The Great War and American Memory
Cooper, John Milton, Jr., The Virginia Quarterly Review
Academic historians have a penchant for tagging simple things with fancy titles. One example is interviewing or seeking out recollections by participants in events. Right after World War I such journalist biographers as Ray Stannard on Woodrow Wilson and Burton J. Hendrick on Walter Hines Page did those things without thinking twice about them. Twenty years later, however, when academics belatedly discovered the value of this kind of evidence they dubbed their practice "oral history." There is also the matter of posing alternatives to what actually happened. Historians cannot avoid doing it, and in fact they do it all the time. But among academics it is customary to disdain such speculation as "iffy history"-customary, that is, unless the practice goes under the fashionable rubric of "counterfactualism."
Another favorite academic term is "discursive," which usually means rambling or meandering. Called by any name, this is the best way to approach the subject of what World War I has meant in American memory. One bit of discursiveness is to pose the question that Shakespeare has Juliet ask, "What's in a name?" What lies behind the different names that the British and Americans give to the cataclysmic conflict that raged from 1914 to 1918? The British called it the "Great War," and they have persisted in using that name even after a second conflict of even vaster scope and devastation marked this earlier one as the first in a series. That name never caught on in the United States. Instead, Americans have usually called this conflict the "World War," and they did so even before the advent of its successor. The term originally arose in Germany, to refer to the means by which that nation meant to achieve "world power"-- weltkrieg as the path to weltmacht. In the United States, Theodore Roosevelt used the term in 1915, but it really came into use in 1919 and 1920 when German writings about the war were translated and published here.
The difference in usage is easy to understand. Europeans disagree, but American intervention was what really transformed the 1914-- 1918 conflict into a true world war. This was not just a matter of expanded geographical scope. Rather, both American entry into the war in April 1917 and the ideological justification that President Woodrow Wilson gave for this action transformed the stakes of the conflict. The Bolshevik Revolution six months later further altered those ideological dimensions. True, before 1917 both sides had tried to make mischief for their adversaries by fomenting nationalist revolts among the other side's subject peoples or encouraging radical dissent in their homelands and borderlands. In 1917, two German ploys-their attempt to entice Mexico into the war against the United States with the Zimmermann telegram and their repatriation of Lenin to Russia by means of a sealed train-would become the most famous examples of such strategic and ideological guerrilla raiding. But it was really American entry, together with Wilson's war aims and peace program, that began to make this war something more than a traditional European national-dynastic-imperial conflict carried out by modern technological means.
Another bit of discursiveness is blatant plagiarism. All but one word of the title of this essay are openly and egregiously pilfered from Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. To anyone interested in World War I or military history or historical memory this book comes as nothing short of an epiphany. When I first read this book I felt the way John Keats did when he first looked at Chapman's translation of Homer:
just as Chapman enabled Keats to overcome his lack of knowledge of Greek, Fussell enabled me to see World War I and how it has resonated through people's consciousness ever since in ways that I could not have done before. In all honesty, I have to confess that Fussell's lengthy treatments of British poets, fascinating as they are, did not capture my fancy as much as other things in the book. …