Centennials: Events of the Last Century Impinge on this One

During the past month, the number 100, usually associated with the word days, has been prominent in our public discourse. This column will not add to the cacophony of assessments, condemnations, or in some quarters, celebrations of the new American president. Instead, it will focus on another time frame for 100, years.

A few weeks ago on a trip to Philadelphia I attended an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History titled, “1917: How One Year Changed the World.” It focused on three seminal events, whose centennials we observe this year: American entrance into World War 1; the Russian Revolution; and the Balfour Declaration.

The exhibit includes two original drafts of the Balfour Declaration, a decoded copy of the Zimmermann telegram (in which Germany tried to entice Mexico to join the Triple Alliance and declare war on the U.S., promising the return of lands lost in the Mexican-American War), the Treaty of Versailles (a thick book given to all participants at the Peace Conference), a page from the original Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (which restricted immigration), and many other things. One wonders what kind of artifacts a centennial exhibition will show in 2117, if the earth is still around.

America entered World War 1 on April 6, 2017. Europe and the Middle East had already been enveloped in the conflict for almost three years during which millions had already died. President Woodrow Wilson had vowed to keep the U.S. out of the war; even the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 did not move the U.S. to join the hostilities against Germany and its allies.

Yet, as Michael Kazin pointed out in a recent article in the Washington Post, Wilson was quite sympathetic to the British and French and did not stop U.S. firms from selling vital war material to them, despite objections from a large German-American community.

Further German attacks on U.S. merchant ships and the discovery of the aforementioned Zimmerman telegram, led Wilson — newly re-elected by a narrow margin — to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Debates still occur on whether American troops made the difference in ending the stalemate and hastening Germany’s defeat. However, there is no doubt that U.S. involvement enhanced America’s world role and changed its domestic values as well.

Wilson and America became the major player at the Versailles Peace Conference where the rhetoric from the president’s Fourteen Points encouraged self-determination for the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, leading to the creation of new nations and the simmering of bitter ethnic and national rivalries. The treaty established Wilson’s League of Nations, but U.S. failure to participate and the League’s inability to halt Japan and Germany in the 1930s made it a dismal failure at cooperative activity among the world’s countries. Of course, the harsh reparations in the Treaty imposed on Germany, mostly at English and French insistence, led to the destruction of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler.

At home, the entrance into the war, like in Europe in 1914, led to patriotic fever. A Committee on Public Information, led by George Creel, became the government’s key propaganda arm and “Uncle Sam” was born. At the same time, Congress passed the Espionage Acts that curtailed civil liberties and sent even former and future socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs to jail. Vigilante groups such as the American Protective League enforced their own sense of patriotism and worked with the FBI to harass and sometimes commit violence against German sympathizers and others in a sizable group of folks who opposed the war.

The general verdict on World War 1 was that it was a stupid and unnecessary war. Yet, the stumbling and bumbling in Europe in 1914 and the waste of a generation had a profound impact on how we view leaders, generals, and foreign policy adventures up to the present day.

Another consequence of the First World War was the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. Surprisingly, at the onset of the war, Russia was thought of as an emerging economic powerhouse. Yet, it encouraged Serbian nationalism against the Austro-Hungarian empire and mobilized its troops quickly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet, by 1917 enormous losses and battlefield stalemate had drained the Russian treasury as well as the patience of its people. Taking advantage of this, the Bolsheviks and others created enough chaos to topple Czar Nicholas II. Furthermore, the czar’s replacement, the weak Kerensky government, which was still prosecuting the war, could not stop Lenin and his followers from taking control of the government, signing a separate peace treaty with Germany, and establishing their Communist dictatorship.

The reaction in the Western countries was not favorable. An attempt to militarily topple the Communists failed miserably. The U.S. would not recognize the new Russian government until 1933. In the U.S., fear of communism, socialism, and other so-called alien movements, led to the raids of Attorney General Palmer, and eventually the Reed-Johnson immigration bill that essentially ended the Statue of Liberty’s promise for the people of Eastern Europe and Asia. It took until 1965 to repeal those restrictions and alter the U.S immigration process. Recent attempts to revise the 1965 law have failed dismally.

Although allies through World War II, in the immediate post-war Atomic Age, the Cold War would soon consume politics and the resources of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Aside from some scares over Berlin and Cuba, actual shooting wars between the super-powers was avoided, but proxy battles occurred all over the globe as capitalism vs. communism and democracy vs. totalitarianism battled it out in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The dictatorship of the proletariat never arrived and totalitarian systems have given way to authoritarianism and dictatorships with smatterings of capitalism. Yet, the remnants of the communist threat endure to affect us today. Vladimir Putin still believes the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great disaster. U.S. relations with China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia remain colored by a lingering anti-communism.  Despite some economic reforms encompassing capitalism, political freedoms are mostly lacking in these countries.

The Balfour Declaration issued in November 1917 changed the course of Middle East history, led to a homeland for Jews, and created resentment among an Arab population that thought it would become an independent nation that included Palestine. The single sentence contained in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, a leader of Britain’s Jewish community, promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It also included, added to the final draft, the pledge: “…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

In 1916 in the middle of the First World War, British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges Picot had reached a secret agreement (ignoring what would be one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points) to divvy up the Middle East into French and British colonies. Thus, today’s poster children for a chaotic Middle East, post-Ottoman Syria and Iraq, were created. In addition, the British were given one of the League of Nations’ new mandates for Palestine and waited until 1947 to relinquish it with a proposal to divide Palestine into a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Trans-Jordan. With the British withdrawal, Israel declared its independence, received immediate recognition from the Truman administration despite State Department opposition, and the Arab states went to war to destroy the new state.

For almost 70 years, with some meetings that offered glimmers of hope — Camp David (1979 and 2000), Oslo (1993), and Sharm El Sheikh (2001) — and through many wars and major skirmishes, the solution to the “intractable” problem created by Balfour remains elusive. Two states? One state? West Bank boundaries? Jerusalem? Settlements? Gaza? All these questions persist.

Let me also note two other centennials in 2017. Later this month the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy will be observed. Despite all that we have learned subsequent to his death about the deception regarding his health, the cynical use of the non-existent missile gap during the 1960 campaign, his sexual escapades, and his taking us closer to the brink of nuclear war than we thought at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he remains for many of my generation (baby boomer) an inspiring figure. He was responsible for my career in political science and politics, having seen him the last weekend of the 1960 campaign when he came to my neighborhood in the Bronx and tried to convince us that he was “a Bronx boy.” His family had lived in the rich Riverdale section of the Bronx for a few years, but as he said, “the Bronx nonetheless.” His assassination when I was 14 remains a shattering memory.

On a happier note, on April 25, the world remembered the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, on her centennial birthday. Celebrated as the finest interpreter of the classic American songbook, for her remarkable scat singing and her collaborations with Louis Armstrong, she is considered one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Go listen to her remarkable voice and enjoy it without thinking about the dispiriting news out of Washington, D.C. and other places around the world!

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Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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