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  • The Great War (2017) American Experience
  • Matthew C. Hulbert
The Great War (2017) American Experience Distributed by PBS 360 minutes

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the First World War doesn't command a prominent place in America's collective historical consciousness; indeed, the extent of what many contemporary Americans recall about the so-called "War to End All Wars"—assuming they recall anything at all—is that it was fought somewhere in Europe, sometime between the Civil War and World War II. Such detachment from a seminal moment in world history might be blamed in equal parts on the relative brevity of American military involvement (less than a full year) and on the conflict having involved states and empires—from Prussia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Ottoman Empire—which are no longer to be found on modern maps. Regardless of why it exists, this unfamiliarity with the fundamentals of World War I is what inspired a three-episode PBS American Experience documentary on the subject with so much potential—with the ability to start from scratch, as it were; in hindsight, it is also what makes some of the documentary's production decisions so questionable.

On one hand, the range of topics and characters explored between the three episodes is undeniably impressive. President Woodrow Wilson's shrewd outlook on the war is covered at length; he hoped to stay out of the fighting for as long as possible, but desperately wanted a place at the post-war negotiating table. Once involved in the peace process, Wilson planned to unleash American ideals of freedom and democracy on a shell-shocked Old World. To help sell these visions to the nation, as audiences learn, Wilson turned to master propagandist George Creel, who served as the first head of the Public Information Office. The documentary also does an excellent job of juxtaposing Wilson's penchant for soaring, principled rhetoric with his increasingly oppressive, egomaniacal tendency to crack down on anyone and everyone who disagreed with his handling of the war effort—the Alien and Sedition Acts, which led to perhaps the greatest suppression of free speech in American history and the subsequent imprisonment of thousands of dissenters, being primary examples of the latter.

Viewers meet suffragists who refused to put their cause on hold when the nation's attention turned toward war in Europe, even resorting to sometimes fatal hunger strikes when confined by the government. Likewise, socialist presidential candidate and longtime labor activist Eugene V. Debs, himself imprisoned for sedition, makes a welcome appearance and sheds light on both the homefront's anti-war movement and the widespread fear of "outsiders," be they German or socialist. Extensive attention paid to various men from the 15th New York National Guard Regiment—a predominantly African American regiment, better-known as the "Harlem Hell Fighters," who saw gruesome action on the Western Front (in the Argonne Forest and along the Marne)—exposes the blatant hypocrisy of American involvement in the war: while Wilson and supporters of military intervention claimed that American "doughboys" were fighting to spread democracy throughout Europe, at home, African Americans dealt daily with systemic racism, extralegal violence, and Jim Crow segregation. And finally, Eddie Rickenbacker, one of America's top fighter pilots and a Medal of Honor recipient, is profiled to highlight technological innovations and the gradual evolution of aerial warfare.

On the other hand, these detailed glimpses of Wilson, Creel, Debs, Rickenbacker, and Paul, along with still more figures like James Reed Europe, Eugene Ballard, Leroy Johnston, Jane Addams, and even Choctaw radiomen, do not come without costs. The causes of the conflict are covered with rapidity bordering on flippancy. Viewers are essentially informed that German [End Page 111] aggression following the death of an "obscure Austro-Hungarian aristocrat" set off a chain reaction that quickly plunged most of Europe into war. This is a predictable and somewhat skewed rendering of how the war began. What actually happened? Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that obscure aristocrat who found himself on the wrong end of a gun-wielding Serbian nationalist, was actually the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, then held by...


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pp. 111-114
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