On Tuesday, November 11, many Americans celebrated Veterans Day, a tradition that has been held in the United States since 1954. The holiday began as “Armistice Day” to celebrate the end of the First World War; as many school children around the world are taught, on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the conflicting nations of the Western Front finally laid down their arms. But after almost four decades and a few more wars, various veterans service organizations in the United States petitioned Congress to change the name of Armistice Day to “Veterans Day.” These organizations argued that the holiday should be opened up to honor all American veterans. After all, hadn’t those soldiers in the Second World War and the Korean War risked and sacrificed just as much as the doughboys of the First World War?
The argument seems reasonable until one stops to consider the original purpose for the holiday. Armistice Day was meant to celebrate an armistice -- an end to fighting before a more permanent peace treaty can be determined. And this particular armistice was particularly important. Although now treated primarily as the prelude to the Second World War, the psychological and societal trauma of the First World War cannot be overstated. The conflict was seen at the time as the ultimate existential war, and indeed the First World War collapsed four empires: the Russian, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the German. Deadly new technologies were deployed on the battlefield for the first time. Poison gas, machine guns, and other industrialized weapons helped kill a combined total of almost 10 million soldiers. Nations depopulated their own towns of able-bodied young men, sending them to their deaths en masse as cannon fodder. Finally, largely due to the transport of diverse peoples around the world to cramped and unsanitary conditions, and then sending those people back to their distant homes, the influenza pandemic crossed the globe at the end of the War and in its wake, killing 50 million more people by some estimates. Armistice Day emerged across the world to help collectively process the incomprehensible destruction and loss of life that resulted from the First World War, and to commemorate the moment when the leaders of all involved parties agreed to begin the process to end “the war to end all war.”
The United States entered on the Allied side with fresh troops late in the war, and US President Woodrow Wilson emerged as the most influential arbiter of the eventual peace process. Starting before the US entry into the First World War, President Wilson urged the warring countries to seek “peace without victory.” Even after the US entry into the War, Wilson continued to develop his plan for a lasting international peace, which he eventually delivered to Congress on January 8, 1918 as the “Fourteen Points.” Wilson outlined several proposals that he believed would mitigate or neutralize altogether the factors that caused The Great War to begin in the first place: a prohibition on secret international treaties, freedom of navigation in the open sea, free trade, arms reductions, the restoration of recently conquered lands in Europe, etc. Notably, Wilson’s guidelines did not include a demand for reparations of the losing side, but rather implied shared responsibility of all parties for the War. The heart of his message, if not in the text itself, was that lasting peace could only be built through equitable relations between nationstates, the self-determination of nations, and the consent of the governed -- concepts central to the American mythology.
Although the speech and its general message was largely met with approval in the United States and by most of the Triple Entente (with the exception of France’s Prime Minister Clemenceau), it was picked up and repeated most passionately by the peoples of the colonized world. On the streets of Beijing, citizens celebrated the end of The Great War carrying signs with Wilsonian slogans on them. The imam of Yemen sent a cable to Wilson asking for his support in the cause of Yemenian self-determination. African-American leaders led by the preeminent W.E.B. Du Bois joined their Afro-Caribbean and African counterparts in Paris for the Pan-African Congress to draft their own proposals for the post-war future of Africa. In 1919, as the Paris Peace Conference was getting underway, a 28-year old Ho Chi Minh, future freedom fighter and leader of the Communist Party in Vietnam, wrote to President Wilson requesting a private audience to hear his case for Vietnamese liberation from French colonial rule -- legend says that he even rented a suit for the occasion, but alas, the meeting never occurred. Unbeknownst to the future revolutionary, Wilson had been stricken with influenza weeks before. After the worst had passed, Wilson never fully recovered his vigor, and some historians point to his period of sickness as a major reason why he was ultimately unable to implement his Fourteen Points.
