The Great War (Part I)
Eugene Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895 to a Creek Indian mother and an African American father. He grew up in a racially divided and openly antagonistic period of US history. But, he had heard that race did not matter to the people of France.
He stole away on the Marta Russ, a German freighter ship. In 1913, at the age of 18 or 19, he arrived in Paris. For several months he took odd jobs to include taking a jab at boxing in his newly-adopted country until the Guns of August interrupted the lives of Eugene Bullard and tens of millions of other Europeans. Hearing the call to defend his newly adopted country, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion on his nineteenth birthday and very quickly saw action against German forces. Bullard was not the only American fighting for France: over 500 white Americans joined the French military and maybe a dozen Blacks, to include another African American boxer, Bob Scalon.
Bullard fought with a tenacity of purpose. Regardless if it was with a machine gun or hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, Bullard’s bravery and fighting spirit were legendary throughout the French military. The Battle of Artois was, like so many battles of the Great War, horrific in the sheer amount of loss of life. Bullard’s unit, which consisted of over 4,000 men, was cut to pieces. Only about 27% of his unit survived that battle unscathed. Bullard saw further action in Champagne and Verdun. Verdun was particularly horrific. With tens upon tens of thousands of people slaughtered by the new German “Big Bertha” artillery guns, some described the carnage resembling a “Chicago slaughterhouse” as pieces of humans lay all around, blown into trees, and ground into the very soil.
A piece of German shrapnel at Verdun killed four of Bullard’s comrades, blew all but four teeth out of Bullard’s mouth, shattered one of his legs, and ultimately ended his career as an infantryman. As he recovered, Bullard found out that he was to be awarded France’s highest military honor for bravery: the Croix de Guerre.
While Eugene Bullard fought for and in France years before the United States would join the warring parties, Americans back home listened to racially charged music such as the 1917 hit by Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band entitled A Coon Band Contest, or pre-war favorites such as A Cyclone in Dark Town (Arthur Pryors Band, 1911), The Whistling Coon (Bill Murray, 1911), and Mammy’s Shufflin’ Dance (The American Quartet, 1912). Needless to say, American popular culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century was not sympathetic to race relations.
While recuperating in a French field hospital, William Irwin, an American reporter for the Saturday Evening Post first introduced Americans to Bullard, with a back-hand compliment, referring to him as a “black Hercules … not at all like the Negro we knew at home.”
Bullard’s injuries made him unfit for the infantry, but you did not need two perfectly fine legs to fly an airplane and thus he entered a French flight school in October of 1916 (African Americans will not be allowed to enroll in American flight schools until well after the Great War). Seven months later he was a full-fledged pilot and was assigned to the American flight group, Lafayette Escadrille, which at that time operated under French command as the United States would not officially join the war until April of 1918.
Bullard flew with a Rhesus monkey as a co-pilot. He purchased the monkey in Paris and named him “Jimmie.” Bullard’s nickname was the Black Swallow of Death. His insignia, visible on the fuselage, was a red heart with a knife through it and the words, “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” – “All blood runs red.” He even shot down a German plane in his very first dogfight and his skills as an aviator were legendary. With at least 78 bullet holes in his aircraft, Bullard successfully landed from his first dogfight, got the plan fixed, and immediately went back to the front. Bullard flew in at least twenty combat missions.
By the time the war came to an end, Bullard has received every medal that France could bestow on their military heroes. He was embraced by Charles de Gaulle, the famous World War II-era French resistance leader and future president of France. Bullard’s exploits were wildly publicized in French newspapers but sadly there is no evidence that any mainstream American newspaper reported on this war hero. One short reference to Bullard’s career as an infantryman appeared in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) publication The Crisis in January of 1918.
Although Bullard experienced professional opportunities and enjoyed a lifestyle that certainly was not equaled by most African Americans, France was not a racially perfect society. With one year left in the war, the French military suddenly ordered the removal of Bullard from the aviation corps and placed back in an all-black infantry unit. This turn in Bullard’s career was orchestrated by a white American doctor named Edmund Gros. Gros did not support the use of blacks in any American aviation capacity, to include ground crew. Although Bullard passed his required physical, to be a pilot meant that you had to be an officer or be eligible to become an officer and Bullard’s rank was Sergeant and he lacked the required education to become an officer.
