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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 179
article date 11-01-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
World War One is Over (1918) … Back to Normalcy?
by Fredrick Lewis Allen
   

EARLY on the morning of November 11, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson wrote in pencil, on an ordinary sheet of White House stationery, a message to the American people:

My Fellow Countrymen: The armistice was signed this morning. Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel, and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.

Never was document more Wilsonion. In those three sentences spoke the Puritan schoolmaster, cool in a time of great emotions, calmly setting the lesson for the day; the moral idealist, intent on a peace of reconciliation rather than a peace of hate; and the dogmatic prophet of democracy, who could not dream that the sort of institutions in which he had believed all his life were not inevitably the best for all nations everywhere. Yet the spirit of the message suggests, at the same time, that of another war President. It was such a document as Lincoln might have written.

But if the man in the White House was thinking of Abraham Lincoln as he wrote those sentences—and no doubt he was—there was something which perhaps he overlooked. Counsels of idealism sometimes fail in the relaxation that comes with peace. Lincoln had not lived to see what happens to a policy of “sober, friendly counsel” in a post-war decade; he had been taken off in the moment of triumph.

Woodrow Wilson was not to be so fortunate.

   
Armistice Day Celebration, New York City’s 5th & Broadway.

What a day that 11th of November was! It was not quite three o’clock in the morning when the State Department gave out to the dozing newspaper men the news that the Armistice had really been signed. Four days before, a false report of the end of hostilities had thrown the whole United States into a delirium of joy. People had poured out of offices and shops and paraded the streets singing and shouting, ringing bells, blowing tin horns, smashing one another’s hats, cheering soldiers in uniform, draping themselves in American flags, gathering in closely packed crowds before the newspaper bulletin boards, making a wild and hilarious holiday; in New York, Fifth Avenue had been closed to traffic and packed solid with surging men and women, while down from the windows of the city fluttered 155 tons of ticker tape and torn paper. It did not seem possible that such an outburst could be repeated. But it was.

By half-past four on the morning of the 11th, sirens, whistles, and bells were rousing the sleepers in a score of American cities, and newsboys were shouting up and down the dark streets. At first people were slow to credit the report; they had been fooled once and were not to be fooled again. Along an avenue in Washington, under the windows of the houses of government officials, a boy announced with painstaking articulation, “THE WAR IS OVAH! OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCEMENT CONFIRMS THE NEWS!” He did not mumble as newsboys ordinarily do; he knew that this was a time to convince the skeptical by being intelligible and specific. The words brought incredible relief. A new era of peace and of hope was beginning—had already begun.

   
A return to normalcy. 1919 Maxwell car ad.

So the tidings spread throughout the country. In city after city, mid-morning found offices half deserted, signs tacked up on shop doors reading “CLOSED FOR THE KAISER’S FUNERAL, people marching up and down the streets again as they had four days previously, pretty girls kissing every soldier they saw, automobiles slowly creeping through the crowds and intentionally backfiring to add to the noise of horns and rattles and every other sort of din-making device.

Eight hundred Barnard College girls snake-danced on Morningside Heights in New York; and in Times Square, early in the morning, a girl mounted the platform of “Liberty Hall,” a building set up for war-campaign purposes, and sang the “Doxology” before hushed crowds.

Yet as if to mock the Wilsonian statement about “sober, friendly counsel,” there were contrasting celebrations in which the mood was not that of pious thanksgiving, but of triumphant hate.

Crowds burned the Kaiser in effigy. In New York, a dummy of the Kaiser was washed down Wall Street with a firehose; men carried a coffin made of soap-boxes up and down Fifth Avenue, shouting that the Kaiser was within it, “resting in pieces”; and on Broadway at Seventieth Street, a boy drew pictures of the Kaiser over and over again on the sidewalk, to give the crowds the delight of trampling on them.

   
“Kaiser Funeral”. Goods for U. S. Families had been scarce after we joined the war. The Kaiser wasn’t appreciated by Americans.

So the new era of peace began.

