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PBS doc depicts oft-overlooked ‘Great War’

Recovering the oft-overlooked history of World War I and its impact on America is the focus of 'The Great War,' a three-part, six-hour 'American Experience' documentary that will air on PBS April 10 through April 12.

The 369th Infantry was the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
Courtesy of National Archives
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  • Erik Spanberg
    Monitor correspondent

This year marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. Known as the Great War, it has, during the past 70 years, been overshadowed in this country by World War II.

While World War II offers a stark contrast of ideals and provocations, the First World War is much murkier. Even determining how and why the war started proves much more confounding than with the conflict that followed 23 years later.

Recovering the oft-overlooked history of World War I and its impact on America is the focus of “The Great War,” a three-part, six-hour “American Experience” documentary that will air on PBS April 10 through 12.

“What fascinates me about World War I is that it does create the world that we live in today,” Stephen Ives, one of the directors and writers for the series, told the Monitor. “It’s this extraordinary earthquake that rocks the whole world.”

Including, most obviously, the Middle East, a region still engulfed in turmoil, at least in part, because of the arbitrary geographical boundaries and countries carved out by the victors after the war. America, as much as any nation, found itself changed by World War I, newly empowered and burdened by its self-stated commitment to international diplomacy.

President Woodrow Wilson spent nearly three years vowing to keep the U.S. out of the war, even as his administration flouted the notion of neutrality by supplying Britain and France with materials and loans (and bolstering the American economy along the way).

What is most fascinating about “The Great War” though, is the home front. The documentary very capably and effectively tells the story of the build-up to war and the subsequent influx of American manpower responsible for lifting the battered Allies on the Western Front against the equally battered Germans. Ives, whose lengthy resume includes serving as a co-producer on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” uses a combination of voice-overs (Blythe Danner, Campbell Scott, and Courtney B. Vance are among the performers), newspaper headlines, talking-head historians and rarely seen, often powerful archival footage.

But where the film shines is in the immediacy of domestic issues it tackles and illuminates during the Wilson years, including racial tension, fear of immigrants, civil liberties, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition.

Wilson was an isolated ideologue, a man who believed he could and would save the world from itself by forcing a lasting peace at any cost. And he was the same man who convinced Congress to pass the Espionage and Sedition Acts, laws used to impose harsh punishment – often consisting of lengthy jail sentences – for speaking against the war or government policy.

“He’s both a great Democrat and one of the most repressive figures in American history,” Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin says in the documentary.

There is plenty here beyond the paradox of Wilson, who, in the end, killed his own proposal for creating and joining the League of Nations out of sanctimony and bitterness. For those unfamiliar with the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a heroic unit of African-American soldiers who fought in the epic, grisly Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the documentary makes clear their importance.

Regrettably, the sacrifices of black soldiers in the war did nothing to make their lives better when they returned home.

“In many ways, the war is a promise to African-Americans that if they serve and perform, they are going to be rewarded with a greater, more complete citizenship,” Ives said. “And that’s a promise that’s bitterly and painfully broken.”

Lynchings, random assaults, and the murders of black people were so prevalent in the months after the war that the summer of 1919 became known as the Red Summer.

Speaking of the broader Argonne campaign, Ives noted an average of 550 American soldiers died every day for 47 straight days, making it the longest and bloodiest battle in American military history.

Other notables include the propagandist George Creel, a former journalist who proved masterly at stirring patriotic pride, and suffragette Alice Paul, whose White House protests led to months in jail and a highly publicized hunger strike.