Memorial Day 2016: Remember “The Great War”

Carol M. Highsmith, World War One Memorial, Washington D.C., February 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Carol M. Highsmith, World War One Memorial, Washington D.C., February 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In May of 1918, former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote U.S. Army Chief of Staff Peyton C. March to thank him for appointing his son Kermit to Captain of a Madrid based artillery unit in Spain during WWI.  At the end of his letter, Roosevelt sought to empathize with March, who had lost his own son during military training earlier that Spring. “I thank you sir. You have already drunk of the waters of bitterness; I suppose I shall soon have to drink of them; but, whatever befalls, you and I hold our heads high when we think of our sons,” wrote Roosevelt.[1]

The former president had loudly championed America’s entrance into the war, often assailing President Wilson in the years running up to April 1917 for his reluctance to commit America to the conflict.  Roosevelt’s four sons, Archibald, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Quentin would all serve. It would not end without loss.

Pershing's crusaders--Auspices of the United States government / The H.C. Miner Litho. Co. N.Y, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Pershing’s crusaders–Auspices of the United States government / The H.C. Miner Litho. Co. N.Y, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Roughly two months after T.R.’s letter to March, Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his own son in the war in 1915, wrote the aging Rough Rider to offer his own condolences. At the time, no official notice confirmed Quentin’s death, a point reflected in Kipling’s letter. “I can’t yet make out from the papers whether Quentin is dead or down [and] in German hands. If the latter his chances are better than they would have been in the old days before the Hun saw the end coming. He has recast his scale of values and we hear now that in some cases he treats his prisoners decently,” noted the famous author. Whatever the case, he confided in Roosevelt, “the boy has done his work honorably and cleanly and you have your right to pride and thankfulness. I won’t take of your time with any more.” Nonetheless, deep down, Kipling knew the likely outcome: “No words are any use but we all send you our love and deep sympathy.”[2]

As a father, Roosevelt casts a complex shadow. A warmongering imperialist, he encouraged his sons to enter the war as a means to demonstrate their honor and prove their masculinity. Yet, Roosevelt’s conception of war rested on dated ideals of nineteenth century warfare; all horse back and chivalry (provided that wasn’t a false image itself, which it surely was) rather than the mechanized grinder of WWI’s “total war.” However, he also doted on his children and loved them deeply. He would illustrate letters to them, and thought of them often.

For Roosevelt, Quentin’s loss hurt deeply. Still, he also clung to core beliefs about war and death. When he heard that the U.S. hoped to bring the fallen home for state side burials, Roosevelt once again reached out to March. “Mrs. Roosevelt and I wish to enter a most respectful, but a most emphatic protest against the proposed course so far as our son Quentin is concerned,” he informed March in a letter. “We have always believed, that ‘where the tree falls, there let it lie.’ We know that many good persons feel entirely differently, but to us it is merely painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has gone. We greatly prefer that Quentin shall continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle, and where the foemen buried him.”[3]

Spirit of 1917--Join the United States Marines and be first in defense on land or sea, circa 1917, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Spirit of 1917–Join the United States Marines and be first in defense on land or sea, circa 1917, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This sort of circle of war, death, and memorialization proved far more common and tragic for Europeans. It played out across nations and classes. Armistice Day in Europe, November 11, remains a solemn occasion. The Great War marks the decline of European power, whereas for the U.S. it represents the nation’s first steps toward international hegemony. For Americans, November 11 rightly remains a day of observance for the sacrifices of all veterans, but few people associate it with the WWI armistice.

Admittedly, World War II consolidated many of the social, economic, and political processes begun under its predecessor, but WWI reshaped the United States domestically in countless ways, even if historians such as David Kennedy correctly argue that the decade that followed brought retrenchment in various areas of national life.

Moreover, the American experience also shaped our understanding of global conflict, and not necessarily for the better. The U.S. entered late and was able to claim success. Sure, it might have only accelerated a war that would have ended anyway, but concluding the war a year earlier was probably a good thing. The U.S. lost over 50,000 soldiers to the Great War (at least in direct connection to combat, tens of thousands more would succumb to the influenza virus that ran rampant in the conflict’s later stages), the Europeans tens of millions. However, for the rest of the century, Americans would see war only in light of our victories in WWI and WWII, believing such military successes would always be so. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — granted very different conflicts — would prove it would not always unfold in such a manner.

It also sparked an internal jingoism that justified lynchings and mob violence toward the “other,” notably German Americans (see the propaganda poster below for a sense of this) though African American soldiers returning from the war would find themselves targeted as well, albeit for different reasons.  Japanese Internment during WWII seems tragic and regrettable, but sadly logical when viewed from the lens of WWI nationalism.  In countless ways, WWI pried open some doors and slammed shut others.

With WWI’s centennial upon us and the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into the war quickly approaching (April 1917) ToM offers five pieces reflecting on WWI’s impact on U.S. memory, Europe, civil rights, women’s rights, and motherhood. War wraps its influence into the sinews of nations in various ways. We hope this small selection illuminates some of these processes and complexities.

For all those who lost loved ones fighting for the U.S. abroad, we offer our condolences. For those that gave their lives, we honor your sacrifice even if we didn’t always agree with the cause. Best to all this Memorial Day, 2016.

James Allen St. John, "The Hun - His mark - Blot it out with Liberty Bonds", 1917, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

James Allen St. John, “The Hun – His mark – Blot it out with Liberty Bonds”, 1917, World War One Posters, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

 

Remembering a Forgotten War: Memorial Day and World War Onehttps://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/remembering-a-forgotten-war-memorial-day-and-world-war-i

The Somme at 99: WWI, Death, and Trap of Technology (yes we know it turns 100 this year, but this was written last July): https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/the-somme-at-99-wwi-death-and-the-trap-of-technology/

Here and Away: African Americans, WWI, and Civil Rights: https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/here-and-away-african-americans-wwi-and-civil-rights/

The Women’s Land Army: ‘Farmettes’ for Suffrage During WWI: https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/the-womens-land-army-farmettes-for-suffrage-during-world-war-i/

Making Sense of Mom: The Ideology of 20th Century Maternalism: https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/making-sense-of-mom-the-ideology-of-20th-century-american-maternalism/

For ToM’s other reflections on war, society, and the military, visit our military history page here.

[1] Theodore Roosevelt, Letter to Peyton C. March, May 1918, Peyton March Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Rudyard Kipling, Letter to Theodore Roosevelt, July 18, 1918, Kermit and Bella Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[3] Theodore Roosevelt to Peyton March, October 25, 1918, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

 

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