“The Great War in America” with Garrett Peck
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
6 p.m. Reception | 6:30 p.m. Program
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
On December 5, the Truman Library is honored to welcome author and historian Garrett Peck for a free public program discussing his latest book, The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath, which examines the American experience during World War I and the unexpected changes that rocked the country in its immediate aftermath — the Red Scare, race riots, women’s suffrage and Prohibition, particularly timely on the centennial of the Armistice.
We will be celebrating the anniversary of Repeal Day with a cocktail demonstration by Tom’s Town and sampling of the French 75, a WWI-era cocktail named after the deadly artillery piece. Captain Truman led a battery of these guns in France, and he was the only future president to fight during the Great War. As he wrote his fiancée Bess, his battery of Kansas City men were already making bootlegging plans for Prohibition. The “Thirteen Awful Years,” as literary critic H. L. Mencken described it, ended on December 5, 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, and we will raise a glass to our right to drink on this anniversary of Repeal Day.
In anticipation of this program, we spoke with Garrett Peck to ask him a few questions:
What drew you to focus on World War I for your latest book?
I’ve long observed how little attention World War I gets in the United States. There is no inspiring monument to the war in Washington, D.C., unlike other wars. And yet World War I is actually the most important war of the 20th century: Four global empires fell, communism was unleashed, and the map of the Middle East was redrawn. We had an opportunity to build a lasting framework for peace through the League of Nations, but the peace treaty – the Treaty of Versailles – was far too punitive toward Germany, and it set the stage for the Great War’s bloody sequel.
World War I was the most idealistic war that the United States ever fought, but that shattered on reality when the peace process descended into an ugly partisan squabble. The U.S. never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, nor joined the League of Nations. Most Americans quickly concluded that our involvement in the war was a mistake, and they wanted to forget about it. We retreated into isolationism, a young global power that was too immature to accept that it had global responsibilities.
As we approached the centennial of the Armistice, I decided to write a book that covered the contentious issues of America at war – how we eventually got involved, the herculean effort to restructure the economy for a wartime footing to send two million doughboys to France, as well as the failed peace process. I also wanted to explore the unintended consequences that directly resulted from the war: the nation’s first red scare, the most vicious race riots we have ever witnessed, women’s suffrage and Prohibition. It’s a summary history of the war. I was aiming for something like James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. At the heart of the story, of course, is President Woodrow Wilson, who had to make the painful decision to take the country to war and who sacrificed his health and ultimately his life for the peace.
How did the issues the country faced after World War I lead to the challenges Harry Truman faced during his presidency just a few decades later?
I just love Harry Truman. I had a great aunt who served as the secretary to the press secretary in the Truman White House, and growing up she told me so many great stories about her time in the White House.
What I admire about President Truman is how he carried Woodrow Wilson’s legacy forward. Wilson’s ideas floundered in his lifetime, but he proved a prophet of democracy. Truman embraced “Wilsonian diplomacy” which is about promoting democracy abroad. He learned the lessons from the failure of the Treaty of Versailles and took a different course after World War II. Instead of punishing our enemies, he rebuilt their economies and their societies around democracy. He created the Marshall Plan to help friend and foe recover from the carnage of war. And he built the post-war institutions like the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that helped us win the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
In reading both George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s memoirs, I was struck that both men gave Truman credit for building these institutions that helped turn the 20th century into the American Century. Our alliances with fellow democracies have extended our influence globally while engaging in collective security, and our trade agreements have brought us unbelievable prosperity as a nation and pulled billions of people out of poverty. As someone who believes in America and our institutions, I am enormously impressed by Truman’s legacy.
What is the significance of hosting this public program on the anniversary of the date Prohibition was repealed?
National Prohibition was a direct outcome from World War I. German-Americans were the largest ethnic group at the time, and they were also the brewers. Once we declared war against Germany, this entire swath of people were marginalized and the temperance movement seized the moment to propose the Eighteenth Amendment to ban the “liquor traffic,” as they called it.
In the heady days of super-patriotism, everyone thought Prohibition was a good idea. Beer drinking became unpatriotic. We needed to save grain to feed the doughboys and beat the Kaiser’s army. The amendment sailed through Congress and went on to the states for ratification. The states completed ratification on January 16, 1919 – just two months after the Armistice! National Prohibition started exactly one year later.
The problem was: this was a measure passed during the urgency of wartime. No one thought of the consequences, nor how difficult it would be to enforce Prohibition, nor the fact that most Americans still expected to drink beer and wine. They thought they were simply outlawing liquor. Idealism came face-to-face with reality as Americans developed relationships with bootleggers and we became a nation of scofflaws. Organized crime threatened to take over the cities, and bribery was threatening the rule of law. The public became quite cynical about Prohibition.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Prohibition’s days were numbered. Democrats seized control of the country politically in 1930 and proposed repeal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the presidency on the Repeal platform two years later. The Twenty-first Amendment passed Congress in early 1933 and went on to the states for ratification. It only took eight months to ratify. On December 5, 1933, Utah put the amendment over the top, ending national Prohibition. The day has since been coined as Repeal Day (or Cinco de Drinko). The “Thirteen Awful Years,” as H. L. Mencken called Prohibition, came to a celebratory end. On December 5, we’ll raise our glasses together to celebrate our right to drink.
What is the French 75, and how was it connected to World War I?
The French 75 was a brilliant 75mm artillery piece that was a mainstay for the French and American armies during the Great War. It had a top-secret hydropneumatic system that enabled it to recoil to its original position after firing a shell. It was highly accurate and very deadly. The first artillery round that Americans fired at the Germans was on October 23, 1917. It was from a French 75. The brass casing was preserved and presented to President Woodrow Wilson. You can still see it on the mantle of his bedroom in the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C.
Although American industry could produce prodigious quantities of steel, we had very little armaments capacity, so we had to borrow aircraft, artillery, and tanks from the Allies. Captain Harry Truman led a battery of French 75s during the Great War. The artillery piece was so appreciated that a bartender invented the French 75 cocktail in its honor. We’ll be sampling the French 75 cocktail on the night of my talk at the Truman Library.
About the author: Garrett Peck is an author, historian and tour guide in the Washington, D.C. area. He is on the advisory council of the Woodrow Wilson House. He will speak about this latest book, The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath, at the Truman Library on December 5, 2018. www.garrettpeck.com
Join us Wednesday, December 5,, for “The Great War in America,” featuring Garrett Peck. The program takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, with a free reception and cocktail demonstration preceding at 6 p.m. This event is free but RSVPs are requested.
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