Armistice Day + 100: 'I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality'
More kismet with Jill Lepore. I'm up to WWI in her book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” and read the following this morning—on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I:
The scale of death in the American Civil War, so staggering at the time—750,000 dead, in four years of fighting—looked, by comparison, minuscule. Within the first eight weeks of the war alone, nearly 400,000 Germans were killed, wounded, sick, or missing. In 1916, over a matter of mere months, there were 800,000 military casualties in Verdun and 1.1 million at the Somme. But civilians were slaughtered, too. The Ottoman government massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians. For the first time, war was waged by airplane, bombs dropped from a great height, as if by the gods themselves. Cathedrals were shelled, libraries bombed, hospitals blasted. Before the war was over, nearly 40 million people had been killed and another 20 million wounded. What sane person could believe in progress in an age of mass slaughter?
U.S. involvement by way of the Zimmerman telegram—a German promise to Mexico that it would regain the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it fought us—also led to our first federal propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information, which was “headed by a baby-faced, forty-one-year-old muckraker from Missouri named George Creel, best-known for an exposé on child labor called Children in Bondage. Creel applied the methods of Progressive Era muckraking to the work of whipping up a frenzy for fighting.”
Lepore reminds us of the backlash against civil rights during the era. After Congress passed the 1918 Sedition Act, the Justice Department charged more than 2,000 Americans with that crime—particularly socialists. The leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Bill Haywood, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Former presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 for delivering a speech, Lepore writes, in which he'd told his listeners that they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”
As for now? Yesterday, our current president traveled to France to participate in 100th anniversary ceremonies to honor the war dead; but then he decided not to. The White House said bad weather was the reason but didn't extrapolate, leaving everyone guessing. From the Washington Post: “The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the military.” Today, other world leaders rebuked Trump's nationalism. Pres. Macron: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying, ‘our interest first, who cares about the others?’”
Which brings us back to “These Truths.” Wilson's 1916 re-election campaign slogan was, of course, “He kept us out of war,” which Teddy Roosevelt, still fomenting, called an “ignoble shirking of responsibility.” Wilson's repsonse: “I am an American, but I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality.”
I'll let Paul Simon take us out.