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A deeply engaging education… 

Thrive in small courses taught by expert and enthusiastic faculty. Investigate global topics and understand diverse perspectives. Learn to rigorously question, research, analyze, discuss, and advocate.

…that extends beyond the classroom…

Complete an internship, study abroad, or undertake independent research. Present at a conference, publish in a journal, or aspire to join an honor society. Experience a sense of community and pride through events, trips, and workshops.

…to prepare you for the future.

Enjoy individualized advising and career-oriented events aimed at post-graduation success. Get to know, and then join, Ursinus History alumni, who enjoy graduate degrees and successful careers in a wide range of fields. 

“The past is never dead. 
It’s not even past.” 

William Faulkner
Requiem for a Nun

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From the History News Network 

  • Click HERE for our most recent articles on Veterans Day. Click HERE for our articles on World War 1.

    Veterans Day, Ninety-Five Years On by Adam Hochschild and Joe Sacco

    The enduring folly of the Battle of the Somme.

    NOVEMBER 11, 2013

    Veterans Day in Ireland by Jason R. Myers

    For one thing, it’s not Veterans Day, it’s Remembrance Day. For another, it’s not an official holiday, even though some 200,000 Irishman fought in World War I.

    NOVEMBER 11, 2013

    Prepare to Welcome Our Troops Home from Afghanistan by Vaughn Davis Bornet

    America’s longest war will soon be over.

    NOVEMBER 11, 2013

    This Veterans Day, Beware the Dangers of Robot War by William Astore

    This Veterans Day, we need to turn away from the false promise of robot weaponry

    NOVEMBER 12, 2012

    Veterans Day is a Time for Love for One’s Country by Vaughn Davis Bornet

    What can be said on Veterans Day 2011 that has not been said repeatedly over our years of remembering war and that final peace?

    NOVEMBER 11, 2011

    This Veterans Day, Let’s Reflect on the D.C. War Memorial by Jeffrey S. Reznick

    We should celebrate the newly-restored District of Columbia War Memorial.

    NOVEMBER 7, 2011

    Remembering Generosity and Commitment this Veterans Day by William Astore

    Let’s remember that America’s veterans have often exhibited remarkable generosity of spirit and awe-inspiring levels of commitment.

    NOVEMBER 11, 2010

    Honoring Indian Veterans This Veterans Day by Ed Hooper

    More than 44,000 Indians served in World War II.

    NOVEMBER 7, 2010

    Keeping Veterans Day Alive by Ed Hooper

    Veterans Day celebrations are in retrenchment all over the country.

    NOVEMBER 1, 2009

    This Veterans Day Let’s Hear from the Troops Themselves by Robert E. Bonner

    This years Veterans Day comes in the wake of fierce political campaigning over which policies best serve the interest of U.S. soldiers.

    NOVEMBER 10, 2006

  • The 369th in action. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. Seen here at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, they wear the U.S. Army-issue Brodie helmet, correct for that time. (Wikipedia)

    Over the past two years as a proud black veteran and journalist I have tried to come to terms with this: the commander-in-chief of our Armed Forces is a “bone spur” draft-dodging, self-proclaimed sexual assaulter who is unabashedly sympathetic to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. This President of the United States of America catapulted himself into office insulting and demonizing black and brown people; now calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” and continually assaults and undermines constitutional norms and the rule of law. Really hard to accept. 

    But on closer reflection, had I been a patriotic young black man in Harlem in the same time period one hundred years ago, what I would have faced then could well have been equally if not more distressing: the worst period, the actual nadir of race relations in the country since the halcyon days of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. A President, Woodrow Wilson, so racist he was quoted at least three times in D W Griffith’s lavish film paean to the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of A Nation. A President so in love with the KKK and the Confederacy’s Lost Cause he made Birth of A Nation the first film ever screened at the White House. A President so reluctant about possibly “depleting the white race” he hesitated to commit the US to the defense of democracy and the free world in the First World War, but also reluctantly allowed blacks to be drafted into a segregated US Army for possible service in that war. 

