Friday, April 14, 2017

American Experience: The Great War (PBS-TV, aired April 10-12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

PBS ran a three-part series called The Great War under the rubric of their American Experience program from April 10-12 — I saw the last two episodes when they originally aired and “streamed” the first last night from the PBS Web site — which was timed for the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I (“The Great War” was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II). In 1996 PBS had run an eight-hour series from the BBC called The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, which dealt comprehensively with the entire conflict, but this new one from American Experience — as that tag suggests — focused exclusively on the effect of World War I on the United States and in particular America’s political move from official neutrality (but an unmistakable “tilt” towards the Entente powers of Britain and France, and against Germany) to actually fighting in the war to its role in attempting to determine the peace. The “star” of the show, naturally, is President Woodrow Wilson, who had essentially come into the White House accidentally — he’d won a three-person race in 1912 after the Republican Party split into the progressive faction led by former President Theodore Roosevelt and the conservative faction led by incumbent William Howard Taft (and when Hillary Clinton’s partisans in the 2016 election were proclaiming her the “best prepared” Presidential candidate of all time, I noted the uncomfortable truth that that description could have just as well applied to Taft — who made such a hash of his Presidency that when he ran for re-election in 1912, he placed third) — and for the first 18 months of his term had focused largely on enacting the progressive economic agenda, including creating the U.S. income tax and the Federal Reserve. Then war broke out in Europe in 1914 for reasons that are still being argued — and about which most Americans were totally clueless at the time.

The show was produced by Mark Samels but used a different director for each episode — Stephen Ives for episode one, “American Neutrality Erodes”; Amanda Pollak for episode two, “The First Mass Conscripted Army”; and Rob Rapley for episode three, “A Nation Comes of Age.” The first show told the story from the start of the war in August 1914 to the U.S.’s official declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, and made the interesting comment that Wilson was the most religious person ever to occupy the White House. I think Jimmy Carter could have given him competition in that department, and indeed there were a number of similarities between Wilson and Carter: both were convinced that human rights and humanitarian concerns in general should be cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, and at least in their preachments, if not always in their actual practice, their attitudes and policies towards other nations were strongly influenced by idealistic concerns. (This led Henry Kissinger to call them the two worst Presidents in American history.) Wilson’s character, as depicted in this program, is a mass of bizarre contradictions; he was a progressive on economic issues; a thoroughgoing racist who put his stamp of approval on D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation not only as a President (“it is like history written in lightning”) but an historian (“It is all so terribly true”) and purged the U.S. civil service of the handful of African-Americans who had been hired under his immediate Republican predecessors McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft; and an idealist whose unbending sense of morality and insistence on American unity made him both the proponent and enforcer of some of the most draconian laws against political dissent (the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918) in U.S. history. (Displaying a typical bit of what I call “first-itis” — the tendency of biographers in any medium to argue that the person they’re biographing was the very first to do a particular thing even though there are ample historical precedents — the makers of this show argued that those laws were the most repressive in history; though in that regard they were preceded by the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by President John Adams and the Federalist Congress in 1798 and later by the Smith Act, the McCarran Act and other bits of repression of the so-called “McCarthy” period of anti-Left repression in the 1940’s and 1950’s.)

When World War I started the U.S. was remarkably split about it, not only because of our overall politics but specifically because the country was very much “a nation of immigrants” (in 1914 one-third of the U.S. population was either foreign-born or first-generation offspring of immigrant parents) and all the belligerent countries on both sides of the war had produced large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. The show argues that American “neutrality” in the first three years of World War I was largely a sham; in the modern parlance, the U.S. was definitely “tilting” to Britain and France for a number of interesting reasons. One was the heavy involvement of the richest and most powerful capitalist in America, J. Pierpont Morgan, who offered heavy credit to the British (he was a fierce Anglophile and definitely wanted Britain and the Entente to win, and the more money he invested in the British cause the more determined he was to see Britain win, even if it required the U.S. to enter the war on the British side, because he would have lost all his investment in Britain if they had lost — something like the similar stake the Rothschilds of Europe had had in the defeat of Napoleon a century earlier). Another was the influence of writers like war correspondent Richard Harding Davis and novelist Edith Wharton, both of whom observed the German advances through Belgium and France and wrote ardently pro-Entente articles and books which were best sellers and helped shape U.S. opinion in an anti-German direction (indeed, the filmmakers read an excerpt from one of Davis’s dispatches watching the German army move through supposedly neutral Belgium on its way to France, and his description of it as a “machine of destruction” reminds one of how a later generation of correspondents described the German occupiers in the Second World War and shows why many people during World War II didn’t make a distinction between Hitler and previous German leader but instead saw the Nazi regime as just a continuation of the Kaiser’s, both dominated by the Junkers and the Prussian military establishment who were bent on seeing Germany conquer first all other German-speaking countries, then all of Europe and finally the world).

