The False Promise of Armistice Day: A Veteran Looks Back

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It was a morning of victory and confidence. But 20 years later, an Atlantic author blamed America's quick departure for the outbreak of a new war.

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Allied motor scouts in France during World War I (Library of Congress)

Richard Aldington was a friend of T.S. Eliot's and a biographer of Lawrence of Arabia. As a younger man, he was also a soldier in World War I. In the November 1939 issue of The Atlantic, he recalled the almost anticlimactic end of that war: A staff officer rode up on horseback and announced that peace would go into effect at 11 a.m. -- and then there was quiet. Later that night, as civilians in New York and London rushed into the streets, Aldington took a solitary walk, thinking about the friends he'd lost and the future that lay before him.

Twenty years later, Aldington looked back at his disappointing homecoming. Instead of being greeted as a hero, the World War I veteran was mocked in popular culture and treated like so much "cannon-fodder." He had assumed, at least, that the battles themselves hadn't been in vain -- that the Kaiser had been kicked "good and hard in the pants" and the German people would enjoy "a just, lasting, and generous peace" with the rest of the world.

Instead, in 1939, Europe was engulfed in violence again, and Aldington blamed the rushed conclusion of World War I. After the armistice, the Americans went home and Europe plunged into chaos. In retrospect, Aldington wrote, the great President Woodrow Wilson, worshipped by all the Allied armies, had let the world down:

Heavy, heavy is the responsibility on those who withdrew American cooperation and cool common sense from the chaotic turmoil of post-war Europe. If only you could have been a little patient, if only you could have realized that the war-tormented peoples were not quite sane. It is too late, and recrimination is vain. Now I am haunted by the thought that American idealism will again precipitate this great nation into war. I hope it will not be so.

Read "For Armistice Day" in the November 1938 Atlantic.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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