Saturday, March 22, 2014

AHA Conference Review: Saturday January 4, 2014, 9:00-11:00

Woke up this morning at 3:30 am after having a dream that I had missed my panel. Not a good way to start the day. I felt better after a 3 mile run on the treadmill in the Hilton's gym, even though they had the heat cranked up so I high that I broke a sweat during my stretch.

The first panel of the day was Empires at War, 1912-23: Rethinking the Great War a Century On.  In a nutshell, this panel argued that historians should view the war as one of empires. This plays out in two sub-arguments. First, our understanding of the war would be better served if we expanded its temporal parameter to include the pre- and post- war conflicts, including the Italian invasion of Libya and the Balkan Wars before 1914 and the revolutions and Russian-Polish War after 1918. Second, our understanding of the impact of the war would be improved if we examined the effects it had in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East through the connection of these parts of the world to European empires.

In "The United States Empire, 1914-24" Christopher Capozzola argued that despite Woodrow Wilson's rallying call that the United States was fighting to save democracy, our nation was an imperial power. He cited military interventions in Haiti (1915), Santo Domingo (1916), Panama (1918), Cuba (1924), and Nicaragua (1924) to support his argument, and added that he United States trained local police and military forces in several Latin American nations to hold up leaders favorable to American policy. According to Capozzola, historians should not see the United States as the outsider in the war of empires, but as one more imperial power acting in its own interests.

In "Greater France and the Great War" Richard Fogarty examined the place that empire played in  France's war effort. For starters, he made the case for expanding the date ranges of the war. Specifically in the case of France to include the Moroccan Crisis and conscription of Algerians before the war, and the Syrian insurgency and Rhineland occupation after it. The war was very much at the heart of shared common experiences for an empire that stretched across several continents. From South East Asia across Africa, subjects of the empire participated in a common war against Germany. This, however, did not create a stronger sense of unity. In fact, Fogarty argues, it had the opposite effect as the war accelerated the break up of the empire.

In "The Great War as Global Conflict" Erez Manela made -- as his title implied -- a case to think of the Great War as more than a European war. The French were not alone in expanding the scope of the war to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As examples, he noted that 140,000 Chinese non-combat laborers served in Europe (something that I don't recall ever hearing about before), and that Great Britain fought insurgencies in India, Iraq, and Ireland. He continued on Fogarty's theme that war accelerated imperial decay by stating that the war led to the transition of global organization from empires to nation-states. Manela also made the claim for an expanded time frame, suggesting that 1911 be considered the better starting date (largely because of the Balkan Wars).

This panel drew many questions and comments from the audience. One line questioned the notion of an American empire. Was training a police force in a Latin American country the equivalent of Belgian brutality in the Congo? Nor did Americans in the Progressive Era see themselves as an empire. Unlike the British, who boasted of their empire as an agent of civilization, Americans of the time period were not so celebratory, and even understood themselves in contrast to the Europeans as not being imperial powers. The other line or comments focused on the significance of Africa and Asia to the war itself. In other words, the war was still won and lost on the Western Front. The colonial African soldiers fought in the trenches too. While the global perspective is important, it should not overshadow the central front of the war.

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