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The United States Prepares for War

When the bill for conscription came before Congress in mid-April, most Americans supported it. Many in the United States, as in England, had thought of conscription as regimentation unworthy of free people. Conscription had been tried during the Civil War and had provoked bloody riots in New York City and elsewhere. And a few in Congress remained opposed to conscription – otherwise known as the draft. The House Majority Leader, Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, declared that there was little difference between a conscript and a convict. The Democrat chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee refused to sponsor the bill. But the bill flew through both houses of Congress. President Wilson signed the bill into law, and with this the United States began mobilizing and training men for a planned move to Europe in 1918. Only about one in a hundred young men eligible for the draft resisted. Blacks were drafted in equal proportion to whites, and they were put into all black units officered by whites.

Opponents of militarism remained vocal, and many wanted something done to suppress their dissent. Many supporting the war effort believed in freedom of speech and assembly but not in the special case of damaging the nation in time of war. There were Americans who stretched dissent and opposition to war as helping Germany and therefore treason. One of the six in the Senate who voted against the war, Senator La Follette of Wisconsin, was depicted in a cartoon giving Kaiser Wilhelm the Iron Cross as a reward "for services rendered."

President Wilson created a Committee on Public Information to combat opinion opposed to the war, which became known as the Creel Committee, named for the man in charge of it, General George Creel. At the same time, Congress was working on a bill that was passed into law on June 15 and called the Espionage Act. This outlawed "false reports or false statements" made with the intent "to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces." It outlawed attempts to cause "insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States." The bill made it illegal "to willfully obstruct military recruiting or enlistment," or to "urge, incite or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war." Those convicted of violating the Espionage Act were to receive a $10,000 fine and twenty years in jail.

Wilson joined the spirit of the crusade. He balanced his view of war as horrible with his hope that something good would come of it. He described America's entry into the war as serving "the advancement of mankind and international comity." He spoke of fighting in order to free humanity from "the scourges of war and political oppression." In his June 14th Flag Day speech he spoke of the immense strength of "the forces of justice and of liberalism" that were gathering. "This," he said, "is a people's war, a war for freedom and justice and self-government amongst all the nations of the world, a war to make the world safe for the people who live upon it and have made it their own."

Some of his subordinates went further. His Secretary of War, Newton Baker, spoke of America's "high and holy mission." His Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, spoke of "the world of Christ" coming face to face with the world of force. The Creel Committee declared that the war was "a crusade not merely to re-win the tomb of Christ, but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill to men and the gentleness He taught."

Irving Berlin's song "Over There," anticipated American soldiers crossing the Atlantic and became the most popular song in the United States. And Hollywood was getting into the act by making films referring to Kaiser Wilhelm, with titles such as "To Hell with the Kaiser," "The Beast of Berlin," and a film starring Mary Pickford titled "One Hundred Percent American."

A film titled "The Spirit of '76," which had been made before the US entered the war, was released in the summer of 1917. The film was critical of the British during the American Revolution. It was forcibly withdrawn and the filmmaker prosecuted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. The judge in the case accused the film of arousing people's passions and questioning "the good faith of our ally, Great Britain." And no one, said the judge, should be permitted to detract from the war effort.

Wilson spoke of the enemy as "the masters of Germany" and Germany's "Junkers" (Prussia's landed aristocracy) rather than the German people, but his Creel Committee was joining others in opposing all things German. Sauerkraut was dubbed liberty cabbage. Hamburger was called "liberty steak," and German Shepherds were renamed "police dogs." The works of German composers, including Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven, were avoided by symphony orchestras, while the "American Defense Society" was warning Americans that German music was the most dangerous form of German propaganda because it appealed to the emotions. The Austrian born violist Fritz Kreisler was suddenly out of work. A campaign of hate began against the Swiss conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carl Muck, for his not wanting to play the Star Spangled Banner as an introduction to his concerts. His performances in Washington DC, Baltimore and other cities were canceled.

In California, folk songs that were originally German were removed from children's songbooks. In schools across the nation, teaching the German language came to an end. Libraries across the nation removed from their shelves books by German authors. Under pressure from the public and a crusade led by former president Roosevelt the editors of German language newspapers shut their papers down. A few German-Americans were forced to kiss the American flag. Some of them were forced to parade before irate townspeople as objects of ridicule. A German-American was lynched in southern Illinois. Kids threw stones at Dachshunds. And teachers lost their jobs for expressing their opinions on the issue of war and peace.

A drive for the sale of liberty bonds was underway, and some who refused to buy the bonds were doused with yellow paint. Mennonites refused to buy bonds because of their religious hostility to war. In one town their cars were confiscated and sold at auction and the proceeds used to buy Liberty Bonds. In July, thousands of soldiers and sailors attacked a parade of socialists in Boston, and they sacked the local party headquarters while police stood by.

Prohibitionists joined others in attacking brewery giants in the US – Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch and Pabst – and described them as agents of the Kaiser trying to weaken America. Those opposed to prohibition, including the brewing industry, were losing their political clout. In August the Senate passed a resolution for a constitutional amendment against the drinking of alcohol that would become law in 1919.

Meanwhile, citing the Espionage Act, the US Post Office refused to mail any written materials that could be deemed critical of the U S war effort. Some sixty socialist newspapers were deprived of their second-class mailing rights. Clarence Darrow, the nation's most famous attorney, objected and wrote a letter of protest to the President. In reply, Wilson wrote that he would "try to work out with the Postmaster General some course with regard to the circulation of the Socialist papers that [would] be in conformity with law and good sense." The journalist John Reed also sent a letter to Wilson, appealing to what he believed was dear to Wilson: "the Anglo-Saxon tradition of intellectual freedom." Wilson wrote to Postmaster General Albert Burleson and described those who were complaining as "very sincere men," and, he said, "I should like to please them." Burleson continued with his ban on socialist publications. To the socialist publisher of "The Masses," Max Eastman, Wilson said that he had little confidence about how to proceed in the matter of censorship. Said Wilson: "I can only say that a line must be drawn and that we are trying..." In early September he wrote to Burleson: "You know that I am willing to trust your judgment after I have once called your attention to a suggestion."

Despite his timidity concerning freedom of the press, Wilson remained confident in his ability to mold the outcome of the greatest of all wars. It was a bold assumption given how little the world had been developing according to the will of any individual or any one nation. How well Wilson would succeed against opinions of masses of people in various nations and the prejudices and fears of his new wartime allies would be revealed after the war ended.


To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the quest for a New World Order, by Thomas J. Knock, Oxford U. Press, 1992

The Oxford History of the American People, Chapters 50-51, by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1965

The First World War: A Complete History, by Martin Gilbert, 1996

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