April marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’s entry into World War I. So on this episode of BackStory, Brian, Joanne, and Ed discuss how this oft-forgotten war set the stage for the American century.
We’ll explore how Woodrow Wilson led a decidedly isolationist country into war. We’ll also discuss the repressive ways Wilson and his administration cracked down on anti-war sentiment.
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BRIAN: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
JOANNE: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
BRIAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.
JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers.
JOANNE: If you’re new to the podcast, Ed, Brian, Nathan Connolly, and I are historians. Each week we take a topic in the news and explore that theme across American history.
BRIAN: This week, Ed, Joanne, and I are going to focus in on a specific event. Our story begins on April 2nd, 1917, at around 8:30 in the evening.
President Woodrow Wilson was about to address a joint session of Congress. Now, Wilson was a powerful speaker. But this speech would be one of the biggest challenges of his presidency.
WILL HITCHCOCK: Wilson had stayed up pretty much all night the night before he has to go to Congress to make this momentous speech.
BRIAN: This is historian Will Hitchcock.
WILL HITCHCOCK: And he’s been agonizing about this decision. Congress is packed. They’re in the House of Representatives. It’s absolutely jammed. The Senate is convened with them.
And they know what’s coming. This is in many ways an overdue request– to approve a resolution of war against Germany.
WOODROW WILSON: We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feelings toward them–
BRIAN: This is an actor from back then reading Wilson’s speech. In the early days of recorded sound, live tapings weren’t all that common.
WOODROW WILSON: It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon.
BRIAN: We know the recording is hard to understand. But what he’s saying is that this war was started as wars always had been– as he put it, for dynasties, for little groups of ambitious men.
WOODROW WILSON: Who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and fools.
BRIAN: In other words, wars waged by kings and tyrants.
But then, President Wilson shifted to America’s role. He said, “it is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.”
WILL HITCHCOCK: And there was an enormous amount of cheering and applause in the hall after he gave his very moving and powerful war message.
ED: Now, for three years, Americans had been hearing about the bloody conflict in Europe. Millions of soldiers had perished in trench warfare or from poison gas attacks. Air raids targeted civilian populations.
But even knowing this, the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to go to war against the German Empire. In doing so, America threw himself into what was being called “the Great War”– and what we now know as World War I.
BRIAN: But here’s the thing. Wilson had just won re-election on an anti-war platform. His campaign slogans had been “America First” and “He Kept Us Out of War.”
WILL HITCHCOCK: There’s a wonderful campaign button which I think encapsulates his winning strategy. And it says on it, “war in Europe, peace in America, God bless Wilson.” You can’t top that for PR.
BRIAN: That’s pretty good.
That was in November, just a few months before Wilson’s address to Congress.
WILL HITCHCOCK: But it’s April of 1917, and the world has changed considerably. The situation has changed considerably. And Wilson is finally ready to do something that he is profoundly reluctant to do– lead the country into war.
JOANNE: The United States spent the next 18 months engaged in the Great War. In that short time, over 100,000 American soldiers died.
Yet the war to end all wars has mostly faded from public memory, at least in the United States.
BRIAN: So today, we’re marking the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into the First World War by taking a closer look at our role in that conflict.
We’ll show how the war transformed American society and helped turn the United States into a global power. We’ll hear some of the songs that sold the war to a skeptical public– and how a socialist leader was thrown in prison for daring to speak out against the war.
ED: Let’s get back to Woodrow Wilson and how he pivoted from being an isolationist president to a wartime leader. Eventually, that fateful decision to enter the war would set the stage for what became known as “the American Century.”
BRIAN: Let’s consider how the war started, back in 1914.
After the assassination of an Austrian archduke, a series of European alliances locked into place on a scale, well, frankly never seen before. On one side were the Central Powers– Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. Opposing them were the Allies– Britain, France, Russia, and Italy.
WILL HITCHCOCK: And Wilson, like many Americans, says, that’s not our fight. We have no reason to be interested in that conflict. It starts in the Balkans. Where is that? Not many people have any idea. The assassination of an obscure Austrian noble, Archduke Franz Ferdinand– who cares?
So America’s view is, well, that’s not our fight. Too bad. It’s almost like a European Civil War.
BRIAN: But in early 1917–
WILL HITCHCOCK: A big shift, a big change occurs.
BRIAN: Which is?
