- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006


By David Traxel

Knopf, $27.50, 413 pages


Americans and their leaders are an ambivalent bunch when it comes to figuring out the na-

tion’s role in the world. That uncertainty has been prevalent during the debate over the Iraq war, especially in view of the country’s role as the world’s only superpower.

That uncertainty is also nothing new. The period before and during World War I makes an excellent case study, and one that is often eclipsed by the emphasis on World War II and on the Civil War.

David Traxel’s “Crusader Nation: The United States In Peace And The Great War” is an engagingly written and insightful look at events at home and abroad during the final two years of the 19th century and the first 20 years of the 20th century. Though the author is clearly skeptical of what he sees as the country’s aggressive tendencies, his account is generally balanced.

The focus is on political events and personalities — with considerable attention paid to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — but the author does not neglect cultural trends.

Mr. Traxel, a history professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, endorses the reforms implemented at home by Messrs. Roosevelt and Wilson, especially the increased regulation of business and greater concern for the environment. Despite their shared reputation as progressives, the presidents were anything but two peas in a pod.

“Roosevelt had been worrying for years over the selfishness of sectional and individual drive, envy and ambition. The New Nationalism called for a greater unity in American life, a deferring of individual and sectional interests to the greater good of the nation. Wilson emphasized a greater freedom for individuals under the traditional decentralized government of states’ rights that would allow people to devote their energies to their own advancement, believing that such liberty would benefit the whole,’ Mr. Traxel writes.

It was on foreign policy matters, however, where the two men’s views truly diverged.

Mr. Roosevelt was eager to expand the nation’s role in the world, even if it meant being an occasional bully. He was an early supporter of entering World War I. Once the fighting ended, he said “let us dictate peace by the hammering guns and not chat about peace to the clicking of typewriters.”’

His instincts on the value of getting involved in the war early on were correct. However, had Mr. Wilson followed Mr. Roosevelt’s advice about ending the conflict with “hammering guns,” Germany would have been left even more humiliated.

Mr. Wilson made major misjudgments as well. He had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the war and towards the end of the fighting called for a “peace without the victory.’ His reluctance to commit troops early on gave some Americans a false sense of security while his approach to ending the war satisfied neither his political supporters nor his opponents.

Mr. Traxel doesn’t spend much time describing military actions or diplomatic maneuvers. That’s an understandable approach given the extensive writings on these subjects. One wishes, however, that he had done more than just rehash the conventional (and simplistic) treatment of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge as an obstructionist. Lodge had legitimate concerns about the Treaty of Versailles, but Mr. Traxel gives them short shrift.

The author’s narrative is greatly enriched by his extensive use of the diaries of average Americans. He quotes soldier Dan Edwards’ account of being injured during an explosion while fighting in France: “It seemed as if the end of the world had come. The concussion almost jarred me to pieces … . I looked back over my shoulder, and there was a great big gob of smoke,’ he wrote.

Mr. Traxel does lack the storytelling flare of historians such as Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and his prose is sometimes verbose. Those willing to overlook his literary shortcomings will come away from “Crusader Nation” with a better understanding of the United States at home and abroad during a crucial period in the country’s history.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the recently published book: “The Divided States of America.’

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