The 11th day of the 11th month, 90 years later
The 11th day of the 11th month, 90 years later
BY SAMUEL R. WILLIAMSON
The writer, of Sewanee, Tenn., is the retired president and vice chancellor of the University of the South. A scholar of diplomatic and military history, he is one of the foremost authorities on World War I.
At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front; the killings of the Great War had finally ended, with more than 9 million military casualties. Soon the last of the veterans who participated in that war also will have passed into history.
Editor’s note: Of the 2 million American soldiers who served during World War I, only one is still alive — Frank Buckles, a 107-year-old Missourian. The World-Herald this week is running opinion essays written exclusively at the newspaper’s request to explain the far-reaching effects of that conflict. This Veterans Day marks the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the cataclysm once called “the war to end all wars.”
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai once said it was too early to comment on the impact of the French Revolution. That also may be true for the First World War. But some consequences of that struggle are now indisputable and are still with us — not least the British creation of an artificial country, after the war, called Iraq.
First, the war brought the United States out of its self-imposed international isolation.
While it lapsed again into that stance in the 1920s, since the 1930s America has been one of the great powers, active in shaping and responding to international developments. We entered the Great War a debtor nation; we left it as the great creditor. We entered the war an unproven military and naval power; at war’s end, we were a power to be acknowledged. We entered the war with naive presidential leadership; we left the peace process with a president far more battered and experienced than he and the nation expected.
Second, the war destroyed the European balance of power. Gone was the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg monarchy stretching across Central Europe. Gone was the German Empire but not German territorial integrity. Gone was the Czarist Russian Empire, replaced by a far more dangerous communist Russia. And gone was the Ottoman Empire, leaving in its wake the problems of Palestine, Iraq and Jordan and the myriad problems of the Middle East.
The current political problems in the Balkans and in the Middle East all have their start in the outcomes of the First World War.
Third, that war buttressed European and Japanese imperialism, thus giving the lie to Woodrow Wilson’s talk of self-determination and a new era with the League of Nations.
Instead, the seeds were laid for Japanese aggression against China in 1931 and 1937 and the later start of the Second World War, as well as the wars in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Fourth, the war, like all wars, accelerated the technology of war and made the killing still more efficient. Air power, the stalking power of the unseen submarine, poison gas, the flamethrower and then the tank helped to transform the nature of warfare.
Still more ominously, at least in the German-occupied areas of Belgium and Eastern Europe, repressive practices against civilians would forecast the still more brutal and thoroughly horrible treatment of civilians and especially Jews in the next war. Nor could one ignore Turkish treatment of the Armenians.
Fifth, the continuation of the war for more than four years, with its horrendous losses (20,000 British dead in one day— July 1, 1916 — alone), led to twisted moralisms and pious justifications for the losses.
The war to end all wars also became the war that had to be continued to justify the losses of those already dead. Or, put another way, those who had died deserved to have more die because they had earlier died. That often-repeated rationale for war, alas, is now once more current in the U.S. debates about Iraq.
Finally, the war began with lofty aspirations. It would be a quick affair, and the troops would be home by Christmas; the balance of power soon would be restored.
But soon territorial ambitions by the warring parties, or more modest ambitions initially for the Belgians and the French who simply wanted the Germans gone, led to expectations of great plunder at the expense of the Germans, the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans and even later the Russians.
To be sure, Wilson talked of the League of Nations and a peaceful future. But America’s associated allies were far more practical-minded and greedy. This would in turn lead to substantial public disillusionment about the war and feed the wellsprings of appeasement in such people as Charles Lindbergh, Robert Taft and Neville Chamberlain and his British cohorts.
Seen from the perspective of now nearly 94 years, the First World War remains the seminal event of the 20th century, a war whose grim legacies continue to influence world and American politics.
Almost certainly, a century from now, the same kind of comments will be made about America’s current ill-advised attempt to replace the British in Iraq. The ramifications from wars, as Zhou Enlai suggested, always continue and continue.
The war to end all wars also became the war that had to be continued to justify the losses of those already dead.