Reflections on Veterans Day

By Carl M. Cannon | It’s Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. The First World War ended on this date when a cease-fire was forged between the Allies and Germany, taking effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. The following year, Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day) was observed in Great Britain, France, and the United States.

“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,” said President Woodrow Wilson.

In time, the name of the commemoration was changed to Veterans Day, an alteration necessitated by the simple fact that “the war to end war” had done no such thing.

Woodrow Wilson is remembered today for his arduous and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to get the United States to join a new League of Nations. The organization was a forerunner to the United Nations and its failure to gain traction was a harbinger of the coming of World War II.

In Wilson’s time, the first great world conflict wasn’t punctuated with a Roman numeral. World War I was known simply as “The Great War.” But the failure of the major nations to agree on an ongoing international framework, coupled with the punitive postwar conditions imposed on Germany by the Allies at Versailles, undermined the armistice and led to even more unimaginable horror.

“After the ‘war to end war,’” British Gen. Archibald Wavell noted with foreboding, “they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making the ‘peace to end peace.’”

There’s that phrase again. It’s associated with Wilson (and usually rendered as “the war to end all wars”) but the words are not his. Both phrases are slight corruptions of the title of a 1914 book by British writer H.G. Wells, “The War That Will End War.” Wilson did express this sentiment, telling Congress that he hoped the gruesome conflict Americans were about to enter would be “the final war.” And in his April 2, 1917 speech to a joint session of Congress, Wilson voiced a rationale expressed by many U.S. presidents since that time. “The world,” he said, “must be made safe for democracy.”

Wilson added another idea, one also emphasized by American military men through the decades: The United States wasn’t trying to subjugate other peoples. It certainly wasn’t after land for itself. “We have no selfish ends to serve,” he said. “We desire no conquest, no dominion.”

Other nations do not always believe this and some pampered elites in this country scoff at the very principle of military service. But American combat veterans and Wilson’s successor commanders-in-chief point to the U.S. military cemeteries in Europe to substantiate the point.

Colin Powell made it in 2003 and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Clark did so in 1950. Clark had returned to Italy, five years after World War II was won. It was Memorial Day, as it happened, and Clark was there with his wife.

“We visited the American cemetery at Anzio and saw the curving rows of white crosses that spoke so eloquently of the price that America and her Allies had paid for the liberation of Italy,” he wrote. “If ever proof was needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest, it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: All we asked of Italy was enough of her soil to bury our gallant dead.” 

Carl M. Cannon is Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics.

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