Tomorrow we commemorate Veterans Day, a time to honor and express gratitude to all those who have served our country in the armed services. The day originally was called Armistice Day, but in 1954 Congress wisely decided to rename it Veterans Day. I say “wisely” inasmuch as the former name merely denoted the cessation of hostilities at the conclusion of the First World War, formerly referred to as “The Great War,” rather than having been the onset of a new era of peace.
For Europe, the War had lasted almost four-and-a-half years, and for the United States over 17 months. Finally, after all the bloodshed, hostilities ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The event was not the signing of a peace treaty, but rather merely an agreement for the cessation of combat. As one of the most abject abuses of history, the ensuing years did not make the “world safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson’s term, but instead gave birth to the series of brutalities that characterized much of the 20th century.
Because of the War, the Russian Empire collapsed, and on November 7, 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had come to power in Petrograd, beginning the long siege of communism that proceeded to exterminate millions of human lives. Among the Western reactions to the triumph of Bolshevism was the coming of age of National Socialism in Germany, following the harsh terms of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Alongside the new tyranny of Naziism that rose and ultimately took power in Germany, with Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933, came the rise of Mussolini and the Fascists in 1922 in Italy.
At Paris, in the negotiations among the great powers to build a new Europe, Wilson and his colleagues sealed the fates of many nations. The president took along with him to Paris two eminently distinguished American historians to advise on the settlement, Charles Homer Haskins, an authority on Western European medieval history, and Robert Howard Lord, whose field was Eastern Europe. In his idealistic view, Wilson thought that a permanent peace was possible, but the results proved otherwise. Robert Lord, for his part, became disillusioned with the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference to the point of resigning from Harvard University, converting to Catholicism, and becoming a parish priest in Massachusetts.
The so-called “Armistice” led to no true “peace in our time,” and a century of brutality followed. Within our family the War took its own toll, as one of my father’s first cousins was killed in Belgium in 1917. Visiting his grave one day is on my bucket list of planned projects. My father had expected to enlist in the army, then he was drafted and instructed to report at 3 p.m. on November 11, 1918. That morning he said goodbye to his parents and arrived at the point of induction at noon to be shipped out to Alabama for basic training.
While waiting to leave, the news of the Armistice came across the wires, and he and that day’s other recruits were dismissed and told to return home, thus by three hours he missed becoming a veteran. For the many millions of men and women who have served our nation in military, naval and air service over the course of the last two-and-a-half centuries, tomorrow is a special day to express our appreciation for their having done their part to keep us strong and free.
They each deserve our respect for their having followed the example of the Roman patrician farmer, Cincinnatus, in laying down their plowshares to take up arms in defense of their fellow citizens. To all who have served, abundant thanks and Godspeed.