It was called “The War to End All Wars” and the “Greatest War.”
But it did not end all wars. And there was nothing great about it.
World War I was a horrific conflict that left roughly 20 million dead (almost 10 million soldiers and sailors, another 10 million civilians), and more than 20 million wounded. The wounds lasted for generations. One of my great-uncles came home shell-shocked and never recovered.
A half-century after the war ended, in the Wisconsin village where I grew up, there were still veterans who struggled with physical and emotional wounds. We remembered the dead each spring on Memorial Day and we honored the vets each fall on Veterans Day.
But, as Wisconsinites, we also recalled that this was a war our state had warned against. Wisconsinites led the opposition to World War I, with U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette risking his career to challenge President Woodrow Wilson’s absurd arguments for sending the sons of Wisconsin farmers and factory workers into a conflict of kings and kaisers. He decried the propagandistic press that sought to "inflame the mind of our people into the frenzy of war."
When Congress weighed the issue of whether to enter the war in 1917, La Follette and his Wisconsin congressional colleagues contributed a disproportional number of the “no” votes. The Capital Times newspaper was founded that year, with a mission of supporting La Follette, at a moment when most other media abandoned him.
Because it was a hotbed of opposition to the war, Wisconsin was labeled “the traitor state.” A New York Tribune headline asked: "Is Wisconsin Against America?" We weren’t, of course. But the war years were a time of deep division and pain in many Wisconsin communities. When the war was done, La Follette was overwhelmingly reelected to the Senate. In 1924, he sought the presidency as a third-party candidate championing economic, social and racial justice, and peace. One state backed him: Wisconsin.
We will remember the whole history Monday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Shannon Hall, with another performance of "The Greatest War: World War One, Wisconsin, and Why It Still Matters," the remarkable rock-and-roll history project developed by Ken Fitzsimmons and his many collaborators. The program is, as described, “a multimedia live music exploration of the modern, living legacy of the First World War and the uneasy truce that ended it.” But there is something deeper and more powerful going on. "The Greatest War" strikes a balance that honors those who served while recognizing the full story of the conflict. There is nothing simplistic about what Ken and his crew have created. It is smart, nuanced and true —exactly the blend that we need on Armistice Day.
And it rocks.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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