Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared in the October issue of Townhall Magazine.
Townhall: How would you describe “The Yanks Are Coming!”?
Crocker: An American-centric history of the First World War that highlights America’s heroes both of the war, but also men who got blooded in the war but whose fame came later.
I like to think of it as a very welcoming open entryway into understanding World War I. Told, I hope, with a certain flare and excitement. But also in going through the debates of why we got into the war, when I discuss that aspect of it, a lot of it is focused on the interplay between Teddy Roosevelt, who I think is right, and Woodrow Wilson, who I think is wrong about virtually everything.
Roosevelt is a very poignant example, because he understands the complexities of the First World War. He understands that Germany is not a cardboard cutout villain. The Germans have certain power, political realpolitik interests, that need to be respected. But on the other hand, he cannot stomach the way the Germans treat occupied Belgium and their invasion of France. But most especially, as an American, the way the Germans had no respect for our shipping as a neutral power.
Roosevelt talks about how the Germans have killed more Americans, roughly speaking, than had been killed at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. But while the British fired on armed men, the Germans were making war on women and children on ships. He excoriates Wilson for his cravenness and his cowardliness.
I also quote Roosevelt’s daughter as saying that “whatever else we’ve achieved, since then, our lives have been shaped more than anything else by the First World War.”
Townhall: What about World War I makes the topic relevant today?
Crocker: World War I is an underserved war. I think it is fair to say that the First World War is the war that made the modern world. It made the modern world in many respects. It changed the map of Europe, it knocked off most of the crowned heads of Europe, it saw the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, it created the map of the modern Middle East, more or less.
It really is a shattering event in the 20th century that shatters this belief in inevitable human progress, which was made even more manifest in the Second World War.
The issues that were at stake in the First World War were shadow versions of what was at stake in the Second World War. The Second Reich was by no means as bad or as evil as the Third Reich, but the Second Reich had many of the same motivations driving it, and you can see this in some of the decisions that were made by its leaders afterwards.
Townhall: In part III of your book, you talk about people you call “The Young Lions.” Who are these people and why did you choose them?
Crocker: Some of them actually were generals already. [Douglas] MacArthur was a young brigadier general in the First World War. But he was one, in particular, who remembered traveling across the Old West with his father (who’d been in the Army) along the Indian Trail and yet MacArthur, during the Korean War, is thinking about deploying nuclear weapons.
I chose partly men like Patton, and Truman, and Marshall for their name recognition, but also because they really are emblematic of a certain American way of war. The 20th century really is the American century, and when you look back and you see what unites all these men, in terms of their values, the way they see America developing, it is kind of poignant to think what they would think of America today.
I close the book with the founding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which happens after the First World War. I close it with a sort of reflection on what that soldier died for, the America he believed in, and the America that exists and just how congruent or not those two Americas are.
Townhall: Did you uncover anything while writing this book that surprised you? What were your favorite takeaways?
Crocker: I hope this is a great benefit to readers. Some of the people I write about, they will undoubtedly know something about, like Truman, and Marshall, and Patton. But some of them are forgotten American heroes who led amazing lives and I think need to be rediscovered. I mean, Eddie Rickenbacker, our air ace was a former race car driver and becomes a businessman after the war running Eastern Air Lines, and he is just a fascinating character.
For Marines, or those who know Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, well Lejeune was a marine general during the First World War.
Or men like Billy Mitchell in the 1920s, the court martial of Billy Mitchell was a huge event, I mean think of like the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But he was also one of our great air officers during the war.
So it was kind of fun to go back and relive that. •