By Ryan Reft
“Everything for which America has fought has been accomplished,” wrote President Woodrow Wilson on Nov. 11, 1918, in a statement addressed to his “fellow countrymen.” The United States, he opined, helped to bring World War I to conclusion through “sober friendly counsel and by material aid,” ultimately delivering “just democracy throughout the world.”
Wilson issued a separate statement to the press, invoking higher powers and noting that the “eyes of the people have been opened and they see. The hand of God is laid upon the nations.” National leaders able to deliver the “clear heights of [God’s] own justice and mercy,” he said, would find favor in the new political landscape, politically and metaphysically.
If the president proclaimed success with words of cautious optimism, those around him uttered more definitive pronouncements. Wilson advisor and sometimes confidante, Colonel Edward M. House, cabled the president asserting that “autocracy is dead. … Long live democracy and its immortal leader.”
Armistice, 100 years old today, ended much of the fighting associated with World War I, clearly a welcome development. However, as demonstrated by the Library of Congress exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I, the ceasefire and reactions to it touched those engaged in fighting the war in many different ways that continue to reverberate a century later.
Among the rank and file, relief from months at the front was palpable, even if balanced by some harsh realities. “Another day would have seen me taking very desperate measures with my life,” Lester B. Westcott of the 51st Pioneer Infantry wrote to his mother. “Well I suppose you are very much relieved now that I have scared the Kaiser out of Germany and I have come out of the mill without a scratch and have every reason to believe I will return O.K.”
For African-American personnel — between 350,000 and 400,000 served in the segregated military during the war — suspension of hostilities enabled many to enjoy their time abroad in France, where they found freedom from America’s Jim Crow strictures. The jubilation of the European public over the war’s conclusion, accompanied by jazz provided by American regimental bands, made passing the months after armistice one of revelry. “[A]ll Paris taken away with ‘Jazz-band’ and our style of dancing,” wrote Charles Hamilton Houston in a January 1919 diary entry. “Colored boys all the go.” Houston would go on to become dean of Howard Law School, an NAACP litigator and a civil rights activist.
Although few veterans would argue in front of the Supreme Court, as did Houston, many black soldiers carried back with them a new racial consciousness that they devoted to securing civil rights — despite encountering some of the worst racially motivated urban violence in American history during summer 1919.
Civil rights advances aside, the caution Lester B. Westcott expressed in his letter to his mother spoke volumes about the experience of war. More than 126,000 Americans lost their lives, along with tens of millions of Europeans, Asians and Africans. The Ottoman, Russian and Austria-Hungarian empires collapsed, while new nations, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, emerged. Independence movements in Asia and Africa deployed Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination to further their own break with colonialism.
But not everyone welcomed peace. George Patton, a lieutenant colonel and tank commander during the war, grew to appreciate the conflict on rare terms. “The more one sees of war, the better it is,” he wrote after arriving in Europe in 1917. “Of course there are a few deaths but … the party is worth the price of admission.”
The armistice filled him with “dismay” as he wrote in his poem “Peace” after the ceasefire’s announcement. Patton’s lyricism, or lack thereof, reveals his discomfort with peacetime realities:
When such times come, Oh! God of War
Grant that we pass midst strife
Knowing once more the whitehot joy
Of taking human life.
For the future general, World War II would deliver plenty of opportunity to indulge in the “whitehot joy” of warfare.
For Wilson, the armistice would prove to be his “greatest triumph and his greatest tragedy,” as historian John Milton Cooper Jr. points out. After all, once Wilson delivered his “Fourteen Points Speech” in January 1918 outlining his vision for peace in Europe, expectations ran high, and he became “for millions worldwide the icon” for a “just international society,” writes historian Erez Manela. Because of the speech’s discussion of self-determination, it resonated especially with peoples and nations under colonial rule. The speech was later embedded in the Versailles Treaty, which officially ended World War I.
Yet Wilson and the war are remembered more for what wasn’t accomplished. Europe and the world would engage violently again roughly two decades later with the Second World War. In the interim, the Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty because of political differences and isolationism within the U.S. The treaty established the League of Nations — which also had its origins in Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech — as a forum for international cooperation and peace. But the league never enjoyed U.S. membership and failed to achieve most of its goals.
Still, the Versailles Treaty echoed through the decades. The League of Nations might have failed, but its successor, the United Nations, today functions much like the league was meant to. And international law has only expanded — the World Trade Organization now provides structures for international commerce that promote open economic exchange between nations.
By the beginning of the 21st century, presidents such as George W. Bush sought to emulate Wilson’s foreign-policy ideas, particularly in regard to Wilson’s emphasis on “self-determination” among nations and peoples and his focus on America’s role in spreading democracy. Indeed, many observers described Bush’s policies as Wilsonian.
Looking back, for ill and for good, it all began with the armistice 100 years ago today.
For more World War I resources visit https://www.loc.gov/wwi/.
Ryan Reft is a historian in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.