Channelling George Washington: The Forgotten Soldiers of World War I


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“I’ve got a beef.  Isn’t that what you modern slang-slingers call a complaint?”

“I used to hear the word a lot in my days in the Navy.  What’s your beef, Mr. President?”

Why isn't there a national monument to the soldiers of World War I anywhere in Washington D.C.?”

“A good question?  Why did it occur to you?”

“I just had a visit from a new arrival here in Elysium.  His name is Frank Buckles.  He was the last surviving American veteran of World War I.  He was from Charles Town, West Virginia.  He died a month after his 110th birthday.  Frank told me he’d spent the last twenty years of his life trying to get a national monument built and gotten nowhere.”

“My father was in World War I.  Like most Americans, I assumed there was a monument to him and his fellow doughboys somewhere in Washington D.C.”

“It’s not for lack of trying on Frank Buckles’s part.  He wrote letters, he talked to politicians.  But he didn’t make much progress.  It tells us a lot about the way Americans feel about that war.  They don’t want to hear about it.”

“I can vouch for that. I wrote a novel about the war, Over There, in the 1990s.  While I was promoting the book in California, my publisher called the editor of the book review at the San Francisco Chronicle and asked him if he was interested in interviewing me. What do you think the answer was?”

“I fear the worst.”

“The editor said not only did he NOT want to talk to someone who’d written a book about World War I, he wouldn’t even let him in the building.”

“I’ve talked to Woody Wilson about a monument.  He says there’s one to the 499 soldiers from Washington D.C. who died in the war.  It’s in West Potomac Park, on the mall.  But Woody admitted it’s hardly the national monument that the 4.9 million Americans who served in that war deserve.”

“Why do you think Americans have turned against World War I.”

“Some of it is a carry-over from the anti-war passions that swept the country during the Vietnam years.  It left a lot of people ready to dislike any and all wars.  But a lot of other Americans became disillusioned with World War I long before that.  It didn’t accomplish any of the lofty goals Woody Wilson proclaimed when we entered the war in 1917.  Instead, the peace treaty sowed the seeds of World War II.  Woody told me that when he read over the treaty for the last time before he signed it in 1919, he said:  ‘If I were a German, I’d never sign this.’”

“Why did Mr. Wilson sign it?”

“Poor Woody couldn’t bring himself to admit that he’d been totally out-maneuvered, out-argued, out-voted, out-you-name-it at the peace conference by the British and the French.  Like his fellow Americans, Woody just wasn’t ready for the savagery with which the Europeans waged politics as well as war.”

“Could you explain that idea?”

“While the peace conference was getting organized, David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, ran for reelection.  His campaign slogan was:  THE HUN MUST PAY.  He won on the promise that he’d soak the Germans for every pfennig and every acre of territory he could wangle.  Georges Clemenceau, the French premier (they called him ‘the Tiger’), was, if possible, worse.  He hated the Germans and was out to cripple Germany for the next thousand years.”

“I take it they weren’t very interested in Wilson’s Fourteen Points that were supposed to guarantee world peace.”

“I think it was Clemenceau who snorted:  ‘God was satisfied with ten commandments.’  During the peace conference, reporters kept track of how, one by one, the Fourteen Points were thrown out the nearest window or completely ignored.  Meanwhile, the British and French rammed through provisions forcing Germany to pay huge reparations and admit they were guilty of starting the war.”

“Which takes us back to my original question.  Why did Mr. Wilson sign the peace treaty?”

“He told himself that he would be able to fix everything after the war, in the League of Nations.  But he couldn’t get the U.S. Senate to ratify  the treaty with the League as part of it.  With good reason, I might add.  There were provisions in the League’s covenant that required us to surrender our national sovereignty in certain situations.”

“Did the American people express their opinion on the League?”

“Woody had had a stroke.  He wasn’t a candidate in 1920.  But the Democratic Party candidates ran declaring themselves in favor of ratifying the treaty and the League.  They lost in one of the greatest landslides in American history.  They got only 39 percent of the vote.”

“That left everyone feeling we’d spent billions of dollars and lost a half million dead and wounded and had nothing to show for it.”

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the young Americans who responded to Woody Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy.  Frank Buckles wangled his way into the army at the age of sixteen because he wanted to be part of the great crusade.  Millions of other young Americans went to France for the same or similar reasons.”

“My father was twenty-nine years old.  He fought to prove Irish-Americans were patriots.  A lot of ethnic Americans—Jews, Italians, Poles, Germans—did the same thing to testify to their people’s commitment to America.”

“Harry Truman was thirty-three years old.  He had a mother and sister to support.  He could have claimed exemption from the draft.  But he volunteered.  He told me he’s never regretted doing that.  He learned so much about his fellow Americans in France.”

“Did Frank Buckles see combat?”

“No. He joked about that.  ‘Didn’t I make every effort?’ he said.  He drove an ambulance in France.  In a way, his words sum up the spirit of the American Expeditionary Force.  We should give those men a monument worthy of their idealism, their hopes, their heroism.  We’ve built one for the veterans of Vietnam, another war that ended badly.  If we get to work on the politicians, we could have it ready to celebrate the centennial of their war in 2017.”

“I wish I could nominate you as honorary chairman of the campaign!”

“I’ll be there in spirit!”

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