Episode 30: America and World War I Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. history and today we’re finally going to make the military history buffs happy.
That’s right, today we’re going to talk about how the United States with its superior
technology, innovative tactics and remarkable generalship turned the tide of World War I.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Finally. I’ve been waiting for months to learn about tanks and
airplanes and Ernest Hemingway. Well that’s a shame, Me from the Past, because
I was kidding about this being an episode full of military details. But I do promise
that we will mention Ernest Hemingway. And in a few weeks I will tell you about how he
liberated the martinis of Paris. intro
Americans were only involved in the Great War for 19 months and, compared with the other
belligerents, we didn’t do much fighting. Still, the war had profound effects on America
at home, on its place in the world and it also resulted in an amazing number of war
memorials right here in Indianapolis. So, The Great War, which lasted from 1914
until 1918, and featured a lot of men with hats and rifles, cost the lives of an estimated
10 million soldiers. Also the whole thing was kind of horrible
and pointless, unless you love art and literature about how horrible and pointless World War
I was in which case, it was a real bonanza. So, when the war broke out, America remained
neutral, because we were a little bit isolationist owing to the fact that we were led, of course,
by President Wilson. But many Americans sided with the British
because by 1914 we’d pretty much forgotten about all the bad parts of British rule, like
all that tea and monarchy. Plus, they’re so easy to talk to with their English.
But there were a significant number of Progressives who worried that involvement in the war would
get in the way of social reforms at home. In fact, Wilson courted these groups in the
1916 presidential campaign running on the slogan “He kept us out of War.” And will
continue to keep us out of war until we reelect him and then he gets us into war.
But, for that slogan to make sense, there had to have been some way in which war was
avoided, which brings me to one of the classic errors made by American history students.
What? I haven’t even said anything yet. But you were about to, Me From the Past, because
if I had asked you what event led the U.S. to enter World War I, you would have surely
told me that it was the sinking of the cruise ship Lusitania by German submarines.
124 American passengers died when the ship, which had been carrying arms and also guns,
was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Even though Secretary of State William Jennings
Bryan had warned Americans not to travel on British, French, or German ships, Wilson refused
to ban such travel because, you know: freedom. Bryan promptly resigned.
So how do I know it wasn’t the immediate cause of our involvement in the war? Because
the United States declared war on Germany and the Central powers on April 2, 1917, almost
two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. So why did the United States declare war for
only the fourth time in its history? Was it the Germans’ decision to resume unrestricted
submarine warfare in early 1917? Was it the interception and publication of the Zimmerman
Telegram in which the German Foreign Secretary promised to help Mexico get back California
if they joined Germany in a war against the U.S?
Or was it the fall of the Tsarist regime in Russia, which made Wilson’s claims that
he wanted to fight to make the world safe for democracy a bit more plausible?
Yes, yes, and yes. Also there was our inclination to help Britain, to whom we had loaned a $2
billion. That’s the thing about wars. They never start for easy, simple reasons like
Lusitania sinkings. Stupid truth, always resisting simplicity.
Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document? The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the mystery document. I’m either right or I get shocked
I. [or possibly “one”] Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there
shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always
frankly and in the public view. II. [I’m starting to think these are Roman
numerals] Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike
in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international
action for the enforcement of international covenants
III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of
an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating
themselves for it’s maintenance. [And] XIV. [I’m going to guess we skipped
some.] A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the
purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity
of great and small states alike. Stan, thank you for throwing me a softball.
That’s my favorite kind of ball. Other than you, Wilson.
With its mention of self-determination, freedom of the seas, open diplomacy, and liberal use
of Roman numerals, I know it is Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Our second consecutive Woodrow
Wilson week and my second consecutive non-shock. Given all of his quasi-imperialism, there’s
something a little bit ideologically inconsistent about Wilson, but his Fourteen Points are
pretty admirable as a statement of purpose. Most of them deal specifically with colonial
possessions, and were pretty much ignored, but I suppose if we have learned anything,
it’s that in American history, it’s the thought that counts.
