Politics & Prose November 2006

War Disposes

Soon the last of the "doughboys" of 1917-1918 will be gone. What did America's entry into the Great War achieve?
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The author's father, 2nd from left,
aboard the USS Mount Vernon.
Click here to see a larger photo.

In 1918 they numbered 4.7 million; now, a Veteran’s Day survey conducted by the Scripps-Howard News Service found, only twelve remain. Since the youngest, Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, (who lied about his age to join the Army) is 105, 2007 will likely see the passing of the last American veteran of World War One. My father, John J. Beatty, served in that war; he is the second head-bandaged sailor on the left seen in the photo at right. A German U-boat had just torpedoed his ship, the USS Mount Vernon, in the Bay of Biscay, killing thirty-six of his crewmates, the war’s highest toll of casualties for a single Navy vessel. The Mount Vernon, a former German ocean liner converted into a troop transport, seen in this photo, did not sink; the torpedo blew a hole in her port side but left her boilers intact. Behind the protective smoke screen laid down by the destroyer seen distantly in the photo below, it returned to Brest, the American base in Brittany, under its own steam.

smoke screen
The smoke screen laid down by the destroyer. Click here to see a larger photo.

My father joined the Navy to stay out of the Army—not to "make the world safe for democracy," nor win a "peace without victory," nor create a post-war "concert of nations" that would secure "the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments" and protect "the rights and liberties of small nations" and establish perpetual peace upon a "universal dominion of right." Those were President Wilson’s war-redeeming goals. For them, he told a joint session of Congress on April 5, 1917, called to hear his request for a declaration of war, he had led "this great peaceful people into war, the most terrible and disastrous of wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance…." He ended his speech, often ranked with Lincoln’s second inaugural, on a note of heart-breaking idealism: "To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other."

Unlike the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who lost a son in the war, or the opposition leader Bonar Law, who lost two sons, Wilson did not spend his family’s blood in the "war to end all wars." The 114,000 U.S. dead and 205,000 U.S. wounded spent the blood. Wilson’s idealism was heartbreaking because their sacrifice, like that of the U.S. troops dying and suffering today in Iraq, was worse than in vain. Rather than peace without victory, U.S. intervention assured a victory without peace. Rather than end war, it sowed history with the "most terrible of all wars."

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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