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An Open Letter To Ken Burns
Americans need a documentary about World War One
Dear Mr. Burns,
I’ve loved all your work but, for the sake of my readers, I’ll skip the gush and get straight to the point.
You have produced wonderful documentaries about an astonishing range of subjects, from the Civil War to World War Two, baseball, jazz, Hemingway, and Mohammed Ali. (Next up is the buffalo. I can’t wait.) Notable by its absence is America and World War One. I’m writing to urge you to put it on your to-do list.
Why? There are two quite different cases to be made. One speaks to the head. The other, the heart.
I’ll set aside the wisdom of advertisers and used-car salesmen and start by appealing to the head.
The war broke out in 1914.
By that time, the American population had been surging for decades. The American economy had expanded massively and overtaken the British economy to become the world’s largest. But the American role in the world was unsettled.
Traditionally, Americans had treated the rest of the world as all the bits beyond the oceans. They were happy to trade with those bits but they followed Washington’s famous 1796 declaration that, “it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world." With the US Navy manning America’s Atlantic and Pacific walls, Americans were content to live in relative isolation.
The Spanish-American war of 1898 brought the first challenge to this guiding principle. The spark was Cuba, which many Americans imagined to be a southerly extension of Florida that must, sooner or later, join the Union. But war with Spain also resulted in American control of the Philippines (and a long guerrilla war with the people US forces had supposedly liberated from Spain, the Filipino rebels.) Along with the addition of Hawaii — which occurred formally in 1898 but was effectively accomplished by a coup involving US officials in 1893 — America now owned some of the bits far away. Isolationism was at least notionally being challenged.
In 1901, at a speech in Buffalo — the last before he was assassinated — President William McKinley insisted greater American involvement in the world was essential.
We travel greater distances in a shorter space of time and with more ease than was ever dreamed of by our fathers. Isolation is no longer possible or desirable. The same important news is read, though in different languages, the same day in all Christendom. The telegraph keeps us advised of what is occurring everywhere, and the press foreshadows, with more or less accuracy, the plans and purposes of the nations. Market prices of products and of securities are hourly known in every commercial market, and the investments of people extend beyond their own national boundaries into the remotest parts of the earth. Vast transactions are conducted and international exchanges are made by the tick of the cable. Every event of interest is immediately bulletined.
To put that in early 21st century terms: Globalization had intimately connected the world so America had to become more engaged.
But in 1914, when the complex web of European alliances dragged the Old World into what was called the Great War, American neutrality — and a studious avoidance of foreign entanglements — understandably appealed to much of the population. While fire-breathers like Teddy Roosevelt urged American involvement in the war, and many others wanted America to prepare for the possibility by building up its military forces, lots of Americans were only too happy to turn their backs on Europe. Not even the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 could change their minds. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the slogan “he kept us out of the war.” He won by a whisker.
But Germany’s escalation of submarine warfare, along with the infamous Zimmermann telegram, forced Wilson’s hand. The US declared war on April 6, 1917.
Doughboys were put through hell “over there” but the home front was at least as impassioned. Nationalism burst into collective frenzy and anti-German hysteria. The war brought more women in the workplace and boosted the cause of women’s suffrage. It accelerated the Great Migration of rural blacks in the South to the urban North. It also led to shocking abuses of civil liberties — thanks in part to a young, newly empowered Department of Justice employee named J. Edgar Hoover — which in turn prompted the rise of the modern civil liberties movement.
But the documentary wouldn’t end on November 11, 1918.
The collapse of the old international order and Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to replace it presented Americans with a choice: The United States could assume a role of international leadership to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Wilson wanted. Or it could again leave leadership to others and withdraw from the world, trusting that two oceans and the U.S. Navy would safeguard America’s isolation.
That debate played out over two years. In that time, a “red scare” and economic recession helped push Americans toward reaction. Nativism and white supremacy surged. In the “red summer” of 1919, more than 20 cities suffered what are usually called “race riots” but are more accurately described as pogroms, in which white citizens used terrorism and murder to purge black populations. The Ku Klux Klan grew explosively. Lynchings were widespread. Anti-immigrant feeling contributed to the imposition of Prohibition and — in legislation passed in 1917, 1921, and 1924 — it curtailed or entirely eliminated immigration from non-white countries while restricting immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
With the election of Republican President Warren G. Harding (who promised a “return to normalcy”) in 1920, and Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1924, the country chose the old isolationism.
The US would remain deeply isolationist until the catastrophe of a Second World War and the threat of the Soviet Union finally convinced Americans that American leadership was essential for both the world and Americans. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower cemented America’s new role by beating the last of the Republican isolationists (Senator Robert Taft) for the Republican presidential nomination. However hollow the slogan sometimes was, “making the world safe for democracy” became a basic operating principle of every American presidency since.
With one exception.
Thanks to Donald Trump, the old isolationism has revived. Some political scientists would object to my use of that term, as Trump is less isolationist than he is “unilateralist,” meaning he eschews permanent alliances for one-off transactions and reserves to the president the right to use military force wherever and whenever he wishes. But “unilateralism” is arguably a better label for the old isolationists, too, as they invaded Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, or any other “banana republic” when they felt it was in their best interests to do so.