[Libertage] America’s primary contribution to the Entente
powers winning the war was economic as we sent all sorts of arms and money “over there.”
Troops didn’t arrive until the spring of 1918 and eventually over 1 million American
doughboys served under General John J. Pershing. Not all of these people saw combat. They were
much more likely to die of flu than bullet wounds, but their sheer numbers were enough
to force the defeat of the exhausted Germans. And now, as promised, I will mention Ernest
Hemingway. He served as an ambulance driver, which gave him a close up view of death and
misery and led to his membership in the so called Lost Generation of writers who lived
in Paris in the 1920s and tried to make sense of everything.
Turns out, it’s pretty hard to make sense of and you’re just going to end up with
a lot of six-toed cats and then eventually suicide.
Okay, so I said earlier than a lot of American Progressives were anti-war, but certainly
not all of them. Like, according to Randolph Bourne, “War is the health of the state.”
And for progressives like him, “the war offered the possibility of reforming American
society along scientific lines, instilling a sense of national unity and self-sacrifice,
and expanding social justice.” Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble.
World War I made the national government much more powerful than it had ever been. Like,
in May of 1917, Congress passed the selective service act, which required 24 million men
to register for the draft and eventually increased the size of the army from 120,000 to 5 million.
The government also commandeered control of much of the economy to get the country ready
to fight, creating new agencies to regulate industry, transportation, labor relations,
and agriculture. The War Industries Board took charge of all
elements of wartime production setting quotas and prices and establishing standardized specification
for almost everything, even down to the color of shoes. The Railroad Administration administered
transportation, and the Fuel Agency rationed coal and oil.
This regulation sometimes brought about some of the progressives’ goals. Like, the War
Labor Board, for instance, pushed for a minimum wage, eight hour days and the rights of workers
to form unions. Wages rose substantially in the era, working
conditions improved and union membership skyrocketed. But then so did taxes, and the wealthiest
Americans ended up on the hook for 60% of their income.
Also, in World War I as never before, the government used its power to shape public
opinion. In 1917 the Wilson administration created the Committee on Public Information,
which only sounds like it’s from an Orwell novel.
Headed by George Creel, the CPI’s team created a wave of propaganda to get Americans to support
the war, printing pamphlets, making posters and advertising in swanky motion pictures.
The best known strategies were the speeches of 75,000 four minute men, who in that amount
of time delivered messages of support for the war in theaters, schools, and other public
venues. The key concepts in the CPI propaganda effort
were democracy and freedom. “Creel believed that the war would accelerate movement towards
solving the “age old problems of poverty, inequality, oppression, and unhappiness,”
because, obviously, war is the most effective antidepressant.
Thanks, Thoughtbubble. So the aforementioned Randolph Bourne might have had good things
so say about war, but he was also correct when he suggested that the war would encourage
and empower the “least democratic forces in American life.”
World War I may have been a war to make the world safe for democracy but according to
one historian “the war inaugurated the most intense repression of civil liberties the
nation has ever known.” War suppressing civil liberties, eh? I’m
glad those days have passed. Speaking of the repression of civil liberties,
the NSA is about to start watching this video because I’m about to use the word “espionage.”
The Espionage act of 1917 prohibited spying, interfering with the draft and “false statements”
that might impede military success. Even more troubling was the Sedition Act passed
in 1918, which criminalized statements that were intended to cast “contempt, scorn or
disrepute” on our form of government or that advocated interference with the war effort.
So basically these laws made it a crime to criticize either the war or the government.
In fact, Eugene Debs, the Socialist who ran for president in 1912, was one of those convicted
for giving an anti-war speech. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and he served three
of them, but he ran for president from prison and got 900,000 votes.
