#Reviewing The Impact of the First World War on U.S. Policymakers

The United States, disenchanted with war, disenfranchised by financial crisis, and ready to embrace populism and isolationism faces dual challenges. A rising Asian power, seeking to up-end the established international order, and a series of protracted and controversial small wars. 

Surprisingly, this is not a description of the current state of world affairs, but the picture that emerges from Carew’s study of the inter-war years, an era that saw U.S. policy makers faced with challenges that will resonate with their modern counterparts. But history does not repeat and it rarely rhymes, for the differences between 1938 and today are as stark as the similarities due in no small part to the legacy of the First World War.

In The Impact of the First World War on U.S Policymakers, Carew adds to a relatively under-examined part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency—the middle years between the Great Depression and the turmoil of the Second World War. This is a study of the lasting impact of the First World War on public opinion, policy makers, and the President.

The Public

The First World War cast a long and heavy shadow over this period. The sheer number of veterans (over 4 million Americans served in World War I) ensured that men who had served were strongly represented in the Civil Service, State and Federal lawmaking bodies, and senior military leadership positions. The wartime experience, shared by the elite as well as the average American alike, were a force for significant cultural change.

General Pershing and his General Staff at Headquarters in France. (U.S Army Photo/Wikimedia)

For the public in this era, the memory of war was direct, personal, and increasingly reflected in the cultural milieu. From literary greats from Faulkner to Fitzgerald or Hemingway to Hoffbauer, a sober, disillusioned edge crept into the literature and popular culture of the day. This sentiment fueled age-old suspicions of European militarism and American adventurism. This, in turn, shaped the public’s attitude towards policy. The bitter after-taste of perceived Anglo-French incompetence, condescension, and shortcomings during the war were described in candid and popular memoirs of senior veterans of that conflict. (Pershing’s own memoirs were both lucrative and won a Pulitzer.)

Carew makes a strong case that this cultural foment left the public suspicious of adventurism, dismayed in the hollowness of collective security, and inclined to watchful neutrality. There was an active public debate throughout this period on strategic issues of the day. These included the Naval Treaties of Washington (1923) and London (1930 and 1936); America’s own emerging role as a colonist; and the specters of Japanese aggression and German rearmament. Whilst many different opinions jostled in this period, that great barometer of public opinion, the United States Congress, captured the mood of the day by passing not one, but three Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1937. Popular pacifism and a financial crisis meant policy makers seeking support for an interventionist foreign policy and funding for military preparedness had their work cut out for them.

The Policy Makers

Many leading policy makers, both civilian and military, were among those four million young Americans who had served in the European theater, creating an unusual but highly complementary mix of perspectives. On the one hand, senior politicians and policy makers had served on the front lines—their tactical observations and personal experiences would come to shape their subsequent views in high office prior to and during the Second World War. By contrast, many military officers destined for senior commands served not as tactical commanders but as staff at the heart of strategic and political decision making at an early stage in their careers.

Henry L. Stimson, former Secretary of War and State. (Wikimedia)

Policymakers such as Henry Stimson, who had served as Secretary of War under President William Taft and would hold that office throughout the Second World War, commanded an Artillery Battalion in France between 1917 and 1918. His counterpart as Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, had also served as an artillery officer, while Knox’s deputy, James Forrestal, had flown as a naval aviator. Such experiences were common across both major parties and, Carew argues, provided a shared experience, a common language, and an understanding that allowed policy makers to (sometimes) set aside partisan differences to focus on the major strategic challenges of the day. In addition to providing a shared understanding of military operations, these experiences left many policy makers with a keen interest in preparedness and the war industry. Recollections of the materiel shortcomings of American forces on the Western Front led to a resolute determination to produce the best equipped forces in the world and enabled them with attention to the development of health, administration, and amenity of the service.

By contrast, the two most senior military officers in the Second World War had served, not as front line commanders, but as aides to senior leaders. The Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall, had served as aide to General John Pershing when he commanded the American Expeditionary Forces, while future Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King had served as aide to Admiral Henry Mayo (Commander Atlantic Fleet 1917-18). Carew explores primary sources to reveal how their public memoirs and personal papers captured the frustrations of working in a coalition and dismay at the treatment by their allies. But they also understood the perilous state of military readiness and the industrial support base. Considering the phenomenal U.S.industrial base of the Second World War, it is extraordinary that “not a single American Airplane, Tank or artillery piece was provided to the American Expeditionary Force [of World War I] by the American Industrial Base.”[1]

Carew rightly counts three innovations, brought about by largely bipartisan agreement, in the areas of preparedness and production among the most critical legacies of the war. First, The National Defense Act of 1920 created the War Department (in the form of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War) with responsibility for mobilization and procurement. Second, the formation of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces provided an adjunct to the Army War College to train officers in defining, planning, and procuring material needs and requirements. This produced a body of trained military professionals with an understanding of capability development and an industry the envy of most nations. Along with the formation of the Joint Army-Navy Munitions Board, these structural and educational reforms, driven by U.S. experience in World War I, were essential to U.S. mobilization for the Second World War and were the genesis of the modern Department of Defense acquisition process.

Overseeing this period was a President who, Carew argues, was well placed to navigate both the riptides of public opinion and the complexities of foreign and military policy. Franklin Roosevelt was from that class of patrician who was well-schooled in history and had the luxury of wide association with experts on world affairs. Moreover, Carew does not underestimate the significance of Roosevelt’s service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1913-1919), a role that gave him hands on experience in the national sinews of war. Conventional analysis often focuses on Roosevelt’s management of relationships with ambassadors and heads of state. His experience dealing with the defense industry however—managing labor disputes and the Byzantine systems of procurement and production, was equally vital to setting the conditions to match tangible resources with commitments to allies. He also became an ardent, if unlikely, supporter of naval aviation, preserving the Aviation Division against attempts to disestablish it, thus encouraging development that would be pivotal to the war in the Pacific a quarter of a century later. This was more than just professional investment in the role. Carew draws a picture of Roosevelt as someone who continued to be a serious student of grand strategy and naval affairs long after the First World War.

Franklin Roosevelt during one of hi fireside chats. (Wikimedia)

Roosevelt’s first two terms are popularly held to have been dominated by domestic and economic issues and this is certainly true. But Carew provides a richer picture of Roosevelt through this period—a man maintaining a deep interest in international affairs. Although he was challenged by public opposition to war, he was ably supported by hard-headed and experienced members of his cabinet who were able to make adjustments to force posture that left the U.S. better prepared for the coming war than it otherwise may have been.

Carew doesn’t dispute that the U.S. arrived at Pearl Harbor with a mighty task at hand, but the readiness of the national support base, evidenced by almost 27 months of deliberate mobilization, was decisive.[2] Perhaps most important was the availability of senior policy makers who had seen success and failure in a total war first hand and had the ability and resolve to learn from it.


The U.S. benefited from senior military officers with experience in the coalition and political battles of the First World War and equally from senior politicians with experience of real battle who understood the impact of decisions at home on the front line. This book is certainly worth reading for the modern student of foreign policy, if only to lament what strategically literate policy makers can achieve with the right leadership in spite of torrid public opinion and a world full of menace.

Andrew Kirby is a strategy consultant who advises Government and Industry on strategic planning, capability and innovation.He is also an Infantry Battalion Commander in the Australian Army Reserve who has served on a variety of Operations in the South West Pacific and Middle East. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Defence Force.

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Header Image: Official Presidential portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Frank Owen Salisbury, Wikimedia)