    But, as with other young men of the times, as a young, adventurous resident of Harlem, I would no doubt have been equally caught up in the fervor of patriotically doing my duty, not just for my country, but for my race. Seem strange? Not really. That’s what we’ve done from our earliest days in this land and in this village, which our ancestors built back in 1658. And the men who came to comprise the 369th Infantry Regiment—those Harlem Hellfighters—were no exception. 

      But If one meanders eastward on 125th Street across Third Avenue towards the East River, you’ll run into where the East River (FDR) Drive feeds northward into the Harlem River Drive as it flows past the Manhattan entrance to the Triborough (now Robert F Kennedy) Bridge. Flautist Bobbi Humphrey’s sinuous, sensuously-lilting performance of her composition of the same name on her 1973 Blacks and Blues album beautifully captures that feeling of top-down, breezy, carefree coursing along those slowly winding curves of the western shore of the Harlem River as one heads further uptown. Officially opened for auto traffic in 1964—thirty years after the FDR Drive—it has now been renamed the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive. Aptly so. The huge, almost hundred-year-old landmarked 369th Regiment Armory sits at the very northern end of Fifth Avenue just at the southbound 142nd Street to that Harlem River/369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive. It’s of course the home of those truly legendary Black Rattlers—another colorful nickname they actually gave themselves. 

    It’s safe to say that the Tuskegee Airmen have finally begun to get their justly deserved praise and honor for their exploits against the Germans in WWII. On the other hand, the Harlem Hellfighters have yet to get theirs for equally extraordinary valor—against the Germans—in WWI, the so-called Great War or “War to end all Wars.” As we delineated in our historical documentary series on the legacy of the New York African Burial Ground “Then I’ll Be Free To Travel Home, blacks, though often conflicted and sometimes not necessarily in their own best interest, always fought in defense of life, freedom, property, and the general welfare in whatever communities they found themselves. They did it with and for the Dutch against Native Americans in the 1600s; with the Patriots when they revolted against the English in the late 1700s; with the newly formed nation, again against the British, in the War of 1812; with the North against the South to put an end to slavery and preserve the Union. Always with demonstrated ability, valor and loyalty. One would think that by the outbreak of the First World War, their courage, skill and loyalty would no longer be an issue. Not quite. 

    Shipped over to France as the 15th Infantry Regiment in December of 1917, they were assigned, not to combat duty, but as a “manual labor force.” By the Spring of 1918 the unit had been re-designated the 369th Regiment and assigned to the French Army, simply because of the regiment’s race.

    Why? The white American Expeditionary Forces commanders and their troops considered them inferior and were unwilling to have the all-black—Black Puerto Ricans included—369th serve with them. Fortunately the regiment’s white commander, New Yorker William Hayward, reportedly had nothing but the greatest respect for the troops under his command. He definitely did not share the racist beliefs of the other American Expeditionary Forces “top brass.” But their racial animosity toward Hayward’s men was so intense, they actually wrote and distributed an infamous pamphlet: “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops.” It labeled the men of the 369th as not only inferior, but also “warned” the French people about their supposed “rapist tendencies.” Without doubt a most dastardly propaganda pamphlet, put out, not by the German enemy, but by their very own American Expeditionary Forces. 

    So one needs to understand some basic stuff here. White men in “uniform” acting as agents of the state, who fear and detest black men—want to see them as less than human—did not begin with 21st century police killing unarmed Black men and women. You need to know and understand not just the roots of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but the deeply ingrained roots of white supremacist thinking in this country. Start with the belief that you can own and hold another human being as your chattel-property; follow that with those Runaway Slave-Catcher Patrols and Blackbirders indiscriminately trying to kidnap and return escapees and free blacks “back” to Southern plantations; work your way forward through those Southern White Citizens Councils and their KKK-Knights of the White Camelias and other such “troupes” terrorizing black families after the post-Civil War short-lived-and-sabotaged Reconstruction experiment in black equality; right up through those bloody race riots in the “Red Summer” of 1919 when blacks stopped letting white mobs terrorize their communities and literally fought back, with guns; continue through those 20th century mobs-and-state-sponsored lynchings of blacks right up to Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanrahan and his “FBI-surrogate” cops executing Chicago Black Panther and Community Leader Fred Hampton in his bed in December of 1969, and unto this current rash of killings by “Men-and-Women in Blue” with badges. 