The third was the British decision to cut all the transatlantic cables linking the U.S. to continental Europe — which meant the only cable U.S. war correspondents could use to send their dispatches back home was the one that started in Britain and was therefore controlled by British censors, who of course eagerly sent through dispatches favorable to Britain and its allies and held up or blocked completely ones that were favorable to Germany. There was a major propaganda counter-offensive among German-Americans, including a magazine called The Fatherland which attempted to portray the war from a German-friendly perspective, and there were also German espionage and sabotage efforts aimed at keeping the British from getting the supplies Morgan’s loans and other British funding sources were paying for — including a new weapon of war, the submarine, which proved brutally effective at sinking both cargo ships and passenger liners. The show discusses the sinking of the Lusitania and in particular the charge made at the time (and by later historians as well) that one torpedo from one German submarine would not have been sufficient to sink her in 20 minutes had it not struck below the waterline and set off the munitions stored in the ship’s hold for the British military. (In essence the passengers on the Lusitania were being used as cat’s-paws by the British company that owned her.) Indeed, after the Lusitania was sunk Wilson made a formal protest to the German government and got them to promise to call off the subs and be more careful about who and what they sank — especially in avoiding ships that were actually flying the U.S. flag — and it was Germany's abandonment of that policy and resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 that was the pretext for Wilson’s request that the U.S. Congress declare war on Germany. (This was in an era in which Presidents still followed their Constitutional obligation to ask Congressional permission to fight wars instead of just starting them on their own.)

The second episode of The Great War focused largely on the propaganda effort Wilson started to “sell” the war to the American people, for which he recruited a public-relations man named George Creel to set up something called the “Office of Public Information,” which was basically an American Ministry of Propaganda that sought to get out the pro-war, pro-Entente message through all U.S. media. Among the projects were hiring artist James Montgomery Flagg to do the famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster (he based it on a similar poster used by the British and used himself as the model for Uncle Sam) and organizing so-called “Four-Minute Men” to give supposedly impromptu, but actually carefully prepared and scripted, pro-war talks in movie theatres when the reels of the film were being changed (apparently World War I antedated the era in which theatres had two projectors so they could switch reels in mid-film without any noticeable break between them) — a program that got extended so the four-minute speeches appeared during just about every venue in which people gathered for mass entertainment. There are also brief accounts of how the movie studios cooperated by making films showing the brutal atrocities supposedly being committed routinely by the German armies — though the film didn’t mention this, Austrian-born Erich von Stroheim became a star during World War I portraying one dastardly Prussian officer after another and was even billed by his studio, Universal, as “The Man You Love to Hate” — and how the music publishers of Tin Pan Alley abruptly shifted their output from pacifist songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (the number one song in the U.S. in 1915, which was subtitled “A Mother’s Prayer for Peace”) to jingoistic pro-war fare like the most famous propaganda song of the war years, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” Wilson also pushed through the Espionage and Sedition Acts through Congress and used them aggressively both during and after the war to punish political dissenters, including Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs (who was imprisoned in 1918 for having made an anti-war speech and was not let out until December 1921, when Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, pardoned him) and suffragette Alice Paul — who led a radical group that put off more moderate women’s suffrage advocates (much the way ACT UP, at least in its early days, pissed off the AIDS establishment) — when Paul and the protesters she had recruited to put up a daily picket outside the White House saying that Wilson was being a hypocrite by claiming he was fighting for the right of European people to determine their own destiny democratically while denying that right to American women, they were arrested, they went on a hunger strike and were force-fed much like the more recent detainees at Guantánamo.

One particularly grim story told in the series concerns a group of Hutterites in South Dakota who were arrested for refusing to register for the draft or wear uniforms on the ground that it was against their religion; they were literally tortured to death in a U.S. prison and their leader, Josef Hofer, was not only killed but after he died was dressed in the uniform he had given his life not to be forced to wear. Another aspect of the war discussed in this show was just how hard it was to pull together the U.S. Army into a fighting force, including passing a controversial conscription law (it was during World War I that “Selective Service” was coined as a euphemism for “draft”) and training people who had no combat experience and often didn’t speak the same language: one interesting statistic cited in the show was that at the start of the U.S. involvement in World War I its soldiers spoke 42 different languages, not counting English. Indeed, the difficulty of training inexperienced conscripts and welding them into an effective fighting force was one reason the U.S. commander, John J. Pershing (one of the most overrated generals in military history, by the way — the show mentioned that in 1914 he’d led an expeditionary force into Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution; it did not mention that Villa’s troops kicked Pershing’s ass), insisted that the U.S. troops would fight under American commanders exclusively and would be merely “associated” with, not “allies” of, the British and French armies. If The Great War has a weakness, it’s that little of it is actually about the war: the major battles on the Western Front — the Marne, Verdun, the Somme — are depicted only in light of how they were reported in the U.S. and how the handful of U.S. volunteers who fought in them fared (a number of Francophile Americans, mostly from upper-class backgrounds, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion — officially La Légion Étrangere, literally “The Legion of Strangers” — as early as 1914 because they wanted to get into the war before their country did officially) — and the later battles in Belleau Wood and the Meuse-Argonne Forest are covered in more detail only because Americans were actually fighting in them after April 1917.

