One of the most consequential years in world history, highlighted by the Communist revolution in Russia and the United States’ entry into the World War, has come to an end. In December 1917 the Bolsheviks, having driven the Provisional Government from power, occupy Russian Army headquarters and murder the Army’s former commander-in-chief. An armistice is declared on the Eastern Front and negotiations begin for a permanent peace treaty between the new Russian government and the Central Powers. The announced goal of the talks is a peace on the basis of no annexations and a withdrawal of occupying forces, but the difficulty of achieving that goal in practice becomes apparent when the two sides present their proposals. In Palestine, a British Army commanded by General Edmund Allenby occupies Jerusalem. On the Western Front the British stall German counterattacks at Cambrai and dig into defensive positions for the winter; Italian forces, aided by British reinforcements, turn back the Austrians on the Asiago Plateau. Ships collide in Halifax harbor, causing a fire and a massive explosion that kills thousands. An American destroyer is torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The United States declares war on Austria-Hungary. Colonel House returns from Paris where he has been meeting with the Allies. President Wilson, using his war powers, takes control of the nation’s railroads. The House of Representatives joins the Senate in approving a prohibition amendment to the Constitution.
Bolshevik troops led by Ensign Nikolai Krylenko, who replaced General Nikolai Dukhonin as commander-in-chief of the Russian Army last month, entered Mogilev on December 1 and seized the Russian military headquarters. Two days later, as he was attempting to depart for Petrograd, General Dukhonin was dragged from his train and beaten to death by a mob of Bolshevik sailors. General Lavr Kornilov, whose attempted right-wing coup earlier this year ended in failure, escaped Mogilev the day before the Bolsheviks took over. A statement issued by Krylenko on December 4 announced that the Army headquarters had been occupied without fighting, and that as a result “the last obstacle to the cause of peace” had fallen. He said he regretted “the sad act of lynch law practiced upon the former highest commander-in-chief, General Dukhonin,” which was the result of “popular hatred [that] surpassed the limits of reason” caused by “the flight of General Kornilov the day before.”
Representatives of Russia’s new Bolshevik government are in Brest-Litovsk, a city behind German lines at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhavetz Rivers in western Belorussia, where they are meeting with representatives of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish governments. On December 15 the parties agreed on an armistice extending to all the land, air and naval forces on their common fronts. The armistice will remain in effect until January 14, after which it will continue automatically unless seven days notice is given. Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began on December 22. The negotiators have agreed on a series of important points, including liberation of war prisoners and resumption of diplomatic and commercial relations. The question of the disposition of occupied territories, however, has been more difficult. Both sides invoke the principle of no annexations, and both sides offer to withdraw from occupied territory, but their views of how that is to be accomplished differ markedly. Russia proposes to “withdraw her troops from all parts of Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Persia occupied by her, while the powers of the Quadruple Alliance will withdraw theirs from Poland.” Then an opportunity will be given for “all peoples living in Russia” to decide “entirely and freely the question of their union with one or the other empire, or their formation into independent states.” Invoking the same principle, Germany has made a very different proposal. She offers “as soon as peace is concluded with Russia and the demobilization of the Russian Armies has been accomplished to evacuate her present positions in occupied Russian territory” but asserts that peace can be achieved only upon the basis of “a full state of independence and separation from the Russian Empire for Poland, Lithuania, Courland, and portions of Estonia and Livonia.” Russia has replied that “only such manifestation of will can be regarded as a de facto expression of the will of the people as results from a free vote taken in the districts in question, with the complete absence of foreign troops.” At year’s end negotiations are at an impasse.
The British Army in Palestine, after capturing Beersheba, advanced through Gaza and surrounded Jerusalem. On December 9 the Turks surrendered the city, and two days later the British commander General Edmund Allenby entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. In order to avoid any appearance of triumphalism, and to show respect for the City’s holy places, he entered on foot rather than horseback. No Allied flags were allowed to be flown over the City, and Muslim soldiers from India were assigned to guard the Dome of the Rock.