    That is the history. That American Expeditionary Forces pamphlet denigrating and maligning the men of the 369th was just a part of that almost 400-year pattern of negative national anti-black racial animosity and death-dealing. The French? They ignored the pamphlet. They had no such racial hang-ups back then. After all, one of the greatest military men who helped secure their own revolution was none other than the legendary Black count, General Alex Dumas, son of a Haitian slave, father to the great novelist Alexandre Dumas, and the actual  “model” for such Dumas works as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The French happily welcomed the 369th as comrades-in-arms with outstretched open arms. Rightly so. 

    From the 8th of May 1918 when they deployed into frontline trenches to the end of the war, the 369th spent no less than 191 days in battle. Not only did they record the longest deployment of any Unit in WWI—six months—they got their Hellfighters nickname from their German enemy combatants because of their ferocious tenacity in battle. The 369th never lost a foot of ground, and never had a man taken prisoner. Captured, yes, taken prisoner, absolutely not. Anyone the Germans caught was immediately snatched right back. An amazing record. Bill Miles, one of my long-time documentary filmmaking idols, used the Regiment’s own self-dubbed nickname—probably picked-up from their French comrades—Men of Bronze, as the title for his 1977 documentary that chronicled their remarkable achievements. Remarkable is an understatement. 

    The first two Americans to receive the coveted French Croix de Guerre—Private Henry Johnson and Corporal Needham Roberts—were members of the 369th. Just about every high-profile WWI battle saw the Black Rattlers in action: Sechault; the Second Battle of the Marne; Belleau Wood; Chateau-Thierry; Champagne-Marne; Meuse-Argonne, and more. The 369th was the first Allied unit to reach and cross the Rhine River into Germany. By the war’s end, the regimen had its own French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and 171 of its members had exhibited such “extraordinary valor,” they’d been awarded either the Croix de Guerre or the Legion of Honor by the French. Not too shabby for a supposedly inferior regiment.

    Now, the flip side of all that “in your (American Expeditionary Forces) face” derring-do: their unheralded but equally amazing musical legacy. I contend that Jazz—born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago and Kansas City, and fully nurtured to maturity in Harlem—is a global phenomenon thanks to the 369th. Not only did Master Musician James Reese Europe lead its outstanding marching band, he also formed small groups that played in local French clubs and cafes. The “new music” they played—Jazz—and how they played it, revolutionized the French musical canon. It naturally spread throughout Europe and beyond, and the rest is of course history.

    On their triumphant return home, on February 17th 1919, they were the very first of the returning units to victoriously march down the streets of New York City. Had they worn all the French and American awards they’d earned—Croix de Guerre’s, Legion of Honors, Distinguished Service Crosses, two Medals of Honor—they’d probably have looked like walking pin-cushions. Formidable pin-cushions. I can see them now, pictured in the old mind’s eye—or maybe from some sepia stereograph prints or old newsreel clips in Men of Bronze—heads high, shoulders squared, as they proudly stepped with military precision up Fifth Avenue. From somewhere south of 39th Street, with throngs of whites cheering them on, they paraded northwards to that 110th Street Harlem-demarcation line, then moved westward over to Lenox Avenue and again northwards through the center of their home village, where thousands of Harlemites, bursting with pride, joyously welcomed them home. 

    These men and their Harlem neighbors expected the service that they and other black and brown military men had rendered in such an exemplary manner would change the discriminatory racial climate in their home country. As with similar past service, it did not. In the South, many of those Black veterans were shot or lynched while in uniform trying to exercise all their rights as free citizens. From that riotous “Red Summer” of 1919, North and South, right up to the start of WWII, the racial climate for blacks in this country went from merely terrible to the very pits of hell. And yet, that did not discourage these men or their descendants from battling at home, or on future wartime battlefronts, to change all that discriminatory crap. 

