I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

World War I and After

Ross Gregory, The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971)

Frank Costigliola, Awkward Dominion: American Political, Economic, and Cultural Relations with Europe, 1919-1933 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Alfred Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (New York, New York: Times Books, 1984).

Ross Gregory, like most historians, recognizes World War I as a turning point in American history. In The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War, Gregory argues that World War I officially launched the United States and the rest of the western world into modern times. It shattered deep-seated traditions and ideals and initiated a new set of forces that, according to Gregory, we are still attempting to deal with today. The Origins of American Intervention was written for a largely for a student and public audience. Using the private papers of the prominent officials of the time, government collections, and the analyses of secondary literature, Gregory seeks to present a readable account of the events that led to American involvement in World War I. Much of his account is focused on President Woodrow Wilson and the atmosphere surrounding his foreign policy decision making. However, Gregory notes that inclusion of decisions made across the pond, particularly in Britain and France, are also important to the story because without them it becomes far too easy to come to the conclusion that the United States acted in a sheltered bubble of superiority. Gregory is adamant that the United States was not a “complete master of its fate.” (x)

Gregory asserts that at the breakout of World War I it has been forgotten that the United States was still very much tied to Europe, both politically and economically. With the onset of war it became convenient for Americans to renounce this connection and put emphasis on the differences between the two continents. Americans fell back on an assumption that they were above the mania due to their moral superiority. The Wilson Administration was also fundamentally stuck in the nineteenth century, Gregory argues. They were focused on the home front, giving little attention to events abroad. Neutrality was the only policy that could, seemingly, allow the status quo to continue. Yet Americans were not able to fully ignore Europe because they depended on them financially. As merchants to the Old World, they could stand to divorce themselves no more from their customers, than Europe could go on without its supplier.

The key to understanding American neutrality at the beginning of the war, Gregory contends, was that it quickly spiraled into uneven neutrality. Wilson dealt with the belligerents, not equally, but rather by dealing with each country separately as the circumstances evolved. The United States clearly favored the Allies’ side. This favoritism was due significantly to a sense of brotherhood, or as, John Dumbrell would refer to it, a “special relationship,” between the United States and Britain that was steeped in cultural, intellectual, economic, political, and even racial traditions and similarities. The Allies tended to treat the United States with respect. Germany, viewed as a country of brutes by Americans, on the other hand, as Gregory presents it, treated the United States with a great deal of impertinence throughout the war. They were unwilling to bow down to the United States’ self-endowed righteousness and continuously sought to test Wilson’s resolve to not enter the war.

The countdown to American intervention began when the war was taken to the seas. The United States, in order to look after their economic interests, continued the exchange of contraband with the Allies, an act that was not illegal in the eyes of international law. Germany could not stop a legitimate contraband trade, and thus they turned to U-boat warfare in order to interrupt enemy commerce. Events such as the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 and the Sussex in 1916, acted to push a reluctant Wilson further towards intervention. Part of this reluctance was due to public opinion, which was principally anti-war. Wilson won reelection in 1916 mainly due to the fact that he had kept the United States out of the conflict. Wilson attempted to act as a mediator between the two sides, campaigning for peace without victory. However, his efforts were not met with enthusiasm in Europe. Germany found his attempts to meddle in European affairs to be bothersome and refused to even humor Wilson. Britain, not fully understanding the fact that it was economically dependent on the United States, was also not disposed to settling for an unsatisfactory peace. The point came in 1917 at which Wilson could no longer rationalize the further dragging of American feet. He declared war because Germany had driven him to it. The American populace went along with the decision because they respected and trusted their leader.

Gregory’s account is significant historiographically because his assessment of Wilson’s reasoning parallels that of George Kennan’s assessment of foreign policy from the 1890s onward. Like Kennan, Gregory states that what is exceptional about Wilson’s actions prior to World War I intervention is his obsession with “moral principle and international law” or as Kennan would put it, moralism and legalism. Gregory refutes William Appleman Williams’ assertion that United States policy during the World War I was based solely on economic considerations. Gregory states that there is no evidence that Wilson went to war to protect American loans or based on pressures to ensure the safety of big business overseas. Wilson’s decisions were based on both moral and practical concerns, between which he saw no disagreement.

