The Curtain Rises
Time: 5 a.m., November 11, 1918.
Place: In a railroad car drawn up in a siding in the Forest of Compeigne, northeast of Paris.
Action: Representatives of the victorious Allies and the defeated Central Powers placed their signatures on the agreement that ended the shooting of World War I, the most cataclysmic contest of arms mankind had yet experienced.
Later that same day, at precisely 11 a.m., the bugle call to cease firing sounded and, for the first time in 4 years, the unaccustomed silence of a world at peace replaced the thunder and lightning of a world rent by war.
It had been a terribly costly upheaval; all of the participating nations had suffered great losses. Of the nearly five million Americans who served, more than 53,000 died in combat, of wounds, or as prisoners of war. Another 204,000 Americans survived their wounds. Nonbattle deaths climbed to an appalling total—more than 63,000.
Yet, despite the terrible toll, the prevailing mood on November 11, 1918, was one of unbounded joy that the fighting had ended. In Paris churchbells pealed the good news, banners fluttered gaily, total strangers embraced one another fervently, and the bistros did a lively business.
This was an hour of triumph for the victorious Americans of Gen. John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. They had gone "over there" and soundly licked the Kaiser—with the help of their Allies, of course. They had "made the world safe for democracy." If the great dream of their Commander in Chief, President Woodrow Wilson, of a community of nations acting in concert to maintain world peace should become a reality, the peace won so dearly would endure.
On this memorable date, President Wilson made these memorable remarks: "We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which they fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic. concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests that can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men."
Not until years later would this war be given a number—to distinguish it from World War II.
Meanwhile, the Nation mourned its World War I dead and gave the men who returned a hero's welcome. On the first anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, President Wilson issued a proclamation, saying, "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...."
In 1921, on Armistice Day, a solemn ceremony took place in the presence of President Warren G. Harding and other dignitaries. The body of the Unknown Soldier of World War I, an unidentified American who had been buried in France, was formally reinterred in glory in Arlington National Cemetery. Inscribed on the tomb, which is guarded day and night, were the words: Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.
The tomb of the Unknown Soldier became the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day, May 30, 1958. At that time, the bodies of two unidentified servicemen—one had died in World War II and the other in the Korean conflict—were reburied in crypts beside the first. President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the ceremonies and placed upon each of the two coffins the Medal of Honor.
Armistice Day was designated an official American holiday by Presidential proclamation in 1926. In 1954 the name of the holiday was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. From that time on, it has been a day for the Nation to pause and do honor to all veterans—living and dead—that vast legion of men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States. The customary 2 minutes of silence at 11 a.m., the time when the Armistice of 1918 took effect, remains an impressive part of the Veterans Day observances.
News of the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, came as a total and stunning surprise to Americans. The United States did not even consider intervening, nor was it prepared militarily to do so.
President Wilson quickly proclaimed the neutrality of the United States,
and the American people heartily and almost unanimously approved. War,
to the vast majority of Americans, vitas un: thinkable. To many, it meant
a senseless sacrifice of lives and resources in order to gratify the profiteering
ambitions of big munitions makers and banking interests. Besides, Europe
was several thousand miles away, and there were important domestic matters
that needed attention.
A small minority of Americans quickly recognized the need for the United States to arm, not only to protect its interests but for possible entry into the war. Their pleas for military preparedness fell on deaf ears at first, but as the war progressed and a succession of incidents severely strained American relations with Germany, the minority grew more numerous and influential.
Congress voted in 1916 to more than double the strength of the Regular Army, to make the National Guard a part of the national defense structure, and to expand the Navy greatly. It also passed the Shipping Act, which gave birth to the modern merchant marine. The Revenue Act of 1916 was significant in this respect—it shifted from the poor to the rich a greater percentage of the tax burden.
The United States was inevitably drawn into the conflict in Europe after submarines roaming the Atlantic sunk American ships and took American lives. President Wilson, a man dedicated to peace and social progress, tried desperately to keep America out of the war, and he did everything in his power to arrange a peaceful settlement of the issues among the warring nations. But his efforts revere futile.