    My own family-line picks up that thread after WWII with a through-line into the 21st Century. Uncle Norton—Panamanian immigrant, career-Army: Korean Conflict; yours truly, Regular USAF, navigator, almost eight years: Vietnam War; Nephew Mark—USAF Academy grad, 20-year service, aircraft commander: Desert Storm. And that’s just one black family. Think about the many thousands serving from the 1600s to the present. Serving by choice. Knowing it’s a flawed, often exclusionary country that only grudgingly accepts and values their effort. Knowing that despite its flaws, what those equally flawed Founding Fathers put on paper for the best interest of their white, male oligarchic few, “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and most definitely will-a be made applicable to everyone in the country. 

    That Constitution we swore to uphold and defend “against all enemies foreign and domestic” when we signed-up and donned those uniforms is an amendable document. We will be as tenacious as those 369th Harlem Hellfighters in this never-ending battle for full citizenship, dignity and acknowledgement of our full humanity. Nothing less. 

    My Uncle Norton passed before I could check with him, but my nephew Mark and I are in agreement: those young high school and college students (and though somewhat late, his NFL counterparts) who followed Colin Kaepernick’s protest example—taking a knee, or raising a clenched fist—definitely have our blessing and support. As did the men of the 369th, we’ve risked our lives on more than one occasion in actual combat/combat-support missions to loyally protect and defend the flag of our country. Note: our country. That flag—that Anthem—are simply visible symbols of the principles and laws on which the country is built, i.e. the Constitution. 

    Loyalty is a two-way street. A reciprocal flow: you give it, you get it, you give it – and so it goes. Until the system the society that purports to honor that flag and that anthem and Constitution truly accords black, brown and other non-white people in this country full citizenship—more specifically, full and equal protection under the law – Kaepernick and any one else all have the right to peacefully protest when, where and how they see fit. Every right to signal that our “distress,” to put it mildly, is in need of immediate redress. My extended family fought to guarantee that right (at least one too clandestinely to be mentioned here). 

    The men of the 369th fought for that right. They could and would easily sympathize with Kaepernick and the price he currently pays for publicly and symbolically still “kneeling” his truth to power: a bona fide Superbowl quarterback locked out of a job by monopolistic owners who intend to punish his audacity to challenge the wanton, unchecked, unpunished killings of predominantly black and brown and mostly young people by police and other law enforcement agents all across this country. I have no doubt those men of the 369th would adopt Colin Kaepernick as one of their own.

    The 369th was and is a legendary “landmark” unit. The 369th Regiment Armory, the unit’s Harlem home, was indeed built to honor those loyal, patriotic WWI Black Rattlers. The first section was constructed between 1920 and1924. The red-brick Art Deco administrative complex was completed in 1933. Its two-acre size takes up more than half of the city block between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue). It was landmarked by New York City in 1985 and placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1995. The Armory is home to not only the current iteration of the 369th Regiment: the 369th Sustainment Brigade of the New York Army National Guard, but also the 369th Historical Society and its Museum. The building is currently undergoing renovations, so the Society and its Museum Collection has been temporarily displaced. It would be shameful if the Society and its Collection of 369th Regiment artifacts and memorabilia are not returned to their Harlem home in that Armory once renovations are completed. 

    Interestingly enough, I actually live in a landmark building that was once the Harlem home of W.C. Handy, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Blues. My onetime fifth floor neighbor Eleanor Wheatland, a longtime friend and/or fan of the great classical pianist Andre Watts became my oldest daughter Traci’s piano teacher. She also wrote the harmony for “And That Was Puerto Rico” one of the premier ballads in our Off-Off Broadway Musical “Sh-Boom!”which Rosetta LeNoire’s AMAS! Musical Repertory Theatre mounted in 1986. And here is a non-sequitur connection: Rosetta LeNoire was my real theatrical friend and mentor; Eubie Blake was her longtime theatrical friend and mentor; Noble Sissle was Mr. Blake’s longtime theatrical friend and collaborator (they co-wrote the 1921 blockbuster Broadway Musical “Shuffle Along”). Guess which military unit Noble Sissle served with during WWI? The 369th Harlem Hellfighters. 

