Think Things Are Bad Now? They Were Lots Worse in 1919
The hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that ended the fighting of World War I in Europe came and went with surprisingly little notice last Nov. 11. Commemoration was muted for a conflict that took the lives of some 15 to 19 million soldiers and civilians — estimates vary widely — including, in just 19 months, more than 116,000 Americans.
Those were shocking numbers for a nation whose territory was untouched by enemies and whose population had just topped 100 million. The toll in blood helps explain why Western European leaders appeased Hitler in the 1930s and why overwhelming majorities of Americans were, until Pearl Harbor, opposed to entering a war — in the World War I phrase — “over there.”
That’s a standard view, but it glosses over a lot of history — messy history that helps explain the responses to this war and puts some of our present tergiversations into useful perspective.
For the Armistice of November 1918 only ended the conflict in Western Europe, the scene of familiar trench warfare for most of the preceding four years. It did not end intensive fighting and domestic disorder elsewhere.
The sense of disorder was compounded by the influenza pandemic that may have started in troop-staging camps in 1917 and that swept the world through 1920, killing 675,000 in the United States in one year and 50 to 100 million worldwide. Fatalities peaked in October 1918 and were especially high among young adults. Last week saw the tragic death of Bre Payton, a 26-year-old writer for The Federalist, from flu-like symptoms. Multiply the tragic impact by hundreds and thousands to gauge the impact on people a century ago.
Full-scale fighting continued in Russia. American troops from Michigan were fighting in the far northern European Russia, while Czech volunteers and Japanese troops were patrolling the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Asia. They were aiding the White Russian troops who were fighting against the communists who had tenuously established themselves and their Red Army, led by the ferocious Leon Trotsky, in Petrograd. Despite the urgings of Winston Churchill and thanks to the fecklessness of President Woodrow Wilson, the Allied troops were withdrawn, and the Reds slaughtered the Whites.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire continued its persecution — often considered a genocide — of Armenians. A U.S. government commission actually recommended creation of an independent Armenia governed by the U.S., a request Congress denied. Turkey angrily rejected the Allies’ Sevres treaty. It conquered the Armenians and in 1922-23 violently expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks.
Other postwar treaties caused lingering problems. Germans’ discontent with the Treaty of Versailles fueled Hitler’s rise. Harsh treatment of Hungary in the Trianon Treaty is still a grievance in Budapest today.
The war strained all the major economies and was followed by economic disasters — terrifying deflation and what author James Grant calls a “forgotten depression” in the United States, with enormous wage cuts, layoffs, deflation and inflation. Government did little in response, partly because President Wilson suffered a disabling stroke in September 1919. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, the economy rebounded sharply in 1921 and thrived for eight years.
One of the hard things about writing history is understanding how things looked to people who didn’t know what would happen next. Fear of violent revolution was rife in 1918 and 1919. Communist coups were attempted in Berlin, Munich and Budapest. Revolutionaries exploded deadly bombs on Wall Street and in front of the U.S. attorney general’s house. Seattle suffered a general strike.
The response, mass arrests of radicals, has been ridiculed as a hysterical Red Scare. But people then didn’t know that what was happening in Russia — the installation of a communist regime that over 70 years killed tens of millions — wouldn’t happen elsewhere.
On New Year’s Day, Walter Russell Mead of the Wall Street Journal described 2018’s “biggest loser” as “the post-Cold War system that the U.S. and its closest allies hoped would shape global politics,” which “buckled further” under “growing headwinds.”
The centennial of years just after World War I should remind us that the West has faced far more furious headwinds, with far less in the way of guideposts and guardrails. American political parties then struggled to fashion responses, with the Democratic Party suffering as devastating a repudiation in the swirling postwar year of 1920 as the Republican Party would in the agonizing Depression year of 1932. Yet both parties managed to recover and become competitive again in good time.
As 2019 begins, it’s tempting to regard current troubles as overwhelming and unprecedented. But America and its friends faced far more daunting challenges as 1919 began, one hundred years ago.
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