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Over Here: The First World War and American Society Kindle Edition
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Top Customer Reviews
However, by far the best part is the first section, which recounts the grim tale of the war's impact on civil liberties. Kennedy gives many examples of the horrors, both by mob violence and what passed for process of law, befalling anyone showing the slightest flicker of dissent. They are too numerous to recount, but one is an absolute must. In 1917 film producer Robert Goldstein made a movie about the American Revolution, entitled "The Spirit of '76". A safely patriotic theme, one might suppose. But no. Prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Goldstein (a German Jew, so of course targeted by two separate classes of bigot) was sentenced to ten years in prison - because his film showed the Redcoats being nasty to Americans, at a time when Britain was an ally, so was held to undermine the war effort. Good ol' Mr Wilson graciously commuted the sentence - to three years. What comment is necessary? As a Brit, I almost fell out of my chair on discovering this gem.
Socialist Eugene Debs, of course, was even less lucky than Goldstein.Read more ›
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Over Here describes the unthinkable degree of xenophobia and repression of dissent that the Wilson administration, particularly Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson and Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory, directed and encouraged, and recounts horrible tales, such as the Prager and Goddard incidents, that should live on forever as warnings against future state support of vigilantism and "100 Percent Americanism." This is especially relevant these days in light of Attorney General Ashcroft's war on civil liberties and the revival of the specter of 100 Percent Americanism by the famous xenophobe Pat Buchanan. While today's assaults on liberty are not yet nearly as dastardly as those during WWI, Over Here's historical record serves as a clear warning against repeating past errors and a stunning indictment of the enemies of open society, past and present.
The book also stands as a caution against the dangers of concentrated government power, particularly during wartime, and of excessive and naive confidence in the capacity of the government to do good. It confirms the Libertarian Harry Browne's warning: "Beware of politicians with good intentions."
President Wilson was a Progressive former professor who came to office with optimistic views on improving the lot of the common man by expanding the role of government in domestic affairs and actively promoting peace in the world. Early in his administration, Wilson's words inspired hope in socialists and other leftists around the world. It is particularly credible, therefore, when a fellow progressive/liberal academic like Professor Kennedy describes how, in practice, Wilson did not have the courage of his convictions and some of his ideas turned out not to work as well in the real world as they did in the lecture halls of academia. His behavior as President was characterized by trepidation and cowardice. Instead of prosperity and harmony at home and peace and unity in the world, fledgling labor unions and leftist dissent were ruthlessly crushed at home and the world remained bitterly divided after the end of a brutal and demoralizing war. Instead of progress for workers and a "war to end all wars," the international left was disillusioned and the seeds were sown for a second, more devastating war to come.
Over Here is a great work of scholarship that is also eminently readable and concise, so that both the historian and the layperson should enjoy it immensely. Despite the author's progressive slant, he applies a light touch in the book that should make it palatable for most conservatives, largely leaving the reader to make one's own conclusions, though the case is made sufficiently strongly that the conclusions are nearly inevitable. The author does eloquently summarize his case on the book jacket, saying the book is "in many ways a sad story, a tale of death, broken hopes, frustrated dreams, and of the curious defeat-in-victory that was Woodrow Wilson's and the nation's, bitter lot." This book well earned its recognition as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist.
"This is a war to end all wars." --Woodrow Wilson
"Only the dead have seen the end of war." --George Santayana
Highly recommended not only for military history fans, but for anyone wishing to understand American society in the 20th Century.
Kennedy has brought up many important points, including the role of government in the lives of Americans, and the control of the media: all issues of critical importance as we move on to the next century. Some of the events of those "far gone" times are bone-chilling, as we read about them 80 or so years along (and I'm not talking about life in the trenches of Europe!).
As the books Kennedy relies on have made clear (e.g., Opponents of War 1917-1918, by H. C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite), the record of the Wilson Administration in the field of civil liberties in wartime to a present-day viewer is sobering, the legal system seemingly surrendering to the war hysteria (as some today seem to again urge it do). The book also has an insightful discussion of the contrast between American writing about the war compared to the more pessimistic view of men who were more sated by their longer involvment in the hell which was the Western front. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of interesting stuff in this book--it is just that some chapters may not be overly exciting to a non-economist, for instance.
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