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book review

Month that set the world’s course for 20th century

Anitwar protestors on the steps of the US Capitol.Library of Congress

Of all the momentousmonths in history — April 1775 (Lexington and Concord), April 1865 (Appomattox and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), November 1963 (the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon and John F. Kennedy in Dallas) — March 1917 still stands out.

It was the month when Russians took arms against their own government and when Americans girded to take arms against Germany in World War I. It is not too much to say that the month launched the world on a trajectory it would follow for the rest of the 20th century, the very argument Will Englund successfully makes in this new fast-paced history.


A mere glance at the principals of “March 1917’’ suggests big things loom: Woodrow Wilson, outraged and idealistic; V.I. Lenin, steely and determined; Theodore Roosevelt, militant and militaristic; even Jeanette Rankin, Montana pacifist, first female member of Congress, and the only lawmaker who would vote against American involvement in both world wars.

The two nations that Alexis de Toqueville predicted in 1835 would dominate world affairs were on the precipice of change. Russia was in despair; food in short supply; political unrest spreading. America had felt safe behind its ocean moat, but its professor-president was confounded by Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and forced to abandon the isolationism that had not kept America isolated from peril.

This is a book full of haunting, unforgettable wartime images: shivering residents of dark Berlin picking through rail yards for pieces of coal. Zoo elephants enlisted to pull sledges through the snow. Russians getting lice in the subway after standing too close in crowded train cars to soldiers back from the front. The price of potatoes skyrocketing 10 times the peacetime rate in the land of czars, a loaf of rye bread rising by a factor of eight. “The war changes all things,’’ testified H.L. Mencken. “It is a new Europe, and a much duller and sadder one.’’


Meanwhile, in Washington, there was growing consternation over submarine attacks against ships on the high seas and reports, credible and creepy, that Germans dangled territorial gains before Mexico in exchange for their military alliance if America entered the war. Wilson shaped those concerns into a question not so much of traditional power politics nor of safety on the seas but instead into an issue of human rights — laying out, as Englund characterizes it, “one of the cardinal totems of American foreign policy for the century to come.’’

It was in March of 1917 that the revolution began in Russia, forcing the tsar to abdicate, and it was then that the United States moved toward war itself. Blacks saw an opening here: Russians were winning freedom amid the shadow of war, so maybe African Americans might, too. (This would not be the case, and it would take another world war, and the Double-V movement of black newspapers, especially the legendary Pittsburgh Courier, to light the fires of the civil rights movement.) Women, too, saw opportunity, despite a strong strain of pacifism in the movement for the female vote. Listen to Alice Paul, who headed the National Woman’s Party:

“We women, when war breaks upon us, will be called on for duty in the machine shops and for dangerous duty in the munition factories. We have shown this in the way we women have responded to the call for woman navy recruits. We will do more, and we won’t be behind the men in any sacrifice for the country we are loyal to.’’


While Wilson bathed his views in the rhetoric of high-minded values, he did not have much freedom of choice politically. “The president thought he was acting on a nobler impulse,’’ Englund writes. “He was carried along, whether he willed it or not, on a mounting wave of national passion.’’

The month, and the war that followed, changed the world, wiping venerable empires from the map, propelling Russia into Soviet communism (and a contempt for the people in whose interest the revolution was prosecuted) and transforming the United States into an international force with a population suddenly exposed to the world and to diverse views on life, politics, and culture.

It is true that Wilson was succeeded by a president, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, who brayed about “normalcy,’’ but in fact Wilson and the war created a new normal for the United States, one of global engagement. And it sealed in the American consciousness an important principle that guides us still.

“World War I gave rise to the idea that it was better to fight the enemy abroad than wait for him to attack at home,’’ Englund writes in his last paragraph, a passage that alone justifies the 322 pages that precede it. “The lesson of 1917 seemed to be that America had an obligation . . . to defend democratic values wherever they were threatened.’’ Silentlyunderlying that, of course, is recognition that isolationism would not longer be, if it ever really was, an option for America — an idea we still struggle with, especially of late.


MARCH 1917:

On the Brink of War and Revolution

By Will Englund

Norton, 387 pp., illustrated, $27.95

David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.