A WWI Conversation with USD's Kurt Hackemer

Posted by Heather Benson on

This week we help you get ready for this compelling look at the role of South Dakotans in the Great War with a series of conversations on In the Moment. Today we welcomed Kurt Hackemer, with the Department of History at the University of South Dakota.  To listen to this conversation in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:                            Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. South Dakota Public Broadcasting brings you a new Images of the Past documentary, From the Great Plains to the Great War. It premieres on Monday, June 25, 9:00 p.m Central, 8:00 Mountain on SDPB TV. This week, we help you get ready for this compelling look at the role of South Dakotans in the Great War with a series of conversations on In the Moment. Today, we welcome Kurt Hackemer with the Department of History at the University of South Dakota. Welcome to the program. Thanks for being here. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Thanks very much, Lori. Great to be here. 

Lori Walsh:                            Let's start with kind of an overview today. World War I is not necessarily one of the most commonly understood wars in America. You might kind of go through it pretty quickly in school. Let's start with America's involvement. We don't get involved in this right away. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  No, we don't. The war itself starts in the fall of 1914, primarily in the European continent and then extending into places like Africa and Asia and so on, but the United States doesn't get involved until 1917. We very deliberately try and stay out of the war. When President Woodrow Wilson runs for reelection in 1916, his campaign slogan is, He Kept Us Out of War. Most Americans preferred to be neutral. And it's only a combination of, I think, really effective British propaganda and some pretty serious German provocations that eventually push us into war in the spring of 1917. 

Lori Walsh:                            And how ready are we? Is this something that we're prepared to do? Put it in the context of American history as far as our readiness. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Oh, we're not prepared at all. We're in pretty bad shape. The United States has a history of relatively small peacetime armies. Before most of our prior wars, we tend to, or after those wars, we tend to demobilize rather quickly. The United States Army in 1914, '15, '16 is about 200,000 men or so. 

They do not have modern equipment. They do not have modern training. The only saving grace that really helps the United States Army is that we have reorganized our staff system before the war. We reorganized that in 1903 and so, to the extent that we were prepared at all, we were ready. We had the building blocks in place to start creating the larger army, but that was a pretty tight thing. 

Lori Walsh:                            Staff system, you mean a leadership leadership structure? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Correctly, yeah. Creation of the Command General Staff College, training staff officers how to think about larger scale military operations, that kind of thing. 

Lori Walsh:                            Is there an incident? Is there something that sort of ... Is there a moment that rallies Americans to want to be part of this fight in Europe? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Right. There are a series of incidents, but I think the crucial one happens in early 1917 when the Germans decide that they are going to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, that they will target any ship heading toward the European continent and sink it without any warning. That had been a flash point earlier in the war. The Germans had backed down, but they think that they have the Western allies on the ropes and if they can just push ahead with unrestricted submarine warfare that they can knock them out before the United States would get involved. And it turns out they're wrong. 

Lori Walsh:                            All right. Is that something they announced? Is that an intel collection thing that we find out about or is that [crosstalk 00:03:35].

Kurt Hackemer:                  They announce it. They announce it in, I think it was February of 1917, and start sinking ships. And by April we've declared war. 

Lori Walsh:                            Interesting. What's the role of North America? Is there any influence of the rest of the continent in participation in this? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Sure. The Canadians especially are heavily involved. And, in fact, when you look at the kind of creation stories that Canadians tell about what it is that makes Canada, World War I is huge. To this day, you can go mention Vimy Ridge to any Canadian, they'll know exactly what it is, exactly what it means to the history of Canada. From the allies' perspective in general, though, it's really the food that's coming from North America that is so critically important to the allied war effort. We're feeding a lot of these allied countries who can't really feed themselves during the war. 

Lori Walsh:                            All right, so I'm wondering as we get into this, President Wilson, who has campaigned on keeping us out of war, then does he have a plan? Is it something where he says, "This is exactly what we're going to do. Here's our exit strategy"? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  No, he doesn't. That's part of the problem. 

