March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton

Will England has marched us through the difficult months leading up to American entry into the Great War. German submarines were systematically sinking our cargo ships hauling industrial goods and food to Britain and her allies. There was supposed to be an exception made for passenger liners, but in May 1915 the Lusitania was sunk off the Irish coast with American lives lost in this great “crime against civilization.”

Or at least that was the judgment of President Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921). Wilson had campaigned for the Presidency in 1913 on a peace plank. He would not lead us into the war in Europe, already eight months old and exhibiting its enormous deadliness. In truth the country was as divided about this war as was Wilson’s mind. That encouraged him to make it “the war to end all wars,” and “peace without victory.” His 14 Points and the League of Nations Organization were already becoming, in his mind, the means to that end.

Europeans had endured their share of armed conflict in the previous century, but those wars were short and decisive, often not much longer than the year it took to complete the massive mobilization for war that their military bureaucracies had planned. But this War was proving to be not short and infinitely more deadly. If it were to serve any purpose other than killing and crippling a lot of young men, it seemed important to begin the negotiation process with the country most likely to end the war a victor, Germany.

The Germans had temporarily suspended submarine warfare with an eye toward helping Wilson sell the neutrality that he was preaching. And they were hoping to thwart the deployment of our arms and armies. But that would require a quick victory. Which meant shutting off both from the European conflict.

America was a nation based on strong Anglo-Saxon traditions. But millions of Germans had migrated to this country in the last century, mainly to the Midwestern farm belt. I grew up in a small Iowa town that had a lot of those farmers. They didn’t have a German association in town. They had a Schleswig-Holstein association. Berlin was a small town just north of us; the town’s name was changed to a safer, Lincoln.

Englund spends a good part of a chapter on a famous incident that the British hoped would persuade the U.S. to join them in their war with the German empire. The German Embassy in London had sent a telegram from the German Foreign Mister in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann, to the president of Mexico, Venustiano Caranza, suggesting that if he would join Germany in the war against the U.S. and the Allies, the Germans would, in turn, help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, lost in the Spanish American War. And the Zimmermann Telegram – as it came to be known – accomplished its purpose of drawing America into the war.

In addition to the European conflict, the country was divided about both prohibition and women’s suffrage. There was much labor unrest, agitation for an eight-hour work day. All this when Wilson had to deal with a big international crisis. W.E.B. DuBois added the new demands formulated by blacks, particularly in the North. There had been a considerable migration of African Americans out of the South, who were making demands in exchange for their labor and their patriotism.

The dust cover of Englund’s book has two portraits one of President Wilson and one of the Czar of Nicholas II. Although Nicholas enjoyed the real estate that went with the position, he was not fond of his job. Moreover he had surrounded himself with reactionary Russians, who imagined that their Czar’s decisions regarding the Great War were being influenced by his German wife. Russian elites, many of them at least, were inclined to join the Germans. But they also were surrounded by troubles: food shortages, labor unrest, police firing on demonstrators. Radicals stirring up factory workers in St. Petersburg, and mutinies in the navy and army.

Russians had joined the French in their hopes of holding on to territory in Eastern Europe.  They also had territorial gains in mind, provinces dominated by Ukranians, Balts, and Belarusians. On 15 March Nicholas abdicated, breathing a sigh of relief with his release from constant worries.

The Soviet representing the workers issued Order No. 1, which directed the military to obey only orders from the Soviets, not those of the new Provincial government. The Civil War had begun.

Wilson hopes that the Russian Revolution as we now call this turmoil would lead to greater democracy in Russia. Thus it would be the democracies against the Empires. German, Austrian, and Italian.  Russia was no longer a safe bet for the democracies category.

Despite the situation in Russia, Wilson continued to procrastinate – on the “brink” of going to war, and supported by a majority of Americans, but also concerned about the anti-war sentiment. Particularly that was a problem because we had no army; he would have to rely on universal conscription to raise one.  Eventually there would be over two million Americans serving overseas in uniform.

President Wilson had to submit his decision to enter the war to Congress. By then there was considerable support for entering the war. And so we did. Many young American men were eager to get “over there.” My dad, for example, although he never made it. After he volunteered and got his training, he was sent around to bases all over this country to assemble Curtis Jennies that were used in military flight schools.

The Inferno; the Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe. Penguin 2008, paper.

Hamburg was one of the many German cities firebombed by the British and US air forces in the last years of World War II. The city had been a supporter of the Nazi Party, and most of its administrators were good Party members.

Hamburg had been the beneficiary of German rearmament in the 1930s. It was a major center for both aircraft and naval production. Plus a mix of smaller industrial plants that supplied those major industries. Not far inland from the North Sea, it was an important port with huge docking facilities.  Royal Air Force bombers could reach the city, drop their bombs, and return to their bases in the UK on one tank of gas.

