America came of age more than a century ago today — the day we now commemorate as Veterans Day.
On Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the guns across Europe fell silent, and The Great War came to an end. Four years of senseless, bloody fighting was over. Military and civilian casualties numbered more than 40 million, with the dead counting close to 20 million.
The Age of Empire, whether the monarchs and politicians of Europe knew it at the time, lay in ruins. The tally of military deaths was almost 10 million — an entire generation for nations such as France, Great Britain, Germany and Russia.
It began with the assassination on June 28, 1914, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. And it had become the world’s first modern global conflict as the monarchies of Old Europe lined up against each other following an event that initially appeared to be relatively insignificant for the world.
It was supposed to be a quick little fight, with the troops back home before Christmas, but it wasn’t to be. For more than three years, the powers of Europe battled each other across the plains of Central Europe, from the Western Front on France’s eastern border and in the east in Prussia, Poland and Russia.
The Western Front, for example, devolved into bloody trench warfare with armies sending wave after wave of young men to be mown down by machine gun fire or decimated by the new weapon of the day, chemical nerve agents. And often it was just to move the battle lines forward a few hundred feet.
President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America out of the war as long as he could. Public sentiment was strongly against involvement in what was seen as a fight that just didn’t affect the United States. But beginning with Germany’s sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, Americans gradually came to see the kaiser’s Germany as the aggressor in the war. Finally, on April 6, 1917, Wilson asked for and received a declaration of war from Congress, to fight what he said would be a “war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy.”
After rapid mobilization and training, American troops began arriving in France in early 1918. Joining their British and French allies, the American doughboys turned the tide of war, taking part in some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict, including the Meuse-Argonne offensive that finally broke Germany’s back.
When the guns fell silent that bleak November day a century ago, the map of the world lay in disarray. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany, was all but dead. Across Africa, Germany had battled France and Britain. In the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, subjugated peoples waited with bated breath to learn which new power would enter the scene. And in Russia, the 300-year Romanov dynasty and the czar had been overthrown as Vladimir Lenin’s Communists began their march to Moscow.
And back in America, which had lost more than 116,000 men (a fraction of the casualties of Russia, Britain or France), the people just wanted it all over with. Bring the boys home and raise the gates, never to be backed into Europe’s senseless conflicts again.
But almost alone among world leaders, Wilson knew the world had fundamentally changed. As Britain and France went about carving up Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s empire among themselves and exacting a steep retribution on the Axis powers, he pushed for a “League of Nations” by which future conflicts could be resolved peacefully through dialogue and negotiations. The isolationist politicians of the U.S. Senate, though, refused to ratify the treaty, and America turned inward, washing its hands of Europe and its problems.
Except that America, whether she knew it or not, was now a global superpower. Walking away from any efforts to remake the post-war world would have profound consequences, with the poor, vulnerable and marginalized peoples of the world set to pay the price.
World War II, many historians contend, was just the second phase of The Great War, known now as World War I. And a solid argument can be made that the rise of Nazi Germany and Italian fascists was a direct result of America’s abdication from its responsibilities after 1918.
We would not make that mistake a second time. After WWII, the U.S., almost singlehandedly, rebuilt Europe and crafted the international institutions that maintain the peace — Pax Americana — to this day. The United Nations. The World Court. NATO. These institutions and others, built with American blood and sacrifice and coupled with American determination, have kept the peace for seven decades. It is folly, pure folly, for some politicians today even to contemplate deserting them and shirking our responsibilities once again.
So today, Veterans Day 2020, remember our veterans. Honor their sacrifices. Pay respect to those still with us. And don’t sully the legacies of peace and democracy they have left us over the past century.
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