On the Western Front, the British push toward Cambrai, which began last month with a successful attack spearheaded by “tanks,” has bogged down. German counterattacks have regained much of the ground lost in the early days of the battle, and on December 2 Field Marshal Haig directed a withdrawal to secure defensive positions for the winter. At year’s end, German counterattacks were continuing with mixed results. On the Italian Front, British troops transferred form France have aided the Italians in turning back the Austro-German advance on the Asiago Plateau.
On December 6, the SS Mont Blanc, a freighter loaded with munitions en route from New York to France, was entering the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia to join a transatlantic convoy when it collided with a departing steamship. The ensuing fire and explosion destroyed or damaged every building in the city, killed 2,000 people and injured over 9,000. Rescue efforts were hampered by a fierce blizzard that struck Halifax the day after the explosion.
For the first time in the war, the United States Navy has lost a warship to enemy action. On December 6, the U.S.S. Jacob Jones (DD-61) was en route independently from Brest to Queenstown after participating in the escort of a transatlantic convoy when she was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine near the Isles of Scilly. Sixty-six officers and men of her 107-man crew were lost.
The 65th Congress convened on Monday, December 3 for its regular session. The next day President Wilson journeyed to the Capitol to deliver his annual State of the Union message. Many Congressmen had been calling for a declaration of war against Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria, but no one knew when the President began speaking what the President would ask Congress to do. For most of his address, he called for a concentrated effort in the war against Germany. He told Congress that “our immediate task is to win the war, and nothing shall turn us aside until it is accomplished” and that “those who desire to bring peace about before that purpose is achieved I counsel to carry their advice elsewhere. We will not entertain it.” He said “we shall regard the war as won only when the German people say to us, through properly accredited representatives, that they are ready to agree to a settlement based on justice and the reparation of the wrongs their rulers have done,” Among those wrongs are “a wrong to Belgium, which must be repaired,” and “establish[ing] a power over other lands and peoples than their own — over the great empire of Austria-Hungary, over hitherto free Balkan States, over Turkey, and within Asia — which must be relinquished.” The President was more than half way through his speech before he addressed the question of adding to the nation’s list of enemies. In pursuing the goal of pushing “this great war of freedom and justice to its righteous conclusion,” he cited “one very embarrassing obstacle that stands in our way.” That is “that we are at war with Germany, but not with her allies.” He therefore recommended “very earnestly” that Congress declare war against Austria-Hungary because that nation is “not her own mistress, but simply the vassal of the German government.” He acknowledged that “the same logic would lead also to a declaration of war against Turkey and Bulgaria,” but said that although those nations “also are the tools of Germany, . . . they are mere tools and do not yet stand in the direct path of our necessary action.”
The war resolution submitted to Congress, which did not include Turkey and Bulgaria, passed both houses of Congress on December 7 with only one dissenting vote. The single no vote was cast by Representative Meyer London of New York, the only Socialist member of Congress, who explained that “as a Socialist, I am pledged to vote against a declaration of war. In matters of war I am a teetotaler. I refuse to take the first intoxicating drink.” Senator Robert LaFollette, who was a vocal opponent of the war with Germany in April, was absent from the chamber and later claimed he had not heard the bell announcing the roll call. Representative Jeannette Rankin, another no vote in April, voted for the resolution. She said “I still believe that war is a stupid and futile way of attempting to settle international difficulties,” but “the vote that we are now to cast is not on the declaration of war. . . . This is merely a vote on a technicality in the prosecution of the war already declared. I shall vote for this, as I voted for money and men.”
President Wilson’s close advisor “Colonel” Edward M. House returned on December 15 from Paris, where he represented the United States at a meeting of the Inter-Allied Supreme War Council. Upon his return he issued a statement to the press proclaiming his mission “a great success.” He told the reporters meeting his ship that before the conference the efforts of the Allies were “not focused,” but that “they are working together now, and the promises are that they will continue to do so.” Asked about peace prospects and war aims, he said “I didn’t talk peace with a soul in Europe. I didn’t discuss war aims. … As for peace, perhaps what was accomplished was a great peace step, because it was a step toward winning the war. … Please don’t let anyone get the idea that we discussed peace.” Three days later in a meeting at the White House he was more forthcoming, telling President Wilson that he had tried without success to persuade the Allies to join in a broad declaration of war aims that would unite the world against Germany. The President is now considering making such a declaration on his own.