Lori Walsh:                            Some things don't change, right? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Some things do not change at all. Yeah. Wilson certainly builds on the moral outrage of the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, and Wilson does have an idea in mind and it's often expressed, one of his phrases, that he wants to make the world safe for democracy, that he somehow wants to affect the outcome of the war in such a way that the United States can have a major voice in reshaping world affairs. And so how the United States militarily deploys to the Western Front is critical in making that happen and leads to a huge disagreement between the United States and the Western allies. 

Lori Walsh:                            Interesting. Who's going? Is there a draft? Is it volunteers? Who are the men in this case? Probably are there women too supporting this effort?  

Kurt Hackemer:                  It's mostly men. There are very few women. You'll see them, Yeoman (F)s in the Navy, for example, some limited clerical support. No, there's definitely a draft because this is a modern industrial war, and it's huge. The United States will go from about 200,000 men on active duty in 1917 to, it's about 4.3 million men who are slated to be ready for late 1918 in what will become the undone early 1919 offensives. 

Getting there requires this massive mobilization, and that in itself is a really interesting story, because we had used a draft during the Civil War, right? 

Lori Walsh:                            Right.

Kurt Hackemer:                  And the draft was really complicated and caused a lot of emotional angst across the country. Only about 7% of the Civil War Army was drafted, but it was a federally-directed process. It led to huge draft riots in major Northern cities, where you have federal troops deployed against civilians in 1863, for example. That's something the United States wanted to avoid and knew that it needed to avoid because ultimately, over 70% of the U.S. Army in World War I will be drafted. And so what they'll do- 

Lori Walsh:                            What? Wait, 70%? Wow. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  70, I think it's 71 or 72%. Well, again, you're going from 200,000 to 4.3 million, right? Your volunteer base is only going to take you so far. 

What the federal government does is they decentralize the draft, and they make it, they create local draft boards rather than having federal officials come out, and they get the states more actively involved in deciding who gets exemptions, who goes, how the draft will actually function. What they're trying to do is prevent that kind of civic unrest that they saw in 1863 and 1864. 

Lori Walsh:                            You mentioned the food, the resources that America is sort of pouring into the conflict in Europe. What about these soldiers? What about the people themselves? What kind of contributions on the battlefield do Americans show up for? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  The first and probably the most important one is our sheer numbers. The belligerents on all sides are really worn down by 1917. By early 1918, at a point where these armies ... The French Army is refusing to fight on part of the Western Front in 1917. Everyone's taken huge casualties, and in early 1918, you have 10,000 American soldiers landing in France every day.

They don't have equipment. They don't have artillery. There's a lot of things they don't have, but what they do have is numbers. That's what the allies want. And they provide this critical swing and manpower that ultimately will lead to allied success by the fall of 1918. 

Lori Walsh:                            Are they welcomed in France at this point? Is this a time of celebration, the Americans are here? Is there a resentment? Is there conflict between America and the allies about our participation? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  No. They are welcomed with open arms. There's the reference back to the American Revolution.  General Pershing with Lafayette, "We are here." What is controversial is how those American troops will be used. 

What the United States want, because President Wilson wants to influence the end of the war, it is the American goal to have a self-sustained operating United States Army that functions as United States Army, so there's one giant army. What the French and the British want, is they want what's called amalgamation, where you take American units and you insert them into the British and French Armies. 

 The Germans have launched ... You have the stalemate of trench warfare with massive death and destruction. The Germans figured a way around that that they use. They introduced a new tactical system in March of 1918 and launched a series of five offensives that we call them Michael Offensives. And in battlefields where progress had been measured in meters, suddenly now you have German breakthroughs in March, April, and May of 1918. They're pushing 30, 40, 50 kilometers all of a sudden. The British and French lines are broken. What the British and French want, they want those American troops to plug those holes immediately.  And so there's this compromise that's worked out that's really contentious, where the initial use of American troops is to staunch the bleeding, such as it is, and halt the Germans. But ultimately what we're building towards is an all-American offensive that will take shape as the Meuse-Argonne campaign in the fall of 1918. 

Lori Walsh:                            And what's the impact of that, then? This is a climactic in a way. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Yes, it is. The Meuse-Argonne campaign breaks the back of the German Army in that sector of the Western Front. It's huge. There are 1.2 million American troops deployed on this campaign. The campaign lasts 47 days. It starts in late September and runs right up to the armistice in November of 1918. It is massive in terms not only of the troops engaged, but the casualties taken, and it remains to this day the bloodiest American military campaign in our history. There are about, I think it's 122,000 American casualties in those 47 days, includes about 25, 26,000 American dead. It's enormous. 

Lori Walsh:                            Is this because of the technical technological advances and the modern equipment? Why is the casualty count that high? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  It is. We have figured out how to more effectively kill people in large numbers. We think about machine guns, obviously. It has a lot more to do with advances in artillery and high explosives. Upwards of 70 to 80% of World War I casualties are inflicted by artillery tubes. And the Americans launched this attack through a sector of the front that the Germans had been building up for years. It's this very elaborate defense in depth that they have to crack and penetrate, and even if you're trying to be efficient about it, which they are, a little clumsy to start with, ultimately you have to assault those positions. And so we take those massive casualties. 

Lori Walsh:                            Who's the leadership of that? Who's making that decision with the full knowledge of what the cost will be? 

Kurt Hackemer:                  That would be General Pershing, Blackjack Pershing. 

Lori Walsh:                            Okay. I was going to say that, Kurt.  

Kurt Hackemer:                  Yeah.

Lori Walsh:                            I was going to guess that. I was going to guess. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Yep. No, that's a good guess. And he has several people working for him who really know the ins and outs, who will be so critical in World War II. This is their baptism of fire. George Marshall, for example, is one of Pershing's key planners putting all this together. You have junior officers or mid-level officers like Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. This is where all these guys are, everyone except Eisenhower. Eisenhower never makes it over. 

Lori Walsh:                            Yeah. All right, so there's a legacy here in so many different ways. We could probably talk for hours. I'm sure you teach a class on that.  But let's talk about coming home a little bit. Now, you've got all these veterans. You have families who have lost so many people, but then you have so many people who have come home. What happens next in America? 

Kurt Hackemer:               This is a really interesting phenomenon, one that historians have looked at. These men went off to war, right? And there's some argument that they did so, especially in the context of the draft, as sort of a social contract with the United States, that they would agree to put their lives on hold, go serve their country, and when they came back that the country would figure out what best to do with them. And what we often forget is that they leave in 1917 and don't come back in many cases until 1919, and life at home goes on. And so when they're trying to slot them, they miss opportunities, they miss economic opportunities, they miss social opportunities. There are delayed educational opportunities. What the government does is the government promises that there will ultimately be a literal payout, a bonus that will be given to these World War I veterans and it will be paid out 20 years after World War I in recognition of their service. 

But you also have groups that are formed. The American Legion is created at this time, advocating for veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. There's a real push for the country to do more for these veterans, and so there's this big, extended discussion about how exactly it is that we serve our veterans that isn't fully resolved. This comes to a head in the Great Depression when times are tough economically. The veterans begin arguing that they should get their bonuses early. And there's a mass movement of veterans, a march on Washington, D.C., called The Bonus Army where thousands and thousands of veterans set up a shanty town, kind of tent city on the Anacostia Flats, demand that the government do something about this. They're ultimately forcibly evicted by the Washington, D.C. police, but also by the active duty U.S. Army, and that's an operation that is led by Douglas MacArthur. 

And George Patton is involved, and George Patton famously runs into a veteran on the Anacostia Flats who had saved his life during World War I, and he's forcibly evicting this guy. What's maybe more important and what a lot of people don't realize is the impact this has on the GI Bill. We often think of the GI Bill as a product of World War II. The first legislation was signed in 1944. 

But the impetus behind the GI Bill is how should we have dealt with these World War I veterans? The people who are involved in that conversation in the 1920s and 1930s are the drivers behind that legislation in 1944, so we are going to do better for our World War II veterans based on the experience that we had with our World War I veterans. That's where the GI Bill comes from. 

Lori Walsh:                            Kurt Hackemer is a professor of history at the University of South Dakota, and this has just been fascinating. I'd love to have you back in the future. We really appreciate your time. 

Kurt Hackemer:                  Thanks very much. Lori. 

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