The city was subjected to an aerial strategy that the British called blanket bombing, which operated under the assumption that bombing of civilian targets would lead to public demoralization. The flights of bombers, mostly night flights, and the frequent air raid alarms, made life miserable for Germany’s city dwellers. To say the least, they suffered from sleep deprivation. The cellars and basements of Hamburg where its citizens spent a lot of time, were not only unsafe structurally. They were “unlivable.”

The German coast and Hamburg were well guarded. Long-range radar could pick up planes within one hundred miles of the coast. They had to contend with German fighter aircraft on the way, over the city, and on the way home as well.  Also the Germans had a new weapon, Düppel, bundles of strips coated with metal foil – could confuse targeting controlled by radar.

There were always a good percentage of British and American pilots who, for one reason or another, never made it to their assigned target. Hence they could choose a “target of opportunity,” If they could see the ground.

An alternative strategy was pinpoint bombing. There was a list of priorities of value to the German war effort: railroads, oil reserves, air fields, armaments industries, etc. There was, however, an even greater visibility problem with pinpoint bombing. These crucial industrial targets could soon be back in production after a raid.

Also these flights that involved specific targets needed to be bombed during day-light hours. Which made British and American bombers more vulnerable to German air defenses. In addition to the normal anti-aircraft guns, Hamburg was well endowed with flak batteries.

Allied bombers also faced heavy black smoke, the result of previous bombing runs. The mixture of bombs had included incendiaries which created fires and fire storms throughout the city, with gusts of up to 170 miles per hour. The smoke rose to 30,000 feet. Fires burned for hours using up the oxygen in the atmosphere over the city.

Hamburg was not the only city subject to Bomber Command (British). The historic cities of Lübeck and Rostock were selected initially because of their historic value. On to Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Wuppertal, Essen, Würzberg, and Dresden.

It must have occurred to many a German living through these destructive air raids that their Führer was tucked away in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, while they were desperately making their way through their destroyed neighborhoods, its streets littered with charred corpuses. After the raids of 27, 28 July 1943, the remains of 36,918 of Hamburg’s residents were buried in four massive graves. And the survivors had to deal with evacuation and finding a place to live until the fires were extinguished and the city functioning once again. By 1943 many Germans were convinced that they had lost the war.

In May 1945 Hamburg was handed over to the British, without firing a shot. And the British occupied the city for the remaining few weeks of the war. The Marshall Plan helped restore the city’s economy.  Nevertheless the housing stock was badly damaged.

The carpet bombing had destroyed the central part of the city and had had a negative effect on the city’s morale. The bombing of German cities had not recognized the difference between citizens and soldiers. Perhaps that was not inappropriate since “good Germans” mostly supported the National Socialists.

Iowa State University required undergraduate males to take the first two years of ROTC – Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Mostly we marched around the football field. But in the Iowa winter there had to be some other activity; we watched reconnaissance films that were taken during the aerial assault on German cities some twelve years previously. The message was Success! Aerial warfare had made an important contribution to our victory. Keith Lowe questions this judgment call.

The Moralist; Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

The Great War, as the War was called until it became World War I or the First World War, is best known for the introduction of new weaponry but also for efforts to block imports of food and essential inputs into domestic food production. Both Germany and Britain relied on food imports from the Western Hemisphere as well as materials for their war industries. Hence both imposed a blockade on the other. That in turn triggered the use of German submarines against British and American merchant shipping transporting those goods across the Atlantic. And ultimately the sinking of three British passenger ships, including the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland without a warning.

Britain had the advantage in Atlantic warfare. The British Royal Naval was superior in numbers to the Imperial German Navy. But German submarines evened the imbalance. Ultimately German submarines were sinking Allied merchant shipping faster than they could be built in Allied shipyards. By the end of the war, the British blockade had reduced German food imports to a trickle. Germans were starving.

In the midst of this oceanic warfare, President Woodrow Wilson, with the huge battlefield casualties in mind, insisted on our remaining neutral, avoiding involvement in this European conflict. The US was divided about entry into the war and their President’s refusal to do so. Nevertheless Wilson began efforts to defend the US from the oceanic war. Congress agreed to issue a series of war bonds to raise the funds necessary to put us on a war footing. Both Houses agreed to co-operate.

Was the US expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa intended to be a diversion from the European War? 4,800 troops led by General John Pershing were gathered at the US-Mexican border for what has been called the Punitive Expedition (March 1916 to February 1917). The author, Patricia O’Toole, does not comment on the motives of the Woodrow Wilson Administration.

Meanwhile back in Europe, the horrific land battles and the blockade of food and materiel were adversely affecting the war-making abilities of Germany and its allies. Wilson took this opportunity to start the negotiation for an armistice and eventually a treaty that would settle land disputes and create the conditions for a lasting peace.

Much against his moralist position, Wilson also made minimal preparations to create an army to send to the Western Front.  When Germany ended and then resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against the British merchant marine, Wilson asked the Senate for authority to support Britain and its Allies in this “war to end all wars.” Still he held back on full participation in this European War.

