On the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month, the guns of World War I fell silent. And a war that should never have been fought – arguably by anyone, certainly by Americans – was done.
Americans who know their history celebrate Veterans Day not to honor war, but to recognize the soldiers who died and the soldiers who survived the wars of the past – and, hopefully, to ponder the futility of abandoning George Washington’s advice to avoid the entangling alliances of distant continents and the mortal combats of the kings and conquerers who intrigues Americans rejected when the United States revolted against monarchy, colonialism and the madness of empire.
It is in that latter pondering that Americans would do well to recognize the courage of those who opposed the madness that was World War I, a courage born of a concern for America’s troops that was not evidenced by their commander-in-chief.
Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, the great midwestern progressive leader of the first quarter of the American century, risked his political career to oppose World War I and to defend the free-speech rights of those who joined him in opposition.
La Follette rejected the arguments of President Woodrow Wilson as empty excuses for plunging the sons of Wisconsin farmers and factory worker in a European war where they had no place and no cause.
Wilson, a petty Anglophile of the worst sort, told the American people that entering the Europe’s war on the side of the British king was some kind of fight for democracy. But La Follette challenged that fantasy by noting that there was scant democracy in the British colonies of Ireland, Egypt and India. Detailing the cruelties and bigotries of British colonialism, he condemned Wilson for seeking to "inflame the mind of our people into the frenzy of war."
Unfortunately, the frenzy of war won out. La Follette was one of just six senators to oppose the declaration of war that would send 166,516 Americans to their deaths and leave 204002 severely wounded. In the House, 50 members who opposed the declaration, including its sole woman member, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, who famously declared, "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no."
For their opposition, La Follette, Rankin and their allies were branded traitors.
But La Follette knew the people were with him. He often recalled that, of all the letters he received during 19 years as a senator, more than a third came during the relatively short course of the war and they ran 60-1 in his favor. Four years after the war was done, Wisconsinites reelected La Follette to the Senate by a record margin.
Six years after the war’s finish, 4.8 million Americans cast ballots for the ticket of La Follette and his fellow critic of the World War I war profiteers, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, in the 1924 presidential race.
Along with the votes of his fellow Americans – which meant the most to the great democrat – La Follette would receive vindication from history.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who celebrated La Follette’s opposition to World War I as a profile in courage, would tell historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that Wilson’s scheming to pull the United States into World War I merited placing Wilson low on any list of American president.
Surely, George W. Bush will rank lower.
A president has no greater responsibility than that of assuring that the men and women of the U.s. military are called to duty only when absolutely necessary. Wilson failed in that duty 90 years ago, just as Bush fails today. That is the painful truth of this Veteran’s Day. But it is a truth that must never obscure our regard for the soldiers who serve and suffer in this country’s name.
So, on this anniversary of that distant 11th day of that distant 11th month, let us honor all the dead of all America’s wars. Let us honor the living by bringing the soldiers who are mired in the quagmire that is Iraq home from a Middle Eastern civil war in which they have no place and no cause. And let us honor those anti-war Americans who today display the courage, the wisdom and the sincere concern for the troops and the country they serve that was so well evidenced Robert M. La Follette nine decades ago.