WILL HITCHCOCK: The Germans begin to sink American shipping.
BRIAN: While the US didn’t have boots on the ground, it did have a big financial stake in the war. That enraged the Germans.
WILL HITCHCOCK: They use submarines to sink all of the ships that are carrying enormous amounts of war materiel to Europe. Now, this is–
BRIAN: And we’re neutral?
WILL HITCHCOCK: And we’re neutral. So this is a big deal. This is an enormous deal. And it’s at the core of why America ended up in the war.
When the war broke out Americans continued happily to trade with all the European countries that were fighting each other. And they said, if you want to buy our clothes, our cotton, our textiles, our ammo, our rifles, we’ll sell them to you. We don’t really care who you are. America’s open for business.
BRIAN: It was good for business?
WILL HITCHCOCK: It was enormously good for business. Banks loaned enormous amounts of money to the Europeans. The Europeans then used those dollars to buy stuff on the American market. Everybody was making a killing out of the First World War.
However, Wilson said America was neutral, but the way the trade lined up, it wasn’t so neutral, because the British put a blockade around Germany– which meant that a lot of American products were not going to Germany.
Where were they going? To Britain. And they were going to France. So it looked like America was tilting towards one side.
Well, the Germans had something to say about this, and they decided to launch submarine warfare against all these ships trafficking across the Atlantic.
JOANNE: There were other provocations, too. In 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a British passenger ship. More than 1000 passengers drowned, including 128 Americans.
Then, in March of 1917, Americans learned that Germany had tried to persuade Mexico to join the Central Powers. The evidence was uncovered in the infamous Zimmermann telegram.
BRIAN: All of these factors– the Lusitania, the Zimmermann telegram, and then the German submarine attacks on US shipping, set the stage for Wilson’s big speech that April night in 1917.
A tired and anxious president stood before Congress and told lawmakers that he was severing diplomatic relations with Germany. The US was going to war.
Hitchcock says the president’s war message was a watershed in US foreign policy and American history.
WILL HITCHCOCK: We were about to take a position in the world in which we basically said the American system should be transplanted everywhere else. And that was new.
And this goes back to what kind of man Wilson was. He’s an idealist, and he wants to be a reformer. He thinks America is fantastic. He thinks America is– wait for it– exceptional!
If he’d been Teddy Roosevelt, he might have just come in and said, we’re going to go knock those Germans around the ears, because we’re strong and we’re going to show them who’s boss. America is going to be a great power just like all the other great powers.
That’s not how Wilson wanted to pose America’s cause. His argument was, America is a moral nation. We will fight as a moral nation. And we will transform the world through this conflict.
We’re going to war to make the world safe for democracy. We’re going to redraw the map of Europe and rewrite international law in a way that everyone will be thankful for in the future.
And those are the ringing words that were in his war speech to Congress in April of 1917.
BRIAN: Are there any passages of that you’d like to read to us?
WILL HITCHCOCK: “Our motive”– he says in his speech– “our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right– of human right– of which we are only a single champion.”
So he wants to take the country to war. He doesn’t want to focus on economic benefits or on territorial benefits, so why does America fight? What are we fighting for?
Human rights– that’s what America is fighting for. Well, this is a very new concept.
BRIAN: What does he mean by that, Will?
WILL HITCHCOCK: He particularly means the rule of law. And I say that because he doesn’t mean what we might think of “human rights” to mean today.
One of the abiding facts about Wilson and his time is that America is far from the perfect nation that he imagines it to be. So when he speaks of human rights, or “human right,” he really means civilization as wealthy elite white people understood that term.
WILL HITCHCOCK: Male.
America in 1917– let’s put our cards on the table– is a profoundly segregated society. It is one that Wilson himself has done a great deal to segregate. Wilson has no problem, though, sweeping those realities aside and imagining an America that is almost perfect but, ultimately, is also perfectible.
So he pivots, and he says, wait a minute. Maybe the war can be a vehicle through which America can become great and we can transfer our ideals elsewhere.
And it’s an object lesson in what happens to a president– and many other presidents– who begin to see that their power is really quite enormous, and that they are looking for a legacy. And that legacy may not just be at home, but might be all around the world.
BRIAN: And how does the man, the woman on the street– how do they react to this? Are they moved by these, well, frankly, high-flying words, these ideals? I mean, they’re being asked to go fight and die.
