Though The World Remade: America in World War I is a big disappointment, in fairness to the author G. J. Meyer one should concede that he probably wrote the book he intended, but unfortunately not the book that I hoped for. I wanted to find out why and how the United States found she had to enter the Great War on side of the allies. The principal fault in the book is the lack of discussion or even recognition of the place in the world that America had achieved by the second decade of the last century. Though militarily the United States had then created a navy comparable to the Royal Navy, her army was little more than a frontier constabulary scarcely up to the task of chasing Pancho Villa out of Texas. Had the war continued as expected well into 1919, she would have fielded the most powerful army in the world. Leadership of western civilization had belonged to Spain in the 16th century, passed to France in the 17th century, Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. Now it was American’s turn, though it was a responsibility neither her politicians nor her people were ready to accept till 1945, perhaps not entirely even now, as the foreign policy of the current administration betrays.
When I read the phrase, “The American army’s Springfield rifle was considered the best in the world,” I realized that G. J. Meyer ought not to be writing military history. In fact the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield (Lee, BTW, was an American officer) had twice the magazine capacity & an experienced infantryman could fire it much faster, so fast that the Germans thought the British had a machine gun. There are only a few chapters in this very long book given to the actual fighting by the AEF, mostly at a high level of abstraction, though we read a good deal about Douglas MacArthur. Meyer seems to have missed the significance of the U-boat campaign, and its role not only in America’s entry into the war, but why marked the necessity of abandoning a passive role and leaving freedom of commerce to the Royal Navy to insure.
The British might have committed more technical violations of American neutrality with their no-nonsense enforcement of their naval blockade, though I found Meyers’ hand-wringing about starving German civilians maudlin—if the Germans had cared about their civilian population’s welfare, they could have ended the war; they were occupying Belgium and Northern France, after all. But the U-boat ended the leisure the two oceans had provided to isolate the United States from what was going on in the rest of the world, though another couple of decades would pass before Americans would receive a demonstration of what enemy submarines off their coast could accomplish.
Meyer notices, though in passing and mostly with respect to Wilson’s ambitions, that only by entering the war could America play a significant role in making the peace, a peace that would result in redrawing the maps of three continents, with consequences that are very much still with us today, especially in the Middle East. More important, as appears to have escaped the author, is that if America had remained neutral, the peace that would have resulted in Europe would have been the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, leaving Germany and her clients masters of eastern Europe, and ultimately the most powerful rival claimant for world leadership.
Of course, strategic reality had to be sold to the American electorate with the mushy moralism we still label “Wilsonianism”—“making the world safe for democracy” and “self-determination”—but under all the mush there is not only a good deal of enlightened self-interest, but a vital understanding of why America exists, of the duty of the people who inhabit the world’s most powerful nation to make the world a civilized and peaceful polity, to banish cruel tyrants and unnecessary suffering. The Romans understood that, the British understood that, and in 1917 it began to dawn on the Americans. And it may dawn on G. J. Meyer.
I am grateful to NetGalley and Random House for an advance review copy.