Those of us of a certain age may remember that Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day – the day the guns fell silent in war-torn Europe at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The Great War, the Global War that we now call World War I, had reached a ceasefire. In the months and years that followed, the victorious allies would rearrange the boundaries of much of the globe, uprooting peoples and nations in a fragile peace that set the stage for World War II.
This year marks the centenary of the Armistice and a reminder that the old is ever new. In 1821, John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State and future president said our young republic would be the friend of liberty and independence everywhere, but the vindicator and champion only of our own. America, said Adams, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Otherwise, she might gain an empire and, in the process, lose her soul.
America in the 20th century forgot the warning of Adams, and those of his father, the first President Adams, along with the wise counsel of George Washington, who urged his countrymen to stay out of Europe’s many and endless wars. And it was Thomas Jefferson who, in his first Inaugural Address, called for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States embarked on a course of neutrality that was as short-lived as it was halfhearted. We lent money and shipped armaments to Great Britain. We observed the British blockade of Germany, but not the Germans reciprocal blockade of the British Isles. The war loans we made to embattled Britain gave American financiers a vested interest in the outcome of the war. Though President Wilson’s campaign slogan in 1916 was, “He kept us out of war,” his second term was but a month old when he went before Congress asking for a declaration of war against the Germans, who by that time had declared unrestricted submarine warfare against all vessels bound for the British isles.
What followed was not only another 18 months of war, but a dark age of civil liberties in America, where the freedom of speech and the press fell victim to a war fever that bred hatred for Germans, and rendered American foreign policy subservient again to London. Men were imprisoned for speaking and writing against military conscription. Any criticism of the government could subject one to prosecution under a new anti-sedition law. German food, German dogs and all things German were despised and even beer became unpopular, given the number of German brew masters in the land Prohibition was adopted during World War I.
Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign for a third term resembled Wilson’s quest for a second. We were neutral in name only, while in practice serving once again as England’s bank and arsenal. While the president and Congress were preparing a renewal of the military draft, President Roosevelt promised “again and again and again” that American boys would not be sent into any foreign war. Then Japanese bombs falling on Pearl Harbor brought the war home to a growing American empire.
The time is past due for the American people to reassess our role in the world. Is it to go chasing after wars not of our own making and not threatening our own interests, let alone our survival? We have encouraged and joined in an expansion of NATO that requires us to go to war if any one of more than two dozen nations is attacked, regardless of who is the aggressor. The cost of our interventions in blood and lives is staggering. Our soaring national debt mirrors the growth of our vast military empire and poses a real threat to our national security.
The best way to pay tribute to our veterans, living and dead, is to stop making so many of them – in other words, to have fewer wars. We often speak of war as a last resort. It is time we insisted that our elected officials stopped sending our gallant young men and women needlessly into those overbooked resorts.
Jack Kenny is a freelance writer who lives and works in Manchester, NH.