Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why World War I Isn't Well Known

In high school, I can remember the entire section of the history basically devoting a total of two pages to World War I.  A brief paragraph covered the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand.  A six-line paragraph covered Austria-Hungary's threat to Serbia.  There's around four lines to cover the war period from August of 1914 to spring of 1917 when the US entered the war.  Toss in two paragraphs to explain the US participation.  Add a six-line explanation for the peace treaty and how it was screwed up.  And then add twelve lines to explain Wilson's grand "League of Nations", the Nobel Peace Prize for Wilson for his grand effort, and then an explanation on how the evil Republican-led Senate in 1919 voted down US participation with the League of Nations.

Yep, that's it.

It's a lousy history lesson, which would usually drag on for three days.  There were always sixteen different terms or dates that were driven into you to remember for the marginal quiz that followed days later.

From the various events of American history over the past hundred years....I'd generally rate World War I and it's understanding on Americans.....as the second most unknown event of the century (with the Depression as number one).

 Why?  It comes down to three unique features.

First, for two entire years....President Wilson (Democrat)....from August of 1914 until November of 1916....went on a absolute political policy of non-participation in World War I.  It was one thing to sell hardware or food to the British, French or Russians.....but we simply would not be part of a European war.

The entire election period going up to November of 1916.....was built on the central theme that Wilson was going to keep us out of the war.  The win for Wilson?  It was roughly a four-percent margin win for Wilson in popular vote, and around twenty electoral votes over the edge for Wilson.  A difference of roughly five-thousand votes in California, and the state's thirteen electoral votes would have gone onto the Republican contender and Wilson would have lost.

The truth is that Wilson wasn't that popular on a nation-wide scale in November of 1916....except he did avoid putting the US into the war, and that probably was a big deal in selling his marginal administration to the public for an election.

An odd thing happened within two months after the election.....after a US vessel or two were hit by German torpedoes.....an attitude change occurred.  By April of 1917....six months after the election, the non-involvement of the US was coming to an end.  We were to enter the war.  For a number of individuals who voted for Wilson....it was a bitter negative.  Some Wilson historians have attempted over the years to lessen the pain of this change of attitude....but it's best to forget everything rather than clean up the mess.

Second?  Once we entered the war.....it took roughly eighteen months to conclude it.  It was roughly 116,000 US troops who did not return from the war.  Congress raced in to conclude a number of "gifts" to various states, Senators, and to the troops themselves.  The promise of the gift-money to the troops?  It came quickly....but was attached to a timetable that set to be paid twenty years in the future.  The typical American GI from the war would have gotten between $100 and $700 depending on his months of service and if he was overseas (a higher rate).  Hostility over the bonus deal being two decades away really got people hyped up and negative.  Most Americans of today are totally unaware of the bonus deal.

Third?  The treaty was marginal one-star episode and was more for theater, than actually concluding a war itself.  Wilson would arrive and participate, but found himself in the midst of negotiations that went in circles and would simply create the conditions for World War II.  Few historians want to tell this part of the story and indicate that Wilson's participation guaranteed a second war.

Fourth?  All of the peace efforts led to some concept of the League of Nations (the current UN), which US political figures (Senators in particular) were amused by the paper-tiger that Wilson was to create.  Wilson would get a Nobel Prize for the League concept....but no one believed it'd work as intended.  Historians rarely want to talk at length over this because it simply diminishes Wilson's record.

Years after finishing high school....I'd be sitting in a History 102 class....where the war was again covered.....this time going for five pages.  Same type information....maybe a few more names and some explanation over the Czar, Rasputin, and the demise of the Russian Empire.

The trouble is....if you really want to know of World War I.....you'd have to sit and read over at least a dozen books....discussing German history back to the mid-1800s, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and a five-hundred page description of the Hapsburg Empire (to include the delightful Sissi and the mysterious death of the Red Prince).

You'd have to sit down and understand the 1912 election....why Taft lost, why Teddy Roosevelt jumped into an election that was guaranteed to fail, and how third-party candidates generally screw up an entire election outcome.

You'd also have to read up on newspaper coverage of the period, and how editors slanted the news to benefit one particular party or candidate.  You'd have to grasp the general economics of both Europe and the US.  And you'd have to read to some degree over technology developments for the military going from the 1860s to 1914.....war and massive casualty counts changed in a dramatic fashion once we crossed a certain boundary of science and technology.

When you have some historian or media person try to simplify World War I, and limit blame or the triggers to three items....you can basically get up and walk out of the room.  There's a minimum of fifteen triggers to World War I, and there's probably just as many triggers created at the end....thus inviting World War II to occur.

All of this....over the route of Crown Prince on a military Inspector General tour of Sarajevo, and meeting up with misfortune as some dimwit anarchist kills him and his wife.....when the driver took the wrong road and realized he needed to back up and get back on the right road.

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