We Are the Dead: The Progressive Legacy of World War I

Recently, Frank Buckles, the last living veteran of that war died at age 110. When the President decreed that all American flags should fly at half-staff on Tuesday in memory of that veteran, he got something right. Of course, honoring a 110-year-old veteran of a war that ended over 90 years ago does not exactly constitute a political risk. After all, the list of people still angry over World War I is fairly small. In reality, though, that list should probably be a bit longer. As we rightly admire the service given by Mr. Buckles and all of the Doughboys, let's take a moment to recall where that "War to End All Wars" originated and what it gave us.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a 16-year-old magazine changed its name to Christian Century in honor of the idea that this century, the twentieth, would be the century in which Christianity, and specifically liberal Protestantism, asserted itself triumphantly. Poverty and war would end. Peace and prosperity would burst out around the world. By the close of that century, probably the bloodiest and ugliest in all history, no one at the magazine, still publishing well into the twenty-first century, wanted to claim the twentieth as a triumphant time.

The intelligentsia of those early-twentieth-century years felt that they had everything figured out. Francis Galton, drawing on the biology of his cousin Charles Darwin, developed the idea of eugenics. Selective breeding, his followers believed, would put an end to all the weaknesses and defects so prevalent in the human race. Meanwhile, the emerging study of psychology, especially in the work of Sigmund Freud, promised to open up the mysteries of the human mind.

In the minds of the eugenics crowd -- the right-thinking people -- a better human race would be a largely white, European human race. And why not? The great European powers (and the United States) held a staggering amount of the globe's wealth and territory. Britain possessed an empire on which the sun never set. France and Germany maintained significant colonial collections. Rudyard Kipling wrote of "The White Man's Burden." Clearly, with the proper people running the show, the world could be set right within a few decades.

A host of new inventions seemed primed to usher in a time of wonder. Railroads had only been widely used for about 50 years. Now automobiles were appearing in large numbers. Steel, aircraft, the telegraph and telephone, and a host of other innovations suggested that humanity could accomplish anything. No wonder the progressives, who were getting themselves geared up during those heady years, believed that with the right government help they could accomplish anything. Would it have been a wonder had they retooled the nation's coins to read "In US we trust"?

And then, in 1914, the war broke out, a war that demonstrated just how little people should trust in their own wisdom. World War I gave us poison gas. It gave us machine guns mowing down a generation of European youth. It gave us submarine warfare sinking civilian craft. This European civilization, so confident, so forward-looking, suddenly experienced carnage on a scale that made the age of Napoleon seem like a garden party.

Woodrow Wilson "kept us out of war" until after his re-election. Then he plunged in to rescue Europe from itself. Seeing the United States as the most "progressive" of nations and himself as the chief of American progressives, Wilson saw involvement in the European conflagration as the natural thing to do. In reality, however, Wilson's only advantage over the Europeans came from an enormous, unscathed industrial base and the huge moat of the Atlantic Ocean. His self-confidence and trust in human potential did not differ much from those of the Kaiser or David Lloyd George or any of the others who had brought Europe into that mess.

The First World War gave us many things. It brought about the downfall of the Romanovs and the advent of that great blessing to humanity, the Soviet Union. On the southeast edge of Europe, a newly modernized Ottoman Empire slaughtered over a million Armenians, an ethnic group that the previously non-modern Ottomans had managed to tolerate for 600 years, during and after the war.

The treaties that closed the war were so ruinous in their treatment of the conquered parties that they paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. At the far side of the globe, the Japanese involvement in the war helped set that nation on a path of militarism. The postwar dissolution of the Ottoman Empire led to the European-controlled creation of a number of artificially constituted nations in the Middle East presided over by semi-arbitrary despots.

The war gave us Wilson's brainchild, the League of Nations, an abject failure. The next war gave us the United Nations, a different sort of failure.

Is it fair to blame all the world's woes on the war in which Frank Buckles served his country? Not really. Instead, I like to think of the war as comparable to Kansas City's Union Station in the old passenger rail system. Not all important trains started or ended in Kansas City, but most of them passed through Union Station. In Kansas City, just up the hill from Union Station, stands Liberty Memorial and the National World War I Museum. When opened in 1926, the memorial celebrated the great triumph of humanity that the recently completed war represented.

World War I stands as a memorial to human vanity and over-confidence, a monument to statism-gone-mad. At just the moment when the progressives, whether they were the political spawn of Roosevelt and company, the scientific aristocracy, or the religious liberals who cloaked modernity in a thin Christian veneer, thought they had everything figured out, along came a young Serbian man in Sarajevo, who, with a gunshot, sent the entire world to world. One would think a civilization that has things figured out would not collapse into trench warfare quite that easily.

A few years ago, Kansas City's Liberty Memorial underwent a profound facelift. While the outer architecture still proclaims progressive confidence, the new museum tells a more nuanced, more humble tale.  It gives honor to the devotion and sacrifice of Frank Buckles and all of his brothers-in-arms. At the same time, it points out the hypocrisy, the greed, and the hubris that brought the first of the twentieth century's horrible wars into being.

