Michael S. Neiberg. The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 320 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-046496-7.
Reviewed by Donald Seablom (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Michael S. Neiberg’s 2016 work, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America, analyzes the world events that drove America to the brink of war and how that process steered America to economic prominence. While the broader historiography tends to focus on President Woodrow Wilson’s actions, Neiberg also incorporates the influence on the American people and their interpretation of the events around them. Additionally, he refrains from lumping Americans into one body with a singular viewpoint, choosing instead to highlight key mood shifts in large ethnic populations stemming from particular events. Slowly but surely, as the ugly realities of the war transpired, disparate groups aligned into an aggregate that accepted war as the only viable option to address Germany’s continued aggression. Neiberg suggests dedicating more attention to this phenomenon: World War I was extremely important to the development of the United States as a twentieth-century superpower, yet many Americans, favoring World War II studies, often ignore this era. This work is a building block to reestablish an understanding of how America benefited from, and became embroiled in, the conflict.
The Path to War is not a military history of World War I. While the narrative follows a chronological path from the outbreak of war in 1914 to America’s declaration of war in 1917, it does not detail battles. Instead it focuses on the impact of important events on the psyche of Americans in those first three years. For example, the book includes no discussions of the battle plans and deployment schedules, common fodder in World War I histories, since American citizens in 1914 were not directly affected by those military-centric activities. Instead, readers will note a focus on events that the media covered, events subsequently interpreted, written about, and discussed by Americans. Those sensational events played a galvanizing role as America transformed into a more cohesive body.
Many of those sensational events are well known. Most amateur historians could at least identify such events as the sinking of the Lusitania or the exposure of the Zimmerman Telegram as spark points for American involvement. To be sure, those were critical events and Neiberg ably sheds light on why they were so instrumental in shaping popular thought. However, there are many other lesser-known events that also explain why Americans ultimately chose war. For example, the Black Tom bombing in Jersey City—which stood until the 9/11 attacks as the largest terrorist attack in US history—struck fear in the civilian population. The slaughter of Armenians rallied the Christian population. Nicholas II’s abdication opened the door for increased Jewish support for the war. Numerous other events also shaped perceptions, stamped out the concept of two Germanys, removed hyphens from ethnic population titles, instilled a deep-seated fear of a German victory, and ended widespread advocacy of neutrality.
Fear alone was not enough to overcome the economic benefits of neutrality and to drive America to war. Neiberg repeatedly notes that every segment of the economy was growing at a rapid rate. A declaration of war meant forfeiture of vast sums of money in many industries. Even the idea of conscription to strengthen the United States against foreign aggression was frowned upon, as the conscripts would shrink the available labor pool. Over time, Americans began to experience guilt; benefiting so greatly monetarily while millions died hardly seemed just. Those three years of war were a catalyst for the United States to develop into a true economic power.
Neiberg adds considerable clout to his argument with a wide array of sources. Drawing from a large pool of personal letters, music, newspaper articles, advertisements, lectures by university presidents, and numerous other primary sources, Neiberg weaves a tale of shifting sentiments. He uses the words of the people themselves to demonstrate progression from shock and confusion on how to view German aggression, to strong advocacy of neutrality, to a dedication to engaging in war. Personal anecdotes are also especially effective as Neiberg revisits the same families through sources over the three years to demonstrate shifting thoughts on the war. Perhaps the source that resonates the loudest through the work is political cartoons. Time and again, Neiberg’s descriptions of widely distributed cartoons help the reader understand the general mood at a given time.
Ultimately, Neiberg advocates for more scholarship to understand World War I as it had far more impact on modern America than most realize. In a pre-World War II world, this conflict held immense meaning for those involved as well as observers. To discount its impact on the international scene in favor of a World War II focus is to do it a disservice, and we miss out on opportunities to reap important lessons regarding how America evolved.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Donald Seablom. Review of Neiberg, Michael S., The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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