Column: Before it was Veterans Day

John Costa / The Bulletin /

If only in 2014, we should remember that Veterans Day, which this year is right around the corner, was originally Armistice Day.

And if we think about the origination of the day, the reason that President Woodrow Wilson declared it, we might consider calling it Armistice Day until Nov. 11, 2018, which will mark 100 years since the end of Word War I.

Readers regularly score The Bulletin for its published observations — or, in their view, their absence — of anniversaries of important historical dates.

Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr., the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, D and VE day, Woodstock and too many others to name are historical markers that echo through us all.

As a personal aside, I can’t travel to or through Chicago without recalling the violent demonstrations surrounding the Democratic convention of 1968.

In the Army, I was in a hotel bar on leave in Sydney, Australia, watching the televised political meltdown of my beloved nation.

The Aussie bartender asked, “Are you sure you want to go home, mate?”

Of course I did.

There are likely but a handful of living citizens who were alive in 1914 and no one with a memory of the year, but that was the beginning of World War I, or the Great War or the War to End All Wars as it was variously and hopefully called.

With no denigration of the importance of any subsequent struggle, historian Charles Emmerson in the book “1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War” called it the seminal civilization catastrophe of the 20th century.

Since all wars have as their object killing, he wasn’t referring only to the deaths, although the slaughter was horrific.

On one day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain, with a population of roughly 46 million, suffered 19,000 dead soldiers.

By morbid comparison, with over 200 million people, the United States suffered 50,000 dead over more than 4,000 days in Vietnam.

All too tragic, but the enduring meaning is in the profound changes in world politics, the destruction of monarchies, aristocracies, empires and the beginning of the end of a world dominated by European colonialism.

As the same historian said, Europe was destroyed as a world centrality.

It’s an arguable point, but other historians believe that without the First World War there would have been no Mao, no Hitler or no Stalin.

But it is certain that the dynasties that preceded these three, not to mention the Ottomans’ grip on the Mideast, collapsed, changing forever the political map of the world.

Zionism emerged, Gandhi appeared, the British House of Lords lost its veto power over the Commons, the idea of women’s suffrage caught fire and the Japanese began to build the shipyards that led to a powerful navy.

Irish home rule fractured British politics, while the tempestuous nation states of the Balkans were drawn on a peace table map.

In fact, it has been observed that the only two nations that came out of this period stronger than they were at the start were Japan and the United States.

And in an irony of ironies for future generations of Americans, a Southeast Asian nationalist tried to meet President Wilson, whom he idolized, at the peace conference in Paris in 1919 to assert his nation’s claim to independence.

He went by many names and aliases before settling on Ho Chi Minh to avoid the wrath of the French, who controlled his country, and he never met with Wilson.

Who knows how history would have changed if he had.

— John Costa is the editor-in-chief of The Bulletin. 541-383-0337,costa@bendbulletin.com