In the October 2017 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features two manuscript documents from individuals with very different responses to the armistice that ended the major fighting of World War I. One was a letter by President Woodrow Wilson, who jotted down a few sentences to notify the people of the United States that the war was at its end. This letter is part of the Woodrow Wilson Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, which includes more than 200,000 items related to Wilson’s life and presidential administration. The letter also appears in the Library’s exhibition “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I.”
The other document is a diary entry by Private Harry Frieman, a U.S. infantryman fighting in France. Frieman’s diary is held by the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, along with firsthand accounts from thousands of veterans of World War I and all U.S. conflicts since. A sidebar describes the Library’s current efforts to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States’ participation in the war, including a new World War I topic page that brings together resources from across the Library.
The two documents, though written at the same time, represent very different perspectives on the war and its end. Wilson’s letter, written on White House stationery, took a global view of the armistice, spending most of its few dozen words describing the role he saw the United States taking in assisting the former combatants and establishing “just democracy throughout the world.” Harry Frieman’s diary, by contrast, recorded the end of fighting in very personal terms. Frieman’s unit was about to attack in foggy conditions, but in the last minutes before 11 am, an officer warned the men that a cease-fire was about to begin. After the shooting stopped at 11 am and the fog lifted, Frieman’s comrades saw that they had been surrounded by German troops. “If the war would have kept up a few hours longer there wouldn’t be many of us left to tell about it.”
The article suggests that analyzing these two documents with the Library’s primary source analysis tool and Analyzing Manuscripts Teacher’s Guide can help students look closely at these documents and make inferences about the circumstances of, and reasons for, their creation. It also describes the ways in which a study of the different perspectives found in the two documents can lead students to think of others caught up in the war—parents, prisoners of war, disabled veterans—and consider what their perspectives on the armistice might have been.
Please share your students’ insights on these documents in the comments below!