But then the Zimmerman Telegram. Germany’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a telegram to his Mexican counterpart, seemingly offering to help Mexico regain territory lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 – upon American entry into the European War on the German side. (The contents of the Zimmerman Telegram had been disclosed by the British.)

According to O’Toole this was a false promise. But it put additional pressure on President Wilson to end his policy of neutrality. War was declared in April 1917.

But by 1917 American banks were making huge loans to both Britain and France, funds that were used, in large part, to purchase munitions, raw materials, and food from Canada and the US. In 1917 a revolution in Russia led to her signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and exiting from the war in March 1918.

Despite his earlier position, Wilson understood that border adjustments after the war would be at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. This drove the Turks into an even greater resistance to a settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The dumbest, most damaging political blunder he had ever made – so Wilson confessed, – was to call for a Democratic Congress to be returned in the 1918 election  despite the unanimity that had been shown by Democrats and Republicans to his neutralist policy. His injection of partisanship into his quest for Congressional support was the first of several mistakes in his building a peaceful post-war Europe. The ultimate the payback was the Senate rejection of the Versailles Treaty.

Throngs cheered President Wilson when he arrived in Paris on his way to Versailles. O’Toole argues that his involvement in the treaty-making was a miscalculation. His triumphant sweep into France seemed to be making peace over the heads of the delegates already assembled at Versailles. He did his best, but Post-War Europe would have to live with the reparations imposed on Germany, with numerous territorial adjustments, and sadly with the war guilt clause. Germany was forced to accept full responsibility.

Patricia O’Toole’s The Moralist; Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made is centered on individuals. That is an unusual approach. Historians most commonly talk about forces: economic, material, diplomatic, how these forces motivated behavior, and the mistakes that were made as a result.

Florida in World War II; Floating Fortress by Nick Wynne & Richard Moorhead. History Press, 2010.

Two hundred forty-eight thousand Floridians served in the armed forces in World War II. Tampa and Jacksonville shipyards made a significant contribution to the production of cargo ships, 35,000 worked in the yards in Jacksonville.  But Florida’s most significant contribution was the training bases for the army and navy personnel and particularly various National Guard Units from the Southern States in preparation for their departure overseas: Camp Blanding for the army and Camp Gordon Johnston for amphibious warfare. The U.S. was looking beyond immediate needs to the beach landings in Normandy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. Not a major industrial state, we, nevertheless, made and/or assembled many smaller parts and components for war materiel produced elsewhere.

Florida had advantages over most states in situating military bases. It was not heavily forested, enjoyed year-round good weather, and relatively good railroad service. The almost 200 military bases in Florida needed infrastructure and that was a big job, mostly finished by mid-war, although as much as possible the U.S. used housing built by the WPA during the depression.

Perhaps the most notable early achievement of the fliers trained in Florida at Eglin Field was their involvement in the Doolittle air raid on Japanese cities in April 1942. Kept a secret, the authors, Nick Wynne and Richard Moorhead claim that it was a big morale booster for the U.S. as well as proving to the Japanese that their homeland and its cities were vulnerable.


A good portion of those army men trained at Camp Blanding were “replacements.” Its official name was the Infantry Replacement Training Center. While the trainees saw a lot of each other, their units were not kept together for the duration of the war or even for all of their training.

Speaking of replacements, part of the production of cargo ships was to replace merchant ships sunk by German submarines off Florida’s coastal waters. There were wooden watchtowers erected so that civilian volunteers could spot German shipping and aircraft. (See Operation Drumbeat; The Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks along the American Coast by Michael Gannon.) So the story goes, German spies and saboteurs buried explosives and money on Florida beaches with the idea of arousing opposition to our entry into WWII. Most of them were eventually caught and executed. The authors give more credence to these stories than did Gannon’s book.

Florida became an important training base for amphibious warfare, and particularly, looking ahead to Normandy, Italy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. The landings involved a close integration of all forces under a unified command, especially the Higgins landing craft with a hinged front and used in amphibious landings along the Normandy Coast.

The buildings at Camp Blanding these days are few, but at one time there were literally thousands of barracks and tent-like structures called hutments, which housed six soldiers and their equipment while they were in training. Days off and little to do hanging around the Camp, many of the trainees headed to near-by towns, particularly Starke. And on that road from Blanding to Starke there was a variety of less than “wholesome” entertainments; gambling establishments, bordellos, and “independent” prostitutes.

There were USO (United Service Organization) canteens in Starke and Gainesville that brought GIs and local women together to dance and flirt. The building is still around. It was purchased by the City of Gainesville in 1942 and renamed the Thelma Boltin Center, after the employee that scheduled a variety of entertainments but particularly free movies.

