A minute before noon on a November morning in 1918, a telegraph inside the United Press office on the third floor of the New York World headquarters chattered a message of salvation to a war-weary country. After reading the cable from France, pressmen grabbed the largest type they could find to set the headline for that afternoon’s extra edition: “WAR OVER.”
Minutes later, the news that the Allies and Germany had signed an armistice to end World War I crossed the Dow Jones ticker on Wall Street and quickly went viral across the country’s telegraph and telephone wires.
All business in New York City came to a halt as Mayor John Hylan declared a public holiday. Barbers abandoned half-shaven customers in their chairs. Office workers who left for lunch never returned. “Who can work on a day like this? Gone to celebrate-open tomorrow” read a sign on the shuttered front door of the Rogers Peet department store. A blizzard of tickertape, newspapers and shredded telephone books were tossed from skyscrapers and fluttered down onto the weeping and cheering crowds who linked arms and danced in the streets. In Times Square, tenor Enrico Caruso waved an American flag and belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” from a second-floor window of the Knickerbocker Hotel.
Even by Manhattan’s noisy standards, an unprecedented cacophony spread across the island. Tugboat whistles sounded in the harbor, adding to a din of trolley gongs, automobile horns, air raid sirens and church bells. Newsboys with extra editions shouted: “Germany surrenders!” “Peace! War is over!” The scene in New York was “a dozen New Year’s Eves in one,” as one woman wrote to her fiancée serving in France.
Bankers Trust Company president Seward Prosser told the Wall Street Journal, “November 7 will go down in history as a day for international rejoicing among the civilized nations of the world.”
Yes, November 7. Four days before the actual signing of the armistice ending World War I, a premature peace report set off wild celebrations across the United States.
The false report set off coast-to-coast celebrations.
From big cities to small towns, fire stations rang their bells and factory whistles blared on what became known as “False Armistice Day.” Ignoring the prohibitions against public gatherings because of the Spanish Flu that had ravaged the country in recent weeks, Americans poured into the streets to celebrate. In Washington, D.C., President Woodrow Wilson appeared on the White House portico and waved his luncheon napkin to the crowds chanting his name. Overhead, nine Army airplanes performed loop-the-loops as the guns of Fort Myer thundered across the Potomac River.
While Philadelphia Mayor Thomas B. Smith rang the Liberty Bell with a small hammer, Begun’s Drug Store in La Crosse, Wisconsin, handed out free soda pop as a straw effigy of the Kaiser burned outside the local newspaper office. At the Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille interrupted 19-year-old Gloria Swanson during the shooting of a silent film. “Excuse me, Miss Swanson,” the legendary director said. “We are going to stop for today. Word has just come than an armistice has been declared. The war is over!”
In New Castle, Pennsylvania, the premature celebration turned violent. A Spanish-American War veteran falsely accused of supporting the Kaiser and tearing down an American flag was assaulted and shot in the neck. Then in the town center, a firework exploded inside a launching tube, spraying steel shards that killed four teenagers, including one whose brother was serving with the American Expeditionary Force in Italy.
The truth slowly emerged.
“We thought then that all of our cares and worries were gone forever,” recalled Robert Flueger of the celebration in Akron, Ohio. Those cares and worries all returned as the country slowly deflated after Secretary of State Robert Lansing issued an official denial: “Report that the armistice with Germany has been signed is untrue.” Some refused to listen to the truth. Crowds in Times Square tore apart newspapers that printed Lansing’s armistice denial.
America awoke to a terrible hangover on November 8 as doughboys continued to die in French trenches. “Such false newspaper reports are terrible things and people responsible for them are just one grade below the worst criminal,” wrote a disgusted Captain Harry Truman.
A miscommunication was to blame.
The false armistice report apparently began with a message sent to the American embassy in Paris. Some suspected that a practical joker or a German spy had called the embassy to plant the false story in order to get the Allied guns to fall silent. But a U.S. Army investigation concluded that officers misinterpreted a message declaring a localized cease-fire to allow a German delegation to cross battle lines for peace negotiations.
With rumors of peace already circulating the French port of Brest, Admiral Henry B. Wilson, the American naval commander in France, told United Press president Roy Howard that he had just received news of an armistice from the American embassy in Paris. “Is it official?” Howard asked. “Absolutely, right from headquarters,” said Wilson, who gave the newspaperman permission to print the scoop of a lifetime.
With French censors away from their post to celebrate the war’s end, Howard cabled the news to the United Press office in New York. Assuming their French counterparts had approved the cable, American military censors did the same.
Wilson quickly took responsibility for the false report and exonerated Howard and the United Press, which the New York World made sure to feature prominently on the front page of its November 8 edition. The rival Associated Press, however, called for Howard’s court-martial for his role in the “most flagrant and culpable act of public deception in the whole history of news gathering and dissemination.” Some New Yorkers suggested the city send the $85,000 cleanup bill from the premature celebration to the United Press.
News of an armistice reached the United States again on the morning of November 11—but this time the reports were true. Crowds again filled American streets, but the celebration this time was more subdued. “There were few jubilations that Monday, in comparison with wild, fake-armistice day” reported Shirley White. “People had spent their wild hilarity; all realized now what the struggle had meant and cost. We were glad—glad—but it was a gladness that lay deep in our hearts. People were prayerful and tearful; and yet joyous—too grateful for mirth.”