But a million men—to paraphrase Bryan—cannot spring from arms overnight. There were still over three million and a half Americans in the military service, over two million of them in Europe. Uniforms were everywhere.

Even after the tumult and shouting of November 11th had died, the Expeditionary Forces were still in the trenches, making ready for the long, cautious march into Germany; civilians were still saving sugar and eating strange dark breads and saving coal; it was not until ten days had passed that the “lightless” edict of the Fuel Administration was withdrawn, and Broadway and a dozen lesser white ways in other cities blazed once more; the railroads were still operated by the government, and one bought one’s tickets at United States Railroad Administration Consolidated Ticket Offices.

   
Our boys were still overseas.

The influenza epidemic, which had taken more American lives than had the Germans, and had caused thousands of men and women to go about fearfully with white cloth masks over their faces, was only just abating; the newspapers were packed with reports from the armies in Europe, news of the revolution in Germany, of Mr. Wilson’s peace preparations, of the United War Work Campaign, to the exclusion of almost everything else; and day after day, week after week, month after month, the casualty lists went on, and from Maine to Oregon men and women searched them in daily apprehension.

November would normally have brought the climax of the football season, but now scratch college teams, made up mostly of boys who had been wearing the uniform of the Students’ Army Training Corps, played benefit games “to put the War Work Fund over the top”; and further to strengthen the will to give, Charlie Brickley of Harvard drop-kicked a football across Wall Street into the arms of Jack Gates of Yale on the balcony of the Stock Exchange.

   
1918 College Football Championship … missing many players.

Not only the news columns of the papers, but the advertisements also, showed the domination of war-time emotions.

Next to an editorial on “The Right to Hate the Huns,” or a letter suggesting that the appropriate punishment for the Kaiser would be to deport him from country to country, always as an “undesirable alien,” the reader would find a huge United War Work Fund advertisement, urging him to GIVE—GIVE—GIVE!

On another page, under the title of PREPARING AMERICA TO REBUILD THE WORLD, he would find a patriotic blast beginning, “Now that liberty has triumphed, now that the forces of Right have begun their reconstruction of humanity’s morals, the world faces a material task of equal magnitude,” and not until he had waded through several more sentences of sonorous rhetoric would he discover that this “material task” was to be accomplished through the use of Blank’s Steel Windows.

And even as the process of demobilization got definitely under way, as the soldiers began to troop home from the camps, as censorship was done away with and lights were permitted to burn brightly again and women began to buy sugar with an easy conscience; even as this glorious peace began to seem a reality and not a dream, the nation went on thinking with the mind of people at war.

They had learned during the preceding nineteen months to strike down the thing they hated; not to argue or hesitate, but to strike. Germany had been struck down, but it seemed that there was another danger on the horizon.

Bolshevism was spreading from Russia through Europe; Bolshevism might spread to the United States. They struck at it—or at what they thought was it.

A week after the Armistice, Mayor Hylan of New York forbade the display of the red flag in the streets and ordered the police to “disperse all unlawful assemblages.” A few nights later, while the Socialists were holding a mass meeting in Madison Square Garden, five hundred soldiers and sailors gathered from the surrounding streets and tried to storm the doors. It took twenty-two mounted policemen to break up the milling mob and restore order. The next evening there was another riot before the doors of the Palm Garden, farther up town, where a meeting of sympathy for Revolutionary Russia was being held under the auspices of the Women’s International League.

   
In 1918, Russian style Socialists would convene in New York City.

Again soldiers and sailors were the chief offenders. They packed Fifty-Eighth Street for a block, shouting and trying to break their way into the Palm Garden, and in the melee, six persons were badly beaten up. One of the victims was a conservative stockbroker. He was walking up Lexington Avenue with a lady, and seeing the yelling crowd, he asked some one what all the excitement was about. A sailor called out, “Hey, fellows, here’s another of the Bolsheviks,” and in a moment a score of men had leaped upon him, ripped off his tie, and nearly knocked him unconscious. These demonstrations were to prove the first of a long series of post-war anti-Red riots.