The city of Gainesville purchased the building in December 1942 and eventually it became known as the Thelma Boltin Center. While a USO canteen, it welcomed at least 25,000 soldiers from Blanding. There are also a couple of barracks moved from Blanding to Gainesville that are still around, now being used to house young males attending the University, rather than young men training for war.

Camp Blanding, Camp Gordon Johnston, and their sub camps had one final use in World War II. They were used to house German and Italian prisoners of war. The POWs began arriving in September 1942; the earliest were sailors rescued from sunken German U-boats. By 1943 they were mostly prisoners from Rommel’s Afrika Corps. The transfer to sunny, peaceful Florida was certainly better than the fate of most Germans – civilian and military in the last years of the War. Amongst the POWs from the Afrika Corps were those who wished to keep up the good fight. And the two sets of POWs did not get along, so the camp commanders found that they had to keep them separated.

In 1960 I made my first trip to Germany. Dealing with a malfunctioning motor bike, I had time and opportunity to visit with men working in the equivalent of our road-side repair shops. Several that I talked with had been POWs in the U.S. and they had no trouble deciding which was preferable. We Floridians were hospitable and their backs were soaking up that Florida sunshine.

Wold War II; Rhode Island

The authors of this book champion the importance of Rhode Island’s contribution to the war effort. Narragansett Bay with its watery byways was an important supplier of materiel for our naval warfare, though never in any immediate danger from German attack. Hence impressive industrial plants were constructed or revamped to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s war industries. By 1944, 13,000 workers had been assembled in the Bay area to work in these war plants.

Rhode Island’s contributions to the war effort were considerable given its size and population. The Quonset “hut,” a prefabricated metal structure that could be assembled quickly, had multiple uses during the island warfare in the Pacific Theater. It was named after Quonset, Rhode Island. Many were quickly constructed in forward bases along the US East Coast and used as barracks for soldiers that would defend our shores should German U-Boats attack via the North Atlantic.

Both liberty ships and commercial cargo ships were built in the Providence Ship Yard. The navy’s PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boats were tested in the Bay and eventually manufactured at Newport. PTs were a well-armed, fast-attack craft used mostly in the Pacific.

Future Presidents Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush were stationed at the New Port Naval Air Station at different times. The facilities were also used to train navy pilots and other crew members. Many Seabees (Construction Battalions) were trained at the Davisville facility in the Bay area.

With so many men on active duty in the area, there needed to be some entertainment and activities for off-duty hours. One of the first USO (United Service Organization) Centers was located in Newport, Rhode Island.

As the war in Europe came to an end in late 1944, some of the housing at various facilities was used as Prisoner of War camps. We had the idea that German prisoners could be re-educated. Most of them had grown up believing the National Socialist propaganda. Could that process be reversed? There were 380,000 German POWs to be Denazified, some more easily than others. And three POW camps were adapted for that purpose. German soldiers settled into bunks that American GIs had bedded down in just months previously while being trained.

Camp Blanding, east of Stark, Florida, was a POW camp after it had served as a training camp. Most German Prisoners of War were happy to be bunked down in Florida, rather than trudging through snow and mud on the Russian Front. Or awaiting rescue after their ship had been sent to the bottom. The Rhode Island camps were, however, not as peaceful as those in Starke. In fact there was considerable tension amongst the prisoners held in the Narragansett Bay area, with death threats and other unpleasantries. A German language newspaper Der Ruf  “The Call” was published by German POWs in Rhode Island. It became the voice for the not-so-contented.

Back in 1960, just as I was graduating from Iowa State University – with a job – I got an opportunity to take a cheap flight to Amsterdam. Traveling through Germany by myself on a motor bike, I met up with Germans who had been Prisoners of War in the US.  With no exception, they said that they enjoyed their stay and were grateful for the way they had been treated.

At the end of the War there was a famous photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a sailor grabbing what appears to have been a nurse in the midst of New York’s Times Square. He was landing an impromptu kiss on her lips. Many sailors have come forth as that young sailor; the authors of World War II; Rhode Island claim him to have been a Rhode Islander.

By the end of the War, I was a six-year-old kid, growing up in Iowa, a state that is half a continent away from Narragansett Bay. Many Iowans served on both fronts, but more of them in the European front; a first cousin died in a field in Alsace. Iowa was, like Rhode Island, an active part of the home front. Its industries, like Rhode Island’s, quickly converted to the production of war materiel. Many farm boys received exemptions from the draft because they were needed to keep Iowa producing food. We were far from carrier-based German bombers. We nevertheless had air-raid drills right up to the end of the War.

Our community was heavily German-American. However, it seemed not to have mattered when it came to fighting the Nazis.

The Long  Shadow; The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper.


David Reynolds explores how the Great War has shaped the rest of the twentieth century. He notes that by the end of the Second World War, historians were no longer talking about the Great War, but instead were referring to the European warfare between 1914 and 1918 as the First World War, the Second World War 1939-1945, and the years between the two wars became tagged the “Interwar Period.”

