SAN JOSE, November 11, 2019 — Americans remember Veteran’s Day today and will celebrate the day in whatever way they decide. However, it usually helps to understand the origins of this day of remembrance in order to put it into a proper perspective. It is unlikely that a majority of young people could fully grasp that 100 years ago the world had just witnessed was one of the worst global conflicts in human history. It must be hard for many people in America to completely comprehend the reality of World War I.
It was global conflagration scarring so many nations. The war left 30 million people dead.
Today, there is any number of intellectuals who would continue to decry the horrors of war. They would contend there is no real value in war. There is any number of individuals who push for peace at all costs in order to avoid the carnage of conflict.
However, such perspectives remain intellectual exercises.
Americans should remember that over 100 years ago an intellectual was President of the United States. President Woodrow Wilson was quite determined to keep the U.S. military out of the Great War. Yet, Wilson was forced to let go of his platitudes of peace, committing the nation to war.
President Woodrow Wilson enters World War I
Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign in 1916 reminded Americans that he kept us out of the European war. But, by the spring of 1917, he was requesting that Congress have the nation enter the fray. This meant he would send America’s sons to fight upon foreign soil. Americans should also remember that it was Wilson, after peace was established, who manifested Armistice Day. He helped to create it as a day to honor the service of those American Doughboys who fought in France in the Great War.
For that intent, Wilson could be considered a decent president.
But, there is much more to the history.
Ironically, President Wilson’s request to Congress on April 2, 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 Declaration of American Neutrality on August 4, 1914. He campaigned on his stance when he ran for re-election in 1916.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-promoting efforts. However, his action to have Congress declare war essentially represented personal political suicide because of such a drastic reversal.
There are still differences of opinion as to why Wilson reversed his political and philosophical stance on peace.
Yet, it can be viewed from the simple perspective that Commander-in-Chief Wilson eventually realized his oath of office. He was sworn to protect and defend the United States’ Constitution and the people of the United States. Any POTUS is bound by such an oath.
Wilson 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…” And, he managed to put aside his personal beliefs and idealism. President Wilson ultimately requested Congress to declare war.
Nevertheless, he 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. The majority of the populace seemed to believe it was best to stay out of the fray. Additionally, U.S. businesses traded with most European nations at the time. It was difficult for people to simply choose sides in the complex web of political entanglements.
Yet, the onslaught of Kaiser Wilhem’s brutality on the high seas increased. Germany’s formidable fleet of U-boats was highly successful in the destruction of cargo ships and other supply vessels. Then, in May 1915, the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat torpedo.
Over 120 Americans were among 1500 people overall who were killed.
It became extremely controversial across the world – especially in the U.S. Americans had been attacked and blood had been spilled. Lives had been taken. Citizens began to waver in their support of President Wilson’s efforts to remain neutral. However,
In Wilson’s campaign for re-election in 1916, the voters allowed him to keep his job.
Nevertheless, from November of 1916 to February of 1917, three major events converged to turn the world upside down. These events forced Wilson to abandon his intellectual 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 indiscriminate destruction of life and property.
Despite the mutual agreement, Germany’s military strategy reversed their promises. They announced on January 31st, 1917, that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1st. One day’s notice! The German government declared that without reservation their U-boats would sink an enemy vessel within shooting distance of the war-zone waters.
Their military leaders had formulated a grand plan for victory.
The plan required the successful elimination of Russia as an enemy. The German military needed to be freed from
the Eastern Front. If they could be re-deployed across Europe to the Western Front, they would be able to overrun the Allied lines. Victory would be assured. So, German officials put one prisoner, under heavy guard, on a cargo train bound for Russia after the Russian Revolution began in March.
By October, that single prisoner overturns the nation to create the Union of Soviet Socialists’ Republic. That single prisoner being Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin.
Part of this plan required the assurance that the German military would not have to worry about the United States meddling in the war. Additionally, though a remote possibility, they did not want to worry about the United States entering the war. But, more in an effort to curtail the stream of supplies the United States was continually shipping to England and France, Germany planned to distract the U.S. The Kaiser’s government planned to bring the Great War to the Western Hemisphere.
The Zimmerman Telegram
On February 24, 1917, British Intelligence turned over to the United States, specifically 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. Yet, he hesitated.
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.
Wilson Declares 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.” President poignantly declaring 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. He exonerated the German people, and he stressed that the people were 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 great peaceful people into war,
Particularly into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars. Civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But being right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things which have always carried nearest our hearts:
The right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments
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, President Wilson was the leader of the only nation that could stop the establishment of tyranny in Europe. And, he truly had to wrestle with his personal and political concerns. Wilson was forced to channel his idealism into other pursuits before he decided to declare war.
Yet, all of Wilson’s strenuous efforts to create peace did not work. Kaiser’s military was actually trying to win the war.
American Doughboys – Bringing Peace to Germany
Ironically, what actually worked to bring the German government to the peace table was sending in the American Doughboys.
President Wilson negotiated the foundation, but the American troops shifted the stalemate in World War I. The Zimmerman telegram had backfired. The influx of American soldiers into the ranks of the English and French troops by mid-1917 signaled to the German government that they needed to intensify their strategy.
They attempted to push more strongly for victory. The German military had to disengage from the Eastern Front and move all the way across Europe to France. The American military needed to be trained and deployed as quickly as possible to Europe.
It was essentially a race to the Western Front.
General John J. Pershing, Commander American Fist Army World War I
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 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 had 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’s resolve.
Once long ago, years after the American Revolution, several people had been quoted as saying that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Given this condition, the most vigilant of the vigil keepers are the ones in uniform.
They are the ones 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. 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.
One year after the Armistice, a grateful President Wilson honored the Doughboys by declaring Armistice Day a national holiday. This day was renamed as Veteran’s Day by President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress in 1954. Although the name was changed, the focus was still right – 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.