I learned quite a bit from the American Experience production "The Great War." about the United States' involvement in World War I. The three-part, six-hour documentary shows PBS at its best and what would be lost if Donald Trump follows through on his plan to eliminate public broadcasting funding.
While I've read several books about the war over the years, they were from a European perspective about the early days of the war and bloody battles such as the Somme and Verdun. British historians such as John Keegan tend to de-emphasize the American contribution to the Allied victory.The American Experience examination of late battles such as the Meuse-Argonne Campaign and Belleau Wood shows that the American losses were as horrific as those of the French and British.
I understood that the American army participated in a relatively small segment of the war, but the American Experience brought home how little time the United States had to mobilize and send a major army to Europe. The show's conclusion was that it wasn't so much the American presence that forced the Germans to surrender, but the understanding that the United States possessed deep reserves of manpower and could keep sending fresh troops through 1920 or so. Meanwhile, the French, Britiish and Germans had exhausted their resources
While I still see the American involvement as positive, the show fully illustrates that World War I started the American surveillance superstate. Civil liberties were severely curtailed. American citizens of German descent suffered horrible recriminations, and a virulent superpatriotism developed in which people spied on their neighbors and reported them for not fully supporting the war effort.
The show is particularly hard on Woodrow Wilson. The historians who serve as "talking heads" praise Wilson for his international ideals for peace as outlined in his 14 points, which served as a basis for the eventual peace treaty, but criticize him for his racism, his dictatorial policies and his refusal to compromise to allow passage of the treaty and its provisions for his own League of Nations. Because of Wilson's intransigence, the United States never joined the league, severely weakening it.
Author Margaret MacMillan surmised that if the United States had joined the league, the rise of Mussolini and Hitler might have been averted. Of course, if Wilson had been able to prevent England and France from imposing harsh reparations on Germany, Hitler might have remained a local crank.
While the show makes much of the Wilson Administration's news censorship, I was amazed at the amount of battlefield film and photographs used in the show. I don't believe any "re-enactments" were used. While information might have been limited, photographers and cinematographers must have had tremendous access to the front lines. I was also happy to see that modern technology has been able to adjust old film so that its subjects move at normal speed. Years ago, people in World War I era film walked with funny, jerky-jerky movements.
Most of the show is in black and white, still appropriate for events of 100 years ago. While that era seems far distant, much of the aftermath of World War I set the stage for our modern world.