Under the Radar

How America Entered 'The Great War'

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I, PBS will air The Great War, a three-part, six-hour documentary  Monday through Wednesday, April 10-12, 9-11 pm ET (as always with PBS, check local listings).

Six hours may seem like a lot for Americans whose American History classes usually make it to the Lincoln assassination sometime in mid-March, then spend a week glossing over the next 75 years before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Americans don't know much about the Great War: the conflict revolutionized warfighting and its flawed resolution created the issues that led to World War II.

Directors Stephen Ives, Amanda Pollak and Rob Rapley realize that covering the entire war in six hours would be impossible so they focus exclusively on the American role in the conflict. They start with the country's reaction to beginning of the conflict in the summer of 1914, how President Woodrow Wilson barely won reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war" and how the government slowly realized that the United States needed to take an active role in the conflict.

If you're not familiar with the staggeringly complex European political issues that led to the war, The Great War isn't the documentary that will illuminate the backstory. The series instead focuses on the story of the United States' transformation into the international power that we know today. There's also a detailed examination of a strong anti-war movement that existed both before and during the war. Anti-immigrant sentiment also ran high and the perceived German-American threat has strong parallels with our current immigrant debates.

Anyone who's hooked after this documentary can follow up with the 50th anniversary 1964 26-part BBC documentary The Great War that's available on YouTube. You'll get a broader perspective and more detail about the brutal and inhuman warfighting that went on before the U.S. entered the war.

We've got a clip from episode 3 (airing Wednesday night). The Lost Battalion, led by Major Charles White Whittlesey, was made up of approximately 550 men from the United States 77th Division who were trapped behind German lines in the Argonne Forest in October 1918.


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