WILL HITCHCOCK: It was a darn effective address. American leaders will always search for that moral high ground. The American public rallied to the flag very rapidly, because Wilson was a very effective and persuasive leader, and also because he flipped the switch on a very powerful and very effective propaganda machine.
The American public was instantly told that Germany was a barbaric country, filled with basement-dwelling savages who were uncivilized. That autocracy and monarchy was the worst thing that could ever happen to the world and should be eradicated.
So this was a moment of heightened intense nationalism and hatred towards Germany, and it and it happened more or less at the drop of a hat. It happened so quickly.
And one of the things that Wilson worried about in his agonizing evening before he gave his great speech was what war would do to the American public. That war will unleash inner forces, maybe even inner demons.
And that sounds kind of strange that a president will be thinking about this on the evening of a declaration of war, but that’s precisely what he was worried about. And he was right.
JOANNE: Will Hitchcock is a historian at the University of Virginia.
BRIAN: We’re going to explore Wilson’s fears about the ugliness of war later in the show.
ED: In the past few weeks, the BackStory staff has been listening to speeches about America’s entry into World War I.
Now, we’re not going to lie. We love listening to these old recordings. And the more we dove into this audio, the more we experienced the excitement, anxieties, and fears of a century ago.
So we wanted to share with you some voices from that era. And they speak in very different ways. First, we’ll hear organized labor’s militant support for the war effort. Then we’ll hear some frankly disturbing anti-German propaganda. And finally, we’ll hear a stirring message for the troops.
SAMUEL GOMPERS: Fellow countrymen, our republic, our people, are at war. Whatever individuals may have thought upon the European situation before the Congress of the United States declared war against the Imperial German and Austrian government, that must now be laid aside.
War means victory for our cause or danger to the very existence of our nation. The workers have a part in this war equal with the soldiers and sailors on the ship and in the trenches. America’s workers understand the gravity of the situation and the responsibility that devolves upon them.
JAMES W. GERARD: Now that we are in the war, there are only two sides. And the time has come when every citizen must declare himself American or traitor.
And if there are any German Americans here who are so ungrateful for all the benefits they have received that they are still for the Kaiser, there is only one thing to do with them. And that is to hogtie them, give them back the wooden shoes and the rags they landed in, and ship them back to the fatherland.
JOHN J. PERSHING: 3,000 Miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting.
Invoking the service of our forefathers, the Army asks your unblinking support to the end, that the high ideals for which America stands may endure upon the earth.
ED: Those were the voices of Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor; James W. Gerard, US ambassador to Germany; and General John J. Pershing.
BRIAN: Joanne, Ed, a few minutes ago, historian Will Hitchcock talked about how quickly Woodrow Wilson flipflopped with America’s early entry into World War I. But the American public pivoted just as quickly as Wilson. And you could see and hear this in the popular culture of the time, especially the music.
So I brought in our producer, Nina Earnest, to share some of those World War I-era songs.
NINA EARNEST: Well, hi, guys.
ED: You going to walk us through or march us through those songs.
NINA EARNEST: Hmm. Marching may be more appropriate, but not at first.
So I talked to a music professor named Kristean Griffith, and she has studied the songs of World War I. And she told me that you can chart the popularity of the war through popular music at the time. Between 1914 and ’15, you can see some really strongly anti-war positions in the sheet music of the time.
Now, the thing to note about music from the 19-teens is that there wasn’t a ton of recording happening, so where you would actually see a hit song would be in sheet music sales. And of course, that makes sense, because people were playing music in the home rather than necessarily listening on a photograph.
If a song sold a lot of sheet music, it was probably more likely to be recorded. So between 1914 and 1915, you see a lot of songs that are reflecting a pacifist moment, including “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”
[MUSIC – “I DIDN’T RAISE MY BOY TO BE A SOLDIER”]
I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier. I brought him to be my pride and joy. Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, to shoot some other mother’s darling boy?
NINA EARNEST: So this song was considered to be a smash hit. It sold over 700,000 copies within eight weeks.
BRIAN: Wow. I didn’t know we had that many pianos in the country.
NINA EARNEST: There were a lot of pianos.
BRIAN: There were a lot, obviously.
NINA EARNEST: A lot of music to be played.
But the thing is, if that song was this popular in 1915, then that shows you how popular the anti-war message was. People did not want to get involved with that European conflict with the archdukes and the emperors and whatever else. They wanted their sons to be home safe.