Wilson’s hesitation to enter the war is completely understandable, according to David M. Kennedy, because he knew what it was doing to societies in Europe. He also understood that his popularity hinged on the continued abatement of war involvement. Kennedy views World War I as a portal through which one can view and analyze the quintessential aspects of early twentieth century American society. In Over Here: The First World War and American Society, by looking at personal and government papers, as well as secondary literature, Kennedy argues that World War I reveals changes in American society, but more importantly it reveals the characteristics of American society endured throughout and after the ordeal. Rather than being a society of harmonious accord, America was a society that was uncomfortably dealing with forces of dissonance. For example, the economy was shaped, Kennedy writes, during the war by the dueling forces of laissez faire and full-fledged government control, between which Wilson walked gingerly. Pluralism, Kennedy argues, can only exist in a society with “wide margins of prosperity and security,” and thus, both during neutrality and upon entrance into the war Wilson struggled to mold a “correct” consensus of opinion.

Those who were against the war typically spoke of its hypocrisy and argued against the wisdom of fighting against autocracy and for democracy. However, pro-war individuals ultimately had the power of rhetoric and emotion behind them, as well as certain individuals who saw it as an opportunity for America to shed the cloak of antiquity and design a new culture of social duty and civic responsibility. John Dewey, for example, saw the war as an opportunity to move away from America’s obsession with individualism and towards a more communalistic approach. Because most Americans were not directly affected by the war, in the beginning, Wilson could not mobilize the country with the obviousness of necessary action, but rather had to rely on the cultivation of ideas and emotions that would lead to uniformity of opinion amongst the population. Americans feared rebellion, as Michael Hunt notes in Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, and believed that a stable society required consensus, Kennedy contends.

The cultivation of this opinion, Kennedy argues, was based on the continuance of the Progressive belief, with its origins at the turn of the century, that mankind was inherently rational and would thus move towards reasoned consensus based on scientifically demonstrated facts. Publicity and propaganda played a large role in forming public opinion. Teachers, Kennedy writes, were also part of the propaganda machine. Education during the war was biased towards nurturing the values of patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice, all of which, according to Robert Dean in Imperial Brotherhood, birthed a unique form of manhood that would later shape American foreign policy. Vigilantism, a kind of crooked voluntarism that was officially accepted in the American Protective League, was celebrated and even encouraged, particularly when it was in the spirit of nativism in response to the growing number of immigrants flooding into the country.

Societal patterns, Kennedy demonstrates, were being shaped by the bucking back and forth between individualism and collectivity. The ultimate symbol of this struggle is the soldier. The soldier went to war both to prove his manhood and to serve the volunteer forces of altruism. By looking at the personal documents of soldiers, Kennedy reveals the commonalities of their shared experiences. The soldier, he states, was firstly a tourist and was often in awe of the sights around him and the general antiquity of the continent. In the discussions of shellings and battle, one finds evidence that these individuals did not fully comprehend the reality of modern warfare before they signed on. Surprisingly, Kennedy finds that most of the accounts are not negative, but rather exude positivity and even enthusiasm. Kennedy introduces an interesting analysis of postwar literature, led by such individuals as John Dos Passos. He states that disillusionment is not the correct term to attach to these individuals. The power of these writers does not lie in their denouncement of the war, but rather in their role as harbingers of modernity. Culture, during and after the war, was a fight against the old and young generations, Kennedy argues. The old generation, which relied on romanticism to describe the war, dominated at first, but by the end of the war the new generation, which viewed the war and modern society with absurdity and irony, gained dominance. Ultimately the war did not significantly alter American society, Kennedy asserts, and thus many of the policies implemented directly afterward were aimed at returning to business-as-usual as fast as possible.

While the United States may have struggled with contending forces of new and old during the war years, they came out of World War I as top dog, argues Frank Costigliola in Awkward Dominion: American Political, Economic, and Cultural Relations with Europe, 1919-1933. Disturbed by the post-World War crusade of American militarism and over-confidence, which ended tragically during the Vietnam War, Costigliola wishes to examine a simpler time when the United States was less militaristic and practiced more reserved foreign policy. By looking at manuscripts and secondary sources, Costigliola demonstrates that post-war issues such as Versailles and economic recovery were approached moderately in order to ensure American interests and international stability. He argues that the American belief that private enterprise and minimal government would protect the country’s wealth was, in hindsight, overly simplistic and naïve. Like Kennedy, Costigliola does not believe that the United States played its economic cards right, which led to unnecessarily limited and sometimes feeble international power. The United States was not yet comfortable with its global role. This weakness led the United States to hold “awkward dominion” over the rest of the world.

