Eric's Reviews > Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality

Lost Battalions by Richard Slotkin
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Jan 14, 14

bookshelves: war, history, great-war, malick-should-film-it, americans, favorites
Read in December, 2009

Before reading Lost Battalions I, like most Americans for whom The Crucible was an unavoidable assignment, a curricular rite, would instinctively point to McCarthyism as the nadir of the nation’s twentieth century civic life. Our most shameful symbolic event is either McCarthy’s heyday, or else the Japanese internment, or the fire-hoses, burning crosses and Whites Only water fountains of Jim Crow in its last days (To Kill a Mockingbird, omnipresent as Arthur Miller’s play, teaches Tolerance). Well, turns out it was the administration of Woodrow Wilson, himself one of the great gassy laureates of American goodness, that might have done the most damage to the social fabric. In addition to being quite a racist personally, a Klan apologist and segregator of the Federal civil service, Wilson, after declaring war on Germany in April 1917, unleashed a blitz of anti-German vilification so hateful and fear-mongering that it drove most of America totally crazy. The Committee on Public Information (a bland and oxymoronic name, like the French Revolution’s madly homicidal “Committee of Public Safety”) mobilized the media to a full propagandistic cry. Americans were so sick with terrified rage that for the next three years they spewed on everybody, including the immigrants and minorities Wilson had progressively courted for help manning the army. The propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Wilson administration pushed more than anti-German buttons: the Germans were described as Huns, Asiatics, and the German solider was often pictured in suggestively Negroid fashion as a slavering, befanged gorilla dangling a milk-white, lightly-clad Belgian maid from his primal paw. The dread category of “pro-German” came to define a large portion of the body politic. Big Business used this floating, inclusive kind of demonization to try to murder labor leaders; the government used it to surveil and imprison leftists opposed to the war; and local elites, encouraged by the Justice Department’s tacit approval, formed vigilante militias to rough up or even lynch anyone in their towns or counties who didn’t seem “100% American.” German books were piled and torched in the streets. Beethoven and Brahms were removed from orchestra programs (Nabokov recalls that as soon as war with Germany came in 1914, Russians reclassified the Bonn-born “van” Beethoven as a Dutch composer).

Once the war was over, all this crazy hatred spilled over onto immigrants and blacks whose wartime loyalty and postwar betrayal Slotkin traces in the experiences of the black 369th Infantry Regiment (the “Harlem Hellfighters”) and the 77th (“Melting Pot” or “Statue of Liberty”) Division, a New York City formation full of “Jews, Wops and dirty Irish cops” (so ran a popular ditty) that included the famous “Lost Battalion,” a unit that, cut off and surrounded in the Argonne forest, and beset by waves of flamethrower-armed, grenade-lobbing storm troopers, had nearly joined the Alamo’s defenders and Custer’s 7th Cavalry in the pantheon of American last stands. After the war, after minority soldiers had met and even surpassed the “Strenuous Life” and “Fighting Race” tests devised by Teddy Roosevelt, that era’s arch-ideologue of American nationalism and military preparedness (most the of the officers of these two formations were Ivy League-educated, upper class noblesse oblige liberals trained at the string of private paramilitary summer camps Roosevelt helped found in 1915), Congress had the nerve to convene hearings to discuss the racial inferiority of Jews and in 1924 imposed racial and national immigration quotas. The liberal rhetorical outreach to blacks in 1917 led to little but returning black veterans being lynched in their uniforms by southern mobs. War disrupts the status quo and makes vested interests defensive, reactive and often violent, no matter the rhetoric of unity emanating from executive figureheads. Big business was spooked by the wartime government regulation. Midwestern whites did not like the “Great Migration” of southern blacks to northern cities and jobs in the flourishing war industries. Southern whites were incensed by the idea of blacks in the military, and even before the postwar lynchings intimidated and insulted blacks stationed at bases in Dixie. Black and white units brawled murderously in stateside camps and in France (the Harlem Hellfighters narrowly avoided a gunfight with an Alabama National Guard regiment billeted near them). Four million doughboys were demobilized back into an economy in recession. By war’s end, the vague fear of “Asiatics” allowed people to shift their hysteria from “Hunnish” Germans to the “Judeo-Bolsheviks” and their “Asiatic” army of Russian peasants, who were thought to have agents among the Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants in America’s cities, who in turn were suspected as the sinister organizational brainpower behind the ghost armies of vengeful Negroes, bent on rape and government overthrow, that troubled the sleeps of Eastern plutocrat and shack-living cracker alike.