And it’s very important that this is a mother saying, do not send my child to war. They say, “do not dare to put a musket on his shoulder.”
ED: Yeah. “I raised him to be my–”
NINA EARNEST: Pride and joy.
ED: Pride and joy.
BRIAN: What’s so striking is, it’s important to remember that those mothers couldn’t vote in national elections.
ED: Well, that seems so powerful, so deeply rooted in mother love, you wonder how that could change. Well, what happened, Nina?
NINA EARNEST: What happens is, we go to war?
BRIAN: And is it fair to say the music industry was perhaps a little worried about not getting with the program?
JOANNE: Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say they were eager to get with the program?
NINA EARNEST: Yeah, I think it’s more that they were eager to get with the program. They knew where American public opinion was going, and they wanted to reflect that in their music and in their songs.
So here’s an example called “America, Here’s My Boy,” from 1917.
[MUSIC – “AMERICA, HERE’S MY BOY”]
America, I raised a boy for you. America, you’ll find him staunch and true.
JOANNE: Well, obviously, that’s bringing to life in a real powerful emotional way this turnaround that we’re talking about.
NINA EARNEST: And Griffith has an interesting take on this.
KRISTEAN GRIFFITH: You’ll hear the lyric say, “place a gun upon his shoulder,” which is the same position of the lyric in the 1915 song– “who dares to place a musket on his shoulder.”
So that line, in that exact position of the chorus– the third line of the chorus– is a direct rebuttal of that anti-war position.
NINA EARNEST: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” was so popular– and obviously the anti-war message was so popular– that the sheet music industry, the recording industry, scrambled to hide that fact, or to kind of leave it aside that this had been their content that had been so popular.
So instead, you see different titles emerging that are a riff on “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but just tweaked a little bit.
JOANNE: Give us some examples.
NINA EARNEST: “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier.” “It’s Time for Every Boy to Be a Soldier.” And “What if George Washington’s Mother Had Said, I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”
And my favorite, “I Didn’t Raise My Dog to Be a Sausage.” If that’s a German comment, I’m not sure. I couldn’t find the conformation on that, but I suspect.
BRIAN: I’m guessing it is.
JOANNE: I suspect.
I really also want to touch again on something, Brian, that you said a little while back, because– “mother, mother, mother, mother, mother,” and they can’t vote.
ED: It’s so disturbing, the language going from “I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier” till “here, take my son.”
JOANNE: “Here’s my boy.”
NINA EARNEST: The other song that– I think most people still know this song from World War I– is called over there, with the famous line “the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming.” And I think this really highlights that this was a moment of America turning a leaf, from an isolationist country to one that is actively involved in the world.
[MUSIC – “OVER THERE”]
Over there, over there, send the word, send the word to over there, that the boys are coming, the boys are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere.
JOANNE: This, particularly “Over There”– I know that that’s maybe, in a sense, the most famous song that we’re listening to– but my grandfather used to sing these songs.
JOANNE: He was born in America, but he was about 13, 12, 13, 14, when these songs were big. And I was so surprised when these songs started playing.
It actually kind of made me tear up, because it was such a throwback, suddenly, to my grandfather. He’s been dead maybe 30 years at this point. But that was such a big part of him.
And that drove home for me, you know, about music. And that is, of course, music touches you on a level that engages you and pulls you in. And in a war effort, that’s vitally important for the populace.
But wow, my grandfather– it grabbed him, and so powerfully that I still felt it in the 1970s.
BRIAN: It lasted multiple generations, just as America’s entry into the war did in some ways.
NINA EARNEST: So that’s really interesting. And then, of course, what we have as the war ends in November of 1918, and America is part of the winning side, but then you hear different kinds of music coming out. I think a lot of post-war anxieties start to pop. One that is key, even though it, again, is a very jaunty tune, is, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm?”
[MUSIC – “HOW YA GONNA KEEP ‘EM DOWN ON THE FARM”]
How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Par-ee? How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway, jazzing around and painting the town?
NINA EARNEST: They’re saying, what are they going to do? These guys have gone off to exciting places. They’ve been to “Par-ee.” What are they going to do when they come back here?
And Griffith has an interesting take on this.
