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Without World War I, A Slower U.S. Rise, No 'God Bless America'

Posted: March 12, 2014

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If the Great War had never happened, America might look vastly different. Among other things, woman's suffrage and the civil rights movement might have suffered.

Without World War I, the woman's suffrage movement might have been slower to gain traction.

Without World War I, the woman's suffrage movement might have been slower to gain traction. Paul Thompson

This is part of an All Things Considered series that imagines a counterfactual history of World War I.

This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I. Many argue that the conflict was inevitable — but what if it wasn't?

Earlier we imagined a world in which Austria-Hungary evolved in a Central European Union, the German and Russian empires became modern nation states and German remained Europe's language of scholarship.

Now we're taking a look at how it would have affected life across the Atlantic, in the U.S.

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel put the hypothetical question to historians and other experts: Ned Lebow, author of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace, Kim Kowalke, a musicologist at the Eastman School of Music, Phil Atteberry of the University of Pittsburgh and Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War.

Some highlights from their counterfactual history:

  • The United States' rise to world power would have been slower, but it would have been more willing to intervene in conflicts in other parts of the world.
  • American identity would be slower to take shape because ethnic groups would continue to identify with their homelands, customs and languages.
  • Without a century of European turmoil, the U.S. wouldn't have hosted a century of European emigre artists and composers — no Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Bela Bartok or Kurt Weill, among others.
  • Popular music would look different as well, and we likely wouldn't have the song "God Bless America." Irving Berlin wrote it during World War I for soldiers to sing in an Army Review. George Gershwin might have stayed more of a classical composer with no reason to write his biggest pop hit, "Swanee."
  • The drive for equality — through woman's suffrage and the civil rights movement — would have happened much more slowly. Without war, fewer African-Americans would have left the rural South for jobs in the industrial North; fewer would have found better schools and progress on civil rights might have been slower in coming.
  • Major League Baseball probably would not have been ready for integration in Jackie Robinson's day in the late 1940s. The first player to break the color line might have been Curt Flood, in 1962.
Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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