When Congress passed the Army Appropriations Act in August 1916, it included the following language: “The president, in time of war, is empowered, through the Secretary of War, to take possession and assume control of any system or systems of transportation, or any part thereof, and to utilize the same, to the exclusion as far as may be necessary of all other traffic thereon, for the transfer or transportation of troops, war material, and equipment, or for such other purposes connected with the emergency as may be useful or desirable.” Now that the United States has entered a “time of war,” the President has decided to exercise that power. On December 26, using “powers … granted me by the act of Congress of August 1916,” he announced his decision to take control of the nation’s railroads in an attempt to deal with the critical problem of increasing railroad congestion. As required by the legislation, the action was taken “through the Secretary of War,” but the President delegated actual control of the railroads to Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo. At noon on Friday, December 28, all 257,000 miles of the nation’s railroads passed into government control as McAdoo became Director General of Railroads with authority to direct and finance the country’s transportation facilities for the duration of the war. On December 29 he completed the process of unifying the railroads into a national system of transportation when he issued an order directing that “all transportation systems covered by [the President’s December 26] proclamation and order shall be operated as a national system of transportation, the common and national needs being in all instances held paramount to any actual or supposed corporate advantage. All terminals, ports, locomotives, rolling stock, and other transportation facilities are to be fully utilized to carry out this purpose.” Among other things, the order ended the Pennsylvania Railroad’s exclusive right to the use of the huge Pennsylvania terminal station in New York City and the tubes under the Hudson River leading into it. Those facilities are now available to all carriers.
On December 31 Secretary McAdoo addressed a critical coal shortage in the northeast by ordering that coal be given priority over passengers and freight on the nation’s railroads. One of the major causes of the shortage is the back-up of unloaded coal cars at the New Jersey terminals on the Hudson River. After conferring with Fuel Administrator Harry A. Garfield, McAdoo asked New York City Mayor-elect Hylan, who will assume office on New Year’s Day, to detail as many city employees as possible to help get the cars unloaded, and he is working with Edward N. Hurley, Chairman of the Shipping Board, to increase the number of ships available to carry the coal to New England.
The campaign to make America dry passed a major milestone this month. A proposed amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States,” which was passed by the Senate in August, was approved by the House of Representatives on December17. The Senate, which is dominated by rural interests, has historically been more receptive to the dry forces than the House, which represents a more urban and ethnically diverse constituency, including a number of recent immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy. The next day the Senate agreed to minor changes made by the House and the proposed amendment was submitted to the states for ratification. It includes a provision, never before included in proposed amendments to the Constitution, that it will be inoperative unless it is ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states within seven years.
In 1914 an earlier version of the prohibition amendment was passed by the Senate but fell short in the House. That vote, however, was encouraging to the dry forces because for the first time a majority (though less than the necessary two-thirds) of representatives had voted for the amendment. The sponsor of the amendment that year was Representative Richmond P. Hobson (Dem., Ala.). His advocacy for prohibition was popular in his home state, but his racial views found less favor, especially outside his Birmingham congressional district. A former naval officer, he had introduced legislation to allow residents of Porto Rico and the Philippines to apply for admission to West Point and Annapolis, and other legislation to make it unlawful to discriminate against Negro soldiers and sailors in uniform in the District of Columbia. Also undermining his support among the white voters of Alabama was his criticism of President Roosevelt’s dishonorable discharges of Negro soldiers following racial unrest in Brownsville, Texas in 1906. In 1914, he left his House seat to run for an open Senate seat, but lost the Democratic primary (the only competitive race in Alabama) to Representative Oscar W. Underwood, the House majority leader. With Hobson’s departure from Congress, leadership of the dry forces passed to Senator Sheppard.
December 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, January and February 1918
New York Times, December 1917 and January 1918
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
This article is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: centennialcountdown.blogspot.com