Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
28 Oct. 2019
Review by Ruth Truss, University of Montevallo
The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath
By Garrett Peck
New York: Pegasus, 2018. Pp. xvi, 415. ISBN 978–0–674–97147–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

Garrett Peck's overview of the First World War from the US point of view describes the events leading up to and during the war, as well as the postwar years including and beyond the treaty ratification fight. This wide angle focus on the conflict is a particular strength of the book. It allows the author to consider in some detail not only the military and political results of the Great War, but also social and economic issues typically overlooked in studies of the conflict and its aftermath. Peck, a historian at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, DC, has written extensively on prohibition,[1] the topic of a chapter here on the Eighteenth Amendment.

Although Woodrow Wilson's name is absent from the book's title, his role during the Great War is the central theme of Peck's book. So much so that passages not directly concerned with Wilson or his inner circle read more like a basic textbook than a scholarly monograph. The Wilson storyline is buttressed by the author's conversance with pertinent sources and analyses.

This is not to say that Peck is uncritical: he takes Wilson to task for his role in the treaty negotiations and his lack of political insight. Even after the November 1918 elections gave the Republicans a Congressional majority, Wilson ignored wise advice to alter the makeup of the American delegation to Paris and not to attend as a principal negotiator himself. Once in Europe, he failed to appreciate the nuances of the political pressures on his counterparts among the Big Four or the true value of his moral position.

The crowds may have convinced Wilson that his mission was destiny, that he spoke for the people of the world, and that the European people wholeheartedly supported his efforts toward peace without victory. This belief proved delusional: they cheered him for sending an army that had helped win the war. Few of the Allies had Wilson's idealism. They wanted concrete rewards owed for their sacrifice. (217)

Peck is critical of other primary characters as well. He paints Wilson's wife, Edith, in a mostly negative light in the period after the president's stroke. Her attempts to protect her stricken husband were understandable from a personal standpoint but they were not in the country's best interest: cabinet members and such highly valued confidants as Edward House were denied access to the president simply because Edith disliked or distrusted them. The author criticizes General John Pershing, especially for adhering "to his flawed open warfare doctrine" (143), which led to the tragedy of Belleau Wood and the needlessly heavy losses suffered by American troops.

Several jarring errors of fact are evident.[2] In a section titled "The War Declaration," one reads that "the president can argue in support of war, but only Congress can declare war"; yet, two paragraphs later, we are told that Wilson "could have declared war in 1915" (84). Peck also erroneously claims that "the question of the Central Powers would … be dealt with in the Treaty of Versailles, including the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire" (157), ignoring other treaties such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Trianon, Sèvres, and Lausanne.

Another oddity is a tendency to randomly insert facts with little or no apparent connection to the topic at hand. In the discussion of the 75mm French field gun, for instance, the reader learns that a "French 75" cocktail originated at a New Orleans bar. In an account of the dire effects of the French winter on American troops, Peck observes that they

froze in their billets and haylofts. In February 1918, however, the army created an independent newspaper for the doughboys, known as the Stars and Stripes. Pershing authorized publication of the newspaper to give doughboys patriotic news of the war effort and news from the home front. (144)

What winter weather might have to do with the publication of the Stars and Stripes is never made clear. Elsewhere, we read that "the Lusitania's sinking came just three years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, a precedent that did not go unnoticed" (30). A "precedent"? Did the Lusitania collide with an iceberg? And a paragraph about the Black Sox scandal appears, inexplicably, amid a discussion of the consequences of Wilson's stroke. An exception is a fine, more relevant chapter on women's suffrage and prohibition.

Serious students of the Great War will find little that is new and true here. For general readers, however, the book may serve as an engaging and helpful overview of its subject. In fact, Garrett Peck may have envisioned just such a target audience, since, for example, he explicitly defines "conscientious objectors"—surely an unnecessary intrusion for anyone with some knowledge of American history.

[1] See, e.g., his The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Pr, 2009) and Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren't (Charleston, SC: History Pr, 2011).

[2] The book is also marred by poor editing and proofreading. Evidence of this includes sentence fragments; misplaced or missing comparisons, antecedents, and modifiers; and dozens of missing, misspelled, incorrect, and superfluous words—not to mention several errors in punctuation and grammar.

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