This month marks the centenary of end of World War One. The UK and Commonwealth countries have thoroughly commemorated the 20th century’s first great cataclysm. But American awareness of these events has been relatively dim. Americans own World War Two, with its dramatic surprise beginning and decisive technological ending. Their government dithered about Europe’s Great War.
When we entered, we entered reluctantly and late, in April 1917. Though green at the start, American troops proved themselves competent enough. Their fresh energy and numbers may well have proved decisive in hastening the war’s end in November 1918. When the Americans first joined the battle, they fought as part of British and French commands. In September 1918, at St-Mihiel Salient, the Doughboys debuted as the American Army under command of General John J. Pershing.
Then, on September 26, 1.25 million of them took the offensive in northern France along a front 25 miles wide and 35 deep, in a fight not finished until the final armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, was the greatest battle the American Army had fought up to that time. For mass concentration of troops and sheer carnage, it still is.
The battlefield was not exactly the stuff of war movies, though it spawned its own legends, like the ‘lost battalion,’ and the Hollywood-rendered tale of sometime-pacifist Alvin York who single-handedly captured 132 German soldiers. Bruce Catton, historian of an earlier great war at its centenary in the 1960s, likened the gloomy reality –– the forests of the Argonne, the hills, ravines and high points massively fortified as part of Germany’s Hindenburg Line –– to Virginia’s dreaded Wilderness north of Richmond, where in 1864 Ulysses S. Grant failed at great cost to break Robert E. Lee’s Confederates and end the Civil War a year early.
Woodrow Wilson, America’s president during World War I, was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856 in a Presbyterian manse two blocks from my office. He carried with him into the Great War a southerner’s memory of the Civil War, where his father served as a Confederate chaplain. That memory helped make Wilson the ambivalent wartime leader he proved to be.
In 1912, Democrat Wilson ran for president in a three-way race against Republican incumbent Howard A. Taft and ex-president and Bull Moose Progressive Teddy Roosevelt. Less than two years into Wilson’s first term, Europe went to war. Wilson quickly declared American neutrality. As the battle ground on and German maritime depredations worsened, Wilson preached peace and restraint at home and, to Europe’s warring parties, the imperative of a negotiated settlement. He won a second term in 1916 partly on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War.’
He was still calling for ‘peace without victory’ and formation of an internationalist peacekeeping organization in early 1917. Then, in April, following the Zimmerman Telegram and further sinkings of American shipping by German U-boats, Wilson gave in to belligerency with the justifying declaration that ‘the world must be made safe for democracy . . . its peace planted on the tested foundations of political liberty.’
So one Virginia-born president led Americans into just the sort of European entanglement against which another Virginian, George Washington, famously had cautioned. A hundred-and-some years separated their times as president, and another hundred years separates Virginians and other Americans today from Wilson’s time.
November 11 is called Veterans Day in the United States, and not Remembrance Day as in the countries of Britain’s old empire. Even so, representatives of the American Legion and the VFW will be dispensing paper poppies outside Wal-Mart to anyone who remembers. Many who do will remember back only as far as Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently endless wars baffling the most powerful and persistent of interventionists. Viewed from the trenches in 1917, the Great War looked endless too. But the intervention of the Americans who battled through the Meuse-Argonne to finish off Europe’s fight, proved it wasn’t.
History offers a mixed counsel about getting involved in other people’s troubles. Sometimes, it’s as easy to get out as to get in: the Doughboys departed as quickly as they came. Sometimes, it isn’t. Long-term outcomes defy early expectations, like the awful outcome that followed the victors’ peace of 1919, after the Americans were all safely home.
Wilson, whose legions prevailed in war and whose ideas failed in peace, is popularly remembered as equal-parts hesitant warrior and frustrated internationalist. And since, for the century following his demise, internationalism has been deemed more virtuous than nationalism, he remains a hero to many. Cerebral as he was, Wilson probably would have wished it all away: ‘I come from the South, and I know what war is, for I have seen its wreckage and ruin. It is easy for me as president to declare war. I do not have to fight. It is some poor farmer’s boy or son of some poor widow who will have to do the fighting and dying.’
Virginia remains a state with heavy military presence. Norfolk, Va. is home to the largest navy base in the world. Virginia’s sons and daughters still enlist, at least outside metropolitan Washington, DC. History also has left Virginia more bloodied by war than any other piece of America, and the troubled heritage of the Civil War battles linger, unsettled, today. The Wilderness belongs to a civil war, the Meuse-Argonne to a foreign one. We still struggle with consequences of both, which nobody at the time could foresee, least of all it seems the leaders who led us in.
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.