- Historic Sites
Seventy-five years after the guns fell silent along the Western Front, the work they did there remains of incalculable importance to the age we inhabit and the people we are
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
For a long time Americans believed that the destiny of their country was to differ from the Old World. Beginning in the 1890s, and culminating in 1918, this fundamental creed changed subtly. Many Americans were now inclined to believe that it was the destiny of the United States to provide a model for the Old World. For a while these two essentially contradictory beliefs resided together in many American minds. In 1918 the second belief had temporarily overcome the first. This was the result of a revolution of American attitudes that—on the popular, rather than on the political, level—still awaits a profound treatment by a masterful historian. In 1914 not one American in a thousand thought that the United States would, or should, intervene in the great European war. In less than three years that changed. By 1917 most Americans were willing—and many were eager—to go Over There, to decide and win a war through the employment of American muscle, American practices, American ideas.
After that the tide of American confidence rose, and in November 1918 came the moment of victory. All over the world, but especially in Europe, admiration and gratitude and hope in the United States were suddenly at their zenith—a powerful ray of a faraway sunbeam breaking through those grayest of leaden skies in November 1918. Unlike after 1945, there was no trace of radical, or intellectual, anti-Americanism. The youngest and one of the most promising and most avant-garde of French writers, Raymond Radiguet, wrote about a romantic rendezvous in the spring of 1917 in “an American Bar in the rue Daunou.” His lover “went into ecstasies, like a schoolgirl, over the barman’s white jacket, the grace with which he shook the silver goblets and the poetic and bizarre names of the concoctions.” An old goateed French academician, Henri Lavedan, wrote about President Wilson, “He will remain one of the legends of history … he will appear in the poetry of coming ages, like that Dante whom he resembles in profile.” Lavedan needed better glasses than his pince-nez, but that is beside the point. “Future generations will see him guiding through the dangers of the infernal world that white-robed Beatrice whom we call Peace. …” Whether Dante or Beatrice, when Woodrow Wilson landed in France, little girls in white frocks threw rose petals from baskets at his large feet. Harold Nicolson, then a young British diplomat and budding aesthete, had the highest hopes for Wilson and his new ideas—although they would vanish soon. The hope that Wilson and the United States would dominate and design the coming settlement of peace, with principles vastly superior to the petty and vengeful practices of European statesmanship in the past, existed not only in France and Britain but also in Germany, Austria, Hungary. In Vienna and Budapest governments and peoples welcomed the presence of American officers, members of the Allied military missions, some of whom were to distinguish themselves by their impartiality and humaneness. A great Hungarian writer, Gyula Krúdy, found it remarkable how the hapless and ephemeral president of the new Hungarian Republic, Count Károlyi, kept pronouncing—oddly—Wilson’s name to his anxious entourage, again and again: “Uilson! Uilson! ” Of all the foreign officers, the Americans were the smartest, in their well-cut uniforms, with their Sam Browne belts and superb boots. In France a war-worn, tired population had thronged the streets when the first American troops, fresh, grinning, confident, arrived in their villages and towns. They looked modern. They were modern—a wondrous adjective then, though it has lost much of its shine since.
Soon the high tide of enthusiasm receded—and the neap tide of disillusion came in: disillusion with Wilson abroad, disillusion among Americans themselves. The reaction to the war, to peacemaking, to Wilsonianism has been recorded often since. Even about 1918 some questions remain. Was the American intervention decisive? Yes, but the British and the French armies, weary and torn as they were, had halted the great German spring offensive by June 1918, before the mass of the Americans moved up to combat. The training and the transporting and the provisioning and the disposition of the American army had taken very long—almost too long. They did not go into battle until about fifteen months after the American declaration of war. It is arguable that their first great battle in Belleau Wood may have been a mistake, costing too many American lives, misestimating its tactical value. General Pershing had virtues, but he was not a great general, occasionally hardly better than some of his British colleagues, whose generalship was often famously poor. Still—the freshness and the courage of the American soldier in 1918 remain unarguable.