In my ordered childhood, one especially sharp memory stands out. November 11th, then known as Armistice Day, witnessed a yearly ceremony at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Schoolchildren marched out of their classrooms and stood with bowed heads in uncharacteristic silence.
The observance marked the end — exactly 100 years ago this year — of what was called “The Great War” or World War I. It was a major turning point for parochial, isolationist America — our first major sally into the world’s battles. My father’s great ambition at age 17 was to follow an admired older brother into the sordid trench battles of France. But fortunately for a future son, the Armistice found him, with millions of others, laid up by a mild case of a greater mass killer than the war: Spanish influenza.
We are a century removed from that conflict and from the Armistice that ended it, before the ceremony described above evolved into a commercial holiday for mattress sales now called Veterans Day.
Its sequel, the Paris Peace Conference, sank from the high-flown idealism of Woodrow Wilson to a feast of self-indulgence at the cost of Imperial Germany. The penalties visited upon Germany as the war’s chief perpetrator were well deserved but disastrously miscalculated. Germany, a statesman of the time urged, should be “squeezed till the pips squeak,” and was.
The peacemakers forgot that punishments may have consequences for those who levy them. Thus the most telling document to issue from the Peace Conference was neither the Treaty of Versailles nor the “covenant” of the League of Nations; it was a passionate treatise by a young Cambridge University mathematician named John Maynard Keynes.
In pointed prose, The Economic Consequences of the Peace forecast the result of “squeezing” Germany with financial reparations in a postwar world featuring high tariffs. Many liberals thought the great tragedy had been America’s rebuff of Wilson’s League of Nations. It was not; it was the erection of reckless GOP tariff walls, of which one eminent protectionist, Calvin Coolidge, asked, “They hired the money, didn’t they?” That was his sophomoric response to German frustration by unpayable debts.
The consequences in defeated Germany were worse. In 1933, a thwarted Austrian landscape artist of mean abililties and meaner temperament dressed himself up in boots and Sam Brown belt and became German chancellor, and converted a bad old Germanic habit — militaristic swagger — into a national passion.
Germany was swept at the same time with the fantasy that its soldiers had not lost the war on the battlefields and on the seas but had been “stabbed in the back” by socialists and pacifists at home. Those delusions, sharpened by hyper-inflation, fostered the plague of Nazism and the evils that followed — amplified by the insouciant foreign policies of the United States, the world’s pre-eminent creditor nation.
Happily, a new generation of American statesmen, coming of age in the war that followed almost inevitably from the first, absorbed the bitter lessons of parochialism and persuaded a triumphant U. S. to behave with sophistication and creativity. They bore names like Truman, Eisenhower, Acheson, Marshall, and Vandenberg. They overlooked Germany’s criminal mischief and fostered a joint world of prosperity and security. The process was hard fought and far from simple but the outcome was far superior to the chaos of the 1920s and ‘30s — proving that sometimes, generosity surpasses vengeance.
Unfortunately, the lessons that laid the groundwork of a more stable and prosperous world are being unlearned by the “nationalist” in the White House, who is steadily wrecking the economic and security handiwork that saw us safely through seven post-WWII decades.