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Author: Thomas Fleming

Title: "The Illusion of Victory – America in World War I"

Publisher: Basic Books 2003; 490 pages of text, 16 pages of photos

As we are now observing the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I, this excellent history presents a non-flattering appraisal of President Woodrow Wilson’s handling of the war and the failure of his efforts to influence the peace.

Historian Thomas Fleming finds, aside from Wilson’s oratory, few reasons to commend him. With the war raging in northeast France, Russia, northern Italy and the Middle East, Wilson was re-elected as president in 1916 on his campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Five months later, he asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany. Fifty members of the House of Representatives voted no, including the Democratic majority leader and Janette Rankin of Montana, who was also the only member of Congress to vote no on the U.S. Declaration of War in World War II.

What shocked me most about the USA in World War I was the vicious wholesale violation of the constitutional rights of free speech under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, supplemented by the Sedition Act, which Wilson wanted “to increase the government’s power to control opinion.”

People talking against the war and the government were arrested, convicted and imprisoned, if they weren’t first killed by people whipped into a patriotic frenzy by the government’s propaganda from the Committee on Public Information. The American Protective League, which one could join for a dollar, intimidated people opposed to the war.

“By June (1917), the APL had 250,000 activists in its ranks and was rooting out dissent in 600 cities and towns.” You could prove loyalty by buying Liberty Bonds.

One example is Eugene V. Debs, a founding member of the Socialist party. He spoke in Ohio on June 15, 1918, condemning “the patriots who … scan the country for disloyalty … and anyone who opposed the war.”

He was arrested and charged with 10 violations of the Espionage Act. He pleaded guilty, contending the “trial made a mockery of the Constitution.”

“There is a … greater issue that is being tried," said Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In fact, he ran for president from prison in 1920 and received 919,799 votes.

Fleming does not spend much time on the Americans fighting in France, but he points out how the government was not prepared so that large numbers of troops did not arrive in France until 1918. Gen. Pershing would not let the French or British use American troops to fill their thinned out ranks, as he successfully held out and formed a separate American Army.

Fleming notes the American way of fighting relied on brutal frontal assaults. The Americans were in combat for about six months with 50,300 killed. In comparison for the 47 months of World War II, the U.S. had 259,376 killed, in Korea 53,886 were killed and in Vietnam, for 11 years of fighting, there were 57,000 killed.

Fleming notes the price paid by the WWI Americans was “disproportionally large.” One tragedy resulted from Pershing wanting to totally defeat the Germans. With the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice about to go into effect at 11 a.m., American troops were ordered forward into the machine gun fire of amazed Germans who knew the war was at an end.

Fleming faults Wilson for announcing peace could be had under his idealistic “Fourteen Points,” which were scorned by the British and French. In the drawn out peace negotiations, Wilson essentially abandoned his ideals. The British and the French divided the territory of the Germans and their allies to expand their colonial empires.

Wilson wanted a League of Nations, which was ultimately accepted by the other powers, but rejected by the United States. Wilson would not compromise with Congress on ratifying the war-ending treaty. He would accept no amendments, and thus the League of Nations was rejected by America.

On Oct. 2, 1919, Wilson had a stroke, the severity of which his doctor and his second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, hid from Congress, the vice president and the public for the last 18 months of his term. Fleming has no good words to say for her acting as president. Fleming also has nothing good to say about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, as assistant secretary of the Navy, constantly tried to take over the job of the Secretary of the Navy. His affair with his wife’s secretary was discovered by his mother, when he returned from a trip to France.

Fleming has written a very “eye opening” history of the country in the First World War, which is an illuminating look 100 years back on this tumultuous time. Not only was there the First World War, but the 18th Amendment brought prohibition and the 19th Amendment brought women the right to vote while German-Americans, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans enjoyed rising political influence, and constitutional rights of free speech were trampled. Wilson and FDR both come off poorly.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.