Monday, April 6, 2015

World War I

Full disclosure: I am WAY behind where I intended to be by now. If I were teaching a full year U.S. history course, I'd be at the Cold War by now. But I am not, and I really hate to skip things. So I am going to continue marching forward, with the hopes of picking up the pace enough to still make it through the Gulf Wars by June.

The U.S. officially entered World War I ninety-eight years ago today. So this is a good day, I think, to do my one and only post on World War I.

Another disclosure: I have never particularly liked teaching World War I. Most topics that I don't like to teach are topics that I don't know as much about. I have always found World War I rather complicated because--duh--it is a WORLD War and involves the history of so many other nations and empires. Oddly, I don't have this problem with World War II, which I love to teach about. And I love to teach it because I find it so interesting. Because I find it interesting, I have read a lot about it. And as a result, I know more about it and my teaching of it is better as a result.

So you'd think, with the 100 anniversary of World War I, and all the great books and articles that have come out recently about it, I'd be reading more about World War I. But no, I have always had a fascination with World War II, so recently I went out and bought David M. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.

And guess how the book starts? With a prologue titled, "November 11, 1918." It's really fascinating: it describes where Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were at the end of World War I and what were doing and thinking. (With a bit of editing, this would make a potentially awesome read aloud to conclude your unit on World War I.) And then the prologue concludes with the first sentence from Herbert Hoover's memoir: "The primary cause of the Great Depression was the war of 1914-1918."

So clearly World War I is important to U.S. and to World history for a number of things, but I'd argue that in a U.S. history class one should limit the teaching of World War I to its effects on U.S. history. That means there is a lot to leave out. I have always felt okay about that because students usually study the larger context of World War I--its causes & effects, etc.--in a world history class. So why repeat that?

I don't even do a separate unit on World War I; I just include it as part of my foreign policy, 1890-1920 unit (see the previous few posts). What I focus on is continuing the discussion we began when discussing the Philippines. But now the issue is not whether we should annex or not, but whether isolationism or intervention should prevail in the trouble brewing in Europe. And how is this influenced by idealism and realism?

To discuss these issues, I would focus on the decisions Wilson makes after World War I has begun in Europe and leading up to his decision to ask Congress for a declaration of war. And then we would look at the issues surrounding the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly over the League of Nations. Alas, with my goal of Get to the Gulf War by June, I will save ideas on this for another time.

But the other key issue to examine during a study of World War I in a U.S. history class is how a large, industrial and democratic nation goes to war. In other words, how does such a nation mobilize for war? What is involved? And what effect does that have on American civil liberties? So the two lessons I use to develop those themes are one on war propaganda and posters, and the other on the case Schenk v. United States. (Check out Stanford History Education Group's Reading Like a Historian lesson on that here.) I find these particularly interesting topics to discuss in order to set up the 1920s unit. (Next post).

I am hardly the first teacher to use World War I posters, but they are a great way to teach about the homefront and how the U.S. mobilized for war. And they introduce themes and concepts that will come again in--you guessed it--World War II. For an excellent collection, see the Library of Congress collection. I have used this worksheet to go along with it. It is a good example of a Common Core/C3 framework type lesson.

2/25/17 Update: I was just looking through some old papers and came across a handout I picked up at a teacher conference about WWI posters. And I realized that the above reference worksheet I adapted from a session by teachers James W. Coutts and Richard J. Hryniewicki, two teachers in Wisconsin. So a belated thank you and credit to them for the inspiration.

They are also great to use for talking about images of women, as in one of my favorite examples at right:

A few interesting facts you or your students might like to know about World War I posters:

  • always useful to remind students that World War I predates television and--of course--the internet, so posters are the way to communicate.
  • the U.S. printed more than 20 million copies of perhaps 2500 different posters. This is more than all the other belligerents combined!
  • the Advertising Division of the Committee on Public Information oversaw the production of posters. Many were done by famous illustrators, who were commissioned to produce work for free for the government. Some of these illustrators normally commanded fees of anywhere from $1000 to $10,000 so the government saved a lot of money.
  • the iconic, "I want YOU for the U.S. Army" poster was originally created for WWI. There were at least 4 million copies printed. Read more here.
  • Did the posters work? Consider the fact that approximately $21 billion dollars was raised from the public. Compare that to Britain and France; neither could raise more than $20 billion each during the full four years of the war. Estimates are that approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population bought bonds. Hoover's Food Administration had approximately 8000 full-time employees and 750,000 volunteers. (Not a bad idea to talk about the incredible feats of Herbert Hoover for a bit...will help make students appreciate him later when you get to the Depression.) 

Questions you can ask students about various posters:

  • what is the message of the poster?
  • what emotions do they appeal to?
  • what is the role of American workers? women? children?
  • how is the enemy portrayed?
  • what symbolism is used?
  • what were Americans being asked to do?
  • how effective do you think these posters were? would they work today? why or why not?
  • what groups of people are the posters directed toward?
  • how might these posters be different from European posters?
And to throw out another non-visual source, have students listen to the famous song, "Over There" by George M. Cohan. Read about it here and here.

The Library of Congress has a lesson on it, but I can't get the link to work for me. Maybe it will work for you:

Another fun source--less relevant, but fun! maybe for a brief intro?-- are the Charles Schulz Snoopy cartoons where Snoopy plays the World War I Flying Ace. Check out this exhibit. You can also find live action on youtube.

Next post: stay tuned for Wilson's prophetic quotation about the effect of war on tolerance. . . .

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