The history of the Interwar Years, The Long Shadow, has been well-charted: the Russian Revolution that ended Imperial Russia, the diplomacy surrounding the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, the rise of nation-states in Eastern Europe to replace empires, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain. These years were also economically unsettling: reparation payments and hyper-inflation in Germany, the coming of the Depression in the US, the rise of the Welfare State in Britain.

Some historians lump the two wars together, including this Interwar period, calling the years from 1914 to 1945 a second “thirty-years war,” referring back to the prolonged warfare in Central Europe in the 1700s.

The death toll from the First World War was huge. Perhaps the most significant consequences of the war were the demographics that followed from that slaughter. Reynolds might have speculated on the impact of the death of so many men in their twenties and thirties in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The loss of so many young men to the Great War’s killing machine affected many families over several generations.

The Great War is remembered for the trench warfare that is characteristic of the French-Belgium front. But the war also was a war of movement, and Reynolds makes that point. The term Blitzkrieg is associated with World War II; the German invasion of France in 1914 was equally and unexpectedly rapid, an earlier Blitzkrieg. Neither the tank nor the plane were important to outcomes in the First World War. But they were introduced. The horse and the cavalry charge disappeared, in favor of infantry armed with machine guns. Bombardment by heavy guns was true of both wars. German submarine warfare was one of the legacies of the Great War. The tank and the heavily armed truck saw their day only in the Second World War.

Reynolds suggests that an entirely appropriate response in the interwar period was pacifism, particularly in Britain. That response is a partial explanation for Neville Chamberlain’s fateful visits to Germany in 1938 to negotiate the agreement, involving the sudetenlanders  – Germans who had been included in Czechoslovakia by the Versailles settlement in 1918. Chamberlain returned from Germany, claiming that the agreement brought “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain and his government were also responding to the German complaint that Versailles had been a dictate and the reparations demanded from Germany too steep and detrimental to the post-war European economy. An eminent British economist, John Maynard Keynes, agreed. Germany paid those reparations with inflated Deutsch marks that further complicated the post-war economies of Central Europe.

How best to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the European imperialism after 1918 is to look at the mandate. The Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern lands were divided between France and Britain much to the detriment of an eventual peace in the area. At some point in the midst of the Great War, Britain came to the conclusion that in the future oil would fire its war machine, not Welsh coal and the most likely source of that oil would be the Middle East.

In November 1917 Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Minister in the wartime Conservative Government proclaimed Palestine as the national homeland for European Jewry. He ignored the fact that there was a population of Palestinians that would have to be forced off their lands. Balfour was also hoping that his Declaration would find favor with Russian and American Jews and get the former to pursue its war aims more rigorously and the latter to enter the war on Britain’s side. We now live in the shadow of that diplomacy.

To explain the German war machine’s collapse in 1918, German conservatives came up with the “stab in the back” myth. It was widely believed that the German Army had not lost the War but was instead betrayed by Weimar politicians. This theory was promoted by Erick Ludendorff, a General in the German army, who was given credit for the military victory at Tannenberg early in the Great War, later a prominent nationalist leader, and Paul von Hindenburg, later President of the German Republic.

The last veterans of World War I are gone. Soon there will be no living memory of the Great War. Veterans from World War II will follow them.  How we view that war will be left to the historians and to the rituals of remembrance that are performed by the descendants of those warriors.

When I was growing up in a small Iowa town, honoring those who served in both wars was a yearly Memorial Day ritual. Small flags and bouquets of lilacs were placed on their graves. The high school band played some patriotic tunes, there was a gun salute, and we then retired to our homes for a day off, having remembered for the moment those who had fought in both World Wars. How much longer will these remembrances cast their shadows over our homes and hearts?

My Fellow Soldiers; General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War by Andrew Carroll. Penguin Press, 2017.


Andrew Carroll has used letters and diaries written by American participants in the Great War to frame an account of the military career of John Pershing. Pershing was the senior most commander of American troops on the Western Front. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to the Western Front to assist French, Belgium, and British forces, locked in the trench warfare for which the First World War was notorious. Carroll has also used Pershing’s letters to his family and colleagues.

(It is interesting that the focus of letter-writing was to a “mother” rather than a “father” as it had been in the Civil War. Carroll doesn’t speculate on why this was so, and how that correspondence with a mother could indicate a different family structure fifty years later.)

Pershing’s military career did not begin in Europe. He commanded the forces that pursued Pancho Villa in west Texas and New Mexico just as the war in Europe began, August 1014. Having settled with Pancho Villa, Pershing arrived in Europe in June 1917.

From the beginning, Pershing insisted that the American doughboys be kept in their own units with American commanders, rather than being used as replacements in depleted French and British units.

Pershing was a career officer who had served in the Philippines before giving command of the Pancho Villa expedition. Tragically his wife and daughters died in a house fire in military housing in the Presidio in San Francisco. Pershing had failed to make arrangements for accommodations in Texas, and blamed himself for their tragic death.

