American troops in Russian port about to leave that country, circa 1919. 

American troops in Russian port about to leave that country, circa 1919. 

Central News Photo Service

One hundred years ago the United States plunged into the gruesome carnage of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson had backed neutrality. The slogan he used to win re-election in 1916? "He kept us out of war." But Germany pushed the country's hand, leading Wilson to utter the rallying cry: "The world must be made safe for democracy."

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This lofty ideal raises the question that lingers over The Great War, the new six-hour American Experience series about the country's role in the war.

Democracy in the world is a noble cause. But what about democracy at home?

How does a country make the world safe for democracy even as it establishes Espionage and Sedition Acts that make it just about illegal to criticize said country? How does a country spread the good word of equality even as it does its best to keep the armed forces segregated? What about the women who protested the war and got thrown in prison for their troubles (a few years before they were given the right to vote)?

What about Leroy Johnston? Johnston, an Arkansas native, survived some of the worst fighting of the war as a member of the African-American New York 15th National Guard. He was murdered by a white mob when he returned home. His death was part of Red Summer, a 1919 wave of postwar racial violence that left hundreds dead. It seems Johnston wanted a little respect after helping make the world ... safe for democracy.

These kinds of questions go back to America's inception, and the Declaration of Independence's premise that "all men are created equal." Then there were women. And the slaves who stayed in bondage for almost 100 more years. And the Native Americans.

High ideals are marvelous. They're also hard to live up to. To its credit, The Great War never fully loses sight of this dilemma. As an installment in The American Experience, it reminds us that the American experience is rarely simple, and often not pretty.

Harlem Hellfighters on the boat right after it docks at New York City. Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry, formerly 15th New York Regulars.

Harlem Hellfighters on the boat right after it docks at New York City. Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry, formerly 15th New York Regulars.

National Archives

War abroad, war at home

The Great War is really the story of two wars. There was the war in Europe, which left more than 17 million dead (including civilians). World War I introduced all manner of new ways to kill people, including submarine attacks, trench warfare and mustard gas. By the time the U.S. entered the war, in 1917, France had lost more than 1 million lives. This war was a death machine.

Then there was the war at home, which started well before America's entry and lasted far beyond the final shots on the battlefield.

Wilson may have waited a while before committing the country to war, but once he did he made support for the effort mandatory. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or merely not showing the proper enthusiasm, could land you in prison. The federal government worked with the American Protective League, an organization that worked overtime identifying and punishing dissenters. Like the Sons of Liberty in the Revolutionary War period, pro-war mobs didn't hesitate to tar and feather those who didn't get in line. As historian Christopher Cappozzolla puts it, "There was always a sense that you were being watched, but there was no way to know who was watching you."

Library of Congress

Other morale strategies were less violent. George Creel, an investigative journalist with a nose for marketing, was put in charge of selling the war. Creel's Committee on Public Information (CPI) controlled the flow of information making its way from the front to the press. It enlisted the Four Minute Men, a group of civilians who gave short public speeches on assigned war topics. It also commissioned some iconic artwork. You know the famous poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger, a determined look on his face? That's the work of James Montgomery Flagg, and it comes from World War I.

The American military turned the tide of World War I, as wave after wave of troops wore the Germans down. Then it was time for Wilson to seek the treaty terms he wanted. He knew if the Americans played a decisive part in winning the war, he would get the leading role in establishing the peace.

Unfortunately, he overplayed his heavy hand at home and alienated the progressive voting base that brought him to power. After the war, as he argued for his 14 points and League of Nations - his new world order — he faced a House and Senate that had just gone Republican. The Senate leader, Henry Cabot Lodge, felt marginalized by Wilson's autocratic approach, and was in no mood for conciliation. The U.S. never joined the League, and Wilson's health went steeply downhill as he took on the task of selling his vision. He died in 1924.

The war on film

If World War I brought breakthroughs in lethal technology, it will also go down as the first major conflict of the film age. The breadth and immediacy of footage featured in The Great War is staggering.

We see midair dogfights, battlefields strewn with bodies, troops marching through wafting clouds of gas. We see a soldier suffering from a newly coined malady, shell shock, twitching and trembling uncontrollably. We see a wounded young man smoking a cigarette through his nose in the hospital. That's odd, we think. Then he lowers hand and cigarette from his face, and we see that his mouth is all but gone. 

These are not images the CPI would have wanted you to see.

The Great War doesn't purport to be a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of the war, though it covers the basics broadly and efficiently. Instead it's a portrait of American identity, how it shaped the war, and how, in turn, the war shaped it.

Wilson hoped it would be the war to end all wars. Just about 20 years later would come  World War II, which slowly bubbled up from the rubble of  its predecessor. This war would usher in the still greater destruction of the atomic age.

Wilson sent America to war in support of an idea. But that idea took a beating back home. "The war was won," says historian Nancy Bristow. "But it was won by way of behaviors, policies, even laws that contradicted the very values for which the country was fighting."

The Great War airs 8 p.m. April 10-12 on KERA-TV (Channel 13). 

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