The 100th anniversary of World War I has generated an enormous amount of interest in the Great War, especially given its startling parallels to current events. Harry W. Crocker III’s new book, The Yanks are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I, published by Regnery History, explains the impact of American involvement in the war and how it shaped the “American century.”
There are a number of great books on the First World War. John Keegan’s comprehensive The First World War delves deeply into the details of the Great War’s battles and political squabbles, while Barbara Tuchman’s masterfully narrated and Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August provides an incredible amount of insight into the opening stages of the war. However, most of these books focus on European politics, leaders, and military campaigns, and relatively few give a purely American account of the war. Crocker’s book fills that gap in the scholarship perfectly.
Crocker, author of The Politically Correct Guide to the Civil War and Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting among many others, has a talent for crafting interesting narratives out of detailed historical topics. His newest work is no different, as The Yanks Are Coming! is informative while being a genuine pleasure to read.
The Yanks Are Coming! is broken up into five parts, each describing an important aspect of America’s involvement in the “War to End All Wars.” The first section focuses on the political debates in the United States in the lead up to American involvement. War raged in Europe before the United States committed itself to the fighting, and back in the states, an overwhelming public sentiment to stay out of Europe’s quarrels remained. Though Crocker makes the argument that American President Woodrow Wilson had left the country entirely unprepared for war, he nevertheless persuades his readers that the United States had a just cause in entering the conflict.
“Americans are easily forgetful of history, but we should not forget the first World War or our far from discreditable role in it,” Crocker wrote. “American intervention was decisive in the Anglo-French victory, a victory that deserves celebrating.”
President Wilson has often been criticized for failing to uphold his promise to keep the United States out of war. However, Crocker argues that Wilson really never wanted to be involved until he got backed into a corner; a classic case of weakness inviting war. Wilson’s focus was entirely on domestic affairs and he had little interest in issues concerning national security. The former “Princeton President” wrote to a friend just after his election in 1912, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters.” It is hard to read Crocker’s account of Wilson without noticing the strong resemblance in background and temperament to President Obama.
Former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt routinely chastised the administration for its lack of war preparedness and scorched Wilson and his cabinet for being unfit to command the United States’ military efforts.
Roosevelt said of Wilson and his pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who had been known for dramatic, populist speechmaking:
It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like Mr. Bryan as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.
Though the country was unprepared for war and there were questions about the leadership of the administration, the threat of unrestricted warfare from German U-boats, the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania with American civilians on board, and the dubious telegram sent from Germany to Mexico–promising a return of territory in the American southwest if the central American country joined Germany in a war against the United States–drew America into World War I.
The next section of Crocker’s book describes America’s entrance into the war and the most important battles that the American Expeditionary Force took part in, including Cantigny, Belleau Wood, the Meuse-Argonne offense, and many more.
Crocker explains how dramatically the United States military had to be improved in a short amount of time. Initially fielding a tiny military force, “on par with Portugal,” wrote Crocker, the “American Army was hardly prepared at all.” The small, undermanned American military had to change its focus from chasing bands of hostile American Indian tribes around the great plains and cracking down on insurgents in the recent Philippine rebellion to waging mass warfare against the most modern and powerful nations in Europe.
The American military had to be supplied mostly by the great foundries of European allies France and Britain, but it could contribute a great deal in terms of raw manpower. America would have to wait until World War II to become the “arsenal of democracy,” but the teeming waves of strong, healthy American fighting men immediately raised the spirits of beleaguered French and British soldiers. War-weary British Tommys and French Poilus, worn ragged from years of hellish trench fighting on the Western Front, felt elated as strong, well-fed American soldiers marched to the front lines.
Lead by the brave and experienced General John “Black Jack” Pershing, the only American “General of the Armies” besides George Washington, the United States armed forces played a critical role in a number of battles. For instance, the Marine Corps would create much of the legend and mystique of their branch while participating in some of the most ferocious fighting of the war. At the Battle of Belleau Wood, in which they suffered 5,200 casualties, the Marines earned their famous nickname, “Devil Dogs,” for their dogged determination and relentless drive to crush the German army.
The next two sections of The Yanks Are Coming! detail the most important generals that lead American forces in WWI, along with the “young lions” who became famous during and after the fighting. Crocker’s profile of the legendary Sargent Alvin York, who won a Medal of Honor for killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 more in a single assault on a German machine gun nest is tremendous, and his overview of the life of the now-forgotten ace pilot, Eddie Rickenbaker, are some of the high points of the book.
Crocker’s narrative is a tremendous account of every aspect of the war from the American side, and he leaves no stone unturned. He convincingly argues that American intervention on the continent was vital for allied victory and that some of American greatest heroes were shaped by their experiences in the war. For anyone wishing to get a better grasp of how and why the United States got involved in the conflict that shaped the last 100 years, The Yanks Are Coming! is the right book to pick up.
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