Beyond the common knowledge of World War I
Dr. Jennifer D. Keene of Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Beyond the common knowledge of World War I

One of the nation’s foremost World War I scholars, Dr. Jennifer D. Keene of Chapman University in Orange, Calif., says educators want deeper understanding of a pivotal time in U.S. history too often defined by four long-studied phenomena:

- The 1915 German U-boat sinking of the British cruise ship Lusitania that killed 1,198, including 128 Americans.

- The intercepted and British-decoded prewar “Zimmermann telegram” proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States.

- The horrors of trench warfare.

- America’s political impasse over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles after the war.

“That’s the common knowledge,” Keene said in a recent interview. “Except for that, how do you fill in the gaps? How do you get people to really understand the significance of this period of history?”

Keene is among the scholars and master teachers lined up to address the challenge of filling those gaps as a participant in the United States World War One Centennial Commission Teacher Professional Education Program sponsored in part by an American Legion grant. The program kicked off Oct. 21 in Louisville, Ky., and continued Nov. 4 in Anchorage, Alaska. Dr. Keene is the master scholar presenting at the Albuquerque, N.M., Public Schools City Center on Dec. 4, with master teacher Angelina Moore. Future sessions include San Diego on March 6; Detroit on March 17 at the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency; and a spring date yet to be announced in Providence, R.I.

Author of "Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America," along with other books and articles on U.S. history, the war and its effects, Dr. Keene recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.

What drove your interest in World War I?

“I was interested in progressivism and the idea that this group of reformers saw a lot of social problems and wanted to figure out solutions. I did my first project by looking at reformers who went into training camps in the First World War to teach soldiers how to behave appropriately, have good morals and healthy living habits. I got really interested in these soldiers. But I only studied them in the training camp and never knew what happened to them afterward. I thought and thought about them and wanted to understand what they were thinking, what they were going through, what happened to them in France. That was 20 years ago, and nobody was asking those questions then. So, in a sense, I had the field to myself.”

It seems everything that could be said about World War I has already been said. What are some discoveries you have made?

“One of the things that surprised me most was discovering this was the moment when the modern military was being created. A lot of decisions had to be made quickly and soldiers were part of that process. The thing that I didn’t expect to find was how much the military cares what soldiers think. Just like I wanted to know what soldiers thought, the military really wants to know what soldiers are thinking. They want to know if soldiers are committed to the cause. They want to know if soldiers believe in each other. Are they going to fight well? Are they going to stay out of trouble and do what they are supposed to be doing? And so, you see a lot of interest in understanding the soldiers, their backgrounds, how their lives can be improved by being in the military … I didn’t expect to find that.”

Was that a function of a specific generation or window of history?

“It was certainly an era in which public opinion had new prominence. When you think about how social reformers worked, they were always trying to influence public opinion to force the government to make changes. For the military in the First World War, it was a huge enterprise – going from 300,000 men to 4 million men in only 19 months. You had to have that average soldier on your side. If they were uncooperative, if they were resistant, if they refused to behave or do what you needed them to do, it just wasn’t going to work. In that sense, they had to develop new ways to explain war and what it meant to serve in the military. Cultivating morale became an obsession. What’s interesting is the new techniques they pioneered to measure and influence soldier opinion were continued by the military in future wars. The military needs cooperation as well as discipline and structure. It can’t be one or the other.”

Aren’t troops under arms just supposed to follow orders?

“The last thing you want is mass disobedience to orders. Then you don’t have control of your men. It’s better to know ahead of time where people’s heads are, and then give orders they are willing to follow.”

What are some lasting effects of World War I that commonly get overlooked?

“I think the most important thing to understand about the First World War is just what a transitional moment it was for the United States as a world power, in terms of entering ‘the American century,’ if you will. There are clearly ways in which World War I impacts domestic society that aren’t hard to come up with – women getting the right to vote, the prohibition amendment, the Great Migration of African Americans moving north, the federal government enacting national conscription to form a new type of mass military, and passing sedition acts. Those things are really important to the United States – even this idea that citizens have a right to free speech; this was not a widespread notion in America before World War I. Modern conceptions of free speech come from opponents to the Espionage Act who press legal cases and basically articulate that Americans have this right.”

What about how the war changed America’s place on the world stage?

“Think about the role America has played in the world in the 20th century. It’s Woodrow Wilson who articulates that America needs to be in the world because America can be a force for good, that it can help spread democracy, promote capitalism, and bring a better way of life to the people it touches. This became an article of faith in the 20th century – that through war, however reluctant we are fight, America could make the world a better place.”

