On PBS, a docuseries with a heavy focus on the war’s impact on economic life, race relations and more.
American troops cheering in Russia at the end of the warPHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/PBS
This three-part “American Experience” series on World War I is, for the most part, enormously absorbing—no small trick considering the heavy weight of the sociopolitical analysis delivered by an exceedingly talkative supply of commentators. No surprise that, its title notwithstanding: The essential focus of this enterprise seems to be life on the American home front, rather than the war. Or so it feels, given the enormous range of its pronouncements on American economic life, race relations, the role of women and of workers. that fills so much of this six-hour documentary.
That aside, the depiction of the period prior to America’s entry into the war is wonderfully rich in detail, often of a kind that expands from a minor curiosity to a large theme. Such is the case with the antiwar song—we hear it sung in a richly imploring tenor—“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” It became a huge seller, which says everything about the growing strength of the antiwar, anti-conscription passions of Americans of this time, determined that their country stay out of the war raging in Europe.
There were, on the other hand, Americans like Edith Wharton, who longed for American intervention on the side of the Allies. She traveled through Europe to follow the German invasion and what she described as “the huge tiger scratches that the German beast flung over the land.” What would it mean, she asked, “if England and France go under?” Exactly the question like-minded Americans would be asking again two decades later.
An American soldier wraps another soldier's head wound at Varennes-en-Argonne, France (September 1918)PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES/PBS
The film’s exploration of American society prior to the war brings plenty of lore, most of it familiar, about the role of women as activists for peace; one commentator theorizes that it was easier for women to advocate against war and the draft than it was for men, fearful of being stigmatized as cowards. There’s considerable data, along with pictures, about subjects far less familiar—among them the role of German-Americans, the largest ethnic group in the country, some of whose members organized to show solidarity with Germany and to oppose what they deemed unfair treatment of Germany in the press.
Of the three episodes, none is stronger than the last in its picture of the war’s end, the fate of the American president and his dreams of world peace, and of the America that had emerged from it all.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.