... Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars
lank and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years' dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats
And murmured, 'Strange, this! How?
All firing stopped?'
--Thomas Hardy, "And There Was a Great Calm"
The United States had to be goaded into war. Woodrow Wilson didn't want it.
Most Americans didn't either, even after 128 Americans died aboard the Lusitania in 1915. Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." (He also used the slogan "America First.")
Even after the dashing, handsome submarine commander Hans Rose sailed his U-boat into Newport, R.I., in 1916, just to show American authorities that the Germans could reach across the ocean, Europe seemed remote.
Days after the British intercepted the cable from the German Foreign Office to the Mexican government promising the return of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico if they'd join the Central Powers in the eventual war against the U.S., Wilson argued for American neutrality in his "Peace Without Victory" speech of Jan. 22, 1917.
Eight days later the German government announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. They would try to sink every ship in a declared war zone around Britain, France, and in the Mediterranean. No warning.
Having threatened the action earlier, Wilson had no choice but to break off diplomatic relations with Germany, but even as he did so he vowed to take no further action so long as no "overt acts" of war were committed against the United States. As long as the Germans didn't actually sink any American ships, the U.S. would remain officially neutral.
Within hours of his announcement, Rose's U-53 torpedoed the Housatonic, a private American cargo ship. But because Rose had warned the ship's crew, allowed them to board life boats and towed them to safety, Wilson didn't consider the incident an overt act. (Teddy Roosevelt did; he--or his proxy wrote an editorial that scornfully suggested that Wilson had "condoned" the sinking of the Housatonic: "[s]o used have we become to these murderous attacks that we regard continued ruthlessness as its own palliative.")
Nine more American ships were sunk--eight by submarines and one by a submerged mine (though at the time it was assumed to have been torpedoed)--before America finally entered the war on April 3, 1917.
In January 1918, Wilson proposed a 14-point program for world peace. American troops began arriving--at the rate of 10,000 per day--in Europe in the spring, eventually mobilizing 2 million soldiers. The Germans were in no position to replace their losses, and though General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, and other U.S. commanders at first struggled, by late summer Allied victory seemed inevitable.
On Oct. 3, 1918, the newly appointed German Chancellor Max von Baden had sent a telegram to Wilson requesting an armistice, suggesting that they thought the 14 Points might be a pretty good deal for them, even though it included a provision requiring them to return to France the territories in Alsace-Lorraine and East Prussia they had held since 1870.
In this context, maybe we can understand if Pershing worried that his boss might be a little soft on the Germans in the peace talks. And maybe that's why Pershing, on Oct. 30, 1918, delivered a letter to the Allied Supreme War Council arguing that Allies should refuse to grant the enemy any terms, that the fighting could only end with Germany's unconditional surrender.
After all, Pershing could see the future.
Americans had entered the game late, but they made the difference. Now there were more than a million American troops pushing through the Argonne Forest, the British army was the most mechanized in the world, the French were resurgent, and the Germans were melting down their church bells and rails for bullets.
"An armistice would revivify the low spirits of the German army and enable it to organize and resist later on," Pershing wrote. This "would deprive the Allies of the full measure of victory by failing to press their present advantage to its complete military end."
An armistice would, Pershing warned, "allow Germany to withdraw her army with its present strength, ready to resume hostilities if terms were not satisfactory to her."
"Germany's desire is only to regain time to restore order among her forces, but she must be given no opportunity to recuperate and we must strike harder than ever." As for terms, Pershing had one response: 'There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.'"
Historians differ on whether Pershing was insubordinate or simply misunderstood Washington's instructions. Wilson wanted the general to speak his mind, but to him, not to the council. The president was furious; he called Pershing "glory mad." Secretary of War Newton Baker prepared a letter of reprimand, but never sent it.
Pershing's words may have had an impact, for the terms the Germans were forced to accept were harsh. Not only was Germany forced to evacuate all occupied lands, but suffer Allied occupation of its land, surrender "war materiel" such as battleships, submarines, airplanes, machine guns and artillery, and pay reparations for all damage caused. Though the Germans were already facing starvation, the Allies would continue their naval blockade and paralyze the nation's transportation system by confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks.
Still, Pershing would have preferred for the the war to continue and for Allied troops to march all the way to Berlin. And even with the certain end to hostilities in sight, Allied troops kept pushing. The last days, the last hours, of the war were among the bloodiest.
Still, not a single Allied soldier was on German soil at the end of the war.
Which allowed certain elements to maintain that Germany was never conquered. Which provided oxygen to the myth that the German army did not lose on the battlefield but was "stabbed in the back" by the "November criminals"--the Weimar Republic, the Socialists, the Bolsheviks, and especially the Jews.
But on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 100 years ago there was a great calm. Before the storm.
Editorial on 11/11/2018
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