Ironically, Bullard escaped the US in search of racial equality and when he found it, the US found him and stripped him of his status as an equal, even during a time of war. Bullard was transferred to a remote mountain military camp, approximately 300 miles south of Paris.
When the war came to a close, Bullard reappeared on the streets of Paris. He was frequently attacked, verbally and physically, by white American military officers. He tried to avoid the hotels, restaurants, and bars that were frequented by American servicemen because those French public spots tended to follow the Jim Crow laws and attitudes of the United States. Bullard fraternized with French troops and French (white) women. US intelligence kept one eye on Bullard and even tried to have him deported back to his birth home when the US government feared that Bullard might become a French citizen and thus could become a beacon of hope for other African Americans. Bullard remained in France, sometimes traveling to French or English colonial ports of call as part of a Franco-American jazz band or even to compete in boxing matches. He married a French woman and the couple had three children. The Bullards owned their own Parisian nightclub where they employed the famous American singer Josephine Baker and a young wanna-be-poet named Langston Hughes as a dishwasher and cook. Bullard lived the life of what you might call middle-to-upper class. But when the Germans returned in 1940 Bullard fled back to his native country.
Bullard faded into history and certainly felt the slings and arrows of racial segregation in the US during the post World War II era. In 1959 France knighted Bullard for his bravery, valor, and service to the country during World War I. White newspapers refused to cover the event. Bullard was identified by a news reporter for NBC and was given a brief appearance on the Today Show in December of 1959 to talk about his war experiences. Bullard died in New York City in 1961. Lying in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, he reportedly seized a friend’s hand and gasped, “It’s beautiful over there.” Then he died. France was indeed a mythical place for Eugene Bullard. Unlike the United States between 1912 and 1922, France lacked the levels of racial violence, racial bias, and racially-based laws and customs. This chapter examines how we got involved in the war, why we got involved in the war, and how the war altered, seemingly temporarily, American ideas on liberty at home and our place in the world while Americans continue to wrestle with the idea that “all men are created equal.”
The World as it Should Be – Wilsonian Diplomacy
There is a tendency among historians to contrast the diplomatic philosophy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US president during World War II) and Woodrow Wilson (US president during World War I). Roosevelt was a realist. He saw the world as it was, not as he wished it to be. He was perfectly willing to support Latin American dictators provided that those dictators also supported the United States. Wilson, however, was an idealist. He saw the world as it should be, not as it was. He believed the US had a special destiny to spread democracy, capitalism, and American religious tenets all over the globe. For Wilson, foreign policy was missionary work.
There were five essential aspects of Wilson’s foreign policy philosophy. First, Wilson generally upheld the idea that people should be ultimately responsible for creating and maintaining the governments of their choosing, or the right of every nation of self-determination as he called it. Second, Wilson believed that people’s rights, liberties, and freedoms were best guaranteed when promulgated in written constitutions. Third, Wilson was a proponent of capitalism. Fourth, Wilson believed in universal disarmament. Without a prevalence of weapons, the chance of future wars would dwindle, he believed. Finally, Wilson saw the US as a redeemer nation: the US was mandated by God to spread American blessings throughout the whole world. Initially Wilson believed this particular US role could best be accomplished by the United States remaining neutral after the war in Europe began. However, as will be seen, by the early spring of 1917, Wilson had changed his mind, believing that the US can only help fix the world’s ills by joining the crusade to make the Great War “the war to end all wars.” Interestingly, prior to the outbreak of war in Europe in the summer of 1914, Wilsonian idealism was tested repeatedly in the nation’s own backyard.
Woodrow Wilson, not unlike his predecessors, was intimately more involved in Latin America than any other part of the world. Wilson’s intervention in the affairs of many Latin American nations was disingenuous and hypocritical; prior to becoming president, Wilson was highly critical of Theodore Roosevelt’s heavy-handed imperialism and interventionist policies in the Western Hemisphere and pledged he would eschew such an approach. Within months of his inauguration, he sent Marines into Nicaragua, ostensibly to protect American interests. Such a move reflected a policy no different than Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy or TR’s interventionist pursuits. In fact, Wilson invoked the Roosevelt Corollary to justify US occupation of Nicaragua. The Marines remained in Nicaragua until President Franklin Roosevelt ordered their removal in 1933. Wilson sent William Jennings Bryan to negotiate a treaty with that nation’s most powerful controlling family, Chamorro, led by General (and future dictator) Emiliano Chamorro. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty gave the US sole right to build and maintain a canal through Nicaragua. The US Senate passed the Nicaraguan Canal Treaty in 1916. It appeared that when it came to canal building Wilson wanted to leave a legacy equal to that of his rival TR.
Wilson sent the US Marines into Haiti in 1915 and the following year into the Dominican Republic. In both instances, Wilson’s believed the Marines were necessary to bring stability to the hemisphere by ending the civil wars and endemic violence that seemed to plague both of those countries. Naturally Wilson hoped that with US “help” both Haiti and the Dominican Republic would be transformed into pro-US democratic and capitalistic national governments. The US failed in both instances. Haitians and Dominicans until recently lived under corrupt and brutally oppressive dictatorships and consequently suffered through constant civil war. The U.S. rarely succeeded in creating democratic, capitalistic, pro-US regimes as a result of military intervention (As will be seen in a later chapter, post-World War Japan and Germany proved to be the exceptions).
Throughout most of its history the United States traditionally expanded its frontiers and spread its political and economic values through the acquisition of territory by purchase or peaceful negotiation: the Louisiana Purchase (1803); Florida (1819), the Oregon country (1846), southern Arizona and New Mexico—the Gadsden Purchase (1853), Alaska (1867), and Guam (1899), to name a few. Thus in 1917 Wilson, with the consent of Congress, purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark.
Closer to home, and much more problematic for Wilson, was the issue of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910 when lawfully elected presidential candidate Francisco Madero triumphed at the polls over one of Mexico’s longest-standing dictators, Porfirio Diaz. Although Diaz had agreed to the election and had promised to step down if defeated, he reneged, largely because he succumbed to foreign capitalist pressure led by the United States to remain in power. Foreign investors were weary of Madero, who had pledged during the campaign that he would nationalize all foreign-owned enterprises, which by 1910, controlled most if not all of Mexico’s most important industries—railroads, telegraph, telephone, mining, and oil. Foreigners also controlled either directly or indirectly the bulk of Mexico’s land. For example, American newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, owned ten million acres in the northern state of Chihuahua. As a result Diaz’s close ties with foreign capitalists, if Madero wanted to become Mexico’s president, he unfortunately had to take office by force. Thus began the military aspect of the Mexican Revolution, a ten-year-long bloodbath in which thousands of Mexicans died or fled across the Rio Grande to the United States for safety.
Rallying to Madero were other anti-Diaz and anti-gringo leaders, whose names have become legendary on both sides of the Rio Grande: Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Alvaro Obregon, Plutarco Calles, and Venustiano Carranza. Although many of these caudillos joined with Madero for personal reasons and frequently engaged in outright banditry and murder in “the name of the Revolution,” they nonetheless were united in their cause to drive both Diaz, who they regarded as a gringo lackey, and all foreigners out of Mexico. In 1911, Madero, with the help of such individuals, defeated Diaz’s forces and the former president fled to Cuba and eventually to Spain, where he lived the remainder of his life.