General Pershing was, like many Americans enthusiastic about getting “over there” while the fight was still going on. However, Americans were not allowed to serve in foreign armies – swear allegiance to a foreign military establishment (We had not yet declared war on Germany.), but American volunteers could join the French Foreign Legion.

Pershing had been sent to the Western Front as an observer, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge not to get us involved in “European entanglements.” Wilson was under pressure to enter the war against Germany. Three German “outrages” motivated American public opinion: the sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania with the loss of American lives, the willful destruction of the Belgium town of Louvain, and the execution of an American nurse-volunteer, Edith Cavell.

Wilson was finally forced to declare war but he made it a declaration of war against “the Imperial German Government” not the German people. There was a sizeable community of German-Americans who, Wilson worried, would not be enthusiastic participants. President Wilson’s hand was forced as a result of the Zimmermann telegram. Arthur Zimmermann, then the German foreign secretary had sent a telegram to his ambassador to Mexico that proposed the Mexican government join the European war, promising his assistance in regaining the huge territory lost to the U.S. The telegram was leaked to the press. (Then as now the press was being used to weaken the federal government’s foreign policy.)

The war in Europe was not so glorious as the popular songs of the day made it out to be. Those trenches that American volunteers would be entering were filled with water and hence mud. And soldiers who helped win the war had to deal with new weaponry: tanks and armored trucks, flamethrowers, chlorine gas, rapid-firing machine guns, and heavy field pieces for long-range bombardment.

A system of bases were established here in the States, mostly in the South for training purposes. But before they were actually sent to the trenches, Pershing’s “fellow soldiers” were trained behind the lines and supervised by the generals who would be commanding the troops in battle.

That only partially solved the problem of training African-Americans for their role in the fight. African-American soldiers entered a racist military. Mostly they were responsible for the transportation essential the fighting force but generally kept apart from white soldiers. While Pershing had insisted on keeping his troops together, rather than their functioning as replacements, he did agree to use African-American troops to rebuild French African units rather than American. Those who continued to serve under Pershing established a reputation for bravery; eventually they came to be called the Harlem Hellfighters.

Some of Pershing’s soldiers later gained fame in World War II: George Marshall, Bill Donavan, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Truman and Eisenhower had subsequent political careers as well. Pershing was mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in the 1920 Presidential election, but no offer came his way, and Pershing had no interest in campaigning for office. The Republicans, instead chose one of their own, Senator Warren G. Harding, and Pershing retired as a respected former commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War and to a grave in Arlington Cemetery. 


March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton, 2017.

Will Englund has described a fateful turn of events in both the Russian Revolution and the Great War focusing on March 1917 and two individuals, US President Woodrow Wilson and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II.

When war broke out in 1914, Europe’s major powers were divided into a complicated alliance system, the Russian Empire and its allies Great Britain and France – the Triple Entente. They were opposed by the Central Powers, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and Italy, though the latter only entered the Great War in its last years. The US stood clear of these “European entanglements” as of March 1917, but we were gradually drawn into the conflict.

Englund does not mention the history of this system of alliances and alignments. It was largely the work of Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890. He dominated European affairs and kept the peace despite an armed continent and insurgent nationalism.

Fighting began with the German invasion of Belgium and France. Russia then sent armies into Germany’s Prussia and into Galicia to engage the Austro-Hungarian forces there. Germany provoked the US into joining the Entente after it declared a blockade of the North Atlantic to reduce the flow of military supplies and food to Great Britain. To enforce the blockade, German submarines began sinking British shipping, including the luxury passenger ship, the Lusitania, with American casualties.

This submarine warfare created a major international crisis which challenged President Wilson’s promise to “keep us out of the war.” Wilson fancied himself a peace keeper. (He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.) In a speech to a joint session of Congress in January 1917, he announced a shift in our intentions to achieving “peace without victory.”

Given the huge number of casualties in WWI, it is difficult for us to understand how so many Europeans could have welcomed the outbreak of a war.  Perhaps to clarify the prolonged armed peace and its tangled diplomacy? Many young men saw it as the opportunity for them to show their valor. They assumed that it would be a brief war that their side would win.

Seventy million men got their opportunity. There were 9 to 11 million military casualties and 5 to 6 million civilians killed or wounded. Those estimates don’t include either prisoners of war, many of whom died of starvation, or those missing in action and presumed dead.

President Wilson’s efforts to keep us out of the war ended with a sensational intelligence master stroke. The Brits had been deciphering the codes used by the German Foreign Ministry. In late 1916 Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegraph to his counterpart in Mexico, suggesting a military alliance between the two countries and support for Mexico’s recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, lost in the Mexican War of 1846-1848.  When made public, the telegram became a raison d’être for American entry into the European War. Despite his reluctance, President Wilson had no option but to declare war, as many prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, had been urging him to do.

