|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.
|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."
History can hinge on sequence. Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, making targets of U.S. merchant vessels, caused Wilson to break diplomatic relations with Germany in February and eventuated in the mayhem he described in his address to Congress: "Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board…. Even hospital ships…have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle…." The sinking of three American ships in that spree of destruction provoked the United States to abandon the neutrality it had observed since August 1914 and take what Wilson presciently termed "the tragical step" of joining the Allies in the war against Germany. But suppose, Winston Churchill hypothesized in The World Crisis 1916-1918, the first Russian Revolution—the one that overthrew the Tsar—had occurred in January, 1917 instead of in March: then Germany might not have unleashed its submarines against neutral shipping and the United States not have gone to war. "Had we been able to foresee in Germany the Russian revolution," Alfred von Tirpitz, the German admiral who built up the Kriegsmarine, wrote in his memoirs, "we should perhaps not have needed to regard the submarine campaign of 1917 as a last resort. But in January, 1917 there was no visible sign of the revolution." Revolution brought about Russia’s withdrawal from the Tsarist war, which meant Germany could transfer divisions from the Russian to the Western Front, where their added weight might achieve the same result as the submarine campaign—"break the Allied backbone"—without its potentially fatal risk, U.S. intervention.