Book Review: Remembering World War I in America


by Kimberly J. Lamay Licursi

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. xxvi, 266. Illus., tables, notes, biblio., index. $55.00. ISBN: 0803290853

A Failure of Memory?

Prof. Lamay Licursi (Siena College), examines American memory and memorialization of the Great War, in part to understand why the events of 1917-1918 seem to have stirred a “great apathy” in the public’s memory, particularly in contrast to the Second World War.

Lamay Licursi addresses four major areas.

In “State War Histories”, she asks why, although most states undertook to prepare histories of their role in the war, only a handful actually did so, attributing their failure to waning interest, fiscal restraint, and prolonged research.

“War Memories” covers the spate of personal histories that appeared immediately following the war, and “War Stories” looks at fiction about the war. After a spate of books in the immediate aftermath of the war, the production of both memoirs and fiction declined, in part because much of the earlier efforts were poor, leaving a jaded public. Of course Lamay Licursi does take note of some of the better works, and she makes the interesting observation that two of the most successful authors of war novels, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom had been slightly wounded, actually saw relatively little of the war.

In the final section, “War Films,” Lamay Licursi looks at war movies. A surprising number were made, but only a few today are considered to have much merit, notably The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Lamay Licursi’s overall conclusion is that the longer-term postwar response to the war was, in large part, negative, many – perhaps most – Americans, whether left or right, coming to believe the war had been a mistake, provoked by nefarious forces. She also seems to have missed the pattern of memorialization that has prevailed since the Civil War, which finds large numbers of books published and monuments erected in the four or five years immediately following a war, and then a lull, only to see interest revive 15 or 20 years later; in the case of World War I, that “later” came just as the world was sinking into World War II.

Lamay Licursi also fails to address the spate of monument building that followed the war, which is unfortunate, as even today plaques and statures dedicated to the Doughboys are sparingly common in public squares, churches, college halls, and the like across America.

Despite these reservations Remembering World War I in America, a volume in the Nebraska series "Studies in War, Society, and the Military, is an interesting and thoughtful look at how national memory is constructed.


Note: Remembering World War I in America is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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