SAN JOSE, November 11, 2014—Younger Americans, and especially those under the age of 70, may find it hard to comprehend a world that had not been previously marred by secret national alliances, or scarred by widespread global conflict of conspiring empires striving for control over vast areas of land or entire populations of humanity. For most who have not ripened to such an age, it is only an intellectual exercise, or something that can be imagined with the help of Hollywood.
Yet, it is possible, for those paying attention, to see the recent maneuvering of Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, and not really comprehend it for what it is in reality. But for what it is worth, consider that 100 years ago today, Europe went dark and entered into one of the worst wars in human history. By November of 1914, the alliances were revealed, the sides were chosen, and serious fighting had commenced.
The Great War raged on for years before the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, was physically drawn into the war and sent troops to Europe in 1917. After a little more than a year involved in this “war to end all war,” a true cease-fire was arranged, which was established with the German officials based upon Woodrow Wilson’s proposals for peace outlined in his famous “Fourteen Points.” This established the Armistice as it enabled an end to the fighting, and eventually to the peace established via the Treaty of Versailles. Ultimately in 1919, after calm was restored, a grateful President Wilson linked the U.S. celebration of Armistice Day with the American servicemen who went to Europe to accomplish a greater good. Actually, Woodrow Wilson broadened the purpose of the United States entrance into the war when he explained that the action was to help “keep the world safe for democracy.”
When the war in Europe erupted in the summer of in 1914, Woodrow Wilson was determined to keep the United States neutral and out of the conflict. In August, Wilson announced the U.S. would remain neutral. While Americans reviewed in awe the horrors of war as Europe exploded, most did not believe it concerned the United States. For most Americans, it was best to stay out of what seemed like a strictly European affair, and did not collectively comprehend how it affected the U.S. However, the government had concerns about our major allies and that is why the U.S. provided assistance to certain nations considered to be friends, but with the sinking of the British ocean liner, the Lusitania, and the loss of American lives, the nation slowly began to reconsider the options. However, humanity to that point had not witnessed such unprecedented destruction.
The Kaiser’s government had sunk several U.S. merchant ships as the war began, and even after the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania, and the loss of hundreds of American lives, citizens in the United States began to reconsider how seriously the events in Europe affected this nation adversely. President Wilson had been firm during the presidential election of 1916 against entering the war, and his campaign reminded voters that he “kept us out of war.” However, but from November of 1916 to January of 1917, the world changed. The Zimmerman telegram, intercepted by British Intelligence, exposed the Kaiser’s government in enticing the Mexican government in a plot to turn their country against the U.S. and join with the Central Powers in the Great War. This action would have essentially brought the war in Europe to the U.S. doorstep.
Wilson wrestled with the dilemma of talking peace and realizing he had to ask Congress to declare war against Germany. Finally, on April 2, 1917, Wilson took action to ask Congress to declare war when he eventually shared the contents of the Zimmerman telegram with the members of Congress. Fortunately, despite his determination to keep the U.S. removed from war, Wilson honored his pledge to the U.S. Constitution to protect and defend the American citizens and the nation. Actually, when he proclaimed that the American effort in the Great War was to help “keep the world safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson broadened the purpose of the United States entrance into the war. In fact, without U.S. soldiers being deployed in response to the call for aid from our European allies, the world would have developed much differently with despots possibly taking absolute control of Europe.
From a broader historical perspective, the involvement of the United States in the Great War played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war as well as the course of democratic states from that time forward. One part of the proclamation to officially recognize Armistice Day put things in perspective: “Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed…” The U.S. participation in the Great War certainly placed the American soldiers who went off to fight across the ocean in a much different light. And when the Armistice was arranged, it meant that those troops could come back home, and for the most part, they came back home to a grateful America.
When President Wilson initially proclaimed Armistice Day on November 11, 1919, he said:
“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, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”
Sadly, since this first great global conflict, American men and women have been called to action again and again to help the democratic world fight back the attempts of despots and tyrants of one form or another to take or maintain control of various populations. Despite sentiment from some quarters of this country, the U.S. military is what may keep such forces in check. In reality, our nations’ ideals are those that may most practically demonstrate the greatest concern of all nations when it comes to the preservation of freedom for the world’s peoples.
Once long ago, years after the American Revolution, several people had been quoted as saying that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Although being attributed to a number of worthy statesmen, such men were probably simply quoting someone else. However, it was the Irish orator John Curran who is credited with the first known statement of such sentiment when, in 1790, he stated: “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
Given this condition, the most vigilant of the vigil keepers are the ones in uniform. It is they who offer themselves in the breach between liberty and tyranny. This is a serious and significant part of the struggle that America is challenged with as the freedom of humanity is endangered. And ultimately, it is the vigil keepers who are called upon to offer the greatest of all sacrifices for the sake of the higher ideals of human freedom.
Armistice Day was renamed as Veteran’s Day by President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress in 1954. Although the name was changed, the focus was still upon the right sentiment – the honoring of the vigil keepers – the nation’s veterans. The least the nation can offer in return is genuine gratitude toward the men and women who put their lives on the line to maintain the vigil. May God bless our men and women in uniform on this Veteran’s Day.