After a great deal of soul searching and anguish, the President finally reached the painful decision that the United States could not honorably avoid entering the war. He so informed a joint session of Congress in a historic message delivered at 8:30 p.m. on April 2,1917.
"The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind," President Wilson told the expectant Congress. "Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its people, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments, backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people....
"We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included; for the rights of nations, great and small, and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no domination. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them....
"It is a distressing and oppressive duty, Gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precions than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts— for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. . . ."
Four days later, on April 6,1917, the Congress passed a resolution declaring war on Germany. The President signed it the next day.
Once committed to war, the United States shifted its war preparations into high gear. The American people united in their will to prosecute the war unflaggingly to the victory that came in 1918.
The draft law was more democratic than that of 1863; it did not allow bounties, exemption by purchase, or hiring of substitutes. On June 5, 1917, all men between the ages of 21 and 30 were registered in the Nation's first large-scale conscription of troops.
As the future veterans, confident of victory, set off to fight in European trenches, America gave them a good sendoff, often to martial music. There were tears and fears, of course, but usually they were concealed.
The Final Scene
The setting of the final scene of World War I— the signing of the peace treaty—was the palace at Versailles in the suburbs of Paris on the 28th day of June in the year 1919. The negotiations preceding the signing had not been without power politics, secret agreements on the division of the spoils, and a spirit of revenge on the part of some of the delegates to the Paris Peace Conference.
This was not true of President Wilson, who had drawn up Fourteen Points as the basis for a "peace of justice." The last of these was incorporated in the Treaty. It read, "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutua] guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike...." The association formed was the League of Nations.
Even while the Versailles Treaty was being drafted, the men of the A.E.F. were returning home as quickly as possible—in cargo ships converted into transports and aboard cruisers and battleships. Demobilized at regional centers in the United States, they joined the ranks of the country's more aged veterans.
The aftermath of the war in the United States divas horror at the casualties followed by a great wave of disillusionment and a reversion to isolationism. Americans wondered if the victory was worth the price, even though the country was more prosperous. The Senate, in the same mood, refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and the United States never became a member of the League of Nations. Had the United States joined the League, the course of history might have taken a different turn.
It took another World War to convince Americans that the United States could not isolate itself from the rest of the world—that a nation as wealthy and powerful as the United States had certain moral obligations toward other nations.
The United Nations, now described as the world's best hope of peace, is carrying on the work started by the League of Nations. The League expired by its own vote on April 18, 1946, and bequeathed its properties to the United Nations.
Veterans, Then and Now
The fact that Veterans Day stems from a World War I event—the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 by no means detracts from the honor due American veterans of all wars, and of peacetime service as well. Nor does the fact that World War I did not make the world "safe for democracy" invalidate the faith of those who fought it or demean their courage and sacrifice. Our veterans of every war have fought for principles they and the entire Nation held dear. Americans have never served as mercenaries or been guided by militaristic thinking.
Those who have become veterans since World War II are acquainted with the frustrations of fighting an unconventional and undeclared "cold" war, which can be just as deadly as the "hot" variety. The World War I serviceman had his problems, and very little in the way of benefits to help compensate for them, but his problems were the usual problems of fighting men. This sudden transition from civilian to military life was not easy and often entailed great personal sacrifices. On the other hand, the enemy he fought was always in uniform and used the conventional tactics of the day. Furthermore, there was no threat of a mushroom cloud billowing over his head.
President Wilson's dream of an enduring peace enjoyed by a world of free nations is a noble dream and one worth fighting for. It cannot be realized easily or in the near future. But the veterans of World War II and Korea helped give substance to that dream. And the veterans of tomorrow, now serving in Viet-Nam and many other distant lands, are also bringing that dream a bit closer to reality.
Veterans Day—November 11—has been set aside as a day when the Nation unites in paying homage to those who have defended it. No more appropriate time could be found in which to reflect on the magnificent tradition our veterans have established and the great courage and sacrifice that made it magnificent.
America is proud of its veterans—past, present, and future!