In which John Green teaches you about American involvement in World War I, which at the time was called the Great War. They didn’t know there was going to be a second one, though they probably should have guessed, ’cause this one didn’t wrap up very neatly. So, the United States stayed out of World War I at first, because Americans were in an isolationist mood in the early 20th century. That didn’t last though, as the affronts piled up and drew the US into the war. Spoiler alert: the Lusitania was sunk two years before we joined the war, so that wasn’t the sole cause for our jumping in. It was part of it though, as was the Zimmerman telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, and our affinity for the Brits. You’ll learn the war’s effects on the home front, some of Woodrow Wilson’s XIV Points, and just how the war ended up expanding the power of the government in Americans’ lives.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Episode 30: America and World War I
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course U.S. history and today we’re finally going
to make the military history buffs happy. That’s right, today we’re going to talk
about how the United States with its superior technology, innovative tactics and remarkable
generalship turned the tide of World War I. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Finally. I’ve been
waiting for months to learn about tanks and airplanes and Ernest Hemingway.
Well that’s a shame, Me from the Past, because I was kidding about this being an episode
full of military details. But I do promise that we will mention Ernest Hemingway. And
in a few weeks I will tell you about how he liberated the martinis of Paris.
intro Americans were only involved in the Great
War for 19 months and, compared with the other belligerents, we didn’t do much fighting.
Still, the war had profound effects on America at home, on its place in the world and it
also resulted in an amazing number of war memorials right here in Indianapolis.
So, The Great War, which lasted from 1914 until 1918, and featured a lot of men with
hats and rifles, cost the lives of an estimated 10 million soldiers.
Also the whole thing was kind of horrible and pointless, unless you love art and literature
about how horrible and pointless World War I was in which case, it was a real bonanza.
So, when the war broke out, America remained neutral, because we were a little bit isolationist
owing to the fact that we were led, of course, by President Wilson.
But many Americans sided with the British because by 1914 we’d pretty much forgotten
about all the bad parts of British rule, like all that tea and monarchy. Plus, they’re
so easy to talk to with their English. But there were a significant number of Progressives
who worried that involvement in the war would get in the way of social reforms at home.
In fact, Wilson courted these groups in the 1916 presidential campaign running on the
slogan “He kept us out of War.” And will continue to keep us out of war until we reelect
him and then he gets us into war. But, for that slogan to make sense, there
had to have been some way in which war was avoided, which brings me to one of the classic
errors made by American history students. What? I haven’t even said anything yet.
But you were about to, Me From the Past, because if I had asked you what event led the U.S.
to enter World War I, you would have surely told me that it was the sinking of the cruise
ship Lusitania by German submarines. 124 American passengers died when the ship,
which had been carrying arms and also guns, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland.
Even though Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had warned Americans not to travel on
British, French, or German ships, Wilson refused to ban such travel because, you know: freedom.
Bryan promptly resigned. So how do I know it wasn’t the immediate
cause of our involvement in the war? Because the United States declared war on Germany
and the Central powers on April 2, 1917, almost two years after the sinking of the Lusitania.
So why did the United States declare war for only the fourth time in its history? Was it
the Germans’ decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917? Was it the
interception and publication of the Zimmerman Telegram in which the German Foreign Secretary
promised to help Mexico get back California if they joined Germany in a war against the
U.S? Or was it the fall of the Tsarist regime in
Russia, which made Wilson’s claims that he wanted to fight to make the world safe
for democracy a bit more plausible? Yes, yes, and yes. Also there was our inclination
to help Britain, to whom we had loaned a $2 billion. That’s the thing about wars. They
never start for easy, simple reasons like Lusitania sinkings. Stupid truth, always resisting
simplicity. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the mystery document.
I’m either right or I get shocked I. [or possibly “one”] Open covenants
of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings
of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
II. [I’m starting to think these are Roman numerals] Absolute freedom of navigation upon
the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may
be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international
covenants III. The removal, so far as possible, of all
economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all
the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for it’s maintenance.
[And] XIV. [I’m going to guess we skipped some.] A general association of nations must
be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of
political independence and territorial integrity of great and small states alike.
Stan, thank you for throwing me a softball. That’s my favorite kind of ball. Other than
you, Wilson. With its mention of self-determination, freedom
of the seas, open diplomacy, and liberal use of Roman numerals, I know it is Woodrow Wilson’s
Fourteen Points. Our second consecutive Woodrow Wilson week and my second consecutive non-shock.
Given all of his quasi-imperialism, there’s something a little bit ideologically inconsistent
about Wilson, but his Fourteen Points are pretty admirable as a statement of purpose.
Most of them deal specifically with colonial possessions, and were pretty much ignored,
but I suppose if we have learned anything, it’s that in American history, it’s the
thought that counts. [Libertage]
America’s primary contribution to the Entente powers winning the war was economic as we
sent all sorts of arms and money “over there.” Troops didn’t arrive until the spring of
1918 and eventually over 1 million American doughboys served under General John J. Pershing.
Not all of these people saw combat. They were much more likely to die of flu than bullet
wounds, but their sheer numbers were enough to force the defeat of the exhausted Germans.
And now, as promised, I will mention Ernest Hemingway. He served as an ambulance driver,
which gave him a close up view of death and misery and led to his membership in the so
called Lost Generation of writers who lived in Paris in the 1920s and tried to make sense
of everything. Turns out, it’s pretty hard to make sense
of and you’re just going to end up with a lot of six-toed cats and then eventually
suicide. Okay, so I said earlier than a lot of American
Progressives were anti-war, but certainly not all of them. Like, according to Randolph
Bourne, “War is the health of the state.” And for progressives like him, “the war
offered the possibility of reforming American society along scientific lines, instilling
a sense of national unity and self-sacrifice, and expanding social justice.” Let’s go
to the ThoughtBubble. World War I made the national government much
more powerful than it had ever been. Like, in May of 1917, Congress passed the selective
service act, which required 24 million men to register for the draft and eventually increased
the size of the army from 120,000 to 5 million. The government also commandeered control of
much of the economy to get the country ready to fight, creating new agencies to regulate
industry, transportation, labor relations, and agriculture.
The War Industries Board took charge of all elements of wartime production setting quotas
and prices and establishing standardized specification for almost everything, even down to the color
of shoes. The Railroad Administration administered transportation, and the Fuel Agency rationed
coal and oil. This regulation sometimes brought about some
of the progressives’ goals. Like, the War Labor Board, for instance, pushed for a minimum
wage, eight hour days and the rights of workers to form unions.
Wages rose substantially in the era, working conditions improved and union membership skyrocketed.
But then so did taxes, and the wealthiest Americans ended up on the hook for 60% of
their income. Also, in World War I as never before, the
government used its power to shape public opinion. In 1917 the Wilson administration
created the Committee on Public Information, which only sounds like it’s from an Orwell
novel. Headed by George Creel, the CPI’s team created
a wave of propaganda to get Americans to support the war, printing pamphlets, making posters
and advertising in swanky motion pictures. The best known strategies were the speeches
of 75,000 four minute men, who in that amount of time delivered messages of support for
the war in theaters, schools, and other public venues.
The key concepts in the CPI propaganda effort were democracy and freedom. “Creel believed
that the war would accelerate movement towards solving the “age old problems of poverty,
inequality, oppression, and unhappiness,” because, obviously, war is the most effective
antidepressant. Thanks, Thoughtbubble. So the aforementioned
Randolph Bourne might have had good things so say about war, but he was also correct
when he suggested that the war would encourage and empower the “least democratic forces
in American life.” World War I may have been a war to make the
world safe for democracy but according to one historian “the war inaugurated the most
intense repression of civil liberties the nation has ever known.”
War suppressing civil liberties, eh? I’m glad those days have passed.
Speaking of the repression of civil liberties, the NSA is about to start watching this video
because I’m about to use the word “espionage.” The Espionage act of 1917 prohibited spying,
interfering with the draft and “false statements” that might impede military success.
Even more troubling was the Sedition Act passed in 1918, which criminalized statements that
were intended to cast “contempt, scorn or disrepute” on our form of government or
that advocated interference with the war effort. So basically these laws made it a crime to
criticize either the war or the government. In fact, Eugene Debs, the Socialist who ran
for president in 1912, was one of those convicted for giving an anti-war speech. He was sentenced
to 10 years in prison and he served three of them, but he ran for president from prison
and got 900,000 votes. Fortunately, thanks to checks and balances,
you can turn to the courts. Unfortunately, they weren’t very helpful.
Like in Schenck v. the U.S., the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a guy named Schenck
for encouraging people to avoid the draft and ruled that the government can punish critical
speech when it presents a “clear and present danger,” to the state and its citizens.
This was when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced the famous exception to free speech,
that it is not okay to “shout fire in a crowded theater.”
Nor apparently is it okay to shout, “We shouldn’t be in this war, I don’t think.
Just my opinion.” But, some went even further. The 250,000 strong
American Protective League helped the Justice Department identify radicals by harassing
people in what were called “slacker raids.” Good thing those stopped before you got to
high school, right Me from the Past? Slacker. In Bisbee, Arizona vigilantes went so far
to put striking copper miners in boxcars, shipped them out to the middle of the desert
and left them there. The war also raised the question of what it
meant to be a ‘real American.’ Like, public schools “Americanized” immigrants and
sought to “implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conceptions
of righteousness, law and order, and popular government.”
Many cities sponsored Americanization pageants, especially around the Fourth of July, which
the CPI in 1918 re-christened “Loyalty Day”. Hamburgers, a German word, became liberty
sandwiches. World War I certainly didn’t create anti-immigrant
feeling in the United States, but it was used to justify it.
Like, IQ tests, introduced to screen army applicants, were soon used to argue that certain
immigrant groups were inferior to white protestants and could never be fully assimilated into
the United States. Now, of course, those tests were tremendously
biased, but no matter. But, to return to the questions of dissent
and free speech, the suppression continued after the war with the 1919 Palmer Raids,
for instance, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and headed up by a young
J. Edgar Hoover. To be fair, someone did try to blow up Palmer.
So there was some dissent related to the suppression of dissent.
Also, more than 4 million workers engaged in strikes in the United States in 1919 but
that didn’t legally justify the arrest of more than 5,000 suspected radicals and labor
organizers. Most of them were arrested without warrants
and held without charge, sometimes for months. And it’s difficult to imagine that all of
this would have happened without the heightened sense of patriotism that always accompanies
war. However, there were a handful of good things
to come out of the Great War, and not just the stylings of Irving Berlin. Like, students
are often taught that the war led directly to the passage of the 19th amendment, although
a number of states had actually granted the franchise to women before the war.
In Montana, for instance, women didn’t just vote, they held office. Congresswoman Jeannette
Rankin voted against the declaration of war in 1917, and was the only member of the House
to vote against the declaration of war against Japan in 1941.
New opportunities in wartime industry also provided incentives for African Americans
to move north, thus beginning the so-called great migration and the growth of black populations
in northern cities like Chicago and New York. The biggest gain was in Detroit where between
1910 and 1920 the black population rose from 5,741 to 40,838, a 611% increase.
So it’s true that World War I provided some new opportunities for African Americans and
women, but if World War I was supposed to be an opportunity for America to impose its
progressive ideas on the rest of the world, it failed.
The Versailles peace conference where Wilson tried to implement his 14 Points raised hope
for a new diplomatic order. But, the results of the treaty made the 14 points look hypocritical.
I mean, especially when Britain and France took control of Germany’s former colonies
and carved up the Arabian provinces of the Ottoman Empire into new spheres of influence.
Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations was realized, but the U.S. never joined it largely
because Congress was nervous about giving up its sovereign power to declare war. And
disappointment over the outcome of World War I led the U.S. to, for the most part, retreat
into isolationism until World War II. And therein lies the ultimate failure of World
War I. It’s not called “The World War,” it’s called “World War I,” because then
we had to go and have a freaking other one. We’ll talk about that in a few weeks, but
next week we get to talk about suffrage. Yes! We finally did something right. I’ll see
you then. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself.
And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week, there’s a new caption for the
Libertage. If you’d like to suggest one, you can do so in comments where you can also
ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
Stan, can you do some movie magic to get me out of here? Perfect.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video