Review- Capozzola, “Uncle Sam Wants You”


Christopher Capozzola, “Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen” (2008) – Historians, being buzzkills, often insist on the importance of what happened during wars away from the fun stuff, that is, the action on the battlefield. This is particularly important in the case of America’s involvement in the First World War. While the US was instrumental in ending the war militarily (and suffered a lot of casualties in a short period of time), they still got in towards the end and were only in the war for a little more than a year and a half. But the social changes the war wrought in the US were pretty huge- and largely kind of fucked up, MIT historian Christopher Capozzola argues in this history.

One way or another, the First World War dragged every power involved in it (and some who weren’t) into twentieth century modernity. Capozzola focuses on the ways in which the war effort rapidly rearranged the relationship between the American state and its citizens. The US entered the war, he argues, with a culture of voluntarism and association. Many functions we think of as governmental — those clustered around social welfare and social regulation — were undertaken by what a later age would call non-governmental organizations: employers, churches, clubs, unions, etc. Their composition, behavior, and degree of official imprimatur varied widely from place to place and time to time, forming a sort of crazy-quilt of overlapping jurisdictions over assorted social functions.

The war changed all of this, but Capozzola is quite deft in parsing out how much of these changes involved overthrowing the associational mode versus how often the government incorporated or deputized it. War fever swept the US in 1917 and American civil society by and large put itself at the government’s disposal for war purposes. At the same time, the federal government rapidly expanded its reach and power. Sometimes, these were at cross purposes, more due to the incompetence and disorganization of groups knitting endless sweaters for soldiers who already had uniforms, or more sinisterly, amateur spy-catchers who caught no spies but did harass a lot of people.

But just as often, the government found itself working through unofficial voluntary associations, most notoriously in the case of the American Protective League. A rapidly-formed, huge organization of patriotic busybodies and snitches, the APL was formally empowered by the Justice Department to round up draft-dodgers and seditionists (i.e. people not crazy about the war). This culminated in the APL sending in thousands of members to do block-by-block sweeps in New York over a period of a few days, where they arrested over a thousand people (most of them released without charge).

If you ever want a cure for romanticizing “community,” this book could serve. Yes, it’s nice that Americans once had a greater sense of civic involvement. The problem is they had this way of expressing it through constantly surveilling each other and hounding and occasionally murdering outsiders or some designated internal enemy. Along with “slackers,” socialists, pacifists, union members, conscientious objectors, and most prominently the German community as a whole were subjected to a wide range of abuses by private power backed by the state. States and municipalities, those “laboratories of democracy,” seemed to compete with each other to find more and more draconian ways to punish dissidents and Germans. The city of Omaha, for instance, actually sponsored a mass slaughter of German breeds of dog.

The war ended relatively soon after the US entered. The newly-empowered federal government, embarrassed by some of the sloppiness of its partners among the good volunteer burghers (Capozzola reminds us that the American vigilante was less likely to be a drooling hick than a solid, middle-class citizen), began consolidating more of its enforcement and welfare functions in explicitly federal hands. It was interesting reading about J. Edgar Hoover actually reigning in some of his underlings (against Germans, it should be noted- not radicals). Civil libertarians, in the course of attempting to fight the curtailment of speech and association rights by the vigilante-government hybrid, found themselves in a wary alliance with modernizers in the federal government and the courts that would prove to be pretty important down the line. The US tried to return to “normalcy” in the 1920s, but try as it might, it was thoroughly caught in the turbulent dynamics of the twentieth century. ****

Review- Capozzola, “Uncle Sam Wants You”

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