    Zero degrees of separation. That’s why I want those men and their exploits to be known, respected and properly honored. I truly feel connected to them. Hopefully this is a start. 

  • Nothing seems more truly American than New York City. A century ago, however, many people feared that it had become a strange, foreign presence in the United States. By the 1910s, waves of immigration from all over the world, but especially central and eastern Europe, had transformed the metropolis into a crazy-quilt fabric of perpetual contrast. Take a walk down any street in lower Manhattan and you would hear several different languages being spoken, see every imaginable outfit, and smell food preparations sufficient to fill a million cookbooks.

    Practically the only common language all New Yorkers could share was that of sports. City-goers loved to watch and discuss baseball, college football, boxing, and horse racing, and they demanded top-notch sportswriters to feed their obsessions. Enter Damon Runyon, reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American. A chain-smoking, wisecracking Coloradoan with piercing eyes and an attentive ear, he wove stories of individual athletes and fans into compelling adventures that everyone could enjoy. In time he developed a knack for tracking down misfit characters from New York’s ever-changing pageant and telling their tales in a uniquely colorful language that came to be called Runyonesque.

    In the spring and summer of 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, Runyon reported on baseball’s spring training and regular season, finishing with the World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants (the Sox won, to New York City’s bitter disappointment). Runyon then moved on to boxing, where he watched and got to know Benny Leonard, the Lightweight Champion of the World.

    A poor Jewish kid by origin, Leonard had adopted another Jewish boy named Fly Gilbert from a New York City orphanage and raised him to adulthood. When the United States entered the war, Gilbert was drafted to serve as a private in the 77th “Metropolitan” Division, raised largely from greater New York City. In the fall of 1917, as Runyon watched and reported, Leonard went to the division’s training facility at Camp Upton, Long Island, to train its’ officers (including future Medal of Honor recipients Charles Whittlesey and George McMurtry) how to fight in the boxing ring. Leonard also kept an eye on Gilbert; and when the troops of the 77th Division prepared to fight for combat in France in early 1918, Leonard pulled Runyon aside. If you can get over to France, he told the reporter, be sure to check up on my boy Fly.

    Runyon didn’t need any urging. He had been a soldier once himself, in the Spanish-American War, but he hadn’t done any fighting. Instead he had spent his time in the Philippines hanging around the barracks and the streets of Manila, catching stories that he reported in the soldiers’ newspaper. During that time, he had learned how to uncover the common humanity beneath the uniforms. Now, in 1918, Runyon was eager to do the same again—this time for the men and women of the American Expeditionary Forces, and especially for “New York’s Own,” the 77th Division. Runyon didn’t hesitate when, sometime later, his boss William Randolph Hearst gave him the chance to go overseas as a war correspondent.

    The 77th got there before him. Although it was an all-draftee division made up largely of men from greater New York City—very many of them recent immigrants who barely spoke English, and some of them not even naturalized American citizens—the 77th was sent quickly to the front. When the Metropolitan Division first moved into the lines, German scouts heard the Doughboys talking in their trenches and thought it was an Italian Division. 77th Division officers like Whittlesey and McMurtry, respectively a successful lawyer and a millionaire stockbroker, worked hard to train the diverse men under their command.

    When Runyon arrived in France at the end of September, he learned that the 77th Division had been deployed in the forbidding Argonne Forest, attacking well-entrenched German positions and taking heavy casualties. He made a beeline for the front. One night in early October, Fly Gilbert was sitting in a shell hole amid enemy machine gun and artillery fire when an officer rolled in next to him, followed by Damon Runyon, his natty outfit now covered with mud.

    “This guy wants to spend a little time with you and move up farther,” said the officer. “He’s a correspondent.” The officer left as Gilbert disdainfully regarded the reporter. “You’re a sucker,” he drawled. “Go back where it’s comfortable.” Runyon smiled and shook his head. “My name is Runyon of the New York American,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of circulation back home. This is a good story.” In time the two made friends, thanks to Runyon’s jokes and tall tales. Gilbert didn’t learn until later that Benny Leonard had sent Runyon to check up on him.

