Ninety-nine years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent in Europe for the first time since the summer of 1914. The Armistice of Compiègne allowed for the bilateral ceasefire. That was the first step in ending the First World War. It was known then as “The Great War” for it was a conflict thus far unparalleled in terms of carnage and destruction.
The Great War did not formally end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28 of 1919. The Armistice was just a formal ceasefire, but it carried the promise of a lasting and fair peace, and, it offered immediate relief, breathing room, to a battered world.
The world celebrated the Armistice. Puerto Rico was no exception.
During WWI, Puerto Ricans fought for their “right to fight”. By October 31, 1918 three of the four regiments authorized for the Porto Rican Division had been fully trained and manned with 10,600 officers and soldiers. On November 11, the Armistice between the Allies and the German Empire came into effect.
Amid fireworks, dancing, the colors of the U.S. and of the allied nations, out of the gates of Camp Las Casas came marching the 12,000 soldiers and trainers of the 94th Infantry Division, the Porto Rican contingent of the National Army. The celebration climaxed with a military review of the Porto Rican Division in the Plaza 2 de Marzo in Condado-commemorative of the Jones Act of 1917, which had extended U.S. Citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico.
Knowing that demobilization would come rather sooner than later The Porto Rico Progress announced that the men from Las Casas “no matter what their future may be, cannot help being better men for the few months of training they have had.”[iii] Excerpt from Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952.
Puerto Rican leaders had hoped that participating in the war would change the socio-economic situation of the Puerto Rican peasantry and the political status of the island. After all, when the United States joined the Allies it did so with the promise of supporting self-determination and self-rule for national groups. Following idealistic observers, President Woodrow Wilson referred to the Great War as “war to end all wars.” The entire world, and Puerto Rico, celebrated the Armistice in 1918 and hoped for a better future and a lasting peace.
But the Great War was followed by an even more devastating one and thus it became the First World War. Lasting peace eluded the world and the Second World War (WWII) was followed by the Korean War; a conflict in which tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans finally experience combat as fighting troops.
Armistice Day became Veterans Day in the United States following the Korean War, perhaps a nuanced recognition of the ephemeral, maybe even mirageos nature of a long lasting peace.
Puerto Ricans have continued to serve in the U.S. military in great numbers and for all kinds of reasons. And they have been instrumental in the development of modern Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans as we know them nowadays. The modern Puerto Rico they helped to create has been facing several crises since 2006. One could say that Puerto Rico has been collapsing. A debt, financial and economic crises led to roughly half a million Puerto Ricans leaving the island in the past few years and a humanitarian crisis. To make matters worse, hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure leaving behind a situation and landscape similar to that of a war zone.
Puerto Ricans are battered just like the world was in 1918. On this Veterans Day, think of the Puerto Rican veterans and service members and recognize their service. But also think of the civilian population as a whole,which had been facing adversity, and calamity after calamity for almost two decades now. Puerto Rico needs immediate relief just like the world needed the Armistice in 1918. But it also needs a concerted effort that leads to a full recovery and the fulfillment of broken promises. Let’s make sure that this time Puerto Rico enjoys a lasting and fair peace.
[iii] Porto Rico Progress, November 29, 1918