And just as the rapid globalization of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries was thrown into retreat in the 1920s, so the rapid globalization of the late 20th- and early 21st centuries is now under unprecedented challenge as the marriage of “Chimerica” dissolves and a new Cold War threatens.
The history of the First World War, as old as it is, could not be more relevant to Americans today. In fact, that era’s intense debate about America’s place and role in the world is probably more relevant now than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower became president.
That’s the big picture, Mr. Burns. It’s a fascinating period of history. And it is timely. Unnervingly so.
But I also promised a case for this documentary that appeals to the heart.
Let me start that with a photo I took recently.
That is the National World War One monument in Kansas City. I’ve toured the old Western Front in France and Belgium, and seen many of the immense monuments scattered across that poignant countryside. In scale and severe beauty, the Kansas City monument is their equal.
And it’s in Kansas City! I had no idea it existed until I happened to visit the city and I was stunned when I came across it. Why there?
The cornerstone was dedicated on November 1, 1921. General Pershing and then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge were there. So was General Foch of France and Admiral Beatty of Britain. Joining them were some 100,000 people, a crowd that stretched from one horizon to the other.
The monument was supremely democratic. It wasn’t built on the order of any government and no rich man paid for it. Instead, when the war ended, a newspaper suggested a monument should be built and the idea was so popular that the people of Kansas City raised almost $2.5 million in ten days. That’s more than $43 million in today’s money. One in four residents of the city contributed.
That response reflected popular feeling in Missouri and across the country.
The war had kindled an intense patriotism and a staggering national effort: In 1917, the US Army had roughly 127,000 officers and soldiers, a tiny force at a time when a single battle could injure or kill hundreds of thousands of men. (Britain suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day of the four-month-long Battle of the Somme.) By the following year, the US Army alone had four million men in uniform. Another 800,000 served in the other branches. The cost was equally staggering: More than 53,000 service members were killed in action — relative to the American population in 1918, the death rate was double that of the Vietnam War — while 204,000 were wounded. The US also suffered 63,000 non-combat related deaths, mostly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Victory in 1918 produced a national pride as intense as anything seen before or since.
It didn’t last. The debate over joining the League of Nations became, in a sense, a proxy for the wisdom of joining the war, so when America rejected the League, it rejected the war. And the prevailing mood became one of simply wanting to leave the whole thing in the past. When President Calvin Coolidge spoke at the monument’s opening ceremony in 1926, his speech was riddled with that sentiment.
We have little need to inquire how that war began. Its day of carnage is done. Nothing is to be gained from criminations and recriminations.
The original plan for the monument included the creation of a museum but interest waned and the museum was never built.
The Great Depression radically worsened perceptions of the war. When impoverished veterans marched to demand early payment of promised bonuses — a march that ended with serving soldiers attacking their former comrades, thanks to the arrogant and imperious leadership of Douglas MacArthur — the war was restored to newspaper headlines as a source of liability and shame. A Senate subcommittee led by the grandstanding Senator Gerald Nye held hearings into arms manufacturers who supposedly helped manipulate America into war for their own profit. Nothing was proved but that didn’t matter. Several books portraying the war as a colossal mistake foisted on the American people by financiers and profiteers became national best-sellers. A Gallup poll in the mid-1930s found 70 per cent of Americans thought entry into the First World War had been a mistake. Some historians today argue that popular judgment then was more hostile toward the First World War than similar judgments were about Vietnam or Iraq two decades later.
Ceremonies in Congress actually honoured those who had opposed the action, and had been vilified during the war. Congress also passed the Neutrality Acts which effectively put into law the ideas of those opponents — acts which would be major barriers in Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to help Britain when it went to war with Nazi Germany.
After 1945, thanks in part to the Cold War, opinion didn’t swing back to isolationism. But the new willingness to take on international leadership didn’t change how people felt about the First World War. For those who had lived through it, the earlier war remained mostly a terrible mistake. For those too young to have lived through it, the first war was overshadowed by the second, making it distant, irrelevant.
The war faded from American popular culture and memory. In sharp contrast with Britain, the Untied States simply forgot the First World War.
This is why it’s so significant that there is no Ken Burns production about the First World War, even though the hundredth anniversary of the war came and went not so long ago.
That monument in Kansas City is a poignant illustration.
The original design called for a museum along with a monument, but as minds changed, and the war faded, that plan was abandoned. The monument was mostly left to quiet neglect. By the end of the century, it was ignored and crumbling — the perfect symbol of American memory of an event that had convulsed the nation.
In the first decades of this century, restoration of the monument became part of a larger revitalization of the derelict downtown led by Mayor Kay Barnes. And the original plan was finally fulfilled with the creation of an impressive new museum. The federal government officially designated the site a national memorial.
Like the monument, Kansas City’s downtown experienced a stunning turnaround. Today, it is thriving. The connection between the city and its monument is profound.
I think it’s clear that a documentary about the United States and the First World War would be about so much more than soldiers at war.
It would be about America’s place in the world. About American memory. About collectively forgetting the unforgettable. And the struggle to restore what was lost.
If you’ll permit me to use your name as an adjective: What could be more Ken Burns than that?
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