    While he was in the woods, Runyon learned about a group of about six hundred men from the 77th Division who had been cut off behind enemy lines. Led by Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry, and known as the Lost Battalion, the force endured constant enemy attacks for five days. On October 8, finally, the Lost Battalion made it out of the forest thanks in part to the exploits of a red-headed young Tennessee corporal with the 82nd Division named Alvin C. York. Runyon rushed to be there as the men walked out of the Argonne.

    Runyon first spoke with Major Whittlesey, marveling at how this modest intellectual with glasses perched on his nose above a “funny little smile,” could have led a battalion of New York City’s toughest denizens through such an ordeal. Next he met Captain McMurtry, who was covered with so many wounds, some of them infected, that he could barely move—but who carried a look of vital determination in his eyes. Finally, Runyon went to interview the common soldiers, asking where they came from and how they had lived before and during the war. Once a collection of fruit-cart vendors, elevator operators, dishwashers and small time hoods, these men had learned to depend entirely on each other in the worst possible circumstances and become, each in their own way, heroes. And Runyon knew that the war had forever changed them.

    In his first dispatches stateside and other articles that he wrote over the following months before returning to New York City, Runyon told the stories of these men with a drama, flair and affection that emphasized their common humanity. Above all, he showed how their common struggles as soldiers had forged bonds that pointed toward a common identity for the people of the United States. Though some people had doubted their loyalty and commitment to their adopted country, Runyon presented the men of the Lost Battalion as New Yorkers, and Americans all. When they returned to the United States in 1919 after victory had been won, Runyon’s New York American printed a cartoon that represented the feelings of every man, woman and child in the city. It showed the Statue of Liberty leaning over and enveloping the Doughboys in her embrace.

  • The heads of the “Big Four” nations at the Paris Peace Conference, 27 May 1919. From left to right: David Lloyd GeorgeVittorio OrlandoGeorges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson

    November 11, 2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I. This is a good time to reflect on the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, the American president who tried to create a lasting peace out of that cease-fire. Unfortunately, negotiations in Paris in 1919-1920 did not produce the result he sought. A larger and more destructive global conflict erupted two decades later. 

    Does President Wilson bear some responsibility for the crisis that followed? Since he arrived at the peace talks with worldwide popularity, did Wilson fail to wield his influence effectively? Or, were the obstacles so daunting that just about any American president would find it nearly impossible to shape a long-lasting peace?

    Woodrow Wilson has received generally high grades for presidential leadership in surveys of historians, political scientists, and biographers. In 2018 scholars ranked Wilson eleventh among forty-five presidents. Wilson deserves praise for shepherding important progressive legislation through Congress and for articulating idealistic war aims through his Fourteen Points, but he stumbled badly when negotiating with America’s allies in Paris and members of the U.S. Congress in Washington. The story of his last two years in office is a tragic account of frustration and failure.

    It should be noted, however, that President Wilson faced daunting challenges when negotiating at the Paris peace conference. Prior to America’s entry in the war, Wilson had called for a generous “peace without victory.” He hoped the victors would not punish the losers harshly. But leaders in Paris representing France, Britain and Italy demanded the spoils of victory. Their tough position was not surprising. European soldiers and sailors had been in the war much longer than U.S. forces and experienced much greater losses. Europe’s negotiators wanted territorial control, substantial monetary compensation, and acceptance of “war guilt clause” by Germany. Wilson reluctantly agreed to many of the allies’ terms. He placed hope for a better future in the work of a new organization, the League of Nations.

    President Wilson failed to secure U.S. membership in the League of Nations, but even if he had succeeded, an American-backed League might, nevertheless, have been ineffective in confronting aggression. In the Twenties and Thirties, many Americans favored limited U.S. engagement in global affairs. They distrusted the kind of sustained international involvement that President Wilson championed. Isolationist sentiment was strong in America, and citizens in Britain and France were slow to confront the emerging threats as well.

