This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. American troops entered the fray three years after the war started. The war was an intense slaughter of human life. New modern artillery and machine guns were employed, but the European military leaders were unable to adjust, unable to develop new tactics to compensate for the new weapons. Millions of soldiers died and neither side could prevail.
America’s founders were adamantly opposed to United States involvement in European wars. They thought a “standing army” would be a mistake because it would make it easier to become unnecessarily involved in a European war. American citizens reflected the anti-European war attitude until the administration of President Woodrow Wilson wrenched American society, violently, to promote entry into World War One.
Wilson was originally elected in 1912 and re-elected in 1916. The war in Europe had been in progress for two years when he was re-elected. Wilson advocated neutrality, and his 1916 campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war.” But soon after Wilson was re-elected, he flipped his public stance and began to work for U.S. entry into the European war. Most Americans strongly opposed going to war. But Wall Street bankers and some American corporations saw opportunity to profit from the war. As early as 1914, Jack Morgan, head of the Morgan bank, wrote the following to President Wilson: “The war should be a tremendous opportunity for America.” London had been the world’s most important banking center, but the war was bleeding England. The Wall Street bankers wanted to exploit London’s weakened position.
American manufacturers and shippers wanted to profit by selling and shipping to the belligerent countries, especially England and France. Their problem was that Germany was using submarines to interdict sea traffic going to England and France.
If America did enter the war, there was disagreement about whether we should align with Germany or with France and England. Twenty-five percent of Americans were of German ancestry and not anxious to go to war against their relatives. Wilson set the tone for the treatment of those who disagreed with his decision to engage in a war of choice. The tone was vicious and inflammatory. In an address to the Congress asking for a declaration of war, Wilson said that “Germany ‘has filled our…communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity…our industries and our commerce.’” “If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression.” In another context, Wilson stated, “’There are citizens of the United States, born under other flags…who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” Wilson also told Congress that “Authority to exercise censorship over the press… is absolutely necessary to the public safety.” Congress granted the Postmaster General authority to censor the U.S. mail. The Wilson administration established the first modern government propaganda machine to sell the war to the public.
Industrial workers were agitating for unionization. Women were asking for the right to vote. Corporate trusts had been challenged by the previous presidential administrations of “Teddy” Roosevelt and Howard Taft, and businessmen were angry.
A group of businessmen in Chicago offered to form an enforcement organization called the American Protective League (APL) to enforce loyalty and compliance with the military draft. The federal government had very limited capability a hundred years ago, and the APL was approved. It grew into a vigilante organization of about 250,000 members. Other vigilantes formed and vigilantism soon swept across the land. The targets of the vigilantes were anyone who questioned the wisdom of the war or the military draft of men, or anyone of German ancestry, religious pacifists, labor unionists, and any male suspected of failing to register for the military draft.
The courts held, in effect, that the U.S. Constitution and laws were subordinate to patriotism. Eugene V. Debs, a nationally prominent politician, was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for a public speech opposing the military draft. Rose Stokes was sentenced to ten years in prison for saying, “I am for the people, and the government is for the profiteers.” The Reverend Clarence H. Waldron was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for declaring that Christians should not engage in warfare. Robert Goldstein produced a movie about the American Revolution called “The Spirit of 76.” The movie portrayed a British atrocity. Since the Wilson administration chose to ally with England, that bit of factual history was unacceptable. Goldstein was sentenced to ten years in prison.
World War I was, for the United States, a war of choice. Had the U.S. not gone to war, bankers, manufacturers and shippers would have paid a high price in lost revenue. Going to war also exacted a high price: More than 100,000 Americans died, and over 200,000 were wounded.
War can have many consequences. It was America’s entry that, after the war, made it possible for England and France to impose punitive and vengeful conditions on Germany reducing Germans to poverty and despair. Those imposed conditions produced radical politics in Germany giving rise to Adolf Hitler who initiated World War Two and the Holocaust. We cannot know what would have happened if the United States had not entered the conflict, but one possibility is that Adolf Hitler would have been nothing more than a pimple on the face of history.
One consequence is considerably more certain. The Wilson administration broke American resistance to wars of choice. We have since engaged in three of them: Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
Jack Stevenson served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).