Murray Polner: Review of I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America, ed. by Byron Hollinshead (Doubleday, 2006)
What a fascinating idea! Byron Hollinshead asked historians to imagine they were present at crucial moments in the American past and to comment. There are many compelling accounts but the historian Bernard Weisberger’s impressive essay, “ La Follette Speaks against the War-1917” is worthy of a full-scale treatment.
It was a time when the U.S., a world power since the Spanish American War and the conquest of the Philippines, was about to enter WWI. There was a smell of blood abroad by many Americans and fire-eating politicians and bellicose press. (The Red Scare would follow a few years later).Weisberger describes the debate before the vote for war, “the last time (my italics) in which the Congress of the United States played its full constitutional role in declaring war with time to deliberate on the issues involved.” (There wasn’t much time to debate following the attack on Pearl Harbor).
Enter “Fighting Bob” La Follette and a few senatorial progressive allies of both parties. In tones echoing recent times, he and they opposed entering the war. What was the American interest in entering the war, he asked? As a result, he was hung in effigy, denounced as “pro-German” and a traitor. The declaration of war passed overwhelmingly. People cheered as the Doughboys marched off to war, where more than 100,000 of them were killed. At home, dissenters were jailed, attacked, and mocked.
Weisberger concludes by wondering “what might have happened had voices like [LaFollette] prevailed? The stupendous failure of statecraft by the war makers of 1914-1918 had consequences that we all feel…The victory [sic] of 1918 helped give the world Hitler, WWII, Stalin, the Cold War and the miseries that flowed from them…” And more: “The Senate debaters of 1917 were dictating tragedy for generations yet unborn, our own and those of our children and children’s children included. It was one of the most important days in the strange, brilliant, murderous twentieth Century.” Bravo.
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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/1/2006
Because of the exhaustion on both sides, the French army mutiny, and the enormous German offensive of 1918, I am of the opinion Germany would have won World War I without an American Expeditionary Force to rescue the allies. So I think the "tragedy for generations yet unborn" would have been very different, sans Versailles, sans Hitler, etc. It's hard to imagine what would have happened, but I suppose Germany would have found a modus vivendi with Britain, and imperial Europe would have continued for quite a while, perhaps with the French the big losers. Possibly Germany might have turned against Russia again, with salubrious results for those generations as yet unborn in the East... We shall never know what would have happened had La Follette's views prevailed, but we can be sure it would have been very different, and probably a mixed bag. It's possible Hindenberg and Leudendorf would have saved Eastern Europe from 70 years of evil empire.