When President Obama asked for flags to be lowered in honor of Frank Buckles, I would guess he did not consider what an indictment of his own political forebears World War I or its lingering after-effects have proven to be.  Like those leaders gathered in Kansas City in 1926, he still cannot see that progressivism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. He can't see it, but we can and must, so that more American youth are not sacrificed to the unholy god of intemperate state power. Let us not break faith with those who have died, in Flanders Field or, like Buckles, in West Virginia.
Recently, Frank Buckles, the last living veteran of that war died at age 110. When the President decreed that all American flags should fly at half-staff on Tuesday in memory of that veteran, he got something right. Of course, honoring a 110-year-old veteran of a war that ended over 90 years ago does not exactly constitute a political risk. After all, the list of people still angry over World War I is fairly small. In reality, though, that list should probably be a bit longer. As we rightly admire the service given by Mr. Buckles and all of the Doughboys, let's take a moment to recall where that "War to End All Wars" originated and what it gave us.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a 16-year-old magazine changed its name to Christian Century in honor of the idea that this century, the twentieth, would be the century in which Christianity, and specifically liberal Protestantism, asserted itself triumphantly. Poverty and war would end. Peace and prosperity would burst out around the world. By the close of that century, probably the bloodiest and ugliest in all history, no one at the magazine, still publishing well into the twenty-first century, wanted to claim the twentieth as a triumphant time.

The intelligentsia of those early-twentieth-century years felt that they had everything figured out. Francis Galton, drawing on the biology of his cousin Charles Darwin, developed the idea of eugenics. Selective breeding, his followers believed, would put an end to all the weaknesses and defects so prevalent in the human race. Meanwhile, the emerging study of psychology, especially in the work of Sigmund Freud, promised to open up the mysteries of the human mind.

In the minds of the eugenics crowd -- the right-thinking people -- a better human race would be a largely white, European human race. And why not? The great European powers (and the United States) held a staggering amount of the globe's wealth and territory. Britain possessed an empire on which the sun never set. France and Germany maintained significant colonial collections. Rudyard Kipling wrote of "The White Man's Burden." Clearly, with the proper people running the show, the world could be set right within a few decades.

A host of new inventions seemed primed to usher in a time of wonder. Railroads had only been widely used for about 50 years. Now automobiles were appearing in large numbers. Steel, aircraft, the telegraph and telephone, and a host of other innovations suggested that humanity could accomplish anything. No wonder the progressives, who were getting themselves geared up during those heady years, believed that with the right government help they could accomplish anything. Would it have been a wonder had they retooled the nation's coins to read "In US we trust"?

And then, in 1914, the war broke out, a war that demonstrated just how little people should trust in their own wisdom. World War I gave us poison gas. It gave us machine guns mowing down a generation of European youth. It gave us submarine warfare sinking civilian craft. This European civilization, so confident, so forward-looking, suddenly experienced carnage on a scale that made the age of Napoleon seem like a garden party.

Woodrow Wilson "kept us out of war" until after his re-election. Then he plunged in to rescue Europe from itself. Seeing the United States as the most "progressive" of nations and himself as the chief of American progressives, Wilson saw involvement in the European conflagration as the natural thing to do. In reality, however, Wilson's only advantage over the Europeans came from an enormous, unscathed industrial base and the huge moat of the Atlantic Ocean. His self-confidence and trust in human potential did not differ much from those of the Kaiser or David Lloyd George or any of the others who had brought Europe into that mess.

The First World War gave us many things. It brought about the downfall of the Romanovs and the advent of that great blessing to humanity, the Soviet Union. On the southeast edge of Europe, a newly modernized Ottoman Empire slaughtered over a million Armenians, an ethnic group that the previously non-modern Ottomans had managed to tolerate for 600 years, during and after the war.

The treaties that closed the war were so ruinous in their treatment of the conquered parties that they paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. At the far side of the globe, the Japanese involvement in the war helped set that nation on a path of militarism. The postwar dissolution of the Ottoman Empire led to the European-controlled creation of a number of artificially constituted nations in the Middle East presided over by semi-arbitrary despots.

The war gave us Wilson's brainchild, the League of Nations, an abject failure. The next war gave us the United Nations, a different sort of failure.

Is it fair to blame all the world's woes on the war in which Frank Buckles served his country? Not really. Instead, I like to think of the war as comparable to Kansas City's Union Station in the old passenger rail system. Not all important trains started or ended in Kansas City, but most of them passed through Union Station. In Kansas City, just up the hill from Union Station, stands Liberty Memorial and the National World War I Museum. When opened in 1926, the memorial celebrated the great triumph of humanity that the recently completed war represented.

World War I stands as a memorial to human vanity and over-confidence, a monument to statism-gone-mad. At just the moment when the progressives, whether they were the political spawn of Roosevelt and company, the scientific aristocracy, or the religious liberals who cloaked modernity in a thin Christian veneer, thought they had everything figured out, along came a young Serbian man in Sarajevo, who, with a gunshot, sent the entire world to world. One would think a civilization that has things figured out would not collapse into trench warfare quite that easily.

A few years ago, Kansas City's Liberty Memorial underwent a profound facelift. While the outer architecture still proclaims progressive confidence, the new museum tells a more nuanced, more humble tale.  It gives honor to the devotion and sacrifice of Frank Buckles and all of his brothers-in-arms. At the same time, it points out the hypocrisy, the greed, and the hubris that brought the first of the twentieth century's horrible wars into being.

When President Obama asked for flags to be lowered in honor of Frank Buckles, I would guess he did not consider what an indictment of his own political forebears World War I or its lingering after-effects have proven to be.  Like those leaders gathered in Kansas City in 1926, he still cannot see that progressivism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. He can't see it, but we can and must, so that more American youth are not sacrificed to the unholy god of intemperate state power. Let us not break faith with those who have died, in Flanders Field or, like Buckles, in West Virginia.

RECENT VIDEOS