On this Veterans Day, ceremonies, observances and waving flags underscore the veneration Americans feel today for our warriors. However, this honor and respect was not always evident. In fact, from the close of World War I in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans throughout the country roundly rejected and demonized anything to do with the armed forces.
As I travel the Northwest, sharing my memoir, “River of January,” audiences are consistently shocked by the contempt Americans held for anything military after the First World War. The central figure in the story, Mont Chumbley, once remarked that at the time he enlisted (in 1927), signs posted in Norfolk city parks warned, “Dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is this quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.
The killing fields of World War I dragged on for three bloody years until America joined the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting president, betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” changing his mind about Europe. He asked Congress for a war declaration in April 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist chief executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.
American soldiers, “doughboys,” were not ready — barely trained and quickly deployed. Nonetheless, the “American Expeditionary Force” was promptly loaded onto troop ships and landed in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung-ho and naive, U.S. forces indeed made the difference, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, imbued with a faith in their mission and youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, ending hostilities.
World War I had unleashed unthinkable horrors. Foul, sewage-filled trenches, lethal poison gas, coldly efficient machine guns, indifferent aerial bombing, stealthy u-boats prowling the Atlantic, armored tanks, razor-sharp barbed wire, and that deadly expanse called “No Man’s Land.” It all had sickened the American public. A sense of outrage followed the armistice that America had been duped into fighting, by war profiteers and self-serving politicians.
A beleaguered and messianic President Wilson attempted to salvage meaning from the horrific carnage. Proposing his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, which included the “League of Nations,” the president would spare the world another war. But the public disagreed, and led by Idaho Sen. William Borah, universally rejected Wilson’s efforts. Modern industrialization had rendered war obsolete, and the nation would never venture abroad again, period.
And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939, until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. Yet even then the U.S. did not involve itself, though England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the president’s hands to help the English. American entry didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for 20 years. This attitude of isolation had gelled and hardened popular opinion for years. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no-account scoundrel, lacking self-respect. And it was in this hostile setting that my subject, Mont Chumbley, bucked popular opinion by choosing to join the Navy and learn to fly.
We live life in forward motion, never sure of any future outcome. However, looking back the results are crystal clear. On this Veterans Day (once remembered as Armistice Day), let us separate the politics and simply remember the fortitude of those who, for us, donned the uniform.
Gail Chumbley is a nationally recognized instructor of American History and taught three decades in Idaho classrooms.