Europe and the United States have spent the last few years deeply immersed in the memory of the First World War. Each day, each month, each year brings another centennial to mark and acknowledge—“celebrate” being an inappropriate term in relationship to such a massive human tragedy. Anniversaries provide multiple opportunities for reflection and scholarly reappraisal. FPRI has already marked the centennial of the war’s origins in the Fall 2014 issue of Orbis, which included articles on the war by both Michael Neiberg and John Maurer. FPRI continued the effort with its annual Butcher History Institute, held at the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois, on 9-10 April.
Following a tradition of bringing teachers from across the United States to discuss issues related to American military history, this year’s History Institute chose as its subject the US entry into and participation in the First World War. Hoping to introduce the teachers to some of the newest scholarship on the war as they prepare lesson plans in advance of the 2017 centennial of US entry into the war, FPRI scholars spoke on a wide range of topics over the weekend. The First Division was itself born in the First World War, and its museum is housed at the former estate of legendary Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, who served with the First and named his estate in the western suburbs of Chicago after the French town where the division experienced its first action in May 1918. The First Division Museum has hosted eleven such history institutes over the years, though this one was especially poignant considering the connection between the topic and the location.
To mark the centennial and celebrate the success of the History Institute, FPRI plans to publish revised versions of the lectures from that lively and stimulating weekend. Walter McDougall’s study of “The Great War’s Impact on American Foreign Policy and Civil Religion,” has already appeared as an FPRI E-Note in April. This month’s issue of The American Review offers three more presentations made to the teachers.
Prof. Michael Neiberg of the Army War College, author of an Dance of the Furies, an influential book on the European response to the coming of the War, spoke about the American public’s reactions to the war, both during the era of neutrality and beyond. His findings, which many will find surprising, preview some of the arguments in his forthcoming book, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America. This brief essay version of Professor Neiberg’s talk should give a flavor of his presentation, and, we hope, spur further interest both in the topic and in Prof. Neiberg’s other works.
Col. Douglas Mastriano of the Army War College also offered a pithy and provocative analysis of American preparations for the war and their effects on the US military performance. His critical observations about the reluctance of political leaders (from President Woodrow Wilson on down) to begin preparations before the crisis forced their hands raises important questions about the connections between military policy and domestic politics. In so many ways, the First World War was the beginning of the transition of the United States from relatively isolated regional power to global actor. Mastriano reminds us that many of the challenges associated with that global role—the tension between presidential rhetoric and the realities of administration, for example—were present from the beginning. His message that may not encourage optimism about our ability to solve them today, but should at least encourage us to continue seeking the proper balance between practical efficiency and the messiness of democratic politics in an unruly world.
Finally, Your Humble Editor offers a version of his lecture to the Institute, which was the final lecture of the weekend. Attempting to link the end of the war to its beginning and course, this essay reflects on the nature of the international system and the search for a proper balance between force and diplomacy. Building to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means, the essay explores the tension between the two, as well as the ironic impact that expanded appeals to public opinion can have on both war- and peacemaking. Things rarely go well when warriors and politicians fail to recognize that force and diplomacy should set limits on each other, and the disappointments of the postwar settlement offer yet another reminder of that sad fact.
With these essays, The American Review again stakes its claim to be a place for discussions of the contested terrain between culture, society, and geopolitics. Let us know how you think things have gone thus far. We thank those of you who have contacted us already. You’ll be hearing from us, and we look forward to hearing from more of you in the future.