The other day I donned a t-shirt to work with my colleagues in installing part three of the “Great War in Broad Outlines” exhibit we are hosting over September and October. The exhibit is on loan to us from the Belgian Embassy in Washington. This was Part 3, which will be on display through October 10. The event is open to the public during regular library hour. These panels focus on the contributions of colonial troops fighting on the Western Front and the war in Africa.
Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War was again the topic of discussion today, some of it in person and some via email. I had a talk with someone who recounted to me their relative’s experience with the local draft board. When the Wilson Administration and Congress established the Selective Service in May 1917 they intentionally placed draft boards under the jurisdiction of local civilians. The idea was to avoid what had occurred just over fifty years earlier during the Civil War with the draft riots. Gone were the military head-counters, who were henceforth replaced with local leaders. These local officials sometimes knew the people about whom they would be making life-altering decisions. I suppose both systems had their benefits and drawbacks. The doughboy from Yonkers who is the subject of the documentary we are making for the Great War centennial served on his local draft board during the Second World War.
Another conversation I had was with an old friend of mine who told me a story I had never heard before. This person is in his mid-50s, about six years older than me, and thus with more first-hand memories of the Vietnam War Era. After he shared this with me I asked if I could post it here and he said yes. Here it is:
My first job was when I was about 10 or 11 and my family was living in New Jersey. It had to be either ’72 or ’73. A guy would pick up a bunch of us kids in a van and we would be dropped off in communities trying to sell subscriptions to the New York Times. One night, as I started my sales pitch, the man at the door cut me off and invited me into the townhouse as he and his wife were eating TV dinners and staring at the TV. The wife was crying the whole time I was there (not long) and they were watching the evening news hoping to catch a glimpse of their son or hear anything about his unit. In between the husband trying to console his wife he was explaining to me that he really wasn’t interested in signing up for the newspaper but asked me to stay until there was a commercial so he didn’t miss anything. I can only imagine that they ate dinner like that every night their son was oversees. That was a very profound and frightening moment for me and I am surprised that it had slipped into the recess of what’s left of my memory about the war.
(image/Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report via Wikimedia Commons)
These past two weeks I have been watching the Lynn Novick/Ken Burns documentary abut the Vietnam War. I have a few friends who have been watching as well. Usually in the mornings we email with a few thoughts on the previous night’s episode. For each of us, watching has been draining. Earlier today I was searching the New York Times database for some things relating to the war in 1967. The headlines read like a history lesson. Some of the names I came across in my very cursory search included Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant, Charles De Gaulle, William Fullbright, Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, Averell Harriman, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Needless to say all of these figures are now long gone, though Galbraith did not pass away until 2006.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 President Kennedy turned to historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August for inspiration. Five years later, for the 5 March 1967 edition of the Times, Tuchman wrote an extended piece about America’s entry into the First World War. Remember, there were still hundreds of thousands of living doughboys alive at this time just fifty years after Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. I remember seeing historian Gordon Wood on television several years ago expressing his admiration for Tuchman, though he added that she often saw her work as a historian as offering “lessons” for current times. History indeed can offer guidance, but Wood seemed to be arguing that Tuchman thought history offered a stronger template than Wood believes it does.
I knew that Tuchman’s work was often anthologized and so when I showed up at work today I searched the catalog and found a book titled Practicing History: Selected Essays, published by Knopf in 1981. Sure enough, it contains that New York Times article from 1967 that I had come across in the Times database. The anthology also contains a 1966 address to the Chicago Historical Society titled “Is History a Guide to the Future?”, in which she lays out her ideas on that subject. Her thesis, in a nutshell, is that History is more craft than science but that through due diligence it can guide and inform a way forward, at least to a degree. Practicing History includes articles about the Vietnam War that Tuchman wrote for New York Newsday in early March 1968, in the middle of the Tet Offensive; and the New York Times in May 1972. Tuchman advocated for withdrawal and explained ways the United States might have done that. In June 1972 she gave the commencement address at Williams College. Her topic that day was the war. While she was personally against it, she emphasized that people should demonize neither the military nor the soldiers. She explained why the military remained important, even when led poorly by its civilian overlords. She was particularly against the movement underway to ban the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from college campuses.
One of the most poignant moments at Camp Doughboy this past weekend was the rededication of the Merle Hay monument on Sunday morning. The color guard you see here are active service personnel currently serving in the First Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment. They had come from Fort Riley in Kansas and are the same men who had been in Paris this past July for the ceremonies there. The men in uniform behind them are living historians who had set up camp on the island for the weekend. I snapped the image of the new tablet a few minutes after the unveiling. I thought I would re-up the video we produced a few summers ago about Private Merle B. Hay. It is so good to see that the Hay tablet is back where it belongs.
It was a great day on Governors Island yesterday at Camp Doughboy. I’m having my coffee and listening to Bill Evans before I prepare to head out for today’s events. If you are in the New York City area, come on out for day two. There is much to see, including author talks, monument rededications, and the campground with living historians manning their quarters and speaking about their subject expertize. I visited a good many of them yesterday before and after my lightning talk and found all of the historians to be well-informed and eager to engage. Whether they have restored a period ambulance, built a doughboy’s kit through painstaking research and perseverance, or recount the story of a nurse, to a person they have created a thread that allows us to connect to the people who lived through the Great War. Seeing it al in one place make it that much more extraordinary.