As the author of U.S. history texts, what kind of enthusiasm do you see among educators for a refreshed view of World War I?

“Educators are very hungry for information about the First World War. I think there are several ways to reset how we think about World War I. One tactic is to challenge common myths. The most common thing a student will tell you is we got into World War I because of the Lusitania. That’s not true. Lusitania goes down in 1915. We don’t get in for two more years. So, clearly there’s got to be another explanation. It’s true we don’t ratify the Versailles Peace Treaty, but yet we’re involved in negotiating disarmament treaties and re-financing the German reparations debt. We’re involved in the world in so many ways throughout the 1920s that it’s a mistake to believe that failing to ratify the Versailles Peace Treaty means a retreat into isolationism.

“Then, if you think about what’s happening at home – right now, this really resonates with issues we are confronting today – how challenging to national security are those people who dissent? If you oppose the war, are you a danger to national security? Or are you exercising your right as an American and therefore protecting American society? We are in this argument now. What are you required to do to prove your loyalty, to prove your patriotism? How do you balance civil liberties with national security? These are big questions that studying World War I encourages us to ask.”

What was it about the World War I veteran generation that led it, through The American Legion, to draft and fight for passage of the GI Bill?

“We always like to say we study history to learn lessons from the past. The story of the GI Bill is a great example of the World War I generation learning its lesson and trying to help the nation not repeat past mistakes. In World War I, the majority of soldiers were conscripted. They came home with $60 separation pay from the military. Some states gave them small pensions, one-time payments. But for the most part, that was it.

“They came back to a recession, and many veterans believed that by entering the military they missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have high-paying wartime jobs. They’re really struggling. And there is not much government help for them. The American Legion steps up and launches a campaign demanding that the government pay veterans adjusted compensation, essentially retroactively giving veterans a higher wartime wage. They succeed in 1924 when the government awards all veterans a government bond, worth an average of $1,200 and payable in 1945. Veterans seem pretty satisfied and willing to wait for their money until the Great Depression occurs.

“Then we have the Bonus March in 1932 when men come to D.C. and demand immediate payment of this bond. The march ends badly, with the army violently expelling the men from the city. The memory of these events becomes important in World War II because The American Legion is composed of World War I veterans whose sons are now fighting in this new war. They want to be sure that their sons come home and are not as economically disadvantaged as they were; that they don’t come home feeling it was a mistake to serve their country because they lost valuable opportunities for education, for buying a house, for starting a family.

“They also want to be sure that – compared to 4 million World War I veterans, you’re going to have 12 million World War II veterans – that veterans don’t come home angry and somewhat revolutionary. The fear of an even bigger Bonus March turning violent is in their minds as well.

“Their answer is to craft the GI Bill, which is a set of benefits given to veterans, not as a present or reward, but out of recognition that these men have earned these benefits because they have been taken out of civilian society sometimes up to four years and deprived of a lot of opportunities. For instance, those who stay at home not only receive high wages, they have the opportunity to go to school, can save their money for the down payment of a house, and have wage-paying jobs so they are actually eligible for unemployment payments if they lose those jobs. These are going to be things that the GI Bill gives to the men from World War II, and the idea comes from lessons learned after World War I. The lessons are that you cannot expect men to serve their country patriotically and then suffer literally for the rest of their lives for the cost of that service. Before that, people mostly thought that if you are wounded, yes, we will take care of you. But this is about everybody – able-bodied as well. In this respect, if we ask 'Why is World War I important for America?' one answer is that the greatest piece of social welfare legislation in American history is a direct result of World War I veterans forming The American Legion, and The American Legion being able to give voice to the collective will of that generation.”

It seems like The American Legion, in its argument for the GI Bill, had to convince the rest of the country to have faith in veterans. How important was this?

“It’s hard to recall moments when veterans were routinely criticized – asking for help raised fears that veterans expected society to just carry them along. This suspicion came from the generous pensions that Union veterans had been given after the Civil War. These pensions consumed a huge proportion of the federal budget, and the nation was still financing these pensions in the early 20th century. Going into World War I, the government hoped that they would give men an honorable discharge, a handshake, thank them their service and off they would go – end of the story, our contract has ended.