KRISTEAN GRIFFITH: Soldiers maybe will, quote, “never want to see a rake or plow. And who the deuce can parlez-vous a cow?” Are some of the questions that the lyrics ask. And you see these concerned parents on the front of the cover, and it’s sort of presented in a parental perspective. What’s happening to these boys that are returning?
[MUSIC – “HOW YA GONNA KEEP ‘EM DOWN ON THE FARM”]
They never want to see a rake or plow. And who the heck can parlez-vous a cow? How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee?
NINA EARNEST: Right, so we hear two anxieties. Will these soldiers want to come back and be farmers– which America, of course, needed, probably more then than now. And also, African-American soldiers who have been given more opportunities and more liberties coming back from that experience, and how people are wrestling with those tensions.
BRIAN: You know, frankly, Nina, worrying about how to keep them on the farm was the least of the worries that Americans had to deal with in 1919.
ED: And I thought I heard a third tension in there, which was, basically, this is one young person to another, basically saying, how are they going to keep us down on the farm, now that we’ve seen “Gay Par-ee”?
You know, there’s a kind of, we’ve seen the world now, and we’re not going to be able to be put back in the same box.
JOANNE: You know, what’s really interesting to me about that song is, it’s a refrain that you hear, in a sense, throughout American history, that’s a reflection of the ways in which America feels a little insulated from the rest of the world.
You know, I mean, in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was worried that if you sent young men overseas, they’d never want to come home again, or they’d look down on their nation when they came home. So some of this is an inherently American– are we as good as they are over there? I don’t know.
NINA EARNEST: Yeah, Joanne, and it wasn’t just American soldiers being seduced by European culture. US soldiers also introduced American culture to Europeans.
The best example of this is the aptly named James Reese Europe. He was a well-known bandleader who served in an all-black regiment from Harlem, and he was also commander of his regiment’s band, which toured all over France during and after the war. He’s credited with introducing early jazz to Europeans.
So Will Hitchcock talked about America becoming a global political actor during World War I. But this is also the moment that American music became a global phenomenon.
WILL HITCHCOCK: Yeah, Nina, it’d be great if we could actually hear that music, but we weren’t able to secure the rights for it.
Fortunately, people can go online and listen to it all. And when they do, I think people will be struck by the big difference between the earlier music, the wartime music that struck people so powerfully, and this new music that’s going to become America’s great cultural contribution to the world in the coming decade.
JOANNE: Thanks to Kristean Griffith, a music professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
Hi, podcast listeners. Were hard at work on a new episode of BackStory that we’re calling “American Hoarders.” It’s about people who collect and save pieces of history.
You know the type. Folks with stacks of old newspapers, indexed and neatly filed away– or just piled up and not neatly filed away. Cabinets filled with Civil War memorabilia. Or maybe just someone who’s the keeper of family records.
Now, if you are one of these collectors, we want to hear from you. Tell us about what bit of history you collect and why. You can record yourself on your smartphone or computer and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can just write to us and tell us about it.
Don’t forget to include your name and where you’re from. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
Now, as we heard earlier, many Americans rallied around the flag once Wilson made the decision to join the war. But not everyone did– especially after Congress instituted the draft in May of 1917.
Some three million eligible men refused to register. And more than 300,000 who did register failed to show up for their induction or deserted. There were also large-scale public protests against the war.
President Wilson and Congress reacted by passing the Espionage Act of 1917 and the 1918 Sedition Act. Historian Beverly Gage says the Espionage and Sedition Acts were repressive.
BEVERLY GAGE: So those laws basically banned criticism of the war effort, criticism of the government, criticism– conveniently– of the president, and particularly, criticism and disruption of the draft.
BRIAN: Thousands of Americans were arrested for speaking out against the war.
Gage points out the government wasn’t just stifling dissent. US officials were worried about German spies, especially after German saboteurs blew up a munitions depot in New York Harbor in 1916.
BEVERLY GAGE: So there were real concerns. But the question was how you were going to deal with those concerns, what the legal lines would be, what the cultural lines would be. And I think that– let’s just say the United States did not always get that balance right.
BRIAN: Political radicals were the chief targets of the government crackdown. They included anarchists, socialists, and the members of left-wing labor movements, who all believed the conflict was–
BEVERLY GAGE: Just a war of blood and treasure. It’s empires fighting each other. The working man should not be going to war.
BRIAN: Consider the case of Eugene Debs.
BEVERLY GAGE: Eugene Debs really was the most famous socialist