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Academic Book Review: Jennifer D. Keene. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

17 Jun

Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

Jennifer D. Keene. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. xiv + 294.

In Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America author, historian, and professor Jennifer D. Keene has written an exceptional book that outlines the American soldier’s experience during the Great War and subsequent existence as a discharged veteran in the years leading up to the Second World War. Keene explores social and cultural ramifications endured by the returning Great War veterans as they tried to assimilate back in to an American society mired in a deep recession.

It is the overall plight of the Great War veterans that is the central thesis for Keene: “…[The] Great War generation shaped the contours of the modern American military and was responsible for the most sweeping piece of social welfare legislation in American history, the GI Bill.” [1] In the years following the Armistice of 1918 the collective tenacity of Great War veterans ultimately led to a new law known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, (1944) or as it is more commonly known: the GI Bill. With the bill’s passing, America was finally able to properly care for its veterans with housing, education, and medical benefits that ensured their entry into the middle class – this is Keene’s qualification for the ‘Remaking of America’ segment of the book’s title. Keene establishes the GI Bill as the legacy left by the Great War and the reason for her research and writing of Doughboys.

The beauty of Keene’s Doughboys is in the prelude to her final chapter and epilogue. Writing chronologically, the author saves her thesis for the end of the book which does not however lessen the book’s impact. In the chapters leading up to the GI Bill’s approval, Keene’s primary research shines through and paints a rich tapestry of the socio-cultural and military experiences of the Great War soldiers. For the first time in history, the American government in the 20th Century was failing to meet the challenges of managing a large veteran population: “Concerned that unemployed veterans posed a threat to domestic peace, administration officials attributed disruptive potential even to the innocuous desire to improve one’s postwar life.” [2]

Largely ignored by the American public and the federal government under Hoover and then FDR, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Great War veterans would finally receive their desperately needed monies: “A noticeable shift in public opinion had occurred. In a November 1935 poll, 55 percent signaled their willingness for the government to pay the bonus.” [3] Public sentiment, trouble brewing in Europe and Congressional investigations into war profiteering contributed to success for the veterans: “By 1936, a presidential election year, Congress finally had the votes to override a presidential veto. Within four months, over 98 percent of veterans had received full payment on their certificates…” [4] Keene summarizes: “World War I veterans had made a long and difficult journey from 1917 to 1944 to establish the principle that total war gave soldiers and the state a mutual obligation to ensure each other a safe and prosperous future.” [5]

My only criticism of Keene’s Doughboys is that the author had limited her research and book to the study of the US Army, excluding any consideration or thought to the US Navy or Marine Corps. It begs the question – would the addition of a similar representative sampling of data on navy and marine veterans from the Great War elicited corresponding results? Probably, however the potential error that I see is one of context. Keene’s research is on Americans in the Army, but in later chapters the author is writing of “veterans”. This latter group probably comprised all branches which have no mention in the book. While not a direct criticism of Doughboys itself, I found it a bit disconcerting that Keene had portrayed officers in a bad light on numerous occasions – as corrupt, inept or unqualified. Overall, Doughboys is an excellent contribution to the literature of the Great War and Keene overachieves in proving her thesis for the significance of the Great War in history. The author has done a remarkable job in conducting extensive primary research that has been eloquently blended with select secondary sources. Jennifer D. Keene is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Redlands in California.

Bibliography

Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.


[1] Jennifer D. Keene, Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), x.

[2] Ibid., 164.

[3] Ibid., 203.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 214.

 

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