    Resistance to international cooperation was, indeed, difficult to achieve at the time, but were the obstacles insurmountable? Did Woodrow Wilson have the potential to drive a harder bargain in the peace negotiations? Could he have done a better job negotiating with members of Congress? Was a stronger U.S. commitment to collective security possible? Did the president miss opportunities to build the foundation for a safer future?

    Woodrow Wilson possessed more leverage in dealing with the European allies than is commonly acknowledged. The president began his trip to Paris with enormous emotional support both in the United States and in Europe. Huge crowds gave him a noisy sendoff when his ship left the United States, and millions welcomed him as a hero when he traveled in Europe.

    Wilson’s influence at that time involved more than just international popularity. The United States had emerged from the war much richer and more powerful than other nations at the conference. The president had impressive financial clout to wield at the negotiations in Paris. The U.S. government and private American bankers had loaned the allies more than $10 billion. Wilson could have offered plans to forgive portions of that huge debt in return for acceptance of his wartime goal of achieving a just peace.

    John Maynard Keynes, later a famous economist, presented some insightful observations on opportunities missed by Wilson and others in a book published in 1919, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes, who attended the peace conference, complained that Wilson capitulated when the allies insisted that Germany pay huge reparations. John Maynard Keynes warned that the harsh peace settlement would bring misery to the German people. Resentments could lead to another world war. A far better approach to advancing peace, argued Keynes, was to promote German prosperity (after World War II, the U.S. supported such a program, the Marshall Plan).

    Wilson was ineffective in Paris in large part because he insisted on dominating U.S. negotiations. The president did not seek much help from diplomats in his State Department, and he selected minor figures for his team of delegates. An exception was “Colonel” Edward House, a close friend and brilliant adviser. But Wilson turned angry when House negotiated in Wilson’s absence, and the friendship disintegrated. President Wilson did not appoint U.S. senators or current Republican leaders to the delegation. He aimed to wield extensive personal control over deliberations. Key European leaders found Wilson haughty, self-righteous, and egotistical. Eventually they out-maneuvered the over-burdened American president.

    Obstinacy became a glaring problem when President Wilson tried to commit the U.S. Congress to a peace treaty and membership in the League of Nations. A wise leader would have recognized that the political situation favored negotiation. Republicans had won control of both the Senate and the House in the 1918 midterm elections. American commitment to a peace treaty required 2/3 approval in the Senate. There were fourteen “irreconcilables,” and other senators had “reservations.” Democratic leaders urged Wilson to work a deal. The president vowed to “make no compromise or concession of any kind.” He demanded compliance, even though senators raised legitimate questions about provisions in the treaty and plans for the League that might threaten American sovereignty.

    President Wilson decided to go over the heads of U.S. senators and take his case directly to the American people. A strenuous schedule of cross-country speech-making strained his health. Eventually he suffered a massive stroke. Wilson was partially paralyzed. Throughout the rest of his presidency, from September 1919 to March 1921, he had minimal contact with political leaders. His wife, a bright woman who lacked political experience, described his wishes to officials and legislators. In many respects, Edith Wilson served as an unelected Chief Executive.

    Not surprisingly, Wilson’s inflexibility contributed to the defeat of his cause. The United States did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations. Perhaps a healthier and more tactful president could have employed U.S. financial leverage more effectively in Paris, beating back the Europeans’ mistaken demand that Germany pay $33 billion in reparations. Perhaps an astute president could have negotiated more effectively with Congress, securing greater U.S. commitment to collective security.

    We cannot know if human progress would have been substantially better if a different leader had been guiding U.S. policy in the aftermath of World War I. What we do know is that Woodrow Wilson was increasingly debilitated and ineffective at a crucial time in global history. The record of Wilson’s flawed decision-making in 1919-1920 suggests that his near-great ranking among the American presidents should be a matter of debate.

  • This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the armistice between the opponents in the Great War, or what—following another total world-wide war only two decades later—would come to be called World War I. The centenary of Armistice Day, now Veterans Day in the United States, serves as a reminder of the difficulty of ending war. As the prime minister of France Georges Clemenceau commented during negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles to resolve the conflict: “It is much easier to make war than peace.” In fact, this “peace” disappointed and embittered not just the Germans, but many others in the collapsed empires of central and eastern Europe, bequeathing a complicated and destructive legacy for much of the rest of the twentieth century and even still today.

