American Experience: The Great War on PBS
“This was 9/11 a century before it happened.” – Scott Berg
By: Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/11/17 – On Monday night PBS unveiled it’s latest installment of American Experience- The Great War, a compelling six-hour documentary about World War I commemorating its centennial anniversary.
The series is spread out in two-hour episodes over three nights (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). Narrated by Oliver Platt, it’s a packed, fact-driven history lesson and cautionary tale. Yes, it’s a major commitment of time for the casual TV viewer, however it is essential viewing that draws haunting parallels to today’s socio-political landscape.
The Civil War kick started America’s fixation with armaments and the tools of war; by extension – World War 1 was the gateway to America’s emergence as numero uno cop on the block. Our country’s role as “policeman of the world” started in 1917 when (then President) Woodrow Wilson declared the mulit-national conflagration – the “war to end all wars” and assured us America’s involvement would, “make the world safe for democracy”.
With America’s involvement came financial austerity, repression of free speech, anti-immigrant rhetoric and The Selective Service. The anti-war protests co-mingled with the women’s movement and ironically expedited the process that finally gave way to the 19th Amendment and a woman’s right to vote. Any of this sound familiar?
If you think that the concept of a racist President began with Trump, think again. President Wilson was an enigma. He was an old school racist/segregationist who was simultaneously a pacifist/isolationist. Wilson won a second term specifically on his promise to keep the U.S. out of the war. A year later we were all in, and (despite the sloganeering) American democracy was hardly safe from a wartime groupthink that demanded blind loyalty and sacrifice without dissent.
In an age before a critical mass media, American democracy really didn’t acquit itself well. Protesters were routinely jailed and imprisoned.
Wartime austerity manifested itself in food rationing; and those yapping about said austerity would risk being ratted out by war-fevered neighbors or co-workers. America’s military rating zoomed from the middle of the pack to first with a bullet (sic) in the wake of a buildup that birthed the “military industrial complex”; a monolith that would rule our politics and economy to the present day.
The producers give this vital installment of “The American Experience” the usual sheen of excellence and accuracy we expect from PBS. Historical perspective and research based testimony come from the usual array of academics, historians and media observers. The voluminous trove of early film footage surprises and fascinates. Moreover, previously unpublished war diaries, memoirs and letters add depth and poignancy that would do Ken Burns proud.
War veterans and observers have bequeathed World War II the title of “The Big One” due to its scale of human suffering and the introduction of The Nuclear Nightmare into our collective consciousness. WW I has been mostly viewed as the snot nosed little brother of global conflicts; overshadowed by the Shakespearian tragedy of the Civil War and the Biblical dimensions of Hitler and the Holocaust.
The Great War not only challenges this notion, it revises and corrects historical perspective. World War I was the prequel that led directly to World War II. Some theorize it was merely a continuation of the same war. It was also the portal through which American neutrality entered and never returned. Our world was forever altered and Woodrow Wilson arguably became the most consequential President in our nations history; parallels to today’s situation are spooky and impossible to ignore after viewing The Great War. Viewing the entire six hours of American Experience: The Great War is not only well worth your time, it’s your civic duty as well.
TheHollywoodTimes.net, the TCA and others recently had the opportunity to speak with Scott Berg, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and biographer of Woodrow Wilson; Adriane Lentz Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of “Freedom Struggles: African-Americans and World War I”; Edward Gutierrez, a military historian and author of “Doughboys on the Great War: How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Service”; and Stephen Ives.
Stephen Ives talked about the crucial first episode that described the pre-war climate in America running up to our entrance into the war, STEPHEN IVES: “You know, we thought long and hard about that, and what convinced us that there was something essential and interesting going on was the fact that while the nation wasn’t going to war, Americans were. Nurses were flooding into France. Ambulance drivers were heading over there. Men were volunteering for the French Foreign Legion. Young American aviators, many of them well-heeled, from the nation’s elite colleges, were flying volunteer sorties for a thing called the “Lafayette Escadrille,” which was the thing that sort of created that dashing image of the aviator that we know from World War I.
And we also felt like the tension and struggle that the neutrality period represented, in particular the pressure and really tortured process Woodrow Wilson went through to try to decide whether or not this was America’s fight was an essential part of the story. And if we cut that off, it just felt like it was going to be kind of less complete portrait of something that really is such a turbulent and incredibly important part of the country that we became through the Great War.”
Scott Berg spoke about the Jeckel and Hyde personality of President Woodrow Wilson during the era, A. SCOTT BERG: “Woodrow Wilson was a very mixed bag. I don’t think he was a vile human being, however. I don’t think anybody could assert that properly or honestly. This is the most educated president we’ve ever had. He’s the most religious president we’ve ever had.
He was the most idealistic president we ever had. He fought like hell to keep us out of this war for three years, and there were all sorts of pressures and ultimately this philosophical belief of his, this fundamental belief, that brought us into the war. But vile, I think, is the wrong characterization. He was a man of intense integrity. A lot of people disagreed with him a century ago.
A lot of people disagree with him today. But I’ve never heard anybody challenge his integrity and with that his very good intentions. So I don’t think the vile characterization is correct, but make no mistake, he changed and created the world we live in to this very day.”
Berg expanded on the subject of Woodrow Wilson,
“He was a Southerner. He grew up before and during the Civil War and during reconstruction. So all of his ideas were formed during that period. That said, his door was always open to African-Americans. And it was really interesting to see some of the great African-American minds. James Weldon Johnson, who, for my money, is the best writer of the period from the African-American community or from the white community for that matter. But here was a man who, after visits with Wilson, would say, “You know, I really misunderstood who Woodrow Wilson is. I don’t necessarily trust him, but he is not who I thought he was.”
Steven Ives talked about America’s neutrality in the early years of the war and how that changed,
STEPHEN IVES: “What’s so fascinating about World War I is that there’s a really strong desire to remain neutral on the part of the country, and it is picked up by Wilson.
He articulates it with his usual, extraordinary eloquence, and there’s this absolute struggle to keep separate from what anyone can see which is this catastrophic experience going on in Europe, and yet there are these threats. There’s these feelings of German espionage and sabotage which are treated kind of historically in the press. The Lusitania had sunk, and you can begin to feel these steps marching that way. And Wilson wins reelection in 1916, campaigning on the slogan he kept us out of war.
And then, only a few months later, he takes America into war, and within weeks, the country is full throatedly behind the war effort with an intense surge of patriotism. So it’s a very complicated thing to follow, and yet what’s fascinating is the way in which Wilson leads the country to the decision and to the course, the path of action that he felt was essential. And in many ways, he felt like we needed to go to war because, if we didn’t have a decisive role in the war, we were not going to be able to dictate the terms of the peace, and that is he had a vision for what the post war world should look like, and he felt that it was worth American blood to try to achieve that.”
Edward Gutierrez explained how the harsh surrender terms imposed on Germany may have contributed to their aggression in World War II, EDWARD A. GUTIERREZ: “I think that Niccolo Machiavelli argues that you can do two things when you defeat an enemy. You can either obliterate them like the Romans did to the Carthaginians, or you can make them your friend because, if you do the middle ground, which is what happens in the Treaty of Versailles, they are going to come back, and they are going to be very angry. And I think that’s truly what happens in 1919.
One important point to remember, too, is that the allies do not lift the blockade of the Germans until Germany signs the peace treaty. So from the armistice, 11 November 1918, all the way to June, women and children in Germany are still starving until the Germans put pen to paper and sign the Treaty of Versailles.”