However, no sooner did Madero take office than counter-revolutionary, right-wing military leaders in collusion with foreign capitalists conspired to overthrow his government. In 1913 General Victoriano Huerta succeeded in toppling via a coup d’etat, the Madero regime. Madero was held prisoner for a few days then along with his entire family and cabinet, brutally executed by Huerta henchmen. Madero’s murder had the full-fledged support of the foreign capitalists and their respective legations. With Huerta in power the European and American businesses could now continue their exploitation of Mexico’s resources and industries and its people for their own private profit. Despite the backing of United States and European capitalists, Huerta could not quell the fires of revolution. Villa, Zapata, and the other pro-Madero chieftains formed uneasy alliances to overthrow the Huerta regime.
The US had been less than dedicated to their support of any one Mexican official and to make matters more nebulous, some Mexican leaders were fighting against the old regime in Mexico as well as US corporate interests in Mexico. For example, a man named Francisco Villa was initially supported by the United States, until a more “democratic” fellow named Venustiano Carranza won the fancy of President Wilson. Wilson’s support for Carranza resulted in Villa launching attacks against US interests on the Mexican side of the US-Mexican border, until the fall of 1916 when Villa raided the New Mexican town of Columbus, killing at least twenty Americans in the process and resulting in Wilson ordering the US Army to invade Mexico.
Under the leadership of General John “Blackjack” Pershing, the US military force included many elements of National Guards from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Pershing’s task was to locate and arrest Villa. Not only did Pershing fail to capture Villa, but American and Mexican forces clashed resulting on the deaths of both American and Mexican troops. Wilson will order Pershing out of Mexico in early 1917 in order to prepare the US for its participation in the war to end all wars.
Causes for the Great War
Some of the long-range causes of the war include militarism, nationalism, and secret alliances. Many European powers had been developing new weapons such as machine guns and the airplane. Although national borders such as Russia, Austria, and France were clearly delineated by 1914, ethno-linguistic ties transcended seemingly artificial national borders. For example, many French citizens living in the Alsace-Lorraine region of western France spoke German and some smaller areas of the Austrian Empire had religious and language ties to Russia, such as the Serbs. Finally, what made this war different was the long list of countries who promised to mobilize their forces in support of other countries in times of international duress. For example, England had an agreement with France in which England would mobilize its forces if Germany ever threatened France and Russia had pledged to support (militarily if necessary) the Slavic-speaking, Orthodox-praying Christians living amongst Muslims in the southern tip of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.
The immediate cause of the war was the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand (the number two man in Austria) at the hands of Russian-leaning separatists in Serbia. Austria demanded that Serb officials hand over the assassins. When they failed to do so, Austria threatened to invade. That threat prompted Germany to mobilize its forces. Germany had an agreement with Austria that the former would mobilize to protect the latter’s eastern flank fearing Russia might come to the aid of the Serbs.
Diplomacy failed and war came, again, to Europeans in the summer of 1914. Unlike previous wars, this one proved to be horrific in the sheer number of causalities. For example, the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) resulted in over 500,000 casualties among German, French, and British forces. Europe will eventually lose an entire generation of men before the guns fall silent on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918.
Wilson asked Americans to be extreme and impartial in their neutrality. He asked Americans to be impartial in thought, word, and action. His reasons for this extreme impartiality were many. First, Wilson was concerned about how a protracted European conflict would affect the American economy. Second, there was a pervasive fear towards German immigrants. Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and South and North Dakota saw massive increases in their German populations following the decades after the Civil War. Some wondered if those immigrants would support their newly-adopted land or their motherland. Third, why should the US pick a side? There was no reason to believe that this war would be any different from the other European conflicts that the US did not participate such as the Balkan War, Franco-Prussian War, or the Crimean War.
Finally, Woodrow Wilson dreamed about creating what he called the “New World Order.” Only be remaining neutral would the US be in the best position (economically, militarily, politically, and diplomatically) to remake the world following fourteen simple ideas. Called his “Fourteen Points Address,” Wilson announced very specific American war aims in January of 1917 only after he failed to get England and France to issue their own vision for the world.
