Review of “The World Remade: America in World War I” by G. J. Meyer

G. J. Meyer writes in his introduction to The World Remade that he will tell four stories that are almost always told separately: (1) how the U.S. came to enter the First World War; (2) how America’s intervention decided the outcome; (3) how the war changed the U.S. in its very nature; and (4) how the Paris peace conference dashed the hope that the postwar settlement would justify America’s sacrifices. Meyer succeeds in covering each of these issues comprehensively and cogently and with occasional fresh insights even 100 years after the events described.

Looming over the complicated tale is the now controversial figure of Woodrow Wilson, a president elected in 1916 ostensibly because “he kept us out of the war,” but who schemed to enter the conflict on his terms. For example, Wilson insisted that America never became an “ally” of the Entente Powers, merely an “associated Power,” and never even declared war against Austria-Hungary, thus staying above the fray.

In Meyer’s telling, Wilson is almost Trumpian in his need for adulation. Despite his veneer of probity, Wilson comes off as nearly as immoral as our current president. Meyer opines that Wilson “was drawn into the war less by political pressure, or the U-boat campaign, or the greed and fear of American business, than by his own rhetoric.”

Woodrow Wilson

There are no heroes among the principal actors in this tale. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Socialist party may be an exception, but he was a minor player who spent most of the war in prison. John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, is another American icon whose reputation is tarnished in Meyer’s account.

Among the surprises in the book, Meyer is fairly sympathetic to Germany’s involvement in the war. He notes that Britain’s use of propaganda was far more effective than Germany’s, attributing America’s entry in the war on the side of the Entente as a function of Britain’s successful manipulation of how news of the war reached the United States. Early in the war, the British navy cut the only transatlantic cables coming from Europe, leaving Americans dependent on news arriving over cables from Britain.

Meyer decries the effects of the war on American civil liberties. Opponents of the war were not only castigated and ostracized, but many were imprisoned on flimsy charges.

Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian military historian and philosopher, defined victory in war as ending in a better arrangement than what preceded the war. Meyer concludes that despite a clear military “victory,” the arrangements following the war were at best an ambiguous improvement. In Russia, the unattractive, undemocratic tsarist regime was supplanted by the execrable communist state; the Hohenzollern regime in Germany was replaced by the weak Weimar Republic that led to the triumph of the Nazis; the Middle East, subject to manipulation by the war’s participants, became the mess it is today; and Britain and France were weakened militarily and economically so much that two decades later they were unable to put up feeble resistance to Nazi aggression.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom (right), in German military uniforms in Berlin before the war; 1913

Evaluation: Meyer intersperses his principal narrative with short chapters – almost asides – about specific aspects of the war such as: labor relations; buffalo soldiers; the temperance movement; the air war; Sergeant Alvin York; and the influenza epidemic. His writing is clear and his arguments are compelling. This is an excellent book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017

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