April 21, 2006
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Crusader Nation’ Continues Saga Begun by Historian Traxel with ‘1898’; Displays Transition of U.S. from Continental Power to World Power
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic
Hinton, WV (HNN) – On Page 294 of David Traxel’s “Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War 1898-1920” (Knopf, 432 pages, 19 black and white photos, indexed, bibliography, $27.50) there’s a one-sheet movie poster showing a medieval crusader on horseback side by side with Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing.
This was an obviously non-politically correct time, when images of Crusaders liberating the Holy Land could be used to symbolize the entry of the U.S. into the bloody, totally unnecessary European War in which more than 15 million died to avenge the death of one useless European “aristocrat.” It’s one of the many vignettes of history served up by a superb narrative historian, whose “1898” I reviewed in 1998 for the Beckley newspaper where I labored. I gave “1898” a rousing review and am doing the same for “Crusader Nation,” with a few caveats, of course!
Who knew that the Great War, as World War I was called until 1939 or 1940, would rely on movie propaganda and even movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks hawking war bonds and the WWI equivalent of Rosie the Riveter? If you read this book, you’ll know! It’s history for the reader who wants to be well informed, not for the professional historian.
Although the title suggests coverage of the early part of the 20th Century, Traxel, professor of history at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, devotes almost the entire book to the period 1912 to 1920. It’s a cultural, political history by a populist, essentially liberal historian – although one displaying admirable balance.
Traxel deplores – as does virtually everyone of good will – the excesses of capitalism that led to the coal mine strikes in West Virginia and the Ludlow Massacre of the Rockefeller-controlled coal mines in Colorado on April 20, 1914. Both episodes are covered in depth, including the involvement of Mary “Mother” Jones in both West Virginia and Colorado. Hired detectives from the infamous Baldwin-Felts company in Bluefield, WV figured strongly in both strikes, Traxel points out.
Caveat Alert: Absent in “Crusader Nation” is any mention of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, certainly as worthy of inclusion as the Ludlow incident. The fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant women, and led to legislation for improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, much as the mining strikes spurred growth of the United Mine Workers of America.
Both the Ludlow Massacre and the Triangle fire are symbolic of the excesses of the capitalistic system so well illuminated by reformers such as Thorstein Veblen, Jane Addams (of Hull House), photographer Lewis Hines and the “muckraking” journalists of the early years of the 20th Century, including Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair,. Max Eastman and John Reed.
Yes, that John (Jack) Reed, portrayed on the big screen by Warren Beatty in the 1981 movie “Reds.” Diane Keaton played his wife, the beautiful Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson played Eugene O’Neill, with whom she had an off-and-on affair while Jack was off covering a war or two. Traxel includes a very artistic nude photo of Louise Bryant on the dunes of Cape Cod.
Reed appears throughout “Crusader Nation,” covering strikes on the East Coast, covering the fracas that broke out between the U.S. and Mexico in 1913 and 1914, which resulted in the U.S. Army under Pershing invading Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. Pershing was dubbed “Black Jack” because of his leadership of African American troops and his respect for their fighting abilities at a time of strict racial discrimination and segregation. The Army was the only military service branch that gave blacks a chance to fight: They were, Traxel points out, completely barred from the Marines and limited to menial tasks in the Navy.
Racial prejudice figured in Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the U.S. government after he was inaugurated in 1913, which Traxel excuses on the basis of Virginia-born Wilson’s need for support from racist Southern Democrats. All in all, Traxel goes easy on Wilson, stressing his total lack of anti-Semitism – as exemplified by his friendship with Bernard Baruch, who ably led the War Industries Board, and his 1916 appointment of Louis D. Brandeis as the first Jew to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Traxel does mention the screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 movie in the White House, but nowhere is any mention of Wilson’s summarily firing all the nation’s black postmasters – all Republicans at that time – when he took office. These occurred despite the unprecedented black support for Wilson in his 1912 bid for the Presidency.
The Germans and their allies don’t come off very well in “Crusader Nation.” The invasion of Belgium and the destruction of the beautiful city of Louvain (Pages 132-3) is described very well indeed by Traxel. He also notes the first aerial bombardment in history, by a German Zeppelin on Aug. 6, 1914, killing nine civilians in Liege, Belgium, and inaugurating a practice that would symbolize the 20th Century according to historian Barbara Tuchman, cited by Traxel.
Come to think of it, Traxel follows in the narrative history footsteps of Tuchman (“The Guns of August,” “The Zimmermann Telegram”) which is high praise indeed from this major-league Tuchman fan.
In response to the British naval blockade of Germany, the Kaiser initiated U-Boat warfare that ultimately brought the U.S. into the Great War. I personally find submarines a particularly sneaky, cowardly way of fighting, but the Germans had little choice against the massive British naval presence. The sinking by U-20 of the British ocean liner Lusitania off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915 is of course described, but Traxel notes other sinkings of civilian ships – and even the torpedoing by the Germans of hospital ships. For the record, 1,198 men, women and children – 128 of them Americans – were killed in the Lusitania attack.
Drawing on the works of other historians – fully credited, I might add – and original documents, David Traxel has produced a significant work of history that can be enjoyed by the non-specialist reader. I strongly recommend “Crusader Nation.”
Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com