It took 20 years 298 days, 17 hours and 34 minutes from the end of the First World War until the start of the Second World War. Barely enough time for a new generation of European boys to be conceived, born and grow up to be soldiers.
Veterans Day is not that important a holiday in the United States. There are no fireworks like on the Fourth of July. There are no nationally televised parades like on Thanksgiving Day. There are no lawn decorations months in advance of the holiday like for Christmas (and increasingly for Halloween). It is more important than Presidents’ Day (an amalgam of Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays to make room for Martin Luther King Day) and Columbus Day (which is becoming indigenous peoples’ day). It is true that federal offices and banks are closed. Our local community will have a little parade at Veterans Park but the parade is on Saturday the 10th of November, not on the 11th (which the actual holiday) or the 12th (when the offices are closed).
I was reminded about Veterans Day by a television ad by Polish people thanking America for their independence because the end of the First World War marked the creation of modern Poland. November 11th is a major holiday for Poles, marked by fireworks and parades. It is also a big deal in England and in France (where it is called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day). It was then that I realized that 2018 was the 100th anniversary of that armistice.
But Polish independence only lasted less than 21 years before it was crushed by Nazi and Soviet forces that invaded and occupied the country in 1939, plunging Europe back into war. Why? What happened to the war to end all wars? What happened to the League of Nations?
There were many reasons why the world was beset by another global war but one of the most important reasons was that once the war was over the United States turned its back on the rest of the world. The United States refused to join the League of Nations. When a financial crisis hit the stock market the response was the Smoot Hawley tariffs that precipitated a global trade war that turned the financial crisis into the Great Depression.
The second global conflagration was much more devastating than the first with 70 to 85 million deaths compared to 15 to 20 million deaths in the first (most of the increase due to civilian casualties). But since the end of the Second World War the world has generally known peace and stability.
What was the difference? This time the United States did not turn its back on the rest of the world. America shepherded the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods financial institutions to administer the peace and to try and stop regional conflicts from metastasizing into global conflicts.
It is true that these institutions are deeply flawed and woefully in need of reform and regeneration. And it is also true that the United States and other Western countries have made many mistakes in the last seventy years. That there were still bloody conflicts like the Korean War and the Viet Nam War. That there are still regional conflicts, genocide, poverty, starvation and many other devastating acts perpetrated by humans on other humans.
But people are wrong to believe that American global leadership has been a failure. The issue is not that those years could have been better. Of course they could have. But they could have been worse, a lot worse. Without the US Europe would have been behind the Iron Curtain. And bereft of the Marshall plan millions would have died and Western Europe would be playing catch up just like Eastern Europe (which is now flourishing). Mao’s China would have swept over Southeast Asia creating multiple versions of Cambodia (which lost a quarter of its population to communism).
And it is true that American generosity has been poorly repaid by the other countries it helped. Our former enemies, Germany and Japan, are now successful and peaceful democracies thanks to the US but they do little to support the burdens of global leadership. Western Europe would have starved without the Marshall Plan but now charge high tariffs on American food exports. Europe would have been part of the Soviet gulag without NATO but our allies shirk their financial obligations to defend their own lands.
At the end of WWII, the US produced about 50% of the global GDP. Today it produces a little less than 25% of global GDP. If the world were a zero sum game, that would mean the US lost big time. But global production has grown enormously and many people have risen out of poverty as a result (this alone makes the world a safer place). It might be true that if the US had turned our backs on the rest of the world after WWII we might still produce 50% of global GDP. But it would be a bigger piece of a much smaller pie and the rest of the world would be a nasty, unsafe place.
With hindsight it is easy to see that the world would be a better place over the last seventy years if we had only done this or that thing better. It is also true that ordinary Americans (whether service men and women, blue collar workers or housewives) have paid much of the price for our generosity. But we can fix that without resorting to populism and nationalism that turns our backs on the rest of the world once again.
So on this Veterans/Armistice/Remembrance Day let us not only honor our Veterans and war dead. Let us learn from the flawed peace that followed the end of World War One so that we can avoid another global conflict that this time could wipe out humanity.
And while we're at it:
President Trump wants to make America great again. But it was not the America that turned its back on Europe and the rest of the world after the end of World War One that was great. Our doughboys were brave soldiers and turned the outcome of that war from defeat into victory. But it was our G.I.s that fought in World War Two that made up the Greatest Generation. But it wasn’t just the victory that made them the Greatest Generation. It was also the peace.
And if the vision for the future of the victorious allies was flawed it was not their fault because all visions of the future are flawed. And maybe our implementation of the peace made mistakes and errors of judgment. And sometimes our human nature or plain old political expediency led us to act stupidly or against our own principles. But the world after World War Two was substantially more peaceful and prosperous than almost any other time in history. And that was a great accomplishment.
The institutions created in the aftermath of World War Two helped greatly in maintaining the peace and promoting prosperity for many years but are now in need of reform or restoration. Some of these institutions have been captured by forces inimical to democracy, free markets and Western values in general.
President Trump should use his upcoming trip to Paris to celebrate Armistice Day to reach out to other world leaders that share our values in addition to French President Emmanuel Macron. But he is probably correct to not attend the related Paris Peace Forum that appears to be little more than a simulacrum of the other failing international institutions. The attendance of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan guarantees that this forum will make little real progress towards real peace.
President Macron said earlier this week that that the geopolitical climate is reminiscent of the buildup before the previous world wars. And he is right. Now is the time for President Trump to start building a strong alliance that will be able to resist the forces gathering against us. NATO needs to be strengthened and expanded to include all freedom-loving democracies. The threats to our civilization and way of life are not limited to the North Atlantic and emanate from all over the globe.
President Trump needs to look beyond trade deficits and stock market gyrations. There are greater dangers out there and America will need all the friends it can get to survive the coming onslaught. On Armistice Day he needs to remember why that peace did not last.