On this date 104 years ago, a U.S. president broke a solemn election-year promise and committed Americans to fight and die on Europe's battlefields in a war characterized by unfathomable human carnage.
Woodrow Wilson's first recollections as a boy in Virginia and Georgia during the Civil War were of the lessons of loss. By 1917, human beings had become expert at killing: More soldiers died in the first few hours of the Battle of the Somme than in three days at Gettysburg.
But as president, Wilson governed a nation in which isolationist sentiment ebbed during his first term, beginning after a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, with the loss of 1,193 lives -- all noncombatants. And so, less than a month after taking his second inaugural oath, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Huge majorities in both political parties supported him. Only six senators opposed going to war. The vote in the House was 373-50. On this date, April 6, 1917, the papers were signed.
The cost of that war can hardly be overstated: More than 53,000 U.S. troops were killed in battle; another 63,000 were lost from non-combat deaths, most of them disease. One particular disease, named (inaccurately) the Spanish influenza, went back and forth on U.S. transport ships across the Atlantic, killing some 675,000 more Americans before it was done, along with an estimated 50 million people worldwide. The aftermath of World War I also led directly to World War II -- and the Holocaust.
Blessed are the peacemakers, we are told. Woodrow Wilson's father -- a Presbyterian minister -- preached the beatitudes many times. But lofty intentions are not enough; the kind of peace imposed on Germany at Versailles, for example, was hardly a blessing. Another historic lesson for U.S. presidents: When Americans eschew military intervention, horrible consequences can ensue as well.
Human nature did not change on Armistice Day in 1918. Only 20 years later, despotism's armies would be on the march again, from Nanking to Czechoslovakia, with territorial conquest and racial mass murder as their goals.
"Never again," we told ourselves after World War II finally ended, but genocide did happen again. In Cambodia. In Rwanda. It seems to be happening today in western China.
It was on this very date in 1994 that Rwanda exploded into an orgy of ethnic violence. The plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by a missile, killing Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, along with their aides. The two presidents had come from Tanzania, where they had been negotiating for peace. But Hutu extremists in Rwanda didn't want peace. They wanted to butcher every Tutsi in the country, and the downing of the plane was a signal to start the slaughter. They began with 10 Belgian peacekeepers and quickly turned to those most likely to resist the genocide: the nation's prime minister, prominent jurists, opposition political leaders, religious leaders, and those who had been negotiating the peace accord.
Belgium, which has been the colonial power in Rwanda, responded as the extremists predicted: It pulled out its remaining troops there. Various other governments scrambled troops to Africa, but only to get their own citizens out. "As the killing intensified, the international community deserted Rwanda," said policy analyst William Ferroggiaro. Aid worker Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed behind, noted with dismay, "If the people in Rwanda ever needed help, now was the time ... and everybody's leaving."
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and future Secretary General Kofi Annan had been warned about the impending genocide for months before it occurred. When it began, these feckless "world leaders" pleaded helplessness, even while discouraging U.N. action. It was no better in the United States, where the Clinton administration actively dissuaded the U.N. Security Council from intervening -- to the point of refusing to use the word "genocide" to describe what was unfolding.
U.S. involvement in World War I proved an unpopular course of action here at home. And in our time, American public opinion also turned long ago against the grinding efforts at "nation-building" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, between 800,000 and 1 million civilians were killed in Rwanda, most of them with machetes, and some half-million women and girls were raped. Two U.S. Marines Corps brigades could have stopped most of it.
In other words: Acting is perilous, not acting is perilous, which is why presidential elections in this country should never be trivialized or treated lightly. They are potential matters of life and death for every person on our increasingly interconnected planet.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.