    The peace of 1918-1919 failed for many, complex reasons. But its architects may be faulted for neglecting to consider previous models of peacemaking. Such a model existed just over a hundred years earlier, in the settlement to end the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars following the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Although a study of the Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815 was commissioned by the British Foreign Office in 1919, it was ignored during the negotiations at Versailles. Of course, the democratic governments responsible for making peace in the aftermath of the Great War faced even more challenges—in many more nations—than the autocratic leaders who negotiated a settlement for Europe and its overseas colonies following the defeat of Napoleon. Nonetheless, they could have learned a lot from the approach to peacemaking adopted by the Allies against Napoleon in 1815, which succeeded in rehabilitating the defeated nation and securing continent-wide peace for almost a century. Although it has been overshadowed by the dramatic events of the twentieth century, the post-Napoleonic settlement still has much to teach us about how to make peace today.

    In 1815, the Congress of Vienna was just one part of a larger post-war settlement. Interrupted by the return of Napoleon from exile that spring, it was supplemented by a Second Treaty of Paris, imposed by the Allied powers on the defeated French in November 1815, little more than a year after a First Treaty of Paris following the initial defeat of Napoleon in March 1814. This new treaty introduced three institutions that revolutionized peacemaking:

    *Establishment of a multinational “occupation of guarantee” against revolution, consisting of 150,000 men around eighteen garrison towns along the northeastern frontier of France under the command of British general Duke of Wellington, for up to five years

    *Imposition of financial indemnities to repair the damages (rather than just reward the victors) of war, payment of which was a condition of liberation from occupation

    *Creation of a Council of Allied Ambassadors, which met regularly in Paris to monitor government and ensure reform in the defeated country.

    The stipulations of the Second Treaty of Paris were intended to ensure “proper indemnities for the past and solid guarantees for the future.” While this settlement was not necessarily democratic, it was relatively liberal in its goal to reconstruct the defeated nation and reincorporate it into the community of nations. As its main architect, the Duke of Wellington, explained to the British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh in August 1815: “These measures will not only give us, during the period of occupation, all the military security which could be expected from the permanent cession [of territory], but, if carried into execution in the spirit in which they are conceived, they are in themselves the bond of peace.”

    Under the leadership of Wellington, the post-Napoleonic settlement worked to re-stabilize the defeated power, within a very short period of time. The occupation of guarantee, financial reparations, and Allied Council of Ambassadors combined to encourage the French government, and people to forge a moderate path between revolution and counter-revolution. Under pressure from the Council of Allied Ambassadors, the restored monarchy dissolved the ultra-royalist legislature, enabling a number of important liberal reforms, regarding elections, military recruitment, the press, and the budget, which was crucial for financing the payments due to the Allies. In an effort to end the peace

    keeping occupation as quickly as possible, the French paid off the reparations owed to the Allies—which, it should be noted, were significantly higher relative to GDP than those imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles—two years ahead of schedule, paving the way for liberation of their territory in November 1818.

    Focused on clear goals of ensuring financial indemnification and political stability, the Second Treaty of Paris constituted one of the most successful cases of war termination ever. Following the breakdown of the Napoleonic Empire, the Allied victors developed new institutions not just to contain but also to reconstruct the defeated power as well as bind themselves to each other. Aside from contained conflicts such as the Crimean War and the German Wars of Unification, the Congress System prevented continent-wide war until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.

    In the aftermath of that new total war, this precedent was overlooked by the victors at great expense. Only after another, even more devastating, total war would the Allies—led by a new superpower, the United States—take a similarly progressive approach to peacemaking. Since 1945, this approach, centered on international cooperation, especially in the institutions of what is now called the European Union, has kept the continent at peace. Recently, however, the ghosts of the settlement of 1919—particularly, virulent nationalism—have returned to haunt Europe. To lay them permanently to rest will require renewing our commitment to Wellington’s goal of the “bond of peace.” 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket