“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”— President Woodrow Wilson, on the State of War with Germany during an Address to Congress. April 2, 1917
The First World War (1914-1918) was the first of the 20th Century’s great man-made calamities. Its origins are obscured by the mists of time and the efforts on the part of the major warring powers (on both sides) to sanitize the archives to save their governments from embarrassment. Historians still argue about how much responsibility should be placed on the shoulders of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany and her government; during the war and shortly afterwards the victorious Allies tried pinning the blame entirely on German militarists and the insecure Wilhelm, but the reality is that there was plenty of blame to go around. The division of Europe into two rival armed camps…the effect of a rising tide of nationalism on various declining imperial dynasties…the politics of fear and the resulting series of arms races on land and sea…and, of course, the difficulties of figuring out the still-young united Germany’s role in belle epoque Europe.
What is not up for debate, though, is that The Great War, as it was then called, elevated the United States to the lofty role of a major world power for the first time in its history. Before President Woodrow Wilson stood before a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany on April 2, 1917, the nation had prided itself on its self-imposed role of being a distinct and isolationist state, immune from what many Americans considered to be the moral and political problems of the Old World. Most people in the U.S. saw European civilization as corrupt and decaying; the wealthy elite (including individuals like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller) saw the Continent as the acme of enlightenment and markets for American goods and services; immigrants thought of their former homelands as oppressive and unresponsive to the needs of the lower classes.
In short, America was happy to do business with Europe, but wasn’t keen on getting entangled in disputes between its imperialistic powers over colonial empires or territorial changes on the Continent itself.
When the crisis caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie by a young Serb terrorist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 escalated into a war that started less than two months later, Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, pledged that America would remain neutral. The deeply religious and progressive (except in matters of race) Wilson was opposed to war (he was the first U.S. President born and raised in the defeated Confederate States of America and had seen what armed conflict does to a nation, especially one that is defeated) on principle. At the same time, he had almost a messianic vision of the United States as a beacon of hope and democracy, and that the nation had a God-given destiny to lead the rest of the world along a path to peace, prosperity, and Christian brotherhood.
I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another. – President Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, August 19, 1914
Wilson, a former academician whose meteoric rise from the office of the President of Princeton University to the White House (with a term as governor of New Jersey in between) is rivaled only by the ascent to power of Donald Trump a century later, sought a role for the U.S. as a disinterested arbiter who could mediate the European dispute before the fighting got out of hand. However, as readers of G.J. Meyer’s The World Remade: America in World War I will learn, neither the Entente (later called “the Allies”) nor the Central Powers (Germany, Austria Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, aka Turkey) wanted to parley. For the warring powers, Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium as a first step of a sweeping bid to capture Paris within 42 days was the point of no return. Both sides had demonized their opponents that they saw war as the only solution to the various problems of Europe. Negotiations were therefore out of the question.
Between the Covers: The Book
On March 7, 2017, almost a century after Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, Bantam Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, published G.J. Meyer’s The World Remade: America in World War I. This was the second volume of a loose duology; the first being A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
A bracing, indispensable account of America’s epoch-defining involvement in the Great War, rich with fresh insights into the key issues, events, and personalities of the period
After years of bitter debate, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany on April 6, 1917, plunging the country into the savage European conflict that would redraw the map of the continent—and the globe. The World Remade is an engrossing chronicle of America’s pivotal, still controversial intervention into World War I, encompassing the tumultuous politics and towering historical figures that defined the era and forged the future. When it declared war, the United States was the youngest of the major powers and militarily the weakest by far. On November 11, 1918, when the fighting stopped, it was not only the richest country on earth but the mightiest.
With the mercurial, autocratic President Woodrow Wilson as a primary focus, G. J. Meyer takes readers from the heated deliberations over U.S. involvement, through the provocations and manipulations that drew us into the fight, to the battlefield itself and the shattering aftermath of the struggle. America’s entry into the Great War helped make possible the defeat of Germany that had eluded Britain, France, Russia, and Italy in three and a half years of horrendous carnage. Victory, in turn, led to a peace treaty so ill-conceived, so vindictive, that the world was put on the road to an even bloodier confrontation a mere twenty years later.
On the home front, Meyer recounts the break-up of traditional class structures, the rise of the progressive and labor movements, the wave of anti-German hysteria, and the explosive expansion of both the economy and federal power, including shocking suspensions of constitutional protections that planted the seeds of today’s national security state. Here also are revealing portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert La Follette, Eugene Debs, and John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, among others, as well as European leaders such as “Welsh Wizard” David Lloyd George of Britain, “Tiger” Georges Clemenceau of France, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
Meyer interweaves the many strands of his story into a gripping narrative that casts new light on one of the darkest, most forgotten corners of U.S. history. In the grand tradition of his earlier work A World Undone—which centered on the European perspective—The World Remade adds a new, uniquely American dimension to our understanding of the seminal conflict of the twentieth century. – Publisher’s dustjacket blurb, The World Remade: America in World War I
December 1918: Apotheosis
It was deliverance.
