Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kennedy - Over Here

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004 [1980].

Argument
Into WWI, Wilson led a nation that was quite divided over fighting the war. Even Congress was shocked at his decision to draft an American Expeditionary Force to take part in the fighting. Thus, George Creel's Committee on Public Information served a crucial role in propaganda. Mobilization required the growth of temporary war administrations: the Treasury, the Food Administration, and the War Industries Board. Despite the growth of government, Wilson was careful not to trample on any free market principles.

Kennedy is surprisingly dismissive of America's role in the war, emphasizing the weaknesses stemming from their lack of experience and undisciplined military leaders. In the experience of the war itself for the doughboys, most were too late and moved too swiftly to gain the disillusionment which typified the writing of European soldiers and American anti-war, neo-isolationists in the 1920s and 30s.

Part of Wilson's failure at Versailles was the political liabilities he accrued at home as a consequence of his war management. The Armistice was one of disappointment for Wilson, as well as those who believed and hoped in his idealism. The La Follette campaign for presidency in 1924 showed that progressivism had not completely lost its energy. Its labor elements had lost its cohesiveness, but the reform impulse remained, still hopeful on the possibilities of shaping a brighter future, though that future might be a few decades down the road.

Kennedy argues "make the world safe for Democracy" has remained America's foreign policy mission statement since then.

Finally, the war marked the beginning of the end of British economic supremacy, and the end of the beginning of the US economic supremacy.

Interpretations
Review: Robert D Cuff, JAH
"Kennedy suggests, moreover, that as a cultural phenomenon the war crisis reveals a number of core American social values, including a deeply rooted suspicion of concentrated public power and a bias toward voluntarism in the construction of social institutions." In other words, its about national character.

Review: John Syrett
"For Progressives...the war provided an opportunity to realize a collective identity which could later be directed at the obvious ills, like inequality, within society. It was upon these grounds that they agreed to support Wilson. And it is here, Kennedy asserts, Progressivism began to die, for Wilson had no interest in using the government for much beyond whipping up patriotism..." Kennedy seems to suggest Wilson had little vision or leadership, at least as far as the war administration-side went...he acquiesces toward the restrictions of freedom, rather than propose or deny them.

Importance for Overall Trends
Kennedy explains the growth of the government as a feature of Wilson's mobilization, not as a result of Progressivism (since so many traditional progressives opposed the war). Further, Wilson was very careful not to over-expand the federal government and the powers under the executive branch beyond a point he could afford politically. The administration "avoided unilateral exercises of government power; they sought the barest minimum of statutory bodies; the doggedly diffused administrative responsibility; they relied wherever possible on the timehonored principle of contractual agreement; and they affirmed repeatedly the temporary character of those few naked instruments of authority they were reluctantly required to grasp." (143) Still, Wilson's creations served an important precedent for FDR.

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