At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, guns in Europe and across the world fell silent. That day, which came to be commemorated as Armistice Day and later Veterans Day, has been described as the greatest day in history. That appellation is not far off the mark.
The First World War, which ended on November 11, 1918, was a turning point in history. When it began in August 1914, crowds cheered brightly uniformed troops marching off to battle. They were confident of being home “before the leaves fall,” or at worst by Christmas. It was not to be. Millions of soldiers collided on battlefields from Brussels to Baghdad, from Africa to Asia, in the first truly global war. While the killing power of modern weapons had been previewed in the American Civil War, no one was prepared for the slaughter that would occur at the Somme and on the eastern front. And no one had the means to end a conflict that had rapidly spun out of the control of national governments.
One can say that the history of the 20th century was a playing out of the First World War. It led to the collapse of the Russian monarchy and the rise of communism. Germany, which believed that it had signed a cease-fire rather than a surrender, moved from imperial rule to a short-lived democracy to the horrors of National Socialism. The Second World War took destruction to a new level involving massive bombing and, ultimately, to the first use of atomic weapons.
Nor did problems stop there. On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill observed that “an iron curtain has descended across [Europe].” The world was in a new type of conflict, a “cold war” in which two ideologies, one focused on freedom and the other on state control, battled across the globe via diplomacy, economics, and on more than one occasion, military warfare.
Nuclear weapons added a new dimension. For the first time in history, humankind had created a weapon so powerful that it deterred large-scale conflict. The seemingly exponential rise in battlefield deaths halted overnight. Neither side could be assured of victory. Indeed, each side knew that any rash act would result in the destruction of all that it held dear. There was risk in this nuclear standoff, but there was also the opportunity for political and economic forces to play out over decades.
At the end of the Cold War, there was a naive thought that the cycle of conflict was at last broken. The world could live in peace, democracy and freedom would spread around the globe, and humanity would enter a new era. It was not to be. We now recognize that the world is a dangerous place and will likely remain so.
We have learned much in the past century. On this day, I ask that each of you take a moment to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. Thank a member of our armed forces for the role that he or she plays every day in our defense and our security. And remember that day, 100 years ago, when humanity, exhausted and shocked by four years of death and destruction, looked deep into its soul in hopes of finding a better way.
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