In his debut, Washington Post assistant foreign editor Englund takes a close look at a month “that wrenched America toward a new course."
This was the month immediately before Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to take America into World War I. Wilson, the book's central figure, was initially determined to keep America neutral but was also relentlessly drawn to the conclusion that escalating German attacks on American shipping required the nation to join the hostilities. Early in the month, the first Russian revolution broke out and the hapless Czar Nicholas II abdicated, thus eliminating the embarrassing prospect of Americans fighting for democracy alongside an absolute despotism. Supporting players in the drama include Theodore Roosevelt, fulminating for a war he would not be permitted to join; Jeannette Rankin, the first American congresswoman, who wanted to focus on obtaining suffrage for women but first had to decide how to vote on going to war; H.L. Mencken, the Germanophile journalist who spent March in Cuba covering a farcical failed revolution; and James Reese Europe, a pioneering jazz and military band leader. Englund is an accomplished storyteller, and he well captures the spirit of the time: in Russia, where the exhilaration and confusion as the nation stumbled toward a humiliating separate peace with Germany and a second revolution; in America, full of anxiety and anticipation as the country slid reluctantly into war. The author also ably portrays the unfortunate misperceptions about emerging Russian democracy. Englund’s self-imposed time frame proves constraining, however. The events of March were, of course, the culmination of earlier developments that require and receive full explanation, particularly the resumption by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare and the now-famous Zimmermann telegram. The coverage of Rankin's congressional debut effectively displays the distressing split that the prospect of war caused in the ranks of the suffragists, but the adventures of Mencken and James Europe seem of only tangential relevance.
An entertaining narrative of events that have received more thorough treatment elsewhere.