It is the last weekend of summer 2017. Go get some of that sunshine.
(image/World War I Centennial Commission)
Good morning, all. I am sorry about the lack of posts this week. It has been a busy time at work with the new academic year underway. I wanted to remind everyone that Camp Doughboy is taking place next weekend, September 16-17, at Governors Island. There is a lot to see and do. Author Kevin Fitzpatrick has been the great driving force behind the event and has done incredible work bringing it all together. You can check out the entire schedule here. Note that on Saturday at 1:30 a guy with my initials will be speaking about the Preparedness Movement. If you are in the Greater New York City area, try to come out for what should be an exciting two days with lots to see and do.
Pianist Howard R. Haviland began a series of concerts one hundred years ago today at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The show, put on for about 1200 workers and sailors, was the first in a series Haviland performed under the auspices of the YMCA’s National War Work Council. Haviland and the YMCA had set a high bar: to play at every camp in the United States over late summer and fall. Later that same week Haviland played at camps in Mineola and Hempstead, Long Island; Queens; and upstate at Plattsburg. Haviland was a Brooklynite who spent his summers playing in hotels in New Jersey. (Then and now New Yorkers got out of the Big City in July-August if they could.) Haviland had spent July playing at the Hotel Montclair, where he helped the Red Cross raise $100,000,000 for the war effort.
Haviland noted that “the boys” in the camps preferred lighter tunes to the classical stuff and wanted material with which they were familiar. His sets were heavy on light opera, which is a reminder that opera was not always Opera as we perceive it today: as a distant High Art, something for which you pay top dollar and put on a tuxedo to listen to. There was a time, not that long ago, when the genre was very much part of the popular vernacular. Think of the organ grinder and his monkey. Havilland’s tour was a smashing success. By early November he was back in Brooklyn at his parents house on Grand Avenue. Still he continued on with his war work. On behalf of the Red Cross he taught piano to advanced and beginning students alike to raise funds and awareness for the Allied war effort.
My colleagues and I had too much fun unpacking this crate today. The container weighs over 400 pounds and contains an exhibit on loan to us from the Embassy of Belgium in Washington D.C. There are thirty panels, which will be on display in installments throughout September and October in the library where I work. I will have more details in the coming days about how one can see the exhibit. We are putting up the first of it tomorrow morning. Today we opened the box, sorted the tubes you see here, pulled out the first six panels for installation tomorrow, and put two of them together just to make sure we understood how to do it. The panels are beautiful and are a real contribution to the commemoration of the Great War Centennial. Details to come.
August 1, 1917 marked the three-year anniversary of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia on July 28, but Kaiser Wilhelm II’s announcement of hostilities took things to a new level. Armies across Europe were now mobilizing with even greater urgency. For the most part Europeans and Americans were not reflecting too much in the early dog days of August 1917. The British and their allies were fully occupied against the Huns in Flanders. Austro-Hungarian troops were driving the Russians back on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Meanwhile the Wilson Administration was doing all it could getting up to speed, which was taking more time than anyone would have liked. One can imagine that the fighting in Ypres, especially for the Germans, had taken on a sense of urgency with the realization that the Americans were already trickling in. Pershing was in Paris for a full month by this time.
Still, people did pause and meditate on the events of the past thirty-six months. Much had happened and millions were already killed. Franz Josef had died in 1916 after sixty-eight years on the Austro-Hungarian throne. By August 1917 Nicholas II of Russia had been deposed; he and his family were in exile in Tsarskoye Selo, the royal palace in St. Petersburg, where the Romanoffs were a tourist attraction for curious gawkers who came to watch them garden. The Germans seemed to be the most invested in the third anniversary. Kaiser Wilhelm II was out in public a fair amount. By this time he had a collection of 10,000 books on the Great War to go along with his trove of photographs. If contemporary accounts are to believed, Berlin’s Royal Library now held 50,000 books on the Great War published just since the war began. Despite everything, optimism in Germany was apparently holding. At the time of the third anniversary enthusiasts in Germany formed a society within the Hindenburg Museum in Posen for members to share photographs, monographs, and Great War-related memorabilia.
(image/New York Public Library)
I mentioned in a post the other day that American surgeon Dr. Robert D. Schrock worked for several weeks in the hospitals during the Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Ypres. Schrock and his colleagues were still at Governors Island at this point 100 years ago, but the Battle of Passchendaele began on 31 July 1917. It lasted well into November. It may be difficult for Americans to grasp the significance that the battles in Flanders have for the people of Great Britain, along with the Canadians, Aussies, and others who fought alongside them. It is analogous to Antietam and Gettysburg for Americans. I was watching some of the footage over the weekend and saw that Prince William and his wife attended the ceremonies in Flanders; today his father Prince Charles will be present. My brother took me to Belgian about ten years ago. We went to Cloth Hall and stayed not far from the Menin Gate. Britain’s Ministry of Defence made this short video to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle.