On November 11, 1918, the world finally had enough of the irrational killing spree known as World War I. Fifteen million individual human beings had perished in what was the largest military conflict the world had yet seen. Armistice Day, marking the end of the war, was declared a holiday by the Allied nations. Some countries still observe it every November 11.
Although the day was memorialized by governments whose integrity in the whole matter we can question, there is no doubt that there was much to celebrate in the end of hostilities. World War I convinced much of the world of the insanity of war.
Thanks mostly to mutual defense treaties among nations that had no real reason to fight each other, what started out as a royal family feud and regional squabble exploded into a global bloodbath. Serbia was joined by Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Romania, Italy, Russia, Portugal, Montenegro, Japan, Brazil and, eventually, the United States, to fight Austria-Hungary’s alliance, which included Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. This madness was triggered when a Bosnian Serb secessionist, sponsored by members of the Serbian military, assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. One act of violence—over one localized territorial dispute—resulted in the loss of lives, property and liberty of tens of millions of human beings.
It was a complete diplomatic disaster on numerous fronts. Pat Buchanan summed it up well in his book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War (2008):
Had the Austrians not sought to exploit the assassination of Ferdinand to crush Serbia, they would have taken Serbia’s acceptance of nine of their ten demands as vindication. Had Czar Nicholas II been more forceful in rescinding his order for full mobilization, Germany would not have mobilized, and the Schlieffen Plan would not have begun automatically to unfold. Had the Kaiser and [Chancellor Theobald von] Bethmann realized the gravity of the crisis, just days earlier, they might have seized on [Sir Edward] Grey’s proposal to reconvene the six-power conference that resolved the 1913 Balkan crisis.
And the governments of other major belligerents—Russia, Britain, and the United States—were also too willing to go to war.
The mass death of the was barbaric, on an unspeakable scale and amounted to nothing good. In one day at the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered more losses than any other day in the history of the empire. Practically all sides stooped to committing atrocities. Particularly savage was Britain’s starvation blockade against Germany that consumed between 600,000 and 800,000 lives, according to most estimates.
At the Battle of Verdun, the insanity of war was most apparent. From February to July in 1916, Germans and Frenchmen slaughtered each other relentlessly because their governments told them to. Germany “won” after losing 330,000 soldiers to France’s 350,000. It was all over a worthless piece of land, which, by the end of the battle, was littered with corpses and with about 1,000 rifle shells per square meter. Neither side gained any true strategic victory from the battle.
And on November 11, 1918, the world had finally had enough on this insanity. About ten million soldiers and millions more civilians were dead. The war left behind about nineteen million refugees and nine million orphans. In recognition of the horrible war and the glorious peace, November 11 would be known internationally as Armistice Day, a day for remembering the veterans and war dead from around the world, a day to reflect on the moment that the killing ended and the two sides called a truce.
The United States had lost 116,700 men to the war, just in terms of military deaths. Many returning soldiers brought back the Spanish flu that took many thousands more lives in 1918 and 1919. During the war, America lost priceless economic and civil liberties that were never fully restored.
Americans, by and large, didn’t want to enter the war in the first place, and Woodrow Wilson had won in 1916 on a campaign slogan that he “kept us out of war.” More than twenty years after World War I, Americans reelected Franklin Roosevelt for his third term after he promised not to send Americans to die in another global conflict.
The disastrous effects of World War I had continued, however, and US entry had prolonged the conflict, most likely making the outcome worse. The property destruction eventually translated into global depression. The brutal treatment of Germany under the egregiously unfair Versailles Treaty and German suffering under crushing sanctions and debt made the country ripe for the rise of Adolph Hitler. The war had decimated the Russian monarchical structure and had given Lenin what he needed to establish communism. The damage to internationalism and globalism would not be undone for at least several decades, and in the meantime, international distrust and broken friendships allowed for hostilities to build up, from Europe to Asia, until the boiling point eventually came.
As totalitarianism of different strains began to take root throughout Europe, Americans looked across the sea and saw the failures of foreign intervention. The Great War hadn’t made the world safe for democracy. Anti-war scholarship became mainstream in a way that has never again been repeated.
As war in Europe once again broke out, most Americans wanted nothing to do with it until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. World War II was even far worse than its antecedent. After that, the United States would never revert to a peaceful state for longer than a few years.
At the end of the Korean War, President Eisenhower signed a bill in 1954 that changed the name of the national holiday to Veteran’s Day. Perhaps it made no sense any more to honor an Armistice that had been overshadowed by World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. Whereas after World War I, the United States brought its armed forces home, the war against Communism guaranteed that the United States would henceforth have little interest in armistice, in truce, in peace.
And our country’s been at war ever since, with more and more veterans to observe every November.
* The way I had this originally written came off to some readers as placing more blame on Serbia than was deserved. This was not my intention, but I am guilty of welcoming this interpretation. I have attempted to clarify my position on this, mostly with the quote by Buchanan.