Ed Driscoll

Why is America Ignoring the Centennial of First World War?

David Frum wonders why World War I doesn’t receive much play in the American overculture:

First, Americans prefer narratives in which they play a central heroic role. The Dwight Eisenhower of the First World War was French, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Those Americans who cared most intensely about the war found themselves enlisting under other people’s banners. John Singer Sargent painted his great war canvases for Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Edith Wharton volunteered for French relief organizations. Raymond Chandler joined the Canadian army. Ernest Hemingway drove Red Cross ambulances on the Italian front. Henry James forswore his U.S. citizenship and naturalized as British. John Dos Passos, another Red Cross volunteer, later savagely satirized the war as “Mr. Wilson’s war”—somebody else’s war, not his. So it has remained. When the great American literary critic Paul Fussell wrote his marvelous “The Great War and Modern Memory,” he focused on English writers. Their American counterparts may have had a lot to say, but somehow Fussell decided it was not an American thing.

Second, while Americans did win victories in 1918, on the whole, the performance of U.S. forces in the war was not very impressive. Americans did not lack for courage: U.S. forces showed a fighting spirit that had long before been bled out of their allies and adversaries. But they did lack experienced officers, adequate equipment, built-out logistical systems, and almost everything else necessary to fight an industrial war effectively. Their commanders resented and rejected advice from their bloodied French and British counterparts. Lacking sufficient artillery, tanks, and aircraft, they denied that those things were necessary. They drove Americans against German trenches and bunkers in 1915-style human lines, suffering monstrous 1915 casualties for pitiful 1915 gains in ground. There were few First World War equivalents of D-Day or Midway out of which legends could be made.

Third, the war does not obviously or immediately relate to contemporary controversies. We can’t talk about race without talking about the Civil War. Any discussion of America’s role in the world will soon invoke World War II and Vietnam. The Revolution will forever transfix the Republic it created. The First World War, however, now excites interest mainly from isolationist libertarians looking for a war it’s less awkward to oppose than World War II. The war’s most tragic lessons about the need for United States leadership to secure world peace have been so thoroughly internalized by the American political elite that it has forgotten where and how it learned them.

It’s that last item that’s key — Wilson’s hardline stance against free speech was so virulent, it caused his fellow “Progressives” to quickly rebrand themselves, even before he had left office, as “liberals.” He’s the direct predecessor to much of Mr. Obama’s anti-free speech, anti-journalistic, anti-American, pro-racialist worldview.

No wonder Wilson been airbrushed out of the left’s collective memories — with much American domestic history during World War I along with it.