What amazes me about the postwar “Red Scare” and its attendant race riots (the whites were doing the rioting) is how durable its demonology has proved. The effigy of Barack Obama that ultra rightists dangle about is an amalgam of the Red Scare’s pair of bogeymen: a racially mongrelized foreigner bearing dread socialism into the sanctum of the American state. Palin-esque paranoiacs represent the not-inconsiderable remnants of what Slotkin calls “the White Republic”—-that is, the ideology of nationality in which America exists by and for white Protestants from northwestern Europe. Slotkin writes that this racialist idea of American nationality held sway from 1776, was modified in the late 19th century to include Irish Catholics (by 1917 they were seen by the WASP establishment as the nation’s “model minority”), was threatened, was thrown into Slotkin’s titular crisis by the pragmatic inclusivity and colorblind mobilization demanded of America in a Great Power role, reasserted itself in the 1920s through immigration restriction and the national political clout of the KKK (Wilson’s successor, Harding, accepted an honorary membership while in office) and was mostly displaced in the language of the powerful during the 1930s by the New Deal’s hopeful, pluralistic rhetoric and the shameful resemblance of American Jim Crow and anti-Semitism to the repellent braying of Nazism, enemy No. 1 of Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy.” The “White Republic” received encouragement from Republicans in the late 1960s, part of their cynical ploy to scoop up Southern whites disgruntled with the Democratic Party’s embrace of Civil Rights legislation, the infamous “Southern Strategy” (Obama showed the strategy’s waning relevance by winning Virginia and North Carolina). During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan actually told an audience in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town where the KKK had lynched three civil rights workers 16 years previous, that he and his party “believe states rights”—for which his memory should be forever damned by any American claiming to love his country and value its unity. Race- and now gay-baiting are the resources of these wanton ruffians. Obama really sticks it to them by showing that a racially mixed man with a foreign father can not only be American, but can be America’s president.

It is not an overstatement to refer, as Slotkin does, to a “crisis of American nationality,” because that’s precisely what it was: eugenicist fears for the future of the American stock, and arguments over the racial status, loyalty and fighting fitness of the new immigrants dominated early 20th century America. The coming of war in 1917 compelled America’s contemplation of a multiracial, multicultural (“mongrelized” in the terms of the time) future. The obsolescence of the White Republic was made pretty clear by the numerical necessities of wartime. The most unimaginative bureaucrat in the War Department could see that America would not be able to field million-man armies—would not be able play with the big boys or influence the postwar order—without the enlistment and allegiance of large numbers of hitherto-marginalized immigrants and nonwhites. The war threatened to produce a new class of blacks and immigrants emboldened by spilled blood to claim full American citizenship and a place at the table. America balked at the empowerment of its minorities and full participation in the affairs of the world; its behavior was contradictory and transitional during war and frankly xenophobic and insular after. That Wilson’s Progressive and internationalist ambitions of 1917 should be thwarted by the very forces of hate and distrust his administration encouraged during the course of the war does not constitute an irony, as America’s rejection of the League of Nations seems fairly predictable, at least to this smartass twentysomething writing from a century of hindsight. You don’t prepare a nation for global leadership by dividing its citizens against each other and by generally promoting a fear of the outside world. Ends and means are never separable. W.E.B. Du Bois, closing his “An Essay Towards a History of the Black Man in the Great War,” says that once upon a time a diseased nation set out to save civilization, and that disease hampered its efforts and marred its finest professions.

My education taught me to regard Wilson as a martyred internationalist (he suffered a debilitating stroke while stumping for the League of Nations) undone by dastardly “isolationists” anachronistically pictured as Hitler appeasers. After reading this I don’t feel sorry for Wilson—he seems representative of the worst of our politics, amoral and unprincipled one day, pastorally sanctimonious the next, as Clemenceau judged him, the perfect symbol of a fundamentally mendacious culture addled by genteel doubletalk, choking on its own bullshit. And I feel some sympathy with the isolationists, if only because America’s very first involvement in European affairs, its experience in the muddy mustard gas-fogged abattoirs of Europe’s first suicide attempt haunted the country Vietnam-ishly almost from the moment peace was declared. Pershing’s offensive in the Meuse-Argonne killed 26,000 soldiers, the most lethal battle in American history to date, and glory-hungry American generals were sending men over the top, into German machine guns, in the last minutes before the cease fire was due to take effect (the last recorded American battle casualty, Private Henry Gunther, died in an infantry charge at 10:59am on November 11th 1918, 60 seconds before peace). When the generals were called before Congress to explain themselves they lied about knowing when the cease-fire was to take effect, or made no apologies whatsoever.

It’s too bad that military history is thought the hobby of middle aged men painting tin soldiers in their basements, because when a war is portrayed in its full breadth it becomes definitively revealing of the combatant nations. Slotkin is a masterful narrator of it all, from the rifle stock bludgeoning and disemboweling knife strokes of nocturnal trench raids to the impalpable contours of national self-concept. I think that America in particular benefits from such a focus. America’s traditional distrust of large standing armies, its incidence of interwar laxity and the mythic status accorded to its defeats (the Alamo, the Little Bighorn, Pearl Harbor) shouldn’t fool us—this is a fighting nation. Its independence, consolidation and expansion, as well as its major social reshufflings in the 20th century, were the objects or aftereffects of war. True of all nations, but few cram so many crucial conflicts, so many profound renovations, into a period of just two centuries. In the end there’s a poignancy in the fact that Slotkin uncovers pivotal meaning in a war that most Americans ignore: we simply don’t recognize the America of 1917, don’t see how it was once us; I didn’t suspect America’s deep experience of WWI until I started reading this. The America we recognize is the empire that emerged from World War Two confident in global leadership and proudly boasting its tolerant open society as an advantage over its Nazi enemy and Soviet competitor, proclaiming itself, in Slotkin’s words, “a nation of nations, able to take all comers as they are and win their allegiance.” The America that entered the Great War wasn’t sure it wanted to lead the world and didn’t think the multicultural open society we value today particularly desirable or healthy.