Wilson’s failure at the Paris Peace Conference and the irony of Wilson’s own infamous personal racism notwithstanding, the ideas and values of the Fourteen Points shaped anticolonial thought for years until communism took its place. Colonized peoples were inspired and energized by Wilson’s words, looking to the United States as the leader of the free world, long before that phrase would be invented with a whole different set of connotations -- after all, the United States was the first to win its independence from the European colonial powers. And so it is especially ironic that the United States, the country whose leader fought the hardest for the right of self-determination, equality, and consensual governance of all peoples following the First World War, has been the country most responsible for interfering with democratic governments around the world since. Just a few years following the end of The Great War, US troops would join an international coalition to prevent Russia from implementing a popular communist government. In 1949, the democratically elected government in Syria was overthrown by a Syrian Army chief of staff with extensive ties to the CIA. In 1953, the CIA directed a coup in Iran to oust the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to instead reinstate the constitutional monarch-turned-despot Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the 1960s, the United States invaded Vietnam, just as the Vietnamese people liberated themselves from French rule. Guatemala, 1954. Indonesia, 1957-1959. Democratic Republic of Congo, 1960. Cuba, 1961. Brazil, 1964. Chile, 1964 and again in 1970-1973. Indonesia, 1965-1967. Bolivia, 1971. Afghanistan, 1979-1989. El Salvador, 1980-1992. Chad, 1981-1982. Nicaragua, 1981-1990. Grenada, 1983. Haiti, 1991. Venezuela, 2002 and again in 2019-present. Palestine, 2006-2007. And even those are just some examples of US military and political interventions; they say nothing about the outsized influence of the American dollar in international affairs, nor the exploitative international policies that have contributed to that influence. Garett Reppenhagen (US Army veteran and Executive Director for Veterans for Peace) summarized that connection succinctly in Waging Nonviolence: “The cultural identity [of militarism] is now so ingrained in our society that we unquestionably follow any military adventure despite the fact that poor people end up killing and dying and those who didn’t serve are handed the bill afterwards.”
But the irony goes even beyond that. Armistice Day itself was never originally meant to be a holiday to honor soldiers who died in war; in the United States, Memorial Day fulfills that function. And yet, many other countries, notably those part of the Commonwealth of Nations, changed the name of the holiday to Remembrance Day during or shortly following the Second World War with the express purpose of honoring all patriotic soldiers who died in war. Armistice Day could be considered a day of mourning, but the mourning was never just about soldiers; the mourning included families, communities, nations. Despite the deadly serious, existential threats that the First World War presented to the powers of the time, it was also widely considered an incredibly wasteful and pointless war to have begun in the first place. According to historian Laurence Lafore, Europeans of the late 19th century believed that they were building a harmonious and prosperous future for human civilization: “Modern ideas were triumphing everywhere. Europe would soon be organized on a rational basis, its political and social symmetries would reflect the symmetry of nature and the universe. And it was going to happen, was happening, faster than anyone could have imagined ten years earlier. All that was needed now was hard work and common sense and education, and in the lifetimes of men already born the rising sun would light a Europe of perpetual peace and progress.” Considered within the context of those aspirations, the First World War becomes a cautionary and tragic tale, a catastrophe that Europe at its peak alone brought upon itself. The observance of Armistice Day could even be seen as a critique of war itself, a warning to those who think they can control the violence once it starts, and as a hopeful wish that future peoples would not make the same mistakes of the past. While observing Veterans Day, that hopeful wish is absent.
Sources and Further Reading:
Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Penguin Books, New York. 2005.
Hagemann, Hannah. “The 1918 Flu Pandemic Was Brutal, Killing More Than 50 Million People Worldwide.” NPR. 2 April 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/02/826358104/the-1918-flu-pandemic-was-brutal-killing-as-many-as-100-million-people-worldwide
“History of Veterans Day.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 20 July 2015. https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp
Lafore, Laurence. The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. 1971.
Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford University Press, New York. 2007.
Osborne, Samuel. “Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day - what’s the difference?” The Independent. 11 November 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20181118032603/https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/armistice-day-remembrance-day-and-veterans-day-whats-the-difference-a6730081.html
Reppenhagen, Garett. “Let’s reclaim Armistice Day.” Waging Nonviolence. 11 November 2020. https://wagingnonviolence.org/wr/2020/11/lets-reclaim-armistice-day/
Wilson, Woodrow. “Fourteen Points.” ourdocuments.gov. 1918 (accessed 11 November 2020). https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=62&page=transcript