As Europe trembles again with tribal wars and animosities, this traditional Memorial Day is an apt moment to recall the first time Americans "crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own." That "first time" was World War I and the "cause" was "to make the world safe for democracy."
We know now that Woodrow Wilson's dreams of 75 years ago were destined to be crushed in only a generation in a maw of vengeance, appeasement and genocide. We know, too, that one nation -- Yugoslavia -- newly created in World War I -- is today the scene of the bloodiest fighting Europe has seen in 45 years. But we know most of all that the world -- the whole world -- is more a place where democracy can be safe than at any time in history.
Wilson is widely regarded as an idealist, which he was, but there also had to be a lot of toughness in a man willing to cast aside George Washington's admonitions against foreign "entanglements." He entered the war without a Maine being sunk or Pearl Harbor bombed, and because the decision to declare war was so completely his, he bonded deeply to the soldiers who answered the call.
Perhaps that is why Wilson personally went to Versailles to negotiate the peace that remade the map of Europe and inadvertently planted the seeds for conflicts we see even today. Perhaps that is why he left Paris on May 30, 1919, the only Memorial Day he was to spend in Europe, to visit the cemetery at Suresnes, where the graves of 6,000 Americans, mostly fallen in the advance on Chateau-Thierry, stood in fresh rows upon the hillside.
Wilson biographer August Heckscher describes the scene: "The ground was bare and dust-covered, except where the resting places of individual soldiers were surrounded by flowers tended by French women living nearby. The day was bright and hot, and the scent of acacias was in the air."
Wilson spoke extemporaneously: "No one with a heart in his breast, no American, no lover of humanity, can stand in the presence of these graves without the most profound emotion. The men who lie here are men of unique breed. Their like has not been seen since the far days of the Crusades. Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own."
Since then, other American soldiers have fought and died in other conflicts not "peculiarly their own." In Korea, in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf war, they heeded the call of Wilson's successors -- often to fight and suffer injury or death in causes bitterly debated on the home front. Too often it seemed they died in vain but, then again, witness today's forward march of democracy. It is well to pause on this Memorial Day to remember all the American soldiers in all the American wars who, in Wilson's words, "gave that greatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit."