World War I has occupied an uneasy place in the American public and political consciousness. In the 1920s and 1930s, controversies over the war permeated the nation's cultural and political life, influencing memorial culture and governmental policy. Interest in the war, however, waned considerably after World War II, a much larger and longer war for the United States. Despite a plethora of scholarly works examining nearly every aspect of the war, interest in the war remains limited even among academic historians. In many respects World War I became the "forgotten war" because Americans never developed a unifying collective memory about its meaning or the political lessons it offered. Americans remembered the Civil War as the war that ended slavery and saved the union, World War II as "the good war" that eliminated fascist threats in Europe and the Pacific, the Cold War as a struggle for survival against a communist foe, and Vietnam as an unpopular war. By comparison, the First World War failed to find a stable place in the national narrative.
The First World War in American popular culture, 1918-2014
Throughout the twentieth century, literature offered the American imagination its most sustained encounter with the war. Lost Generation novelists Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, 1929), John Dos Passos (Three Soldiers, 1921; 1919, 1932), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise, 1920) wrote enduring classics that embraced themes of disillusionment, cynicism, absurdity, and sexual dysfunction. (1) These novels portrayed the war as a rite of passage for young men and women who lost their adolescent naivete within the crucible of war. Classic American films also reinforced the prevailing portrait of senseless slaughter along the Western Front. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Paths of Glory (1957) condensed the war into the horror of trench warfare, corrupt officers, and disillusioned youth. (2) This emphasis on human carnage permeated the larger culture, setting a paradigm for understanding the war even among those who never actually read these books or watched these films. Novels and films that valorized the war's idealism and sacrifice, such as Willa Cather's One of Ours (1922), Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front (1923), and Sergeant York (1928) had no lasting impact on popular memory. (3)
Over time Lost Generation novels and films served less as indictments of the First World War and more as universal statements on the shock of confronting the reality of war. The themes of disillusionment highlighted in these artistic works struck a nerve during the Vietnam War era when Americans began once again to question the efficacy of using war to spread democratic values. Stanley Cooperman's World War I and the American Novel (1967) drew parallels between the sentiments expressed in anti-war fiction of the 1920s and streets protests against the Vietnam War. (4) Recently, however, Keith Gandal has reevaluated the origins of Lost Generation disillusionment. (5) Gandal argues that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were actually part of the "generation that lost out" on the chance to lead men...