April 6 is the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I and PBS has a six-hour three-night documentary to describe “The Great War,” premiering on April 10-12.
Using unpublished diaries, memoirs and letters, as well as interviews with scholars, the documentary gives voice to nurses, journalists and troops who were in the trenches, but it also explores the experiences of African American, Latino and Native American soldiers, the birth of Uncle Sam and how women got the vote.
The documentary focuses on how President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had run his second presidential campaign based on neutrality (In Europe, World War I began a year after Wilson took office for his first term), but with the help of a canny former journalist, George Creel (1876-1953), he re-crafted his message about World War I as a heroic fight for democracy and freedom. Criticism against the war effort became unpatriotic.
Before and during the Great War, there was some not so great violence and what we today might call hate crimes against Germans and others. Some of the hate crimes were against peaceful protestors for women’s suffrage. Before Martin Luther King Jr. took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, Suffragist Alice Paul organized the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession where close to 8,000 marchers walked or rode on horseback to Washington DC, arriving the day before Wilson’s first inauguration. During the march and other demonstrations, the protestors were harassed and assaulted. Where out of good etiquette or patriotism, other organizers and organizations stopped protesting outside the White House once the US entered the war in Europe (7 April 1917), Paul and her Silent Sentinels did not stop. They protested six days a week from 10 January 1917 until 4 June 1919, the day when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.
Wilson was born in Virginia and he brought with him some Southern Jim Crow attitudes to the nation’s capital. As the first Southerner president since 1848, Wilson, at the urging of Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, segregated the federal workplace. Wilson thought segregation removed potential friction between the races. Discrimination had already been present, but the Wilson administration pushed back any progress that had been made.
The documentary also looks at how the death of Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, affected him during his presidency. Wilson was widowed, courted and married widow Edith Bolling Galt during his first term. Edith (1872-1924) became an important part of the executive branch of government after Wilson suffered a stroke during his second term.
World War I set the stage for World War II yet this is presented usually as Germany bristling under the terms of its surrender. The documentary doesn’t discuss this or how Wilson failed to assuage the Japanese government when California passed legislation that excluded Japanese people (and other Asians) from land ownership. Nor does it discuss how Wilson overruled the majority of countries at the Versailles Treaty when Japan brought the Racial Equality Proposal. Eleven out of 17 delegates voted in favor (Japan-2, France-2, Italy-2, Brazil-1, Republic of China-1, Greece-1, Serbia-1 and Czechoslovakia-1). British Empire (2), the US (2), Portugal (1), Romania (1) did not register a vote. Belgium (2) was absent. The strongest opposition came from the British Empire. For that part of World War I, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Yet when one reflects upon how Wilson treated federal employees, one can better understand some of his underlying motivations on international matters. Wilson’s “racist legacy” in the US in regards to federal employees was the topic of a 2015 article in The Atlantic “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson” (27 Nov. 2015 by Dick Lehr https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/wilson-legacy-racism/417549/). The article details Wilson’s betrayal of civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter.
The documentary, “The Great War,” does outline how World War I was presented as a matter of defending democracy and freedom to the US public, a sentiment that continues today, and how two women, Edith Wilson and Alice Paul, rose to political prominence. Woodrow Wilson would die three years after leaving office. His widow, Edith, devoted herself to his memory. While the 19th Amendment was her original goal, Paul (1885-1977) continued on. Paul was the original author of the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923. She was also a major player in getting women added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Besides commemorating the centenary of World War I, this documentary will prepare you for 2020, the centenary of the 19th Amendment. In 2020, the newly designed US ten dollar bill will include an image of the Women’s Suffrage Procession.
After its initial broadcast, “The Great War” will be available to stream online.