World War I ended a hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For years, November 11 was known as Armistice Day. Later, as the war passed into history, it was renamed “Veterans Day.”
I mean no disrespect to our veterans; World War I veterans were the founders of the American Legion. This Sunday, however, marks the centennial of the end of a war many Americans have forgotten. It deserves to be Armistice Day one more time.
Immediately after the war, Americans erected monuments in state capitals, cities and town squares.
Simultaneously, however, the nation was coping with the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. Ironically, the disease was fast-spreading as U.S. soldiers and sailors were grouped in camps and on trains. In such close quarters, one sick person could infect hundreds.
In October 1918 (at the pandemic’s height), 100,000 Americans died from the disease. Total U.S. deaths were 675,000. By contrast, American war fatalities were 116,516, many of them due to the pandemic, not combat.
By 1919 and into the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans were preoccupied with putting their lives and families back together, as the disease killed many children, adults aged 20–40, as well as the elderly. War commemorations were left to others.
In Kansas City, Missouri, a grand monument was erected, then fell into decay. But the rejuvenated monument became the foundation of the official National World War I Museum.
As the National Mall in D.C. is filled with museums, Kansas City may seem an odd choice. But as it was the gathering point for enlistees from west of the Mississippi, the location has historical significance. I have visited the museum and it explains the entire history of the war, not just America’s participation. Most importantly, it presents that complex history in an intelligent way that non-historians can understand.
America’s entrance into the war in 1917 was late; the war had begun in 1914. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won reelection with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” The unspoken reality was America was sending supplies to the Allies under the guise of neutrality.
The Germans military was aware of this. They increased their submarine fleet (100 U-Boats in 1917), with the goal of sinking American supply ships, thereby starving Britain of resources. Their end game was to push an enfeebled Britain (its young men dead, its citizens hungry) to surrender.
What changed President Wilson’s mind in 1917?
It was the discovery of the January 1917 “Zimmerman Telegram” (written by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman).
What grabbed Wilson’s attention was Germany’s promise if Mexico joined the German alliance (assuming a German victory), the Mexican nation would expand to include Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It also promised “generous financial support” to Mexico. Lastly, it authorized unrestricted submarine warfare against U.S.flagshipss.
Wilson was galvanized by the news, as only a year before, 500 armed Mexicans (under the leadership of Pancho Villa) crossed the U.S. border at Columbus, New Mexico, and looted the town. Wilson put troops under General John J. Pershing’s command (2nd Lieutenant George Patton was his personal aide) to end the unrest.
As the only way to get to Villa’s men was through the Mexican desert, Patton used three Dodge touring cars to overtake a Villa command center — giving Pershing the reputation of a ‘bandit killer’. This success led to the Army’s increased use of motorized vehicles (instead of horses or mules) — an important lesson for combat in World War I.
As Zimmerman Telegram details became public in early 1917, Americans began to shift from a noninterventionist stance to supporting U.S. military engagement. On April 2, 2017 (about six months after his reelection), President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
Wilson put General Pershing at the head of U.S. troops. Pershing faced a massive challenge: the regular/career Army was tiny, without modern armaments. He had to train hundreds of thousands of American men to become soldiers and do so in a short amount of time — while buying weaponry, too.
He was successful, and that success was a major factor in the Allies’ victory.
One very useful soldier was Harry S. Truman. His poor eyesight caused him to flunk the eye exam repeatedly until he memorized the chart!
Eventually, he was put in charge of Battery D in the artillery division. Remarkably, Battery D had no fatalities under Truman’s command. Further, Truman’s war experience was transformative as he discovered leadership qualities that had been unknown to him when he was a Missouri farmer.
America’s entrance into World War I in 1917 was so overwhelming it pushed the war’s end date forward.
U.S. troops were fresh, well-fed, fit and healthy. Allied and German troops were becoming physically weaker by the day. Poor rations and trench conditions coupled with high mortality rates wiped out a generation of young men in both Britain and on the Continent.
Nevertheless, victory was not easy. For example, on June 6, 1918, during the battle of Belleau Wood (east of Paris), U.S. Marines suffered more casualties on that day than on any other previous day in its history. The battle raged for 20 days and nights and was the bloodiest battle suffered by U.S. troops in the war, but the Marines won.
U.S. entry into World War I was a complex issue for many Americans.
We should never forget that many of those buried in our World War I military cemeteries may have supported nonintervention only a year or two before their deaths. When they learned America was threatened by the Germans, they did their duty as true patriots and made the ultimate sacrifice.
For all those sacrifices, for those who died in the war and the veterans who survived, in this centenary year, November 11 must be Armistice Day in our hearts and minds.
Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.