From the Desk of Chris Dubbs: Isolation and Image-Making

The following contribution comes from author Chris Dubbs. Dubbs served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and has worked as a newspaper journalist, editor, and publisher. He is the author of American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of War Reporting (Nebraska, 2017), America’s U-Boats: Terror Trophies of World War I (Nebraska, 2014), and is the coauthor of Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight (Nebraska, 2011). He co-edited (with John-Daniel Kelley) The AEF in Print: A Journalistic Anthology of America in World War I that will appear in 2018 from the University of North Texas Press.

From April 6, 2017 until November 11, 2018, the United States will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its involvement in World War 1. It can be hard to see WW1 in the rearview mirror, sandwiched as it is between the mountainous historiography of the Civil War and World War II. But for this nineteen-month anniversary period, historians and editorial writers will give it their best shot, reminding us of our first modern war and trying to explain its relevance to 21st century readers. I can’t wait to see what they have to say.

My book, American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting, tells how correspondents covered WWI while it was happening. Their accounts represent the first attempts to make sense of the experience, to justify American involvement, monitor its participation, and celebrate its accomplishments. How they covered it told as much about the American character as what they covered.

To give some context, let me state that American journalists were the best reporters covering WWI, prior to U.S. entry. As representatives of the neutral United States, they got access to every army, in every war zone. Although largely sympathetic to the Allied cause, they reported the war from both sides, with considerable objectivity and a curiously democratic attitude of entitlement to the information that informed public opinion. In a climate of strict censorship and news management, they followed the rules of war reporting when they had to and circumvented them when they could.

However, once the United States took the long-delayed step of entering the war, the nature of reporting changed. Journalists became promoters of the American experience. From the declaration of war, through mobilization, the warm welcome of the first U.S. troops in France, training with French and British instructors, the slow introduction to the fighting, the massive buildup of men and resources, the string of victorious battles, the Armistice, President Woodrow Wilson’s triumphal post-war welcome in the capitals of Europe, and the Versailles Peace Conference, reporters celebrated American character, ideals, and capabilities.

pershings-crusaders-photo

Poster for the 1917 war movie Pershing’s Crusaders. The image shows General John J. Pershing, leading troops of the American Expeditionary Forces, while spirits of crusaders hover in the background. Library of Congress.

One hundred years have eroded many of the details of the war from public memory, but the major story lines still stand out: The United States grew its diminutive, 19th century army into a modern fighting force and turned its massive industrial capacity to war production, swinging the tide of the war towards victory. In the process, it abandoned its long-held isolationism and stepped onto the world stage as a major power.

The anniversary will justifiably commemorate these accomplishments and remind us of those lost details—precisely the purpose of anniversaries. But, war anniversaries serve another purpose, and that is to set the event into historical context. What was the impact of America’s participation in WWI? Does one hundred years offer any new insights?

In 1967, to mark the 50th anniversary of U.S. entry into the war, noted historian Barbara Tuchman reflected on the occasion for the New York Times. She dutifully recounted the events that led the United States to take the plunge into war, after thirty-two months of neutrality. That same ground will be covered in the coming months.

But war anniversaries seldom pass without some wider reflection. Each generation takes the opportunity to distill its own lessons from the past. Tuchman was writing in 1967, more than a decade into American involvement in Vietnam, and she used that as context. Since World War I “we have replaced the illusion of isolation with a new illusion of omnipotence,” she noted. “We now see ourselves as if endowed with some mission to organize the world in our image.”

Tuchman went on to say that America was “no longer fresh and untrained [as it had been when it entered WWI] but an old hand, skilled, practiced, massively equipped, sophisticated in method, yet infirm of purpose, and without a goal that anyone can define.”

When President Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, he challenged Americans to “make the world safe for democracy.” Fifty years after his speech, Tuchman saw in it the blueprint of the political overreach then playing out in Vietnam. “We cannot mold the non-Western world to our desires nor require its acceptance of our concepts of political freedom and representative government,” she noted. “The better part of valor is to spend it learning to live with differences, however hostile.”

9780803285743

Now that we are another fifty years removed from WWI, and with the United States currently embroiled in unending wars, today’s writers may see an echo of Tuchman’s claim of American overreach and charge that America’s “mission to organize the world in our image” is due for an overhaul. In fact, they may conclude that the pendulum has already begun to swing back. With the talk of “America First,” of building walls, imposing trade barriers, restricting immigration, diminishing our role in NATO, and limiting other international cooperation, they may see a shift in direction towards our pre-WWI isolation.

Today’s historians and editorial writers will not be able to resist the temptation to find meaning in this anniversary. Nor should they. I’m waiting to see how this generation interprets the American role in World War I.