Tag Archives: "Lost Division"

American Society and the Great War: A Book Review

The last time I attended a ballgame, actually a high school football game, was in 1957 or 1958. I was in the 8th grade. I snuck into the game along with a friend, not because we wanted to watch the game free, but because we wanted to flirt with the 7th- and 8th-grade girls who would be there. I have never had even the least interest in sports. I do not even know the rules for playing football, baseball, basketball, or any other sport. That said, why would I read a book about baseball?

Randy Roberts’ and Johnny Smith’s WAR FEVER: BOSTON, BASEBALL, AND AMERICA IN THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT WAR (New York: Basic Books, 2020) is a very enjoyable read about America at the end of World War I. The two authors, history professors at Purdue University and Georgia Tech, succeed in giving the reader a real feel for American life during our nation’s two-year experience in Wilson’s war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Not only did Americans go off to war as if on a Fourth of July parade that was soon overshadowed by the realities of modern industrialized mass slaughter, but at the same time had to grapple with the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Cheering crowds soon gave way to a public transformed by paranoia and fear of enemies within and without who threatened the pristine peace and prosperity of American life. The “war fever” and “Red Scare” that followed during 1919 and 1920 were a preview of what would follow World War II during the so-called “McCarthy Era.”

Roberts and Smith reveal the era through the lives of three individuals: Charles W. Whittlesey, Karl Muck, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Whittlesey was an intellectually-gifted young lawyer with a degree from Harvard. He was a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, easily inspired and influenced by the Rough Rider’s bombastic and inspiring rhetoric. Whittlesey found in Roosevelt a kindred spirit, an American hero he wanted to emulate.

Karl Muck was the popular and gifted conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Muck was born in Darmstadt, Germany, but became a Swiss citizen at age 21. He won acclaim throughout Europe, where he conducted all of the great orchestras and enjoyed the admiration and support of the cultured elite, including Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. Muck was an artist. He had no desire to become embroiled in the prowar fever fueled by the “yellow journalism” of Joseph Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst.

George Herman Ruth, Jr.’s grandparents were German immigrants. “Babe Ruth,” as he is remembered, and a sister were the only two of eight children who survived infancy. His father, a saloon owner, was unable to control his rebellious son. When George was seven years old, his father enrolled him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys, where he remained until he was twenty-one.

In April 1917, President Wilson led America into the Great War in Europe to rescue American business interests from financial ruin. War fever in the guise of patriotism seized the American public. Charles Whittlesey joined the American army. In October 1918, he was a major in command of the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, made up largely of New York City recruits who spoke forty-two different languages or dialects.

Whittlesey led a group of 554 men against the German trenches in the Meuse–Argonne offensive. Cut of from supplies and communications, Whittlesey’s command of the 77th Division, later known as the “Lost Division,” earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he tried to return to the quiet life he enjoyed before the war, but the public adulation and constant demand for public appearances led him to seek escape by taking his own life in 1921, one of many postwar casualties of the “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

Karl Muck became a special target of the anti-German frenzy encouraged by A. Bruce Bielaski, Director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), and the American Defense Society, advocates of “one hundred percent Americanism.” Muck’s personal friendship with Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German ambassador who was trying to prevent war between the United States and Germany, and his resistance to efforts to make the Boston Symphony an instrument of prowar propaganda, made it easy his enemies to accuse him of being a German spy. Muck was arrested in March 1918, the evening before he was to conduct Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. His notations on the music score were alleged to be evidence of pro-German espionage activities. Karl Muck and his wife were deported in August 1919. He continued an illustrious career in Europe and refused all attempts to lure him back to the USA, even for a brief tour.

Although George Herman Ruth, Jr. was the grandchild of German immigrants and grew up speaking German, he did not experience the anti-German paranoia that many other German-Americans faced every day. Babe Ruth was the quintessential American antihero. His mother hated him, or so he claimed. His teammates called him “Cave Man,” “the Big Pig,” “the Baboon,” “Tarzan, King of the Apes,” and “Nigger Lips.” The last implied that he had black ancestry and was therefore inferior and less than a man.

Ruth more than lived up to the negative popular image of him being a throwback to the earlier primates. He drank more booze than any fish did water. He gambled with abandon on horses and cards. He was a regular at the brothels and seemed to prefer women who “would really appeal to a man who was just stepping out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence.” “He ate raw meat, seldom flushed toilets, treated farts as gifts to be admired, and enjoyed telling stories of his sexual exploits.” Babe Ruth was not a sophisticated gentleman.

Ruth was, if anything, a baseball player like none other before or since. America needed a folk hero, and the Babe was the perfect candidate. The sound of Ruth’s bat connecting with a baseball, sending it over the fence for a home run was symbolic of what the average American believed the American army in France would do to the German army, drive it back into Germany and surrender.

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith do an admirable job of capturing all the excitement and contradictions of American society as it followed blindly Don Quixote into a war to save the Old World from self-destruction. WAR FEVER is written as history should be written, that is, as literature to be enjoyed. They have done their research as evidenced by the extensive notes at the end. As one who taught history for over forty years, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good history book.