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Friday, June 30, 2017

June 30, 2017: The US and World War I: The Palmer Raids



[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On the governmental overreach that extended the worst of war into its aftermath.

As I detailed in Monday’s post, few presidents, or national leaders of any kind, have had as vexed a relationship to war as did Woodrow Wilson. With World War I raging across Western Europe, Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war”; the phrase was in its moment entirely accurate and yet in hindsight cannot help but be reflected in a funhouse mirror by the fact that Wilson would lead the US into that war only two months after his second inauguration. And yet, having reversed course so dramatically (and for complex and perhaps entirely justifiable reasons, as I wrote Monday), Wilson would end his presidency and political career fighting ceaselessly for the creation of the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization that could make real his pledge that World War I would be “the war to end all wars.” That the League failed, and that another world war would commence not two decades later, provides yet another tragically (and possibly unfairly) distorted reflection of Wilson’s aims and efforts.

Given all of those contradictory or at least conflicting elements of Wilson’s wartime foreign policy, it might become slightly easier to wrap our heads around a particular—and particularly contradictory—member of Wilson’s administration: A. Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936). Palmer was a Quaker who in 1912 turned down a chance to serve as Wilson’s Secretary of War, arguing that to be “a Quaker war secretary” would be to become “a living illustration of a horrible incongruity.” Yet when the US entered the war, Palmer took on, and performed with a diligence that is both impressive and disturbing, two of the most warlike roles within Wilson’s second administration: first from 1917 to 1919 as the Alien Property Custodian, an agency responsible for seizing and reallocating property belong to domestic “enemies”; and then, most famously and controversially, from 1919 to 1921 as Attorney General, a role in which Palmer (under the auspices of the Sedition Act) engaged in an increasingly overt and extraordinary war against “radicals,” conducting the so-called Palmer Raids on numerous political organizations and rounding up thousands of members for arrest and possible deportation (many of whom were not deported only due to the efforts of an under-secretary of labor, Louis Freeland Post, who opposed the raids).

World War I ended with the Armistice in November 1919, but the Palmer Raids continued well beyond that month, exemplifying just how fully Palmer carried over these wartime activities into other domestic efforts as Attorney General. These included extremely hostile responses to labor protests and strikes and a series of doomsday warnings about radical uprisings (to overthrow the federal government) on May Day (May 1st) of 1920 (warnings that would help commence the decade’s hysterical and repressive Red Scare). Palmer would also run for the Democratic nomination for President in that year, and his campaign rhetoric was as extreme as his actions had become: he noted in one speech that “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.” Many historians, including Christopher Capozzola in his excellent Uncle Sam Wants You: World War One and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (2008), have traced the rise of our modern military-industrial, surveillance, Patriot Act-creating state to developments around World War I, and in that view there can be few Americans more responsible for helping originate those trends than Palmer.

June Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

June 29, 2017: The US and World War I: Representing the War



[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On lessons from two compelling American cultural representations of the Great War.
One of the war novels most frequently taught in American high school classrooms emerged from World War I, but not from the American or even the Allied experience of it: German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). I read Remarque’s novel in a high school English class in Virginia in the early 1990s, and I know that many of my Fitchburg State undergraduates have read it in Massachusetts high school classrooms in the 2010s, to cite at least two specific examples of the book’s enduring presence in those settings. Remarque’s novel is both an immersive, realistic, psychologically nuanced depiction of the war and its effects and a subtle but stirring anti-war statement, and for those and many other reasons (including its status as a too-often banned book) it’s a text well worth continuing to share with young readers (and all other audiences). But at the same time, American literary and popular culture include their own multi-layered collections of Great War representations, and those texts—and in particular a couple under-remembered works on which I’ll focus here—likewise have a good deal to offer students and audiences.
Many of the most prominent American Modernist writers and works feature or even focus on World War I, of course: from Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway’s status as veterans in The Great Gatsby (1925) to Ernest Hemingway’s debut short story collection In Our Time (1925) and anti-war novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) to John Dos Passos’ experimental historical novel The 42nd Parallel (1930, and then the first part of his U.S.A. trilogy [1938]). But to my mind the most unique and compelling American WWI novel is Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), a book that in both its depiction of the physical and psychological effects of war and its anti-war sentiments interestingly parallels Remarque’s novel. Johnny’s unfortunate timing—it was published shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and as of 1941 Trumbo and his publisher J.B. Lippincott decided to suspend printings for the remainder of the war—no doubt contributed to its relative lack of prominence; the 1971 film adaptation (directed by Trumbo himself) is somewhat better known, particularly after clips from it were used in the music video for Metallica’s “One” (1989). But such adaptations offer only glimpses of the psychological realism and depths of Trumbo’s novel, which deserves far wider readership as a stark and significant depiction of both war and veterans.
Appearing just two years after Trumbo’s novel was one of the most famous and successful American war movies, Sergeant York (1941); York netted Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards overall, and has been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, among many other accolades. Cooper’s impressive performance and the title character’s interesting blend of religious faith and (eventual) wartime courage keeps York from becoming propaganda, but I would argue that it tends that way, and would highlight instead a more thoroughly nuanced and successful American World War I film: the silent classic Wings (1927), which interestingly featured Gary Cooper in his first prominent (if still supporting) role. Wings certainly presents at times a spectacular version of war, as illustrated by the famous dogfight sequences (which likely won the film its own Oscar, as the first Best Picture winner). But Wings also features one of the more striking moments from any war film, as one of its protagonists (Buddy Rogers’ Jack) accidentally shoots down and kills his best friend (Richard Arlen’s David, who is piloting a stolen German plane as part of an escape from behind enemy lines), leading to a deathbed scene featuring the first same-sex kiss in an American film. While Wings is not as overtly anti-war as Trumbo’s novel, these and other concluding scenes reflect a nuanced and realistic portrayal of the war’s effects on its participants and veterans, making the film another cultural representation of the Great War that deserves a 21st century audience.
Last Great War Studying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

June 28, 2017: The US and World War I: African American Soldiers



[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On two opposing yet crucially interconnected ways to remember a community of veterans.
Thanks in large part to the film Glory (1989), we’ve started to develop a collective national narrative of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War; thanks to similar cultural texts such as the film Red Tails (2012), we’ve perhaps begun to do the same for the African Americans who served in World War II. But for whatever reason—perhaps it’s as simple as the absence, to date, of a prominent historical film or other cultural text centered on them?—I don’t think we have much of a collective awareness at all of the equally significant community of African American soldiers who served in World War I. Coming half a century after abolition, in the same era as such defining histories as the Great Migration, the lynching epidemic, and the founding of the NAACP, this World War I service is certainly as significant as those other, more famous ones, and deserves far more remembrance in our 21st century culture.
If we start to engage with the histories of this community, however, another reason for our general amnesia about them becomes clearer: compared to the pretty inspiring (if of course still complex) Civil War and World War II stories, the history of these World War I soldiers—and of the veterans when they returned home—is a strikingly dark and divisive one. Exemplifying those dark histories are the words of the U.S. chief military commander, General John Joseph “Blackjack” Pershing, who while publicly recognizing African American soldiers privately composed a secret communiqué to white officers instructing them that “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans.” And when they returned to the United States, these African American veterans found themselves right back in a society where President Wilson had recently segregated the federal government, where The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a towering cultural achievement, where whatever protections their uniforms had afforded them ended as abruptly as did the war.
So we can’t better remember these World War I soldiers and veterans without remembering another in the long national series of hypocrisies and horrors directed at African Americans—which of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember them (quite the opposite). But on the other hand, we can also work to push beyond those negatives to remember the deeply inspiring sides to this community’s service, and to consider how they brought those experiences back with them to the post-war nation. In his May 1919 piece “Returning Soldiers,” published as an editorial for his monthly NAACP magazine The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois makes the case for thinking of the soldiers in precisely that way; throughout his stirring editorial Du Bois contrasts the cause for which these soldiers have risked their lives for the “fatherland” to which they will soon come home, concludes, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” It’s quite possible to see this era, and this community of veterans, as a vital step toward the Civil Rights Movement—and in any case it’s well worth remembering this inspiring side of their too-often dark experiences.
Next Great War Studying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?