World War I took toll on Wilson
Woodrow Wilson must have felt pretty good on the day of his second inauguration. The Virginia Democrat’s first term had been wildly successful with the implementation of several of his Progressive policies.
The Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Anti-Trust Act among others would have a profound and lasting effect on American history. And oh yeah-we can thank him for the federal income tax. Idealist that he was, he was probably most pleased with an achievement best identified with his campaign slogan — “He Kept Us Out of War.”
That war was World War I and it had been raging in Europe since July 28, 1914. Until the spring of 1917, the U.S. pursued a policy of neutrality, refusing to enter the unimaginable bloodbath ripping apart the then most powerful nations in the world. Despite numerous German provocations including the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania (128 Americans perished), Wilson steadfastly refused to consider involvement as noted emphatically in his second inaugural address. “We have been deeply wronged upon the seas, but we have not wished to wrong or injure in return.”
But what a difference a month makes. In March of 1917, two events transpired that would render impossible the continuation of neutrality. First, the Germans announced it was renewing its calamitous policy of unrestricted submarine warfare (several of our merchant ships were sunk later that month). Secondly, British cryptographers decrypted the Zimmerman Telegram in which Germany asked Mexico to go to war with the U.S. in exchange for regaining territory lost in the Mexican War. On April 6, 1917, Wilson signed Congress’ Declaration of War.
In the months to follow, an army of over two million men would be conscripted and commanded by the legendary “Black Jack” Pershing. The general and his staff (including Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall) transformed an army woefully unprepared for conflict into a fighting machine known as the American Expeditionary Force. By April 1918 the American doughboys were ready for the fight.
That same month, Gigetto Cimino from Herkimer signed up. The 15-year-old Italian immigrant lied about his age, enlisting because, in the words of his son Vince, “He was just very patriotic.” After completing basic training at Ft. Slocum, Army Pvt. Cimino headed “Over There,” landing in Brest, France on Memorial Day, 1918. The member of Company A, 105th Infantry, 27th Division saw action in France and Belgium and was wounded in October at LaSalle River. He spent Armistice Day in the hospital. Post war, Gigetto returned to Herkimer, married Mary Tocco, fathered three sons and a daughter, ran the iconic Cimino’s Restaurant (1948-55), worked at Chicago Pneumatic for 25 years, helped found and was first commander of the renowned Tony R. George Post and passed away at 91 on January 14, 1994. Kept away all those years in a box and wrapped in cloth were the pieces of shrapnel that pierced his leg and knee.
Truth be told, the American Expeditionary Force made the difference in a war which never should have begun, which should have ended after six months only to be prolonged by generals too proud and honor-bound to concede the inevitable-that the conflict as fought was unwinnable. Millions of men died for nothing. Once involved, Pershing’s army helped thwart the final German offensive and guarantee the success of the Allied counteroffensive resulting in the German request for an armistice (based on Wilson’s 14 Points). The “war to end all wars” was mercifully over. We paid a fearful price for being the “difference-maker;” over 120,000 dead and nearly 200,000 wounded/gassed.
It can be argued that President Wilson was also a casualty of the war. Already stressed out and fatigued from treaty negotiations and the arduous trans-Atlantic trips, his health was further compromised when he engaged in a whistle-stop railroad tour across country in an effort to convince Americans to pressure anti-treaty Senators into ratifying the Treaty of Versailles. The Republican “Irreconcilables” were against Wilson’s 14th Point, the creation of a League of Nations, preferring instead an isolationistic foreign policy. While on a stop in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25th, 1919, he suffered a debilitating stroke from which he would not recover.
With the Senate’s failure to ratify Versailles, Wilson’s dream of making the world safe for democracy via an organization whose members would resolve their differences over a conference table rather than the battlefield would never be realized. He died on March 4, 1919, as a result of complications from the stroke and a broken heart. Ironically, he planted the seed that would germinate into the United Nations following World War II.
Had he lived, Wilson’s disappointment might have been assuaged by the fact that because of the war America had morphed into a military and economic powerhouse, no longer in the shadow of its European counterparts. And he would have been proud of heroes like the 15-year-old Italian immigrant from Herkimer who came to America because of the hope it offered and put his life on the line to defend and guarantee it. RIP Gigetto Cimino.
Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer with acknowledgements to Tim Blydenburgh (Observer Dispatch, Utica, Nov. 11, 1993) and Geoffrey Norman (The Weekly Standard).