March 1917 : on the brink of war and revolution

March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund examines international social and political conflicts leading up to the titular date. Englund, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at the Washington Post, surveys how a cast of historical figures traversed through the upheaval leading up to March 1917, placing emphasis on the United States’ entry into World War I, and on the Russian Revolution.

Drawing upon a wealth of primary and secondary resources, Englund reveals how notable personalities including writer H.L. Mencken, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, politician James Houghteling, former President Theodore Roosevelt, and others viewed a rapidly changing world that saw the birth of jazz music, women’s suffrage, workers' strikes, u-boats, trench warfare, the death of dynastic empires throughout Europe, and the rise of the United States as a world superpower.

Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s story is among the more fascinating accounts in the book. As the first woman elected to Congress, Rankin found herself wading through an ideological minefield of politics: her support of workers' strikes in her home state of Montana, her participation in the suffrage movement and her gender all caused a great stir in the Washington political machine. Following the Congresswoman as she begins to understand the politics of government, and how it often clashes with her idealism, is intriguing and among the more relatable stories in the book.

H.L. Mencken’s tale accounts for some of the most exciting and adventurous aspects of the book. Mencken, working as a foreign correspondent, visited Berlin during the war and gave a fascinating description of the city and its inhabitants, all of which belies the expected wartime chaos. As the conflict escalated, Mencken was forced to flee Europe through Spain, and wound up in Cuba just in time to report on the ‘Sugar Intervention’ conflict that was taking place on the island. Englund, noting the irony, takes a break from the story to comment on Mencken's diaries for the period in question, pointing out that the minimalist nature of his diaries stood in contrast to Mencken’s long-winded writing style.

The heart of the book is the story of Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the United States into the Great War. Despite the public outrage generated by the sinking of the Lusitania, the Zimmerman telegram, and relentless public goading by Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson was hesitant to involve the United States in the conflict before a series of U-boat attacks on American ships, forced his hand into the inevitable. Englund does a fantastic job showing  exactly how much the nation was divided on the topic, putting Wilson’s reluctance into perspective.

While the book ostensibly attempts an international perspective, it leans towards an assessment that is overwhelmingly American. Much of the Russian upheaval is shown through the eyes of American politicians like James Houghteling and socialites such as Julia Dent Cantacuzene, granddaughter of Ulysses Grant. These American impressions of the socio-political developments are both powerful and fascinating. The book is written with a popular audience in mind, and Englund does a remarkable job at capturing the essence of the period and resurrecting the spirit of the people he writes about. His skills as a journalist help this book evade the dry, academic tones of most history books, making it accessible to readers who would ordinarily shy away from non-fiction.