In Awkward Dominion, Costigliola aims to provide a broader portrait of the time period between 1919 and 1933. Historians such as Frederick Lewis Allen, he writes, tend to dismiss the twenties as a period of silly frivolity, excess, fleeting opulence, and isolationism. However, Costigliola believes that the period should be investigated on its own terms and to criticize these individuals for not realizing that their peace and prosperity would eventually end is to misrepresent this historical time period. He also contends that it is not feasible to demonstrate that the Great Depression could have been avoided had these people literally and figuratively sobered up. Like Kennedy, Costigliola argues that American foreign policy after the war was based on moderation and slow reform. Peaceful change was important because Americans, as Hunt argues, wanted to avoid revolutionary upheaval, like that occurring in the Soviet Union, at any cost. Stability was also important in the international economy. The expansion of American markets and investment required that Europe recover and redevelop a flow of goods and capital across the Atlantic. Wilson, like many of those from the Progressive era, was afraid of disorder, which, Costigliola argues, eventually led to his downfall. Costigliola writes that the failure of such projects as the League of Nations shows the hazard or pursuing moderation and peaceful change in a chaotic, post-war world. Hoover and his efforts at homeland reconstruction mark the changeover from Wilson’s official, wartime involvement in Europe to an unofficial infiltration of Europe by way of economic and cultural dissemination. Hoover used economic and technical strategies such as the American Relief Administration to increase American economic prosperity and block revolutionary winds abroad. Promotion of an open door policy, which Williams deems to be the crux of American foreign policy, was seen as crucial to the economic recovery in Europe and particularly in Germany according to Costigliola. He sees this period of diplomacy as a testing ground for whether peaceful change and stability could occur simultaneously. The Dawes Plan of 1923, the Locarno Pact of 1925, and the short-lived economic stability that followed seemed to prove that they could.

Essential to fully understanding the United States’ place as world leader during the post-World War I era, Costigliola argues, is the analysis of its role as the international, cultural icon. Cultural analysis when combined with more traditional economic and political analysis provides a fresh and better-rounded picture. It is crucial to understand that, as world economic and political leader, the United States also emerged as the premier source for European cultural inspiration during the 1920s. Europeans looked to the United States for answers to dealing with the new modern society, which had enveloped them after the war. While Europeans struggled, Americans were seemingly taking modernity in stride, easily adapting to a culture and society driven by technology and the machine. “’Americanism,’” Costigliola writes, “meant a pragmatic, optimistic outlook on life; a peaceful, rational compromise of political differences; an efficient, modern way of organizing work that emphasized machines and mass assembly production; rising standards of living with declining class antagonisms; scientific use of statistics and other information; and the predominance of mass society.” (20) Both businessmen and artists looked to American industrialization for inspiration. Unofficial American diplomacy during this period depended on this admiration. Even American expatriates who outwardly shunned and rebelled against their homeland’s consumerist culture were ultimately products of it. Costigliola argues that the very fact that America became the poster child for modernization shows that World War I had pushed the country into the role of leader of western civilization.

By the late 1920s, America’s ride on the top was showing signs of sinking. The short-sightedness of American policies, he writes, were largely the result of arrogant contentment with the existing situation on the part of American leaders. They continued to seek stability in Europe without overtly ensnaring the United States in European activities. The Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, which renounced war, also conveniently invested the western world in a promise that would ensure future American economic dominance. At the Geneva Economic Conference, the United States also pushed its own agenda, which called for open-door standards. The Depression, according to Costigliola exposed the flaws of this international system that was driven by loans, unequal distribution, and slow peaceful change. Americans had weakened the international economy by imperially forcing Europe to take over the weight of post-war change. This awkward imperialism, rooted in the desire to maintain status quo, inevitably led to the Great Depression.

Ironically, it was not World War I, but rather, the Great Depression that brought about a tremendous force of progressive reform. In The Great Depression: America 1929-1941, Robert S. McElvaine writes that reform eras never occur during times of economic collapse, accept for one exception, the Great Depression, during which the New Deal, one of the country’s most noteworthy periods of reform, took place. History is often written from a top down or bottom up perspective, McElvaine writes. However, in order to have a fully comprehensive analysis of a time period, one must look at both perspectives. In The Great Depression, McElvaine sets out to combine both outlooks, represented by social and political history and the examination of both primary and secondary literature, in order to provide a richer context for American actions during its most significant crisis. The bottom and top approach is particularly appropriate for studying the Great Depression because it involved “enormous upheaval from below and dramatic innovation from above.” (xiii)

When viewed at a macro level, McElvaine argues, it can be discovered that history often operates on a pendulum swinging between periods of reform and periods of conservatism. Reform eras decline because the population becomes tired of or exasperated by a particular social problem, change overtakes the reformers, making their viewpoints and causes obsolete, and/or political leaders, once champions of a cause, slide back into traditionalism in order to advance their political careers. The Progressive Era at the turn-of-the-century was an exceptionally broad period of reform, during which even conservatives felt the need to participate, based on varying reactions to the effect of modernization on traditional values. The 1920s in contrast marked a time period during which businessmen once again climbed to the heights of power, using advertising and other forms of propaganda to profess the virtues of consumerism and prosperity. However, it is important to recognize that the 1920s were not hunky-dory for everyone. McElvaine points out that the 1920s were also riddled with unfair working conditions, which have been shadowed historically by the era’s affluence, the continuance of depression conditions for farmers, and marked the end of rural American prominence.

There is great debate over the origins of the Great Depression. One’s answer, McElvaine contends, is usually tied to one’s socioeconomic philosophy. This injection of biases into historical analysis is dangerous because such analyses also determine how future economic upheavals are dealt with. The most popular theory regarding the cause of the Great Depression, espoused by John Maynard Keynes, among others, is that it was caused by a decline in spending, whether it is via consumption or investment. This interpretation sets the basis for McElvaine’s treatment of the Great Depression. He stresses that both the domestic and international economies, despite outward appearances, were unstable by the time of Black Tuesday. Thus, the crash was one aspect of the culmination of economic forces that resulted in the Depression, rather than the cause of it.

Like Kennan, McElvaine believes that individuals play an important role in history. McElvaine seeks to closely examine individuals such as Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt so that their roles in the Depression are more comprehensive and less-clouded by popular myth. Hoover was the first politician to fully adopt techniques of modern public relations, McElvaine finds. Hoover struggled with attempting to fit traditional values into a modern cultural landscape, and did not have the ability to cope well with failure, which left him ineffective as a leader at the onset of the Depression. Roosevelt remarkable ability to gather public support and subsequently enact his policies, McElvaine demonstrates, was based, firstly, on the fact that he was a member of American landed aristocracy, and thus possessed the confidence and sense of paternalism that comes from being at that place on the social ladder. Secondly, he was greatly influenced by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. Thirdly, his struggle with polio enabled him to develop a sense of compassion and camaraderie with others that were besieged by the cruelties of real life.

Yet, these great men are only one side of the coin. In order to fully understand the Depression, one must also look at the experiences of the working-class, McElvaine asserts. The working-class has been ignored by prior historians largely because traditional primary sources, such as letters, are not readily available. However, they do exist, and using these personal accounts and other primary documents from the time, McElvaine pieces together the experience of those at the bottom of the ladder. He traces the shame and cultural stigma that was attached to unemployment. Shame often turned into despair, which then turned to apathy, he writes. He also traces the origins of societal values, arguing that individualism and collectivism can coexist in a single individual or group. American values are largely based on one’s position in society; workers, for instance, value justice and compassion because these principles work to their advantage in the capitalist system in which they live.