“And yet, as we know, when you serve in the military, even if you’re not fighting, it’s a disruption to your life, and it’s not that easy to just come home, pick up the pieces and start over again. Other people have advanced in the race while you’ve been away. How can you give everybody an equal place at the starting line? That’s what the Legion was arguing. They were also saying that veterans are not having difficulties because they are lazy, unwilling to work, drinking or just squandering their money. They’re having legitimate difficulties. Their difficulties are not ones they caused for themselves. They, according to popular terminology of the time, were the ‘deserving poor.’ They deserve this help because of the service they performed for the country.”

How did the GI Bill then change public perception of the veteran in U.S. society?

“In the 1930s during the Depression, the Legion made a lot of arguments about the social good that would come from paying adjusted compensation early because if a father now has money, he can clothe and feed his family. He will spend this money in the local economy. It will trickle out and create prosperity for others. In that sense, it’s a new way of thinking about the veteran, presenting a more positive and empowered image of the veteran. The Legion applied these same arguments to the benefits bestowed by the GI Bill.”

Could anyone have predicted the economic prosperity that came from the GI Bill?

“People knew the Depression had basically ended because of World War II. There was a real fear on the part of the average American that when wartime industry went away, the Depression was going to come back. By giving veterans access to education benefits and sending them to college or technical schools, you would ease their re-entry into the economy, and this would give industry the chance to make the transition back to peacetime.

“And veterans who had unemployment benefits were consumers. They were going to be able to buy things. This would also help civilian industry make the re-adjustment because there would be customers for their goods. It’s not just about the veteran spending money in his community. He also brings his education to a position in his community. He goes to agriculture school and becomes a better farmer, learns how to grow more efficiently. There’s the prediction, which proves accurate, that the GI Bill will bring about positive social good overall, and not just help one group at the exclusion of others.”

What about the GI Bill’s effect on the advancement of equal rights?

“Adjusted compensation and the GI Bill – benefits that come from the federal government – set in motion new patterns of activism within the civil rights movement. Once you have legislation that says, in principle, these federal benefits available to all veterans equally regardless of their race or ethnicity or class or educational status, that becomes a way for you to press the federal government to live up to that promise. It’s not that the government always implements these laws perfectly – clearly not – but it gives the civil rights movement legal paths for challenging racial discrimination whenever black veterans are prevented accessing these benefits.

“Also, out of the African American veterans who go back to school, you’re creating an educated class of future leaders who have come through the military. They have gotten an education because of the GI Bill of Rights, usually at historically black colleges. They have experienced racial prejudice within the military and also been overseas where they get treated like Americans often for the first time in their lives. You have the perfect storm of education, motivation, a cause, international exposure … you can see just how formative these experiences were for these mid-century civil rights leaders.”

Given that the world wars produced a much higher number of veterans, compared to today’s less than 1 percent in uniform, was the impact of World War I and World War II veterans skewed simply on the basis of their constituency size?

“Large numbers are one way to measure the significance of something. But sometimes it doesn’t matter the largeness of the numbers. It matters who it is – who is that person. What’s more important: that 4 million people served in World War I or that Harry Truman served in World War I? Is it more important to me that Harry Truman or my grandfather served in World War I? It depends on the question you are asking and where you want to put emphasis. This generation of soldiers, who are a very small percentage, the impact they have on American society may far outweigh what that percentage looks like. We’re not really sure yet. Are numbers ever the whole story? That’s the question I always ask about the First World War. When people look at global battlefield deaths in World War I and they often conclude, ‘Well because the numbers of European casualties were so much more significant than American casualties, that must mean that America barely thought about World War I afterward.’ I believe that sends you down the wrong path. That’s the wrong way to ask the question.”

How can historians, and average Americans for that matter, advance our understanding of World War I and its impact?

“I think Americans should look at the role that World War I plays in family history. A lot of what I talk about is movement history. It’s legislative history. It’s thinking about how America created new institutions to fight the war and how military service politicizes soldiers. But the war was also a pivotal moment in family histories – where things could have gone one way, but they went another way. What does the war mean for the immigrant who becomes a citizen because of his service in World War I, the family who lost a son to the influenza epidemic, or to the African American soldier who be-friended a French family? What about the family that struggled in the Great Depression, whose son serves in World War II and then gets an opportunity to go to college when he comes home – something that family could never have imagined as his future. In all these examples, World War I was a transformational experience for individuals and families.

“If we add up all those collective histories, this is the history of our country. A lot of people are using the centennial as an opportunity to go back and look at their family histories to discover their personal connection to this war. Through exploring history in this manner, we will once and for all be able to put aside this ridiculous myth that World War I didn’t matter to Americans.”


Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.