“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken:” American Participants’ Understanding of their Involvement in World War I

  • Mark Meigs
Part of the Studies in Military and Strategic History book series (SMSH)

Abstract

The different stages of neutrality, diplomatic mediation and of military preparedness that led the United States eventually into World War I are complicated but possible to reconstruct. Following the steps that lead individual people to rationalize their own participation in the war is more difficult. Historiography has neglected ideologies that motivated individual Americans during World War I for several reasons. First, the tortuous path the United States took towards war has seemed to provide no clear reason for individual Americans to have fought. Second, during World War I, Americans were saturated with ideological messages, provided by President Woodrow Wilson himself, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), and many other agencies. The means used by the CPI, through which all official war information was passed to the public, have since been regarded with suspicion and many of the messages themselves have proved hollow. Thus, to reconstruct the illusions of the war years looks like needless praise for propaganda. And third, the conscious ideological motivation for American soldiers has seemed a “non-subject,” since the publication of studies made of World War II soldiers, notably the four volumes of The American Soldier and the related work of Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, first published in 1947.1

Keywords

Europe Shipping Mold American Ideal Assimilation 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    S. L. A. Marshall, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (Washington, D.C.: The Infantry Journal, 1947); Samuel A. Stouffer et al., The American Soldier (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1949).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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  3. 3.
    Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965) 450–1. Quoted in Phyllis Keller, States of Belonging: German-American Intellectuals and the First World War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 69.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    George L. Bell, “Americanization as a Necessity to National Defense,” Address at the State Convention of C. F. W. C., Pasadena, California. Pamphlet dated as a gift to the University of California, May 2, 1918. War Pamphlet Collection, Vol. 27, University of California at Berkeley.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Editorial, Crisis, June 16, 1918, 60. Grace B. House, Soldiers of Freedom, (n.p., n.d.) 8. Quoted in Arthur E. Barbeau and Henri Florette, The Unknown Soldiers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974) 7.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    John Niles, Singing Soldiers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927) 50 and 54. Niles had set out to record the songs of the war. Finding that white soldiers took their music from Tin Pan Alley, he concentrated on the songs of black soldiers. The first of these he heard while gangs of African- American soldiers loaded and unloaded trucks. Soldiers washing pots and pans in a canteen sang the second.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Michael Rogin, “The Sword Became a Flashing Vision”: D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” in Representations 9 (Winter, 1985).Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Larry Wayne Ward, The Motion Picture Goes to War, The US Government Film Effort During World War I (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1981) 36.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) Chapter 9, “Racism and Imperialism,” 170–200.Google Scholar
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  11. 20.
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  12. 21.
    Alan Seeger, The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917) 186.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Alan Seeger, in an article for The New Republic, quoted in Irving Werstein, Sound no Trumpet: The Life and Death of Alan Seeger (New York: Crowell, 1967) 100.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    “Alan Seeger, Poet Killed in France — The Poet of the Foreign Legion,” Scribner’s Magazine, LXI, 1 (January, 1917) 123–5.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Alan Seeger, “A Message to America,” The Poems of Alan Seeger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916) 162–5. The stirring poems were rushed into print shortly after Seeger’s death during the Battle of the Somme, July, 1916.Google Scholar
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    The American Red Cross Magazine, XII, 8, September, 1917.Google Scholar
  17. 31.
    The Stars and Stripes, Undated reproduction [most likely 1919], R. Norris Williams Collection, University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    Theodore Roosevelt, “The Great Adventure, Present-Day Studies in American Nationalism,” included in The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, Memorial Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1923–26), XXI, 263. “The Great Adventure” was written during World War I.Google Scholar
  19. 36.
    Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), see Chapter V, “Oh What a Literary War,” and Chapter VI, “Theater of War,” for his discussions of the strategies soldiers took to rectify the conflict between civilian reality and war reality through fiction or theater.Google Scholar
  20. 37.
    Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) vol. 1, Chapter 1, “Men and Women,” 3–228.Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    See Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in New York City, 1880–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986) as well as Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (New York, 1932).Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    The speech of this unnamed war worker is quoted by Daniel Halévy, Avec les boys américains (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1918) 17–19.Google Scholar
  23. 40.
    In English in The Stars and Stripes, Vol. I, no. 22, July 12, 1918, 1. In French, Le Figaro, 4 Juillet 1918, 2.Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    The Stars and Stripes, Vol. I, no. 22, July 5, 1918, 4.Google Scholar
  25. 42.
    The Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1, no. 23, July 12, 1918, 1.Google Scholar
  26. 43.
    “But that 4th in Paris,” The Stars and Stripes, Vol 1, no. 23, July 12, 1918, 4.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Mark Meigs 1997

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  • Mark Meigs

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