As a followup to yesterday’s post, I went and searched on “war to end all wars” in Google Ngrams. The result was somewhat surprising:
The usage of “war to end all wars,” which I had usually taken to refer to the Great War, and (at least at first) to be un-ironic, doesn’t really start in any serious way until the 1930s, a period when it was pretty clear that the Great War wasn’t going to be the last one. It hit an early peak in 1943, when it was likely being used as a lament – “we thought we had fought the war to end all wars, but…” – and rose steadily in the post-World War II years. It strikes me that, from this evidence (to which all the usual caveats apply), that “war to end all wars” was only really used in a substantial way when it already clearly didn’t apply to 1914-1918. World War II (or its threat) had already come along and made tragic the phrase by the time “war to end all wars” became common.