The Unmanly Business of Submarine Warfare
Wilson will inevitably use German submarine warfare, to which he called a “cruel and unmanly business,” as one of his justifications for going to war although that pretext will be based on the idea of neutral rights. Challenges to American neutrality came predominantly from England. The Royal Navy threw up an undeclared blockade and mined the North Sea. Both of these actions flew in the face of international agreements, such as the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions. In addition, England armed merchant ships, which was strictly prohibited by international covenants. England stopped US ships and confiscated US property that appeared on England’s list of items that they would not allow to be sold or traded during war. England blacklisted American companies that traded with neutral countries suspected of trading with Germany or its allies. England routinely stopped US mail ships, confiscated letters and packages, opened the US mail, and then censured or destroyed what England decided was counter to their war efforts.
After numerous English violations of international agreements, Germany declared that they would alter their tactics to include firing on suspected merchant ships that were armed or English ships trying to evade attack by flying the flags of neutral countries. Ultimately, Germany warned all ships flying neutral flags to stay away from English waters. In August of 1915 a German U-boat attacked a British ship and when a nearby merchant ship (Arabic) flying the English flag came to rescue the survivors, that ship too was torpedoed. The dead included two Americans. The German government was quick to apologize and promised the US to never fire on merchant ships without offering sufficient warnings and only after securing the safety of non-combatants. In 1916 German officials authorized its naval commanders to attack armed merchant ships, but not passenger ships. A French passenger ferry, the Sussex, was torpedoed by a German U-boat, resulting in the deaths of many French, but no American, citizens. Wilson once again waged his diplomatic finger in the face of Germany demanding that they cease these attacks. Germany, probably fearing that the US might enter the war after all, declared that they will no longer attack any civilian ship without first securing the safety of its non-combatants. This was known as the Sussex Pledge.
Interestingly enough, these attacks, promises, threats, and pledges all followed on the heels of the greatest loss of civilian life on the high seas. In the early spring of 1915, carrying nearly 2,000 passengers from the US to England, the British luxury liner Lusitania was hit by a single torpedo from a German submarine. The ship sunk in less than ten minutes and with the loss of nearly 1200 of its passengers, including many Americans. The German government tried to warn Americans by taking out advertising in dozens of US newspapers:
“TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
American businessmen, possibly in cooperation with the Wilson administration, did indeed place arms, explosives, and other forms of ammunition aboard the Lusitania, which was a clear violation of the separation of civilian and military ships. That may have something to do with the sinking of the ship in but one torpedo (German intelligence indeed found the weapons of mass destruction). Other theories include the torpedo explosion triggered the explosion of coal dust, as well as problems with the ship’s authorities’ inability to order the hatches and other doors shut on time (the same issues plagued the Lusitania’s twin ship, Titanicjust a few years earlier). Nevertheless, the sinking of the largest, fastest, luxury ship in the world did not propel the US to officially enter the war even though some of America’s leading families lost loved ones (such as the Vanderbilts). The US will not declare war until there is a direct threat to American sovereignty.
The German government feared that the US would soon enter the war and thus in their final attempt to keep the American’s from throwing their full weight behind the Allies, Germany considered adding a new country to their side of the might – Mexico. Arthur Zimmermann, German Foreign Secretary, sent an encoded telegram to Heinrich von Eckardt, the German Ambassador in Mexico in January of 1917. The telegram was intercepted by British intelligence on Galveston Island (located about 30 miles south of Houston, Texas), decoded, and handed over to President Wilson a month later:
“We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”
The telegram was widely published in American newspapers beginning on March 1st, 1917. A month will go by before Wilson asks and Congress gives him a declaration of war. Yet between those times, Wilson gave his second inaugural address. He talked about the economic soundness of the country and only in the most cursory way touched upon the storm clouds on the horizon. He called for peace and for everyone who loves liberty and justice. Wilson debated with himself, with his friends, and with his cabinet over what the US should do next. Wilson did not chose the path of war lightly, because, as Wilson confided to the editor of The World, Frank Cobb, “Once lead these people into war . . . they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance … the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life … every man who refused to conform would have to pay the penalty.” In other words, Wilson feared that war would forever change this nation.
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