Each year, Veterans Day presents a lot to think about. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 100 years ago in November 1918, the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front. America saved the free world’s bacon, however reluctantly and temporarily.
World War I, of course, was started by others over nothing in 1914. As an Anglo nation with many citizens of German heritage, America declared neutrality quickly. In practical terms, however, neutrality couldn’t really work … British naval blockades of German ports ensured “neutral” America could supply only one side.
By 1916, all belligerents were bled white, fiscally, materially, and in manpower, with Britain, France and Russia dependent on arms from (and hopelessly in debt to) “neutral” America. All sides knew that when, not if, America joined the fight alongside France and Britain, Germany would lose.
So, America declared war on April 2, 1917. But the Germans had stomped the Russians in the east, with the Tsar abdicating in favor of Alexander Kerensky’s democratic socialist government weeks earlier. If the Germans could shift their forces in Russia to fight in Western Europe, maybe they could win before American forces could be mobilized.
What to do? Well, in less than two weeks, German operatives packed Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik cronies on a secret train out of Swiss exile back to St. Petersburg, hoping he could mess stuff up. Lenin came through, seizing power in October and giving the Germans a peace treaty on March 3, 1918, which enabled Germany to launch one final offensive in France on March 21.
The offensive failed, after which a million fresh Americans finally started rolling back the exhausted Germans. The German government collapsed and the war ended. But this cheap German gambit spawned a new global scourge, Communist totalitarianism.
The Americans, of course, went home, leaving a new Europe to sort itself out. Out of three collapsed old empires sorted many new nations. Out of the economic wreckage of reparations-crippled Weimar Germany sorted Hitler. Out of the plans and purges sorted Stalin’s Soviet Union. And out in the Pacific, borrowing from European colonialist practices, the Japanese began sorting their own empire.
Again, America started “neutral.” Too quickly, only Britain still held out against the Nazis in Europe. Then Hitler turned against the Soviet Union the Kaiser had helped spawn. Even then, only Japan’s attack, intended to “win” and preempt American mobilization, catalyzed actual American mobilization.
Might the Soviets and Nazis have bled one another dry absent American participation? After all, U.S. forces didn’t land in North Africa until the Battle of Stalingrad had been raging for two months in 1942. It’s possible, but far more likely a victorious Red Army, after fighting Hitler’s Wehrmacht alone, would not have stopped marching west at the Elbe, perhaps not even at the English Channel.
So, for a second time, on at least part of the map, America’s military presence overseas, backed by industrial might at home, tipped the scales against totalitarian outcomes.
Then of course came the Cold War, where the Kaiser’s Communist beast subjugated those nations already crushed by Hitler’s evil. Could America go home now? No, liberated nations needed to be put back on the road to prosperous self-governance as soon as possible, and that wasn’t going to happen without Marshall Plan rebuilding aid and occupation forces to protect civil institutions.
Things turned out pretty well in Western Europe, didn’t they? Even in the Pacific, those nations under postwar United States responsibility such as Japan and South Korea are First World industrial democracies.
Now, we have the Middle East, a region with problems at least partly rooted in World War I and the Ottoman Empire’s postwar collapse 100 years ago. Nations were created by treaty with no regard for actual ethnic or cultural conditions, with multiple wars fought, with no real, durable winners.
Once again, brave Americans, military and civilian, find themselves taking up a fight they didn’t start, but otherwise can’t ever be won. That this nation can send such citizens into the global arena for 100 years, and keeps doing so, leaves me humbled.