Wilson also found it easier to enter the war in 1917 because the Russian revolution and fall of the Czar’s regime had “changed the calculus” (Englund). Russia had joined the “liberal democratic camp” with a provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky.  Not winning the war on the eastern front, the Russian army was still intact. Kerensky even ordered it to take the offense. And the army could still be counted on to back Nicholas II’s effort to control crowds of workers in the capital and in Moscow and put down mutinies of sailors at the Kronstadt naval base.

At this point Germany made what Englund calls an “investment in the Russian revolution.” It allowed Vladimir Lenin and several of his lieutenants to leave their Swiss exile and travel across Germany and the Eastern Front to reach St. Petersburg (soon to be Petrograd). The Bolshevik coup d’état that followed brought the Party to power. The Bolsheviks began a negotiation with the Germans that resulted in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in early 1918, ending Soviet Russia’s participation in the Great War.

We declared war in December 1917, which brought some respite to the British Empire troops fighting on the Western Front. The “yanks are coming” as the famous song went. One of those many young males hoping for some excitement in the Great War was my father. From a small Iowa town, just turned 18, and facing conscription, he volunteered and had a great adventure, though he never got abroad.

The Great War, Englund argues, did not make the world safe for democracy. Nor did it usher in a new world order based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Russia turned the Great War’s destructive forces upon itself. They fueled a deadly revolution, their socialist experiment, and a fast and deadly famine.

Pearl Harbor; From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson.

Pearl Harbor; From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson. Scribners, 2017 paper.

            Craig Nelson argues that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Oahu) on 7 December 1941 was intended to keep the USA out of the Pacific Theater until Japan had occupied Europe’s resource-rich colonial territories and integrated them into the Japanese war economy. Japan was critically short on fuel supplies and looked with envious eyes at the oil rich Dutch East Indies. It had been diverted from its Imperial quest in the Pacific by its preoccupation with the Chinese theater.

We were also consolidating our position in the Pacific Ocean. Once based in southern California, our Pacific fleet had been moved to a forward base on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. By 1941 Oahu had a dozen installations and was our largest base in the Pacific. The Pearl Harbor Naval Base was the most important of those military installations, home port to battleships, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and miscellaneous service ships. Fortunately its aircraft carriers were out at sea on 7 December 1941. There were also several army units. An American territory since 1898, Hawaii must be protected from invasion like our other possessions in the Pacific.

            It was argued that the presence of our navy and army mid-Pacific would act as a constraint on Japanese ambitions. Hence Japan and the United States were exercising their versions of the Monroe Doctrine.

            Japanese military and civilian elites had been divided about the wisdom of the raid. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack, had toured the US a few years earlier and had decided that our industrial capabilities – and our ability to wage war in the Pacific – far exceeded existing and potential Japanese capabilities. Furthermore, the US would retain that overwhelming strength when both were fully mobilized.

 However, both the Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo had to be convinced of the wisdom of the Pearl Harbor attack. And much of Nelson’s account is about the dialogue between the Japanese high command and civilian politicians. Could there have been some resolution short of war? Nelson seems to think so.

The Japanese benefitted from the element of surprise. We had been breaking their Naval and Diplomatic Codes right along. Which meant that we often had information about fleet movements. Japan had concluded that we were reading coded messages exchanged by their diplomats in Washington and London. They began using a more sophisticated code, “Purple” which had not yet been broken.

Nevertheless there were indications of Japanese naval ships in the Pacific. Perhaps the most significant tip off about a surprise attack was the fact that the Japanese Embassies in London and Washington were burning their code books.

Nelson makes the point that there was little cohesion in the response of the various American agencies to what the code breakers were learning. This became obvious when various investigating committees after the Pearl Harbor raid looked into what amounted to an intelligence disaster.

Blame was spread around from President Roosevelt on down. The Pearl Harbor command was subject to the most criticism. It could not explain why there was no surveillance aircraft in operation and why the gates to the port facilities were left open allowing submarines and torpedoes to fire away at the docked ships.

The plan called for three waves of attacking aircraft. The third wave never happened. Nelson believes that it would likely have been a misfortune for the Japanese if it had been launched. By this time, the surprise was over and the American forces were beginning to respond. And the Japanese attacking force was running out of fuel.

A third raid might, however, have gotten around to destroying the oil storage tanks. Hence there remained a good supply of aviation fuel after the first two waves to power the American arsenal. 

Vengeance! FDR was good at reading the American public. Hence he immediately ordered the special mission led by Colonel James Doolittle in March 1942 to avenge Pearl Harbor. Pilots, navigators, and bombardiers were recruited to take off on sixteen carrier-based B-25 bombers on a mission that would target Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagasaki. They were to drop incendiary bombs, the idea being to destroy by fire large sections of these Japanese cities. The firebombing proved hugely successful against Japan’s wooden housing; sadly the death toll of non-combatants was shocking. 

