A fresh look at America’s reluctance to enter World War I as a mass consensus rather than any single faulty decision by President Woodrow Wilson.
Neiberg (War Studies/United States Army War Coll.; Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, 2015, etc.) effectively shows how America went from embracing neutrality when World War I ignited in August 1914 (as represented by the popular song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”) to accepting its new world role by early 1917 (epitomized by George M. Cohan’s “Over There”). The author admirably sticks to the contemporary record via periodicals, diaries, and speeches to allow the voices of the agents to emerge—politicians, captains of business, immigrants of the warring nations, and regular folk. Americans were outraged by the brutality of the war in Europe, mystified and disgusted by the bellicosity of Germany (when so many immigrants to America were German, and German kultur was valued highly), and increasingly cognizant of the need to accept moral responsibility to help the war’s victims. “Wilson had misread the mood of his country regarding the war,” writes the author, because many people did question the rightness of America’s isolationism as imperiling their future. While a pro-Allied bias was evident from the start of the war (by more educated, old-stock Protestant families), many did not sympathize—e.g., Irish-Americans, who denounced the violent British reprisals against the Easter Rising as being similar to German methods; and African-Americans, who were keenly aware of Belgium’s atrocities against the Congolese in Africa. Economic interest, however, ruled the day; the sinking of the Lusitania and, later, the Zimmermann telegram shook public opinion violently, though it was Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare that helped create the inevitable casus belli.
A valiant attempt to dispel “America’s collective amnesia over the First World War.”