As the title suggests, America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience is a survey of the First World War from the perspective of the United States. Zieger, a labor historian for most of his career, is especially interested in the effects of the war on the home front, though he also considers its implications for American foreign policy. Significantly, he covers the war before the United States entered in 1914. This is the topic of his first three chapters.
In the first chapter, "A World at War: 1914–1915," he shows that Americans observed events in Europe with horrified fascination. Americans, Ziegler argues, "endorsed overwhelmingly" President Woodrow Wilson's stance of strict neutrality. But they learned that this was very difficult, and much of the focus of this chapter, as well as the second, "War Peace War," is devoted to American efforts to remain neutral while continuing to assert their right to trade with the belligerent nations. Because Europe was so embroiled in the war, Zieger writes, North America became a "war zone," in the sense that farmers and producers essentially fed and equipped the Allies.
For their part, Americans were divided over their sentiments. Some supported the Allies while others, especially recent immigrants, had strong ties to the Central Powers. Many Progressives decried the end to the liberal social programs that had existed in some European nations, which they had taken as models for similar efforts in the United States. When the United States was teetering on the brink of war, Zieger writes in his second chapter, a major factor in US entry was the conviction of Wilson and others that American power could create a new global order. Still, he writes, until 1917, Americans had two points of agreement. Whatever happened, they "wanted to continue to profit from the war, and they wanted to stay out of the fighting." Ziegler shows how these ambitions proved mutually exclusive in Chapter Three.
Chapter Four, entitled "Over There," discusses the US war effort. He shows that the American Expeditionary Force that went to France was woefully underprepared, and that their "sheer numbers" proved the decisive factor in turning the tide of the war. In Chapter Five, Zieger turns to the effects of the war back home. The chapter is entitled "Race Class Gender," and the author argues that it had a profound effect on each. It contributed to racial tension and the large-scale migration of African Americans, gave rise to strikes and labor disputes, and, famously, gave moral sanction to women who claimed the right to vote.
In the final chapter, Zieger addresses the ultimate failure of the United States to shape the world order that followed (a vision that would have been embodied by Wilson's Fourteen Points).
This book is about the American experience during World War I, which, Zieger writes, "reflected the diverse strands of the progressivism that dominated public discourse during the first two decades of the century" (page 2). Progressives viewed the war as a way to promote what the author calls "social action" (page 2), including shoring up traditional social values, citizenship, and patriotism.
However, the war's conclusion frustrated the desires of Progressives, as it was marked by the government's attempt to quell dissent and the restriction of immigration. In addition, the war's movement to promote innovative labor relations and social welfare programs also ended in 1918, and race relations worsened after the war. Women, who received the right to vote shortly after the war and who carried on war-time work, did not generally advance their war-time gains following the war.
The book traces the development of American attitudes towards the war, from a state of ambivalence and a sense that the war was a European problem, to American entanglement in the war. He also examines the ways in which the government mobilized its military and economy to fight the war.
In addition, what the author calls the "National Security State," which he defines as the government's use of coercion to achieve military goals, was born during the war. The author also considers the contradictions of the war, including its movement to assimilate many different types of Americans from different backgrounds into the army, while, at the same time, the military continued to practice racism.