Nelson tells various stories about their fates. Those captured by the Japanese in occupied China were either executed or left to starve in prisons. The Chinese hid some. Some died in crash landings.

The recruits asked to be allowed to go after the Emperor, but were ordered not to do so. It would only stiffen Japanese resolve.  And well that the Emperor survived the bombing. It was Emperor Hirohito who finally made the decision to end the war.

Down the road a lot of Americans wondered about the strategy of killing civilians with incendiaries. Hindsight is always better than decisions made in the heat of warfare. Our insistence on unconditional surrender may have kept the Japanese fighting longer. The Japanese Homeland would have been defended in the spirit of the samurai and involved huge casualties. All things considered, Nelson concludes that the Doolittle Raid was an acceptable alternative. 


The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser.

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser. Other Press, 2017 paper.

Charles Kaiser has told the story of a Parisian family who lived through the four years of German occupation, each member displaying various degrees of cooperation, resistance, and accommodation. The family was bourgeoisie, good Catholics, and good Republicans. The parents, Jacques and Hélène Boulloche watched – and worried – as their children lived out both their anger toward the German occupiers and their loyalty to the city of their birth. Jacques Boulloche had an important position as Director of the Bureau of Highways. A fourth son, Robert Boulloche, also had a good post as Inspector in the Ministry of Finance.

As much as possible, father and brother kept their distance from the German army of occupation. That response the Germans would more-or-less tolerate. But the active Resistance that sprang up almost immediately. (June 1940) was another matter. The two daughters, Jacqueline and Christiane, were active in the Resistance as was their youngest son, André.

Being active in the Parisian Resistance was dangerous business. There were numerous instances of individuals who betrayed their colleagues and neighbors in return for small favors from the Germans. The Resistance was a porous organization easily infiltrated by double agents. The chance was good that upon an arrest, you would either be shot or shipped off to the German Concentration camps designed for the Reich’s political opponents.

Christiane had made arrangements to meet her father and mother for a family dinner in the family’s spacious apartment. German agents knew that she would appear at their apartment. However, coming on a bike, she had been delayed by a flat tire. So the Germans arrived before her, and not able to arrest her, arrested her parents instead. Nazi criminal justice was capricious. The parents were subsequently shipped off to work camps in Germany, her father to a SS Camp at Flossenbürg, her mother to a camp for women political prisoners. Hélène was tortured (water-boarded) but never betrayed her daughters or any of their comrades.

Hélène soon died in the camp, miserable and alone. Jacques depended upon the allowed monthly letter that he received from her to brace himself for the conditions in work camp to which he had been sent. When the letters stopped coming, he realized Hélène was dead, and gave up as well.

The author has successfully woven the major events of the war in Europe into this family story. The course of the War had a bearing about “the costs of courage.” Parisians got most of their information about the War by listening to the BBC. London was the nerve center of French resistance movements. And French hope.

Though not always dependable, the network of Resistance fighters was also a good source of information. Resistance fighters like the Boulloche sisters often traveled outside of Paris and met up with individuals active in the Resistance in Provincial France and North Africa.  

Most Parisians, certainly the Boulloche family, loathed Henri-Philippe Pétain and his government. He had signed the armistice and was Chief of State in the unoccupied portion of France during the Vichy period from 1940 to 1944.  His surrender speech in June 1940 summarized what would become the rationale for French accommodation. Be practical!

The Allied leadership had mixed views about the French Resistance. Kaiser quotes General Eisenhower’s claim that the success of the Normandy invasion was as much the work of the Resistance as it was the bravery of the men who stormed the Normandy beaches. Their destruction of rail communications in Normandy and Northern France is always noted in any account of the invasion. Kaiser argues that perhaps the most important role that the Resistance played was in the French countryside, assisting downed Allied flyers. Many a Resistance fighter hid out in the countryside amongst those same rural folks until they could safely return to the Capital.

The author includes the interesting story of General Dietrich von Choltitz. Von Choltitz was the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, appointed in August 1944. He was ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris as he departed. German demolition squads mined the city’s infrastructure, its factories, and its famous landmarks in anticipation of the German army’s departure.

But before withdrawal Von Choltitz had a conversation with a Paris municipal councilor who apparently persuaded him to leave the city he admired unharmed. He realized that no advantage would come from its destruction. Also Von Choltitz had earlier met with Hitler and believed him to be insane. The demolition squads left with the last of the German occupation troops. And Paris remains much as the Germans found it. 

As is true of many Europeans who survived this terrible war, Parisians view the liberation through a web of defensiveness, erasure, and guilt. The survivors of the Boulloche family rarely speak of the war years and their part in the Resistance.  Von Choltitz is never hailed by Parisians as their city’s savior. He was later arrested and tried for his part in the deportation of French Jews during his command.