Nothing shows the foreignness of that America better than the fragmentary legacy, the abridged persistence of Theodore Roosevelt. As Slotkin shows, Theodore bestrode all the major issues of his day, supplied the conceptions with which the civic discourse treated and the assumptions upon which widely differing groups founded their programs; he was so associated with American martial manhood that American troops disembarking in France were greeted with “Vive les Teddies!”—“Vive les Yanks!” would come later. Theodore advanced the original vision of modern American world power, but his racialist, Social Darwinist rhetoric (America belongs to the ascendant “fighting races”…how to remake the ethno-psychically “beaten men” of Italy and the Polish shetl into fighting Anglo-Saxons?), while refreshingly candid and pugnacious next to Wilson’s “make the world safe for democracy” (that was PR aimed at wives and mothers who had to be convinced to wager their menfolk), was ultimately superseded by the more domestically inclusive and globally resonant idea of America put forth by his cousin Franklin, who as a young politician had joined the Democrats because he felt he couldn’t make his mark in a Republican Party so dominated by Teddy. It would be too dramatic to say that Theodore Roosevelt, and the isolationists on the other end of the political spectrum from him, were written out of history, but they are two examples of once-influential players whose visions America mostly left behind. It’s always eerie to read about the ideas and people, nominally of “our” history, that never made it into the dominant current consensus about what America is.

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message 1: by Ann (new)

Ann Klefstad Wow, Eric, this is great--it is largely unknown history, isn't it? (At least not known by me!) Here in Duluth the Great War was the occasion of the lynching of a Finnish labor-union member who was known to oppose American involvement in the war.

I add only one thing--have you read John Dos Passos' USA trilogy? it's an acute gaze at the era you describe.

Eric Thanks for the reminder! Dos Passos does sound very appetizing, now that this book has provided a frame and a good introduction to the social texture of the "Progressive Era." I read the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, back in high school, but without an interest in the history it didn't make much of a dent. I also read Manhattan Transfer around the same time; I recall that it featured a bitter, unemployed veteran trying to get by in 1920s New York. Oh, and then there's Three Soldiers as well! I had a copy of that once. I want to quit my job and just read!

message 3: by Ann (new)

Ann Klefstad yes, and the other day I listened to a CD version of the Great Gatsby while on a long drive. What's odd about that book is the huge gaping elision of the War. Obviously the jaundiced, twisted ethos and smell of the milieu Fitzgerald describes--in far more baroque tropes than I remember from reading it years ago--was produced by the needless-to-mention--or unmentionable at the time?-- experience of the war. But Fitzgerald notes it in passing only. I think maybe 20 sentences in the whole book evoke or refer to it. It's somehow more shocking than Remarque's evocation, because it hasn't ended. The graphically mangled corpse of Tom's mistress (her left breast ripped nearly off and dangling, her blood in the dust of the road)is the image of a war casualty. The horror of Fitzgerald's world is that, just as the war was fought over nothing and brought nothing about, it never actually ended. Crony capitalism rampant, shading into gangs and mafias, was just war by other means.

Eric I'm going to have to re-read all the Lost Generation books because before I didn't intimately understand what made them lost. Lost Battalions, Lost Generations. While I was reading this, especially the sections where Slotkin shows how the confidence and dash of the Harlemites who made up the 369th contributed to the success of the regiment in contrast to the more demoralized black units recruited from the south, I kept thinking of this scene in which Gatsby and Nick go motoring into New York:

As we crossed Blackwells Island a limousine passed us driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all..."

Slotkin is surely right to judge that the sacrifices of black troops in WWI weren't acknowledged by a national recognition of civil rights, but the blacks of New York City didn't let that stop them locally. And NYC was no mere locality. Jazz--one of whose pioneers and theoreticians was James Reese Europe, bandleader of (and machine-gunner in) the 369th--spread apace.

message 5: by Ann (new)

Ann Klefstad I remember that scene--it's indelible, in a kind of double vision, that of the black limousine owners and and that of the jaundiced white gaze.

Now I have to look up James Reese Europe!

Eric A bit on JR Europe from the Ken Burns Jazz film:

More footage of their homecomeing to Harlem:

message 7: by Ann (new)

Ann Klefstad thanks for this.

message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve It's been years, but as I recall, the Dos Passos who wrote the USA trilogy (which I really liked), and the one who wrote Manhatten Transfer, may have been quite different in mind-set. But I haven't read Manhatten Transfer, so don't hold me to that. I think I pulled that info from Alfred Kazin's (great) book, On Native Grounds.

Eric I heard he later turned rabidly conservative--like Bircher and McCarthyist conservative--after the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the Kazin tip! I found Trilling's good essay; he says that the trilogy's picture of American society was too depressing even for the Communist critics, who called it "defeatist" and "an epic of disintegration." What a recommendation, I say!

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