Fortunately, thanks to checks and balances, you can turn to the courts. Unfortunately,
they weren’t very helpful. Like in Schenck v. the U.S., the Supreme Court
upheld the conviction of a guy named Schenck for encouraging people to avoid the draft
and ruled that the government can punish critical speech when it presents a “clear and present
danger,” to the state and its citizens. This was when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
introduced the famous exception to free speech, that it is not okay to “shout fire in a
crowded theater.” Nor apparently is it okay to shout, “We
shouldn’t be in this war, I don’t think. Just my opinion.”
But, some went even further. The 250,000 strong American Protective League helped the Justice
Department identify radicals by harassing people in what were called “slacker raids.”
Good thing those stopped before you got to high school, right Me from the Past? Slacker.
In Bisbee, Arizona vigilantes went so far to put striking copper miners in boxcars,
shipped them out to the middle of the desert and left them there.
The war also raised the question of what it meant to be a ‘real American.’ Like, public
schools “Americanized” immigrants and sought to “implant in their children, so
far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, law and order, and popular
government.” Many cities sponsored Americanization pageants,
especially around the Fourth of July, which the CPI in 1918 re-christened “Loyalty Day”.
Hamburgers, a German word, became liberty sandwiches.
World War I certainly didn’t create anti-immigrant feeling in the United States, but it was used
to justify it. Like, IQ tests, introduced to screen army
applicants, were soon used to argue that certain immigrant groups were inferior to white protestants
and could never be fully assimilated into the United States.
Now, of course, those tests were tremendously biased, but no matter.
But, to return to the questions of dissent and free speech, the suppression continued
after the war with the 1919 Palmer Raids, for instance, named after Attorney General
A. Mitchell Palmer and headed up by a young J. Edgar Hoover.
To be fair, someone did try to blow up Palmer. So there was some dissent related to the suppression
of dissent. Also, more than 4 million workers engaged
in strikes in the United States in 1919 but that didn’t legally justify the arrest of
more than 5,000 suspected radicals and labor organizers.
Most of them were arrested without warrants and held without charge, sometimes for months.
And it’s difficult to imagine that all of this would have happened without the heightened
sense of patriotism that always accompanies war.
However, there were a handful of good things to come out of the Great War, and not just
the stylings of Irving Berlin. Like, students are often taught that the war led directly
to the passage of the 19th amendment, although a number of states had actually granted the
franchise to women before the war. In Montana, for instance, women didn’t just
vote, they held office. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin voted against the declaration of war
in 1917, and was the only member of the House to vote against the declaration of war against
Japan in 1941. New opportunities in wartime industry also
provided incentives for African Americans to move north, thus beginning the so-called
great migration and the growth of black populations in northern cities like Chicago and New York.
The biggest gain was in Detroit where between 1910 and 1920 the black population rose from
5,741 to 40,838, a 611% increase. So it’s true that World War I provided some
new opportunities for African Americans and women, but if World War I was supposed to
be an opportunity for America to impose its progressive ideas on the rest of the world,
it failed. The Versailles peace conference where Wilson
tried to implement his 14 Points raised hope for a new diplomatic order. But, the results
of the treaty made the 14 points look hypocritical. I mean, especially when Britain and France
took control of Germany’s former colonies and carved up the Arabian provinces of the
Ottoman Empire into new spheres of influence. Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations was
realized, but the U.S. never joined it largely because Congress was nervous about giving
up its sovereign power to declare war. And disappointment over the outcome of World War
I led the U.S. to, for the most part, retreat into isolationism until World War II.
And therein lies the ultimate failure of World War I. It’s not called “The World War,”
it’s called “World War I,” because then we had to go and have a freaking other one.
We’ll talk about that in a few weeks, but next week we get to talk about suffrage. Yes!
We finally did something right. I’ll see you then.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
Every week, there’s a new caption for the Libertage. If you’d like to suggest one,
you can do so in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will
be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we
say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome. Stan, can you do some movie magic to get me
out of here? Perfect.