Books Chapter & Verse

How World War I changed America

A new book by a Library of Congress historian unearths once-forgotten tidbits of history related to the Great War.

Before World War I, says author Margaret E. Wagner, Americans 'were deeply against militarism.... The thinking was that large standing armies invite war and would make us the kind of militaristic nation we didn't want to see.'
Caption
  • Randy Dotinga

Hundreds of American troops were nearly "Over There" in 1918 when an enemy submarine sunk their ship. With minutes to live, some doomed soldiers found time to sing a song from home about an enlisted man named Paddy Mack who drove a hack and couldn't stop wondering about the future.

Margaret E. Wagner, a historian at the Library of Congress, unearthed this once-forgotten tidbit of history in a little memoir she found in a collection of miscellaneous manuscripts from World War I.

The author, a ship electrician, had ridden in a convoy of oil tankers taking American troops to the U.K. and then France in 1918. During the trip, a German torpedo hit a troop ship called the Tuscania between Ireland and England.

"He hears the SOS, sees the search lights go on and watches the destroyers trying to pick up men who had jumped in the water," Wagner says. "Some are going onto ropes while singing '"Oh joy, oh boy, where do we go from here?'

Those are lyrics from a song called "Where Do We Go From Here?" about a Big Apple cab driver who asks that question of everyone from soldiers to pretty girls from Harlem to Jersey City."

Wagner sat up straight when she read this. "Who starts singing a song like this when you're ship is sinking? Two hundred Americans died in this catastrophe. Apparently, they sang it in full voice. This tells you a great deal about the spirit and the esprit de corps of the American troops going over there."

Wagner calls this a "serendipitous finding," and there are plenty more in her new book America and the Great War: A Library of Congress Illustrated History. Here's more from her interview with the Monitor:

Q: What was the U.S. military like when the war began?

You look across the ocean, and there were armies in the millions. But we had this tiny regular Army force – 128,000 troops on the cusp of our entry into the war.

This was entirely in tune with our belief that having a large military would invite conflict.

We were deeply against militarism because we thought that would make us like the European countries. The thinking was that large standing armies invite war and would make us the kind of militaristic nation we didn't want to see.

Q: Did we face much in the way of threats?

We were worried about Japan's growing power in the Far East and the interests of Great Britain and Germany in Mexico.

The US had heavy investments in Mexico, a country with vast oil resources at a time when the navies of the world were converting from coal to oil. We were a little leery about the interests of these countries intruding into the Western Hemisphere.

Q: How deep did our worries about Mexico go?

There was huge concern about its long civil war or revolution.

In 1916, when Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term, one of his slogans was "He Kept Us Out of War." That didn't just mean he'd kept us out of World War I. He had also kept us out of war with Mexico.

Still, from March 1916 to February 1917, we had 8,000-12,000 troops on a punitive mission in Mexico. They were the most experienced troops we had when we finally got into World War I in 1917. The leader was John J. Pershing, who was made head of the American Expeditionary Force.

Q: What surprised you when you researched the war?

There were huge impacts on the American people right at the get-go in 1914.

For one, we had let our merchant marine disintegrate, and we mostly depended on European vessels to carry our goods. When the war began, it was a surprise when we had goods piling up and no vessels to take them.

Also, we were just beginning to have an income tax, and there was talk about how we should increase it to support preparedness. There was an idea at the time that a graduated income tax would even out income inequality and share the burden when 10 percent of the American people owned 90 percent of American wealth.

Q: What was the legacy of the war for the US?

There's often a feeling that America withdrew from the world after the war.

But we weren't facing any threats. The US still had this amazing power to field a huge army. The world knew this, and we knew this.

World War I changed our thinking about involvement, about our affairs in the world. We became much more involved. We never joined the League of Nations, but our diplomats were unofficially involved in many of its efforts, and we were very active in European and Asian affairs.

Elihu Root, an American secretary of war, said  Americans learned more about foreign affairs during World War I than in the previous 80 years. But, he said, they were "only at the beginning of the task."