Veteran’s Day: Woodrow Wilson, the Doughboys and the Great War

Veteran’s Day: Woodrow Wilson, the Doughboys and the Great War

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It is unlikely that a majority of young people can fully grasp that 100 years ago the world was held hostage to one of the worst global conflicts in human history.

SAN JOSE, November 11, 2015 — As Americans remember Veteran’s Day this Wednesday and celebrate the day in whatever way they may, the origins of the day help put it into a more proper perspective. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a majority of young people can fully grasp that 100 years ago the world was held hostage to one of the worst global conflicts in human history. More clearly, it must be hard for many people in America to completely comprehend the reality that a global conflagration scarred so many nations, and left 30 million people dead.

Today, while there are any number of intellectuals who would continue to decry the horrors of war, contending there is no real value in war, who push for peace at all costs in order to avoid the carnage of conflict, such efforts remain an intellectual exercise. It must be remembered that over 100 years ago an intellectual was President of the United States, and he was quite determined to keep the U.S. military out of the Great War. Yet, Woodrow Wilson was forced to let go of his platitudes of peace, and committed the nation to war.

Despite Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign in 1916 reminding Americans that he kept us out of the European war, by the spring of 1917, he was requesting that Congress declare war, which meant he would send America’s sons to fight on foreign soil. It also must be remembered that it was Wilson, after peace was established, who manifested Armistice Day as a holiday to honor the service of those American Doughboys who fought in France in the Great War.

Ironically, President Woodrow Wilson’s request to Congress in April of 1917 signaled a reversal of his personal and political positions of promoting global peace at all costs. When war broke out in Europe, Wilson had quickly issued a proclamation of American neutrality on August 4, 1914. He campaigned on his stance when he ran for re-election in 1916. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.  However, his action to have Congress declare war, essentially represented personal political suicide because of such a drastic reversal.

While there are still differences of opinion as to why Wilson reversed his political and philosophical stance on peace, it can be viewed from the simple perspective that Commander-in-Chief Wilson eventually realized that he was sworn to protect and defend the Constitution and the people of the United States. He admitted that the decision was not easily made, but based on what he would claim as: “unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty…” Nevertheless, despite managing to put aside his personal beliefs and idealism, and ultimately requesting Congress to declare war, President Wilson had hesitated quite a bit as seen through historical events.

Initially, Americans could not comprehend why the U.S. would get involved in the Great War. On the surface, the conflict appeared to be an entirely European problem and not a U.S. concern, and the majority of the populace seemed to believe it was best to stay out of the fray. U.S. businesses traded with most European nations at the time, and it was definitely difficult for people to simply choose sides in the complex web of political entanglements.

With the onslaught of increased German brutality when over 120 Americans and 1500 people overall died in the extremely controversial torpedoing of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania in May of 1915, the country began to waiver in their support of President Wilson’s efforts to remain neutral. After his campaign for re-election in 1916, the voters let him keep his job. However, from November of 1916 to February of 1917, three major events converged to turn the world upside down, and forced Wilson to abandon his ideals as well as U.S. neutrality.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, the U.S. had demanded and received assurances that Kaiser Wilhelm’s government would cease such indiscriminant destruction of life and property with its formidable fleet of U-boats.  Despite the agreement, Germany’s military strategy reversed their promises when they announced on January 31st, 1917 that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1st. They declared that without reservation their U-boats would sink any enemy vessel within shooting distance of the war zone waters.

Additionally, in an effort to curtail the stream of supplies the United States was continually shipping to England and France, the Kaiser’s government planned to distract the U.S. by bringing the Great War to the Western Hemisphere. On February 24, 1917, British Intelligence turned over to President Wilson what is now known as the Zimmerman telegram. It contained a clandestine plan designed to entice the Mexican government to join with the Central Powers in attacking the U.S. This signaled to Wilson that the German military would stop at nothing to secure victory.

Ultimately on March 18th, when German submarines sank three more U.S. cargo ships without warning (a substantial demonstration of the renewed German policy), prominent Americans joined former President Teddy Roosevelt in demanding a declaration of war. Wilson felt he was out of options. Two days later, Wilson requested a special joint session of Congress to meet on April 2, 1917. All of these events ultimately conspired to erode Wilson’s hopes of keeping the U.S. out of the war, and in the joint session of Congress, he requested a declaration of war on Germany.

In Wilson’s speech to Congress on April 2nd, he envisioned the U.S. as a champion against the brutal aggression, and explained that his goal of neutrality was “no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved or the freedom of its peoples.” The president poignantly declared that the “world must be safe for democracy…” Wilson placed blame for such danger to democracy and to humanity squarely upon the autocratic government of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and he exonerated the German people, and stressed that he viewed the people as pawns who had no voice in the decisions of their rulers regarding the war.  He concluded by articulating the core of his beliefs:

“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 precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which 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 for the world itself at last free.”

This was the same Woodrow Wilson who only months before was determined that the U.S. should not enter the war. Yet, Wilson, as leader of the only nation that could stop the establishment of tyranny in Europe, had to sincerely wrestle with his concerns, and curb his idealism before he decided to declare war. Ironically, all of Wilson’s strenuous efforts to create peace had not worked. The Kaiser’s military was actually trying to win the war! What worked to bring the German government to the peace table was sending in the American Doughboys.

The influx of American soldiers into the ranks of the English and French troops in mid-1917, signaled the German government that they needed to push more strongly for victory, before more Americans were trained and deployed. General John J. Pershing, the commander of the U.S. Expeditionary Force in France, managed to get more troops across the Atlantic, and eventually took command of the American First Army on August 30, 1918. It was the tenacity of the majority of the 225,000 American troops in this armed force that commenced the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 12th that quickly broke through the formidable Hindenberg Line. Once this occurred in early October, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg knew the German cause was doomed.

By mid-October, top officials in the German government had decided to accept Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” as the basis for peace. Thus, a truce was determined to occur on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of November: Armistice Day. The Doughboys’ actions had indeed made a significant difference where words once fell upon deaf ears. Obviously, it was the combined Allied effort that ultimately forced the German generals to accept a truce, but the American troops tipped the scales of a stalemate that had existed for four long years. It took the Doughboys to demonstrate to the German generals that they had underestimated America.

One year after the Armistice, a grateful President Wilson honored the Doughboys by declaring Armistice Day a national holiday. It was deemed a day to honor those veterans who fought to make the world safe for democracy. It is also the reason today that Americans should honor the veterans – those men and women who have been willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their country, for the sake of freedom. It is still quite important to appreciate the value of the service of America’s men and women in uniform.

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