Armistice Day: pause for peace

NOV. 11, 1918 was supposed to herald a new age of peace. ``A New World was born yesterday,'' read a Lord & Taylor ad Nov. 12, ``a world brighter, happier, better than men have ever known before.'' President Wilson was no less optimistic about the future. ``Everything for which America fought has been accomplished,'' he said. ``It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel, and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.'' Americans rejoiced on Armistice Day in record proportions. ``Every city village and hamlet,'' the New York Times said, ``expressed its emotion at the victorious ending of the war.'' Sirens blared the news, spontaneous parades arose, and schoolchildren were dismissed from all but the early-morning exercises. Most businesses closed except for food establishments, and Americans, as individuals and groups, tried to devise their own unique way of honoring the historic day. That meant burning the Kaiser in ef figy or the making of placards (``We've got the Kaiser canned this time'') or getting automobiles to make their own special noise.

Some celebrations became riots. In Newport News, Va., soldiers and sailors went on a rampage. Several thousand, according to news reports, wrecked cars, raided restaurants, and broke windows. Civil and military police were unable to check the riot, which was believed to be associated with frustration over high prices. Another ingredient may have been frustration among military personnel in not having served their country abroad; of 3,764,677 in the armed forces, about 2.2 million saw overseas service.

A few reactions on Armistice Day were somber. New York City theaters conducted business as usual, and throughout the land there were quiet ceremonies of thanksgiving, conducted by such groups as the Salvation Army. Even more sober was the view of some European newspapers that ``the Allies ought not to crowd Germany to the wall so hard that she may be unable to establish herself under a democratic government.''

But such talk seemed ludicrous on Nov. 11, 1918. It was the beginning of a new age of peace. ``. . . greater even than the victory of all the Allies,'' read one contemporary, ``is the victory of righteousness, which belongs to the whole world.'' The World War had come to an end -- although, to be sure, few observers at the time gave thought to the meaning of the day. It was, in reality, not a victory day but only a pause -- an armistice -- in a world that would know little peace .

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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