An Interview with Justus D. Doenecke, Author of “More Precious than Peace”

Justus D. Doenecke is professor emeritus of history at New College of Florida. He is the author of numerous books including Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939–1941, winner of the Herbert Hoover Book Award, and Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. We were so pleased that he was able to answer some of our questions about his newest study, More Precious than Peace, which will be available at a bookstore near you on March 1, 2022.

Justus D. Doenecke

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

When in 2005 I retired from New College of Florida after 36 years on the faculty, I wanted to devote my remaining years to a “big” project, one in which there would never be a truly definitive work or interpretation. Much of my career had centered on the anti-interventionists (usually called “isolationists”) of World War II and the early Cold War. Now I wanted to do the same thing for World War I and its aftermath. I had collected a large number of contemporary books on the war and this project would give me a good excuse to read them. However, I soon realized that I needed to have a full understanding of the foreign policy of the Wilson administration in order to under the response of its critics. After several years of writing, I realized that I had to limit my current writing to US entry into World War I, that is the years 1914-1917. Otherwise, I’d never a get a book done and would just keep researching forever. Hence, my book Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011). This current book, which focuses on U.S. participation as an active belligerent, is the logical successor to the previous one. 

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

Readers can find a marked contrast between the belief in 1914-17 that America can act as the “redeemer nation,” transforming the entire nature of the international order, and today, when the limits of American power and indeed the desire to alter the global balance of power, are obvious. 

Many reviewers of your previous book, Nothing Less than War, mentioned your comprehensive review of historical scholarship. How did you research More Precious than Peace?

I began by going through the published papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by my mentor at Princeton, Arthur S. Link. I did the same for the published letters of Theodore Roosevelt, edited by Elting Morison. I then went through the debates recorded in the Congressional Record. I then covered the war through two newspapers, almost issue by issue: the New York Times and Hearst’s New York American, the latter a surprisingly good paper as far as coverage went, despite the obvious quirks of the publisher himself. I then went through, issue by issue, the following journals:  the Literary Digest; the Nation; the New Republic, the War Weekly of the North American Review, and the Outlook. I also read the newspaper columns of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. I did the same for the monthly journals North American Review and Current Opinion. I went through the papers of Henry Cabot Lodge, obtained on microfilm from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. In addition to countless published monographs and articles in professional journals, I read a good number of doctoral theses., which I discovered only about six years ago, became an increasingly valuable resource.                   

What did you learn while writing it? 

I learned that despite the pressures for enforced unity during the war, as manifested particularly by George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, there was an extraordinary amount of dissent against Wilson’s policies and to some degree against the war itself. I also learned that the American military effort suffered from far too much incompetent leadership and that Theodore Roosevelt in particular played a destructive role in stress upon “100% Americanism” and his harping on the admitted inadequacies of the Wilson administration. I also found Wilson far too partisan, failing to co-opt leading Republicans to his side when it would have been advantageous to him—and to the nation as a whole—to do so. He also gave General Pershing and Colonel House too much leeway. At the same time, he captured the imagination of Americans, thanks to both his vision and his rhetoric, in a way that hardly anyone else could. I also learned of the enormous drain the entire Russian issue had on his attention when it needed to be focused entirely on the Western front.          

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work? 

Arthur Link, who scholarship was meticulous and who yet, when he had to, could make highly perceptive generalizations. Link supervised my doctoral thesis (which became the book When the Wicked Rise: American Opinion-Makers and the Manchurian Crisis of 1931-1933 [Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1984]) but I never worked in the Wilson period until I retired.     

What is your writing schedule like? 

Usually from 10 AM to 5 PM, with time out for lunch and naps. Now that I’m 83 years old, I won’t be undergoing such a grueling pace anymore. For several years I’d feed material into files on my computer and after several years of building a huge research “bank account,” I’d start to craft chapters.

What advice would you give to a scholar who wants to start a book? 

Once one gets the dissertation published either in book or article form, pick a large and significant topic for the next work. Don’t keep writing the dissertation over and over again, using one relatively narrow topic after another. Always look at the big picture, even if you realize neither you or anyone else offers the definitive word on the subject. If you are writing a biography, make sure the subject has significance beyond the mere career of the individual involved. The same for writing on any organization.

What books are you currently reading?  

Kenneth D. Rose, American Isolationism Between the World Wars; Charles A. Kupchan, Isolationism; David Pietruska, TR’s Last War. 

Who would you like to read More Precious than Peace and why? 

Scholars who want the latest update on World War I research; undergraduates; and a general public interested in the war.