Historiography in WWI’s Diplomatic (and a bit of Economic) History

In “Remembering the forgotten war: America historiography on World War I,” Jennifer D. Keene describes different perspectives on the diplomatic and economic history of World War One, specifically focusing on the main reasons the US joined the war, what America’s goals were, and why the the Versailles Peace Treaty failed.

After giving a brief historical timeline of the war, Keene gets into the historical perspectives as to why the US joined the war, what its goals were, and why the Senate rejected Wilson’s Peace Treaty. Keene tells us that the popular opinion – both in the general public and within academic history – as to why we entered the war shifted over time. In the 1930s the popular opinion was that economic factors influenced the US abandonment of neutrality. According to Keene, the public blamed US bankers and capitalist elites “for enthusiastically lending money and selling arms to the Allies during the period of neutrality” (Keene, “Remembering the “forgotten war””).  Under this view, the US government feared that if the Allies lost the war, the US economy would suffer terribly. Although historians generally disagreed with this conspiratorial theory, they did agree the main causer was economic interest. In their more sympathetic view, “Wilson’s desire to protect the overall health of the US economy gradually eroded his commitment to neutrality” (Keene, “Remembering”).

This economic focus fell out of favor during the World War II and Cold War years, which saw growing fears of communism and class conflict. Keene says that in these years “historians placed increased emphasis on Wilson’s ideological desire to spread democratic values and how German aggression threatened national security” (Keene, “Remembering”). From this, Keene delves into historiography of this war’s diplomatic history, discussing multiple historic views on major diplomatic actors (i.e. Woodrow Wilson) and their decision-making. In comparing different historians’ interpretations, Keene focuses on the following topics: the debate of whether spreading democracy or increasing national security was the main reason the US joined the war; what qualifies as Wilson’s successes and failures and his overall success in decision-making and peace proposals; what may have caused the Senate to reject Wilson’s Peace Treaty; and the lasting international impact of “Wilsonianism” (Keene, “Remembering”).

Besides an introductory argument calling for historians to pay more attention to World War One, Keene offers a purely historiographical account. Additionally, she gives a brief yet informative historical timeline to highlight the context from which historical thought and public opinion came. Keene also cites several historians, all with different arguments and ideas, in her discussion of each diplomatic event or question. Beyond diplomatic history, her historiography briefly explores economic history, military history, and social histories.

Keene effectively withholds any obvious personal bias, instead offering several views on the main diplomatic and political issues and questions worthy of historical debate. By outlining the social contexts of the 1930s onward, she allows the reader to better understand why the general thought was either economic or diplomatic reasons for going to war. (For example, she highlights the Great Depression’s influence on public distrust of bankers in the 1930s.)  Because of Keene’s organization, lack of bias, and supply of several different historical opinions for each diplomatic issue discussed, I really enjoyed the article.

Word Count: 520


Keene, Jennifer D. “Remembering the ‘forgotten war’: America historiography on World War I.” The Historian 78, no. 3 (2016): 439+. Academic OneFile (accessed October 12, 2017). http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA464822938&sid=summon&asid=32a59ca0ddb7d35180340cfde4dce6fc.

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