It was like being born again—albeit after an unspeakably difficult birth—free to start over and get it right this time.
It was the end of a nightmare that had threatened never to end, and the beginning, everyone desperately wanted to believe, of a new and permanently better world.
It was peace.
It was victory.
And it was Paris—Paris!—with the year’s climactic holiday less than two weeks in the future. After four dark, grim, clenched-teeth Christmases spent under the shadow of the apocalypse, the City of Light was free again to be itself, ablaze with the celebration of life.
There was much to grieve, yes—a terrible burden of grief, the incomprehensible sum of something like nine million fighting men dead along with a like number of civilians, plus survivors beyond numbering too broken ever to be put together again. France had suffered as much as any country and more than most, the war having taken nearly 3.5 percent of her population, one of every four men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. But a dozen other nations were similarly bereaved. From Portugal to the Russian steppe, men were learning to live without a limb or all their limbs. And learning to live with the compulsive twitching and trembling that were among the mysterious symptoms of shell shock, a new kind of affliction the name of which reflected ignorance of its causes. Men without eyes were being taught to weave baskets.
But the worst was over. In western Europe at least, the bloodletting had stopped. There were no more enemy armies just beyond the horizon, pressing to break through. There was no need to fear that those enemies might soon be marching in triumph down the Champs-Élysées. Such nightmare visions belonged to the past.
And upon this reborn Paris there now descended the man who had saved it, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States. He arrived like a god, the first serving president ever to cross the Atlantic, borne on a great liner that, as it approached the port of Brest, passed through an honor guard of nine of his navy’s battleships, twenty of its destroyers, and like numbers of French and British warships.
(That liner, by the way, was herself a symbol of conquest and of new beginnings. Christened the George Washington when launched by her German builders, she was the third largest passenger ship in the world and at the start of the war ranked as Germany’s finest. She had happened to be in New York harbor when war broke out in August 1914, was unable to return home because Britain’s Royal Navy controlled the North Atlantic, and was impounded when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. She was in every way perfect for this glorious mission.)
The harbor at Brest overflowed with rapturous crowds as Wilson’s ship approached her berth. Bands played, cannons boomed. And then that night, all along the route of the special train that carried the president and his wife and their entourage through cities and towns and country crossroads to Paris, people of every age and description came down to the tracks to see their deliverer go rumbling by. Some of them knelt, in attitudes of prayer.
It is said that two million people thronged the streets of the capital the morning of the president’s arrival. Even those old enough to remember the pomp of Napoleon III’s reign said it paled in comparison with this. The Gare de Luxembourg was turned into the world’s biggest flower basket, strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” filled the air, and crowds cheered and laughed and wept. The Tiger was there, of course: Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, an old man so combative, so rich in enemies, that he would never have been given the premiership if the only alternative had not appeared to be peace on Germany’s terms. The man who, upon taking office, had declared that his only foreign policy was to make war and his only domestic policy was the same. His short, plump body, round bald pate, and fat white mustache were unmistakable to all who caught a glimpse of him. He was joined by a less striking figure, President Raymond Poincaré, taller and almost slender by comparison, elegantly goateed. The two despised each other and made no secret of it. They had come together not just to welcome the American but to bask in the glow of his glory.
The beaming Wilson, slim and dapper and handsome in a way both boyish and austere, rested and at ease after nine days on calm seas, was led to a horse-drawn open carriage and joined there by Poincaré. The pert and pretty Edith Galt Wilson followed in a second carriage with Madame Poincaré. The two chiefs of state and their ladies formed the centerpiece of a grand procession. Led by a regiment of cavalry in full regalia, it made its slow way through the Place de la Concorde, past the statue representing the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from which a black shroud had recently been removed to mark their recovery from Germany, up a Champs-Élysées lined with captured German guns to the Arc de Triomphe. The carriages soon filled with thrown flowers. The multitudes roared as again and again Wilson raised his silk top hat.
Huge banners were everywhere. Vive Wilson, they declared. Vive l’Amérique. Wilson le Juste.
The Wilsons were delivered at last to the Murat Palace, which was to serve as their residence during the short time they expected to be in France. They were given a quick tour by its owner, Prince Joachim Napoleon Murat, descendant of one of Napoleon I’s great marshals and the emperor’s sister Caroline. In size the palace rivaled the White House, with more privacy thanks to the high walls surrounding its wide gardens and an infinitely more exquisite interior. Meanwhile the president’s retinue, including the teams of scholars and experts who had been brought along to help him put the world right, was moving into the magnificent Hôtel de Crillon, adjacent to the American embassy. Everything possible was being done to make them happy to be in Paris, to show them that they were among friends.
By early afternoon Wilson was settled in the splendid study adjacent to his equally splendid bedroom on the palace’s upper floor. No one was with him except the only man he wanted with him, wily little Edward House, not only his closest confidant but nearly his alter ego. “My second personality,” Wilson called him, “my independent self: his thoughts and mine are one.” House had been in Europe since October, known to all as the president’s personal representative, explaining his objectives and gathering information on his behalf. He called himself “Colonel” and expected to be addressed as such, although he had never served in any army. He said it was a geographic rather than a military title, having been conferred on him by a governor of his native Texas.
House and the president had much to discuss. First were the preparations for the peace conference that was soon to begin, and that had brought Wilson to Europe. House would have been eager to share the latest news about the leading participants—about who thought what, and what kinds of difficulties they were likely to create. Beyond that were all the grand plans that the two of them had spent months and even years perfecting for Europe and the world.
As I wrote in my recent review of A World Undone, I am a military history buff who, like millions of other readers, knows more about the “sequels” of The Great War (as it was known back then, than I do about the first great tragedy of the 20th Century: World War II occurred in my parents’ lifetime, and like many Baby Boomers I grew up watching hundreds of Hollywood-style war movies and countless TV documentaries along the lines of Victory at Sea (in syndicated reruns, not during its original run in 1951-1952), The World at War, and The Twentieth Century. The only documentary series I remember watching about The Great War was CBS’s 1964 World War I, narrated by Robert Ryan and featuring a score by Morton Gould.
To be fair, I have not ignored World War I as a topic to read about. I remember reading several illustrated tomes and general histories about the war. Most of them were either one-volume histories or books that tackled specific topics, especially aviation. (My father, who was born four months after Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, was an airline and air freight pilot, and my mom had been a flight attendant for Avianca, so you can say that flight and the history of it are in my DNA.)
But the nature of the war, with its focus on attrition and trench warfare) and its obscure origins aren’t as “sexy” or “cool” as World War II. Balance of power diplomacy and paranoia-fueled arms races aren’t as easily understood as the clearly evil forces of unbridled militarism and racial warfare that motivated Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan into launching wars of aggression and territorial expansion.
When I was in high school, the unit on World War I only covered the most obvious of highlights, such as the assassination of an obscure Hapsburg nobleman in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, the technical leaps in all areas of military-related technology, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Zimmermann telegram, and – of course – the Versailles Treaty and others that laid the groundwork for a bitter peace and the outbreak of a larger, much bloodier war only 20 years later.
It has taken me 30 years to come around to getting my hands on books about World War I. My interest in the topic was sparked in 2007 and 2008 by watching The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones on DVD, particularly the second Volume, The War Years. That box set contains several “movies” re-edited from the 1993-1994 ABC/Lucasfilm television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as well as supplementary discs with documentaries about the various individuals and events that are the historical background for this George Lucas-produced “edutainment” series.
G.J. Meyer’s “loose” duology about the First World War (A World Undone and The World Remade) is my latest find on Amazon. The first book covers the war from the European perspective, with some narrative devoted to America’s brief but decisive intervention, while The World Remade: America in World War I focuses in more detail on that intervention, how it came about, and how President Wilson’s poor health and autocratic, stubborn personality helped undermine his own lofty plans for a just and lasting peace.
G. J. Meyer, a former journalist and professor who has taught history at several post-secondary schools in the U.S., does a great job of making this sadly-obscure and badly-neglected conflict come alive. It is a one-volume history, and as such you won’t find every detail of America’s slide from neutrality to intervention in its pages.
Nevertheless, Meyer has a good eye for detail and a sharp analytical mind that delves not just into the dry minutiae of American domestic and foreign policy, the effects of the war on Prohibition and women’s suffrage, and grand strategy and modern warfare in the early 20th Century, but also into the personalities and worldviews of the civilian and military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
As in A World Undone, Meyer will complement the main narrative of The World Remade with interstitial chapters labeled Background. Presented in a subtly different font, these Background sidetracks focus on specific individuals (such as Robert La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, or Edward House) or topics (such as military aviation and the role of propaganda in preparing the American people for war and give readers detailed personality profiles of major figures or overviews of social and political issues in the home front. The reader then gets a better grasp on the events and personalities that shaped the way the war was waged, and why the peace that followed the “war to end all wars” (a phrase attributed to Wilson but uttered by someone else) was so hollow and full of bitterness, even among the victors.
Like A World Undone, this book is well-written, exhaustively researched, and extremely readable. Meyer, a former journalist and college professor who now lives in Great Britain, is a master of clear and crisp writing, and he makes a complex and often depressing topic so interesting that you won’t want to put The World Remade: America in World War I down. It reads like a finely-crafted thriller, with the added bonus that it’s all true.
So if you want to learn more about the United States’ involvement in the 20th Century’s seminal conflict – every major global dispute that has affected humanity since 1919 can be traced to World War I, from World War II and the Cold War to the never-ending Middle East conflict – read The World Remade: America in World War I. No matter which side of the great debate about America’s role you are on – whether this nation should disengage from the world or stay linked to her traditional alllies – you are bound to find facts that you probably weren’t aware of.
This is definitely a book worth reading.