What I've been reading
Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920 by David Traxel. 413 pages, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf Books.
One would think, with my fondness for American History, 1865-1939, that this book would be right up my alley. And I did enjoy this book, but not as much as I thought I would. It's a strange book. It claims to go over the history of the United States from the Spanish-American War to the end of Wilson's presidency, but Traxel focuses so much on the First World War that the before and after gets a bit lost. By the end of the second chapter, Woodrow Wilson has been elected president, and we're only on page 38. What happened to Roosevelt's presidency? Similarly, the years 1919-1920 are handled in the epilogue. It's very weird.
In between, Traxel does a good job. He focuses on Wilson's presidency, obviously, and the idea that Americans in the early twentieth century became more and more interested in progressivism and social justice. Traxel subtly makes the case that the country has never been more liberal under Roosevelt (who was, after all, a Republican) and Wilson. Roosevelt believed in cleaning house, both in New York City and as president. Politics in the latter half of the eighteenth century were horribly corrupt, and Roosevelt wanted to change that. Wilson, interestingly enough, co-opted a lot of what Roosevelt wanted to do and took over the "progressive" movement from Roosevelt and his Progressive Party in 1912. It's amazing to realize how well Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for president, did in the early years of the century. Today a Socialist can barely get on the ballot.
Traxel also does a nice job with socialism and progressivism on the ground, through the character of John Reed, the famous writer of Ten Days that Shook the World. Traxel follows Reed from his early assignment in Mexico, his dispatches from which made him a celebrity, to New York, to Provincetown, to Europe, back to New York, and finally to Russia. Reed stands in for all the socialists who wanted a revolution in the United States during the early years of the century. Reed is an interesting fellow (I own a copy of his masterpiece, but haven't read it yet), and Traxel gives us some nice insight into both his character and how the leftist celebrities of the early twentieth century lived - it turns out, not too differently from the leftist celebrities of the early twenty-first century, if the photograph of Louise Bryant naked on the beach in Provincetown is any indication! However, it's interesting to note how many of these writers and artist were fully prepared to go to jail for their beliefs, and how the government was very willing to accommodate them. Traxel, whether he wanted to or not (I suspect he did), does a good job showing how, despite the staggering ineptitude of the Bush Administration, it isn't as oppressive as some of the governments in the past, including Wilson supposedly "progressive" reign. Wilson was progressive enough, but some of those socialists didn't believe in God! The nerve!
The First World War and America's involvement in it form the major portion of the book. It's fascinating to read the agonizing the government went through before deciding to join the Allied cause, even though Germany had done several things to provoke us. Early on, Wilson wasn't even sure he would back the Allies, as there was a strong pro-German contingent in this country. Again, in marked contrast to our time, the preparations and debating over the war, plus the appeals to everyone to make sacrifices for the soldiers, are impressive and handled well. Of course, we also get the dark side of war - rampant patriotism (more jingoism than anything) that led to German-Americans losing businesses and being jailed simply for who they were. And, of course, the anti-war crowd, led by those damned socialists, could expect imprisonment too if they got too uppity. That's what makes these times so curiously like yet unlike our own - Bush couldn't do half the things Wilson did without a revolt, yet even with a great deal of criticism from even the mainstream press, Wilson was able to push through several unconstitutional laws. It's difficult reconciling the progressive policies of Wilson with those, until you realize that Wilson, like Roosevelt (even though TR would have denied this), believed in the power of the federal government to make things right. So on the one hand, Wilson was an advocate of women's suffrage and Prohibition, in the belief that women could think for themselves and alcohol was bad. On the other hand, he also believed the government knew what was best, so people criticizing the government were naturally wrong.
There's a lot to learn about our own time when reading a book like this. From the end of the Civil War to the present, many themes that we're still wrestling with are highlighted, and it's always interesting to see how previous generations dealt with it. Roosevelt and Wilson would be shocked by the power of corporations these days, as they actively worked to stop that, but they probably wouldn't be surprised that it had happened, because people today are far more wary about the government than they were 100 years ago. This era is a time when people believed the government could make things better. It's somewhat sad that we no longer believe that and that the government makes it so easy to believe it.
If you're still visiting the blog, thanks for bearing with me. I'll try to post regularly, but it's up to the PC until my new one arrives. For now, however, I'm back!