Whatever else you do this week, watch or record the moving, thought-provoking PBS series The Great War! Since it totals six hours, broadcast over three evenings, you may want to record the documentary to watch at your own pace. Or, look for other viewing options on the PBS network website. Or, consider ordering it on DVD from Amazon.
Our readers with a global perspective may wonder why PBS is suddenly marking this centennial, which most news media around the world began marking in 2014. The answer lies in the over-arching theme of this sprawling film: PBS is examining the war from an American perspective and the U.S. did not join the conflict until April 6, 1917. This month, then, is “our” centennial as Americans.
In fact, that American point of view opens up some very thought-provoking—and timely—reflections on our American attitudes toward racial, ethnic and gender diversity. As we learn in Part 1 of the three-part series, when the war broke out in 1914, one third of “Americans” had been born in some other country. We were truly a nation of immigrants and the early years of the European war sorely tested the strength of what we then called our Melting Pot.
The first night of the series explains how Americans slowly turned against Germany in this conflict. Beyond German attacks on American ships, including the infamous sinking of the ocean liner The Lusitania, we learn that Americans were horrified when Germany introduced poison gas along the Western Front in France. Thinking about the public response to that first attack is as timely as headlines out of Syria in recent days.
However you respond to Part 1—and particularly if find it merely a refresher course on events you already know by heart—make sure you don’t miss Part 2. That’s when the film opens up to examine deeper issues of diversity. Many influential Americans who came to support the U.S. entry into the conflict did so because they felt an expanded U.S. Army would finish the job of the Melting Pot. A popular phrase in that era was that serving together in the war would “yank the hyphen out of these immigrants.” Americans would no longer be Polish-Americans or Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans. Through the crucible of warfare, veterans would return home as simply “Americans.”
Whatever you think about that idea—the fact is that President Wilson and most other American leaders had a tragically near-sighted view of whose civil rights they were trying to promote. Wilson was a Southerner and outspoken racist who personally ensured that Jim Crow rules were instituted in Washington D.C. He also tried to fight women campaigning for a universal right to vote with police powers and imprisonment. The second part of this documentary extensively explores those conflicts that reshaped our own 20th Century history as much as the bloody battles in French trenches.
Why were did “we” join the war in 1917? Wilson declared that it was so the world could “be made safe for democracy.”
Given the oppression and violence against minorities on the homefront, one of the rallying cries in civil rights protests became: “Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”
And that question is as urgent today as it was a century ago.
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ReadTheSpirit has been covering the centennial of the First World War since the anniversary of the conflict’s outbreak in the summer of 1914. Among our many previous columns, here are several of the most popular with readers:
‘Green Fields of France’—Peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry posted this series of reflections and videos on some of the haunting music connected with WWI.
Pope Francis—The pontiff marked the centennial in 1914 with pointed remarks about the danger and the legacy of war. We published an excerpt.
‘The Great and Holy War’—We still believe that the most important book on the World War I centennial is by Philip Jenkins. His book describes the underlying religious movements that fueled the war and its aftermath. Three years after publication, Jenkins’ book remains unique—and vitally important to anyone who cares about religious influences in our world.