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  • Reconstruction and World War I: The Birth of What Sort of Nation(s)?
  • Brook Thomas (bio)

In domestic affairs, influential studies like David Blight’s Race and Reunion (2001) and Michael Rogin’s analysis of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) show how, in the first half of the twentieth century, distorted memory of the “nightmare” of Reconstruction helped legitimate a segregated nation.1 Little attention, however, has been paid to how memory of Reconstruction influenced foreign affairs.2 That influence is much less predictable and sometimes surprising. For instance, General Lucius Clay, in charge of the “Reconstruction and Occupation” of Germany after World War II, made “damned sure that there weren’t any carpetbaggers in the military government” (qtd. in Smith 237). Influenced by accounts of “carpetbagger misrule,” this son of a segregationist, but economically progressive, Georgia senator kept his word with positive results.

If it is disconcerting to acknowledge that distorted memory of Reconstruction could sometimes have a positive effect, one goal of this essay is to channel any resulting discomfort into a reexamination of some of our settled beliefs about how Reconstruction was understood at the time. I will look at how four men of letters responded to the aftermath of World War I: Woodrow Wilson; his enemy, Henry Cabot Lodge; his ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page, the author of best-selling Reconstruction fiction; and onetime Wilson supporter W. E. B. Du Bois. Wilson, Page, and [End Page 559] Du Bois had contributed to a special 1901 series in the Atlantic Monthly on Reconstruction. Lodge, who wrote many books on US history after a dissertation under Henry Adams, cosponsored what some consider the last attempt at Reconstruction, the Federal Election Bill of 1890.

The most obvious link between the aftermath of World War I and Reconstruction is the so-called Black Horror on the Rhine or, in German, Schwarze Schmach. Even after peace was declared, allies occupied the Rhine, with the French deploying some troops from Africa.3 Germans hoped to put a wedge between the victorious nations by claiming that these “barbarians” placed rule by law and German womanhood in peril. Influenced by images of black troops abusing white women while occupying the South during Reconstruction, much of the US press played into the Germans’ hands. Indeed, Wilson had advised the French not to use African troops, just as Ulysses S. Grant, while still in the military, advised President Andrew Johnson not to use African American troops in southern occupation. A study by a Swedish Christian society concluded that there were fewer rapes and less crime in regions occupied by African troops (Fraenkel 159). But the damage was done.

The alleged Black Horror on the Rhine has been well covered, even though, perhaps because it was so obvious, for the most part its connection with Reconstruction has not been noted (Fraenkel, Nelson). But there are other connections between the occupation of Germany and Reconstruction. Military occupation, especially after peace has been declared, raises complicated legal issues. The occupation of the South provided precedents for some legal issues that arose 50 years later. One of the experts on such issues was the political scientist James W. Garner, a student of William A. Dunning, with a first book on Reconstruction Mississippi.4 There were other, less empirically verifiable, but likely, influences. The Swedish group studying the crimes committed by occupying French forces speculated that African troops might have treated Germans better than their white counterparts because they did not have memory of Germans occupying French territory during the Franco-Prussian War. That memory most likely contributed to a harsher occupation in the French zone than in the American, where many entertained images of revengeful northerners occupying a defeated South. This difference may have affected the peace process in general.

The guiding principle of peace talks was “self-determination”: new nations were to be created out of the ruins of the German, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires based on an area’s predominant ethnic population. But views of self-determination varied. Some adopted the position of French Premier George Clemenceau. According to John Maynard Keynes, they believed that a “human [End Page 560] nature which...


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