Another interesting aspect of the story The Great War covers quite well is the involvement of African-Americans in the struggle and the hope of a lot of Black community leaders that the war would give them a chance to show they were fully deserving of racial, social and political equality — and the grim dashing of those hopes when they got back from the war and found that, if anything, whites in both the South and North were more determined to drive them back into second-class citizenship than they had been before. (Remember that Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation — the film Wilson so admired — had said that the two things Black Americans must never be given were the right to vote and the right to bear arms.) One of the grimmer stories is of Black servicemember Leroy Johnson from Arkansas, who survived some of the most brutal fighting of the war — only to be lynched, along with his two brothers (also veterans), as part of the racial violence in his home state in 1919. The film also tells the story of the 15th Division, a group of African-Americans organized by community leaders in Harlem, who got their division accepted into the Army only after they pledged to fund it themselves (including buying all its arms and supplies) and they agreed to allow white officers to command it. It became a national sensation and was nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and probably the most famous person associated with it was the Black bandleader James Reese Europe. Europe had more successfully “crossed over” to a white audience than any previous Black entertainer — and he had done it on his own terms, not enacting the ridiculous stereotypes most Black performers fell into. His band was the first Black orchestra to give a concert in Carnegie Hall and he was hired by the famous white dance couple, Vernon and Irene Castle, to accompany them. A sample of Europe’s music can be heard at the 1914 recording “Castle House Rag,” a piece Europe wrote to promote the Castles and their nightclub, which shows that Europe led a band whose core was the brass-reeds-rhythm split that later became the basis for the jazz-flavored dance music of the 1920’s and the swing bands of the 1930’s, but which also carried an ensemble of banjo players and an ensemble of drummers. (Alas, the limitations of 1914 recording make it difficult to hear them as more than just an undifferentiated din in the background.) Alas, Europe survived the war only to die in 1919, murdered by one of his drummers who thought Europe was after his wife.

Of course, it’s impossible to watch a show like The Great War without making the inevitable parallels between the history it depicts and things that have happened since — including the evaporation of Wilson’s idealistic hopes for peace, first in the negotiations at Versailles (in which he got “taken” by the British and French leaders, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and had to agree to a far more vindictive peace, especially in the punishing reparations imposed on Germany, than he had had in mind), then in his negotiations with the U.S. Senate, which in the 1918 election had fallen to the Republicans — and, like Barack Obama 96 years later, Wilson found the Republican Senate bound and determined to block everything he tried to do (and, again like Obama, he was succeeded in office by a largely unqualified Republican who sought to undo all that idealistic nonsense and, as Harding put it, “return to normalcy” — a Harding malapropism: he really meant the word “normality,” but “normalcy” stuck and actually entered the language). World War I also anticipates more recent conflicts in the way it was “sold” to the American people — indeed, one particularly fascinating aspect is the way babies have been used to sell people on wars, from the atrocity propaganda in 1914 put out by the British that the German soldiers liked to throw babies in the air and impale them on their bayonets, to the propaganda lies put out in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers invading Kuwait were stealing incubators from hospitals and throwing the babies in them on the floor; to President Trump’s (I had to mention him sometime!) assertion that “babies, beautiful babies” were being killed in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s gas attacks.

Of course, gas warfare itself was also a World War I invention — indeed, one of the ironies of World War I was that in many ways it was an old-fashioned struggle even though it introduced a lot of new technologies to war (like the submarine, the airplane and the tank) — and among its victims was a young Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler, who was in a field hospital recovering from a gas attack when he received word that Germany had surrendered and the war was over. Hitler was so affected by this experience that, even though he had no problem using poison gas for the mass extermination of millions in the Holocaust, he drew back from allowing its use on open battlefields — so Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer was actually right, albeit in a very limited and nit-picky historical sense, when he said that Assad had done something with gas even Hitler had refused to do. There are certain parts of the story The Great War pays short shrift to — even given its focus exclusively on the U.S. role in the war, I would have liked to see more on Wilson’s bitter struggle with the U.S. Congress post-war and how it almost literally incapacitated him (in 1919 he suffered a stroke while touring the country in support of the Versailles Treaty and U.S. membership in the League of Nations) — but it’s still a compelling story, beautifully told in a way that allows viewers to make the contemporary parallels for themselves instead of having them spelled out in sledgehammer fashion.