history. Or (and this is my real view) I view the two events as one long war, with a relatively brief and unstable break in the middle during which it became clear that the real issues that led to the first war had not been resolved.

The U.S. was late to enter both chapters of the double war, but when it was over the United States had grown from being the dominant power in the Americas to being the dominant power and self-appointed policeman of the world, a status it has maintained ever since (which, in some twisted way, is why U.S. bombs hit Syria last week).

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into WWI, and the great American Experience documentary unit has produced a long (six hours over three nights), excellent documentary titled “The Great War,” to mark the occasion. To me, it was worth the time.

Part one airs tonight (Monday), on KTCA-Channel 2, at 8 p.m., with parts two and three airing Tuesday and Wednesday. You all have busy lives, and six hours is a lot. But if you watch, you will learn some unexpected things, and most of the good stuff is not set on the battlefield (although there’s plenty of battlefield action as well).

American Experience folks kindly made an advance screener of the series available to me. When I started watching, I had a bad attitude. The Great War (as World War I was known back when we were too dumb to know there would be a World War II), was fundamentally a European war, which began in 1914. The U.S. stayed out for three years, which enabled President Woodrow Wilson to run for re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” After winning with that slogan, he got us into war in 1917. The war ended in 1918. So I feared it was going to be a jingoistic exercise, glorifying and overemphasizing the U.S. role and overselling how great a war can be.

I was wrong. The film is full of surprises roaming across social and political history and definitely avoiding the simple-minded America-helps-the-good-guys-kill-the-bad-guys-and-saves-the-world narrative I unfairly expected. Considering that the war occurred in the very early days of moving pictures, I was shocked and impressed at how much contemporary footage the documentary included. It had, of course, interviews with experts, historians and others, but the cast of experts was enormous, diverse and very smart, even against the high standards we bring to an American Experience effort.

It also turns out to be a film about many surprising things, pretty far removed from the battlefields of Europe. For example:

A pacifist secretary of state: William Jennings Bryan, the frequent presidential candidate, was Wilson’s first secretary of state. He was also a committed pacifist. So he resigned from the Cabinet to protest the Wilsonian drift toward taking the U.S. into the war. There’s hasn’t been a pacifist secretary of state since, and it’s hard to imagine there will be again. Most of the first episode of the three-night film, by the way, is about the U.S. struggle with the decision whether to get involved in the war.

A warmongering ex-president: By contrast, former President Teddy Roosevelt was a war lover who wanted the U.S. to get into the fighting. He publicly accused Wilson of “weakness and timidity” for not getting into the war fast enough.

Peace-mongering women: Women were prominent among opponents of entering the war. The film tells of one women’s antiwar demonstration in which the protesters used a huge model of a stegosaurus to make their argument, with a sign that read: “This animal believed in huge armaments. He is now extinct.”

How World War I helped U.S. women get the vote:  The women for peace angle overlapped with the women’s suffrage movement. The suffragists found Wilson unhelpful to their campaign for the vote. When the war started, the suffragists were harassed and arrested for continuing to demand suffrage when their critics thought every issue should be subordinated to the war.

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Suffrage icon Alice Paul was imprisoned for protesting in favor of suffrage, and then went on a hunger strike in prison. As she withered, the administration felt she was dividing and distracting the country. An unnamed Wilson emissary visited Paul in prison. She soon agreed to stop her hunger strike and asked the women who were picketing on her behalf to stop. Soon after that, Wilson announced his support for the 19th Amendment and helped push it through Congress in 1918. The film implied (but there is no proof) that a deal was struck. The suffrage amendment was ratified in time for women to vote in the next presidential election in 1920.

A leap forward in euphemizing: The United States hadn’t had a military draft since the Civil War, but it enacted one for World War I, in an era when modern advertising and marketing techniques were more and more shameless. The obvious words, like “draft” or “conscription” were deemed too straightforward and potentially unpopular, so some World War I-era phrasemaker came up with the absurd and dishonest label “selective service,” which is what a military draft has been called in America ever since.

Perhaps the greatest repression of civil liberties in U.S. history: Critics of the war were imprisoned, Socialist lion Eugene Debs got a 10-year sentence for “sedition” for his opposition to the war, and ordinary citizens could get serious prison time for saying anything nice about Germans or even for complaining about how any of the various war measures were inconveniencing civilians. German-Americans were subjected to suspicion as to their loyalty and worse.

A president who was in some ways among the most progressive and in some ways the most racist in U.S. history: Wilson truly believed that American entry, on the basis of his famous “fourteen points,” could turn World War I into “the war to end all wars.” It was a beautiful dream, ultimately unsuccessful.

But Wilson was seriously racist, even by the standards of his time. A. Scott Berg, author of a Wilson biography and certainly not a Wilson critic in most of his appearances in the film, says that “Wilson was, by any definition of the term, a white supremacist.”

Although black soldiers served and fought and risked their lives, they were allowed to do so only in units that were all-black, except for the officers, who were white. The middle third of the second installment of The Great War, goes into great detail on the pretty shocking ways that young blacks who were willing to risk their lives for America were mistreated. One that would be funny if it weren’t so despicable tells how the leader of one of the black units tried to get his troops into the so-called Rainbow Division, a division so-called because it included troops drawn from all over America. As one of the historians in the film, Jeffrey Sammons tells it, the request was rejected on the grounds that “black is not one of the colors of the rainbow.” Then Sammons adds: “Of course, neither is white.”

“Wilson is so disappointing,” says another historian, Adriane Lentz-Smith. “On one hand, he’s got this abstract vision of a more just world that has all of this potential and possibility in it. Then, on the flip side, for all of his big ideals, he is still a narrow-hearted little man.” The latter reference is about Wilson’s racism.

Over the course of the film, I had many ups and downs in my feelings about Wilson. After a certain amount of moral vertigo, I ended up liking the documentary more and more for this quality. It wasn’t telling me how I should feel about Wilson, or the War, or America in this period. It just kept laying out morally complicated portrayals.