McElvaine highlights how vulnerable people are to the forces of the systems that they themselves create. Yet, because they are man-made, economic, political, and social forces allow one to hold on to a smidge of optimism for a future in which these forces bend to benefit of all. In America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Alfred Crosby illustrates the danger of those forces that are beyond human control, those forces, such as disease, invasive species, or climate change, that are at products of the natural world. Pandemics, Crosby states, are the “most awesome of nature’s phenomena.” (11) As the title suggests, the Spanish Influenza outbreak during World War I is most typically ignored by historians and other writers. Because little secondary information exists, Crosby relies on personal accounts, newspaper articles, medical journals, statistics, and other primary documents to piece together an account of the effect this pandemic had on the world community, particularly in the United States. Obtaining a better understanding of this pandemic and other historical scourges is important, Crosby argues, because the contemporary world, marked by increased population and globalization, is even more vulnerable to mass outbreaks of disease than the world that existed in 1918. In 1976, when Crosby first published the book, it received very little attention because the medical atmosphere at the time was infused with the optimism that technology and human innovation had the power to quell disease. With more recent global outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and Swine Flu, the contemporary environment is ready to hear the warnings Crosby presents in America’s Forgotten Pandemic and to learn from past mistakes.

Crosby begins his narrative with a look at the experience of Dr. William Henry Welch, who encountered one of the first outbreaks of the influenza amongst troops during World War I. Yet, Americans as a whole paid very little attention to the outbreak until it was at their doorstep. Once it made its appearance in the United States, it swept across Europe in a first wave of pandemic that killed thousands. In the second wave that swept the globe, millions were killed. In the end the influenza pandemic killed more people than the war. By examining mortality statistics, Crosby is able to put together a basic portrait of the disease’s effects.

However, mortality rates do not paint the full picture. They do not address those that survived, nor do they deal with the effect that the disease had on the personal lives of Americans. Crosby addresses both the scientific and social effects the flu had on American society. He demonstrates how the patriotic spirit of the war poured over into the country’s actions in response to the pandemic. Hundreds, even thousands, of individuals, including nurses, volunteered to assist with the treatment of patients. In Chicago, Crosby writes, officials balanced the need for war patriotism with the dangers of the epidemic by advising those who participated in a Liberty Loan parade boil their clothes and take a laxative in order to rid themselves of the disease. As usual, Crosby finds that the poor, particularly in immigrant communities, suffered the most, however, being a natural force, the elite were not spared from the flu’s deathly grip.

Crosby effectively illustrates that the pandemic was made all the more fatal because medical science at the time did not yet have a way of effectively treating influenza or pneumonia; as a result, nurses were often more valuable than doctors because they were more skilled at easing the discomfort of the disease, while doctors were largely unneeded because they had no cure to offer. Part of the power the flu of 1918 had over the population was its ability to spread rapidly through the populace. One key aspect of Spanish influenza, which made it especially deadly, was its tendency to lead to pneumatic complications. The lungs of those that died were often filled with a bloody, frothy liquid. Another odd facet of the outbreak was that it did not stricken those typically prone to influenza infection, the very old and the very young, but rather caused high mortality amongst young adults, those that common sense would deem most capable of withstanding the illness’ effects. A third aspect that made the flu, and any virus of its kind, especially potent was its ability to mutate into different forms, thus causing old antibodies to become obsolete.

One of the greatest strengths of America’s Forgotten Pandemic, oddly enough, is Crosby’s honest admittance of the shortcomings of both historical and modern medical knowledge. It can never be known, for example, if the strains of the flu that swept through Europe, North America, and Africa were of the same strain. Records of the disease are often spotty or entirely missing, making it nearly impossible to fully comprehend its magnitude. Additionally, scientists still do not understand completely the biological nature of the Spanish Influenza of 1918. They do not know when or where it started or when it ended. Various theories, such as the symbiosis theory, which conjectures that the influenza was actually the combination of two pathogens, one that caused flu symptoms and one that caused pneumonia, have been made, however, it is yet unknown which if any is closest to the truth. Crosby illustrates how far our knowledge and technological capability has come and how far we have to go, and the extent to which we are still beholden to the forces of nature.

Feature Photo: Medical corps – group at Allentown Camp R.C. #20

  • Title: Medical corps – group at Allentown Camp R.C. #20
  • Date Created/Published: [Place not identified] : National Photo Company, [1917 or 1918]
  • Medium: 1 photograph : gelatin silver print ; sheet 20.3 x 25.7 cm (8 x 10 format)
  • Summary: Photograph shows a large group of nurses and a few soldiers posed in front of ambulances with the Allentown Hospital in the background.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-40767 (digital file from original photo)
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Call Number: LOT 12358-8 [item] [P&P]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: