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PBS shows that WWI is not just dusty old history

Published April 11, 2017 3:01 pm

Television • A century after "The Great War," America is a very different country because of it, "American Experience" documentary shows.
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Almost exactly 100 years after the United States entered World War I, PBS' "American Experience" debuts a fascinating documentary about the nation's involvement in "The Great War."

It's more than just a look back across history at a war that began, for Americans, on April 6, 1917, and has since been overshadowed by World War II. Whether we know it or not — and most of us do not — WWI shaped the world we live in today.

"I think that in some ways, World War I — the Great War — was this earthquake of unprecedented proportions," said Stephen Ives, who produced the three-part, 6-hour documentary. "Everything that had existed and was a sort of settled order in the world was shaken to its foundations by that experience."

When the war began, Austria was ruled by an emperor, Germany by a kaiser, Turkey by a sultan and Russia by a czar.

"At the end of the war," Ives said, "all of those things had been swept away, and the war unleashed this extraordinary series of forces that are simply going to reverberate across the next hundred years."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg, who contributed to the documentary and appears on camera, said, "The United States becomes a different country as a result of this war. And as a result of that, the world becomes a different place. Almost every theme … that we live with today goes directly back to World War I."

The narrative draws on the historical record and unpublished diaries, memoirs and letters from average Americans of the time — those who fought and those who remained on this side of the Atlantic. It's not just about what happened on the battlefield. Part 1 covers the period from before the start of the war in 1914 until the U.S. entered in 1917; Part 2 covers America's entry and the profound changes that wrought; and Part 3 rolls through the end of the war and the battle for a just peace treaty, in Europe and the United States.

It's also filled with surprising — even shocking — stories about the battle to win the vote for women and the beginning of the civil-rights movement.

"Immigration, race relations, the rights of women, the tension between national security and civil liberties, the role of the United States in the world — all of these issues were brought to the floor by World War I," said executive producer Mark Samels. "And all of them continue to resonate today."

Before it entered WWI, the United States was "a relatively isolated, marginal player in world affairs," Ives said. The U.S. Army of about 150,000 was the 17th-largest in the world at the outbreak of WWI — smaller than Serbia's army.

And after the war, "We were an emerging global superpower," Ives said.

There are definite parallels to modern-day America. If schoolchildren are taught anything about President Woodrow Wilson, it's likely that he was an idealist who tried to keep America out of the war; who led us into the war to make the world "safe for democracy"; and whose idealism was thwarted by the punitive Treaty of Versailles that punished Germany and laid the groundwork for WWII.

It's less likely that schools teach that Wilson was a white supremacist who instituted Jim Crow laws in our nation's capital; that he fought against the suffragettes before doing an about-face; that he employed false propaganda; and that he systematically violated constitutional rights.

Or that his own ego and stubbornness torpedoed his hopes of America joining the League of Nations.

Berg, who wrote the biography "Wilson," argued that everything the president did "came from good intentions," acknowledging that "with a hundred years of retrospect, it can look pretty terrible."

And it does.

The documentary lays out the argument that WWI created the country we live in today.

"Our economic policy totally changes because of World War I," Berg said, and Wilson "really built up the federal government. … Suddenly we had thousands of agencies that were running this entire war."

And Berg argued that "our entire foreign policy for the last 100 years comes from a Woodrow Wilson speech" — from his declaration of war in which he said, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

The upheaval caused by "The Great War" didn't end when the armistice was signed, despite efforts to return to a prewar America.

"It was too late," Ives said. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle. And all of these things that were fundamental changes in the kind of nation we were have simply continued to ripple forward."


Twitter: @ScottDPierce —


The three-part, 6-hour "American Experience" documentary series airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7.






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