The nation at war had formed the habit of summary action, and it was not soon unlearned. The circumstances and available methods had changed, that was all. Employers who had watched with resentment the rising scale of wages paid to labor, under the encouragement of a government that wanted no disaffection in the ranks of the workers, now felt that their chance had come. The Germans were beaten; the next thing to do was to teach labor a lesson. Labor agitators were a bunch of Bolsheviks, anyhow, and it was about time that a man had a chance to make a decent profit in his business. Meanwhile labor, facing a steadily mounting cost of living, and realizing that it was no longer unpatriotic to strike for higher wages, decided to teach the silk-stockinged profiteering employer a lesson in his turn. The result was a bitter series of strikes and lockouts.

There was a summary action with regard to liquor, too. During the war, alcohol had been an obvious menace to the fighting efficiency of the nation. The country, already largely dry by state law and local option, had decided to banish the saloon once and for all. War-time psychology was dominant; no halfway measure would serve. The War-time Prohibition Act was already on the books and due to take effect July 1, 1919. But this was not enough. The Eighteenth Amendment, which would make prohibition permanent and (so it was thought) effective, had been passed by Congress late in 1917, and many of the states had ratified it before the war ended.

With the convening of the state legislatures in January, 1919, the movement for ratification went ahead with amazing speed. The New York Tribune said that it was “as if a sailing-ship on a windless ocean were sweeping ahead, propelled by some invisible force.” “Prohibition seems to be the fashion, just as drinking once was,” exclaimed the Times editorially. By January 16th—within nine weeks of the Armistice—the necessary thirty-six States had ratified the Amendment. Even New York State fell in line a few days later. Whisky and the “liquor ring” were struck at as venomously as were the Reds. There were some misgivings, to be sure; there were those who pointed out that three million men in uniform might not like the new dispensation; but the country was not in the mood to think twice.

Prohibition went through on the tide of the war spirit of “no compromise.”

   
Prohibition is passed. No alcohol for our returning soldiers … no legal alcohol that is.

Yet though the headlong temper of war-time persisted after the Armistice, in one respect the coming of peace brought about a profound change. During the war the nation had gone about its tasks in a mood of exaltation. Top sergeants might remark that the only good Hun was a dead one and that this stuff about making the world safe for democracy was all bunk; four-minute speakers might shout that the Kaiser ought to be boiled in oil.

The fact remained that millions of Americans were convinced that they were fighting in a holy cause, for the rights of oppressed nations, for the end of all war forever, for all that the schoolmaster in Washington so eloquently preached. The singing of the “Doxology” by the girl in Times Square represented their true feeling as truly as the burning of the Kaiser in effigy. The moment the Armistice was signed, however, a subtle change began.

Now those who had never liked Wilson, who thought that he had stayed out of the war too long, that milk and water ran in his veins instead of blood, that he should never have been forgiven for his treatment of Roosevelt and Wood, that he was a dangerous radical at heart and a menace to the capitalistic system, that he should never have appealed to the country for the election of a Democratic Congress, or that his idea of going to Paris himself to the Peace Conference was a sign of egomania—these people began to speak out freely.

There were others who were tired of applauding the French, or who had ideas of their own about the English and the English attitude toward Ireland, or who were sick of hearing about “our noble Allies” in general, or who thought that we had really gone into the war to save our own skins and that the Wilsonian talk about making the world safe for democracy was dangerous and hypocritical nonsense.

They, too, began to speak out freely. Now one could say with impunity, “We’ve licked the Germans and we’re going to lick these damned Boisheviki, and it’s about time we got after Wilson and his crew of pacifists.” The tension of the war was relaxing, the bubble of idealism was pricked.

As the first weeks of peace slipped away, it began to appear doubtful whether the United States was quite as ready as Woodrow Wilson had thought “to assist in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.”

We now know what didn’t happen next.

   
A return to normalcy. Voque magazine shows upcoming dress styles for 1919.
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