Two things are clear: Woodrow Wilson was one of the most internally cleft human beings ever to occupy the White House, and that’s saying something. Also, the more things change, the more they… don’t.
PBS’ new American Experience documentary series, The Great War, does some things well and some things less well, but its great strength is probably the sweeping portrait it paints of Wilson, who essentially fathered the (ongoing) notion that the United States had a moral mandate to shape world affairs. He advocated tirelessly for peace, but embroiled the country in the bloodiest conflict in human history. He was against war profiteering, but turned a blind eye to it. (Guess why one torpedo shivered the Lusitania so thoroughly it took a mere 18 minutes to send it to the ocean floor?) He passionately believed in democratic values, yet his domestic agenda set back civil liberties for Black Americans and introduced the Espionage and Sedition Acts, making his administration one of the most repressive of free speech in our history. He famously outlined a 14-point plan for world peace, including an innovative “League of Nations” that would resolve conflict politically and diplomatically… then he basically left the table during negotiations. A man of soaring idealism, he was also entirely capable of stony moral superiority and tyranny.
The Great War is impressive in its breadth and in the amount of material it includes about what was happening on the European front, but also what was going on in the United States in the years leading up to our involvement in the War. It covers the racial landscape both in civilian and military communities, the suffragist movement (and how Wilson, while theoretically sympathetic, did his best to quash it because he felt it would distract people from the war), with a specific biographical focus on Alice Paul. It paints a vivid picture of the role propaganda played in American foreign policy (apparently even then we were much more sophisticated at it than you’re told in school). It tells the largely forgotten story of the Native American “code-talkers” who flummoxed the Germans by communicating in Choctaw and Cherokee (Navajo people would later play a similar role in WWII). It turns an unblinking eye onto the betrayal of African American soldiers and the racial violence against Black civilians that rampaged through the country, culminating in the “red summer” of 1919. Oliver Platt’s narration is clear and solid. There is a great wealth of sources, many of them intimate, first-person documents such as letters and diaries, that illuminate a truly multivalent and layered landscape. Many of the interviewed historians make insightful, keenly observed comments about facets of the war we might not have thought about before. In particular, the series reveals the PR wizardry of George Creel, the man Wilson utilized to “sell” the war he’d been against joining for three years of determined non-intervention and neutrality.
The series’ decays a bit over the course of the three episodes (a bit like Wilson himself, who was an utterly broken person by the time of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles). The editing becomes quite choppy, and the disparate narratives explored over the first hours of the series start to fray instead of braiding together in a satisfying way. We are told about the historic, landmark speech in which Wilson outlined his 14-point plan for world peace, and it’s noted that he received a standing ovation that lasted several minutes—yet we don’t get so much as a quotation. The very interesting question of how the ferocious influenza pandemic of 1918 changed the war and the American landscape is raised and then dropped in an almost bizarre way, as if the director had simply become distracted. (They even leave in a historian’s remark that part of why the H1N1 outbreak was so terrifying and lethal was that it was “before antibiotics”—obviously, influenza is a virus, not a bacterium. 100 years later, antibiotics are still useless against flu.) We get into the intriguing realization that for the last year of his presidency, the White House was secretly run by the First Lady, Edith Galt Wilson, whose inner circle suppressed the news that the President had suffered an incapacitating stroke. It would have been interesting to walk through some of the doors opened by that information. What was her relationship to the “league of nations?” Was her agenda different from her husband’s? Where the hell’s Vice President Marshall in all of this? (Hint: He was there, but you wouldn’t know it from the documentary.) And what became of master spin-doctor George Creel? The series does double back and tie up the antagonistic relationship between Wilson and suffragist Alice Paul, which is nice, but there are so many questions raised and not answered in the last 90 minutes of the series that it’s a bit disorienting.
Look, it’s a huge subject: They don’t call it “The Great War” for no reason. It killed, by some estimates, a combined total of anywhere from 16 million to 37 million people. (The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.) It’s a very, very tough job to capture all of the inputs and all of the outcomes of a vast, deadly, world-changing international conflict, even when you have a lavish six hours to do it. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is that what Wilson hoped would be “the war to end all wars” not only failed to accomplish that (or much of anything other than insane mass-casualty). We see an eerie and deeply disturbing lack of change, despite the riotous, explosive, worldwide tectonic shifts of the 20th century. 100 years after we entered the First World War, many things are shockingly the same. You’ll step away from this documentary with a very uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.
The Great War premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.