Book Reviews

How Did Participation in the First World War Help Shape Modern America?

By Melvin Small
Tuesday, October 11, 2016, 1:54 PM

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A review of Michael S. Neiberg's The Path to War: How the First World War Changed America (Oxford University Press 2016).


Michael S. Neiberg’s The Path to War: How the First World War Changed America seeks not only to tell the story of how Americans reacted to World War I but also to emphasize the significance of that “largely forgotten” war (p.7) in the shaping of modern America. Neiberg is the distinguished and prolific author of more conventional accounts of the outbreak of the Great War, its military history, and the ending of World War II, among other books. He concentrates on the various American publics’ opinions as he moves through the key events that determined their three-year shift from rooting for the British and French in 1914 to supporting President Woodrow Wilson’s call for war in the spring of 1917. Presidential decision-making —the subject of most books on American entry into the war — here takes a back seat to the positions promoted by citizens of all political views, ethnicities, and stations in life, as seen in magazines, cartoons, speeches, newspapers, and letters.

Neiberg, Chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, begins his lively narrative in 1913 with the Zabern incident in German-occupied Alsace, where an army officer’s aggressive actions against the local population reflected Americans’ belief in two Germanys: militaristic Prussia and the land of philosopher kings and musicians. According to Neiberg, “Americans followed the Zabern affair closely” (p.11). His discussion of the affair reveals both the contributions of his approach and its difficulties. Aside from The Literary Digest’s impressionistic periodic surveys of published opinion, and in the absence of any methodological explanations from the author himself, one must accept that his well-researched analysis of indicators of opinion in the media does reflect “a majority of Americans’” (p.41) opinions. And he has devoted considerable attention to examining an especially diverse and impressive number of sources.

Once the war begins, Neiberg goes through the major issues beginning with its outbreak in 1914, and particularly that initial black mark against Germany in American public opinion, the real and alleged atrocities in Belgium. He then discusses responses that produced refugee relief and even the enlistment of some Americans in the Allied armies. Things became worse for Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. While the British also frequently violated American neutrality on the high seas, no one died directly because of those actions, and not many U.S. citizens opposed their “both profitable and morally questionable” neutrality (p.101).

Germany’s image became darker after the Armenian massacres perpetrated by her ally Turkey and the sinking of the Sussex in 1916. Moreover, the Kaiser’s spies and saboteurs in the United States, some real and some imagined, further moved the Americans toward the Allied camp. Neiberg covers in detail the varied responses to the issue of Preparedness and how it figured in the election of 1916. As events moved to 1917, the generally anti-Russian public was buoyed by the first revolution, angered by the German declaration of unlimited submarine warfare, and outraged by the Zimmerman telegram.

Neiberg’s most important contribution through this book is his careful examination of several key ethnic groups as they moved from a pro-German or anti-Ally orientation to support for entry into war on the Allied side. He explains how the Irish, as seen in their media and political actions, began to sublimate their knee-jerk anti-British attitudes, while Jewish-Americans permitted their pro-British feelings to overwhelm their understandable anti-Czarist position and German-Americans, most of whom supported their homeland at the war’s onset, came to move closer to the general support for the Allies by 1917. Neiberg also traces the attitudes reflected in African-American media.

The author concludes that the war contributed to assimilation, as virtually all groups came to see that their country had no other choice but to join the Allies in 1917. This is one of the reasons Neiberg feels that World War I does not receive the prominence it deserves in American history in general. Perhaps this is so—but his story stops in 1917. If assimilation had triumphed, how do we account for the restrictive immigration laws of 1924 and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during that decade? Moreover, he contends that Americans finally concluded in 1917 that there was no escape from their role in the world. If so, they apparently had forgotten that conclusion during the isolationist twenties and thirties.

One difficult question not quite answered in this admirable survey is the relationship between opinion and policy, a question made even more difficult with respect to American public opinion during the years of the First World War by the absence of modern polling. By concentrating on opinion, then, is Neiberg suggesting that Washington was pushed along towards war as the American public moved in that direction? Or, as also seems plausible, that the American people’s reactions to the major events of World War I reflected, in part, how their leaders publicly reacted to those events? In any event, the author makes a strong case for the readiness of the public to follow Wilson in 1917, and, most likely, Wilson’s understanding that he had most of that public behind him.