- 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
The trouble was with their President, about whom his Postmaster General once wrote that Woodrow Wilson was “a man of high ideals but no principles.” That, too, is arguable, but then so many of his ideals were to be proved wrong—again, in both the short and the long runs. In the short run—that is, 1918 and 1919—during that extraordinary chapter in the history of the American Presidency, his absence from Washington for long months in Paris showed up many of his weaknesses. “Open diplomacy” was one thing that men such as Harold Nicolson admired, but Nicholson was abashed to learn that there was no such thing in Paris. Before Versailles Wilson made compromise after compromise involving his principles or his ideas, whatever we call them. He was no match for Clemenceau or Lloyd George, and the result was one of the worst botched peace treaties in modern history. As Chesterson once wrote, the best things are lost in victory and not in defeat. That would dawn on the American people only later. That was not why their elected representatives repudiated him in late 1919 and 1920. But Wilson’s failure to bring the United States into the League of Nations was not that important in the long run. Had he had his way at home, had the United States entered the League, it would have made some difference, but not much. The source of the Second World War (and of Adolf Hitler’s career) was not American nonparticipation in the League of Nations. It was Versailles, for which Wilson was as responsible as for the former. He also bequeathed to the American people a philosophy of internationalism (enthusiastically espoused by such different Americans as Herbert Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Dean Rusk, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) that, because of its legalistic (and therefore insubstantial) moralism, including its promotion of National Self-Determination, has been rather disastrous. But that is another story.
One year after the armistice, American influence in Europe was receding fast. Within the United States, too, a great national hangover set in—in part a reaction to some of the exaggerations and fever of the earlier war propaganda. It was a return of sorts—but neither to innocence nor to “normalcy” (a word coined by Warren Gamaliel Harding). There followed a decade or more of American isolationism (in regard to Europe, though not to the Caribbean or the Pacific), together with the self-righteous belief, expressed in one of Barton W. Currie’s editorials in The Ladies’ Home Journal : “There is only one first-class civilization in the world today. It’s right here in the United States. … Europe is hardly second-class.” For the first time in American history a very restrictive Immigration Act was passed. It had something to do with the obsession with communism (from which the Republican party knew how to profit, from Harding to Reagan), though there was more to it. Many people, too, forgot that while one out of every one thousand Americans died in World War I, thirty-five of every one thousand Frenchmen died. The French did not forget. Those memories maimed them. They fell out of World War II in the summer of 1940. Soon after that Americans were beginning to ready themselves to enter it and to help liberate France again.
This brings me to a last question that I, and presumably many others, have pondered often. Which was the zenith year of the American century, 1918 or 1945? Perhaps it was 1918—when the United States did not have to share the victory with Russia (although it had to share it with Britain and France, Italy, Japan). Perhaps it was 1945—when the United States, alone among the Great Powers, could wage a war on two vast fronts and conclude it victoriously, across the Atlantic and Pacific alike. In 1918 the Western democracies had all the cards—the ace, the king, the queen, and the jack, with Germany defeated and Russia down and out. In 1945 the United States had the ace (and what an ace!), but Stalin had at least the king. Yet in 1918 America and its Allies played their cards badly and lost the peace almost immediately afterward. In 1945 they let Stalin cash in his winnings, but further than that they did not let him go. The world order (or disorder) shaping up in 1945 was more lasting than that in 1918. The effect of World War II was greater. It transformed the structure of American government and much of American life. A few years after 1918 the American military presence in Europe was gone. After 1945 it remained there. No American general of World War I became a permanent national figure or President. After World War II there was Eisenhower—and also Patton and MacArthur and Kennedy and Bush, whose impressive war records helped form their popular images. Yet there was more enthusiasm in 1918 than in 1945. There was no popular song in World War II comparable to “Over There.” Sergeant York was a real soldier, unlike John Wayne. Harry Truman fought in the Argonne, not in Hollywood. Perhaps, if only for a moment, 1918 may have been the highest point, with all of that new American presence in Europe, with all of those great expectations.
And now, seventy-five years later, the United States is the only superpower left in the world, but everything else is different.