- - Sunday, November 8, 2015


On Nov. 11, 1919, the United States observed the first Armistice Day signifying the end of World War I in 1918. For most American communities it was a day solemnized by patriotic parades, prayer meetings and dinners honoring servicemen who had served in the war. Although it had not as yet become a federal holiday that eventually would be renamed Veterans Day, November 11 touched the lives of Americans at the time because the war’s horrors had been delineated by gruesome statistics.

For example, in one critical battle beginning in September 1918, for 47 days 1.2 million American soldiers pushed toward the German lines under heavy enemy fire and casualties. In one month more ammunition was used than in the entire Civil War under excruciating conditions, as revealed by a letter from participant Harry S. Truman, the future president:

“There were some three or four weeks, from September 10 to October 6, that I did nothing but march at night and shoot or sleep in daylight … The infantry — our infantry — are the heroes of the war. There’s nothing — machine guns, artillery, rifles, bayonets, mines, or anything else — that can stop them when they start.”

Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between what Americans remembered about the war’s terrors and the White House proclamation for observing the day. Paralyzed and incapacitated by a massive stroke the month before, President Woodrow Wilson was not well served by aides who kept the president’s status under wraps and wrote the public announcement that minimized America’s contribution: “The soldier and people of the European Allies,” the proclamation read, “had fought and endured for more than four years to uphold the barrier of civilization against the aggressions of armed force. We, ourselves, had been in the conflict something more than a year and a half.”

To be sure, America’s military role was critical in that short time period, with 4.3 million men mobilized, more than 116,000 killed, 204,000 wounded and 4500 missing in action. But instead of emphasizing that critical role of the nation’s soldiers in bringing about an armistice, the message credited other factors:

“With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at last our power was a decisive factor in the victory.”

The White House was more concerned in the Armistice Day statement to campaign for American entry into the League of Nations that had been rejected in the Senate. The proclamation held the naive belief that the war’s end gave rise to “new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert” and “gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and justly act of international relations.”

Just as his successor, President Barack Obama, overestimates the so-called united world against a few rogue nations led by Russia, so, too, Wilson’s speech writers saw the war’s end through rose-colored glasses: “The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms fortels [sic] the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.”.

But the worst part of the White House’s Armistice Day message was the final paragraph that illustrated the inability to recognize that there were evil nations in the world that were not only punished in the Treaty of Versailles ending the war but required vigilance from the United States and its allies. Although the president and his staff had more than a token command of the English language, they, like Mr. Obama with his refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorists,” referenced the European conflict as “a thing”:

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us, and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

The moral to be derived from the first Armistice Day is that the contributions of those who served and died for our country should not be on the miscellaneous agenda of presidential proclamations. As subsequent history has revealed, peace is a fragile reed, rarely nurtured by pacifism but by an enormous respect for military preparedness and realpolitik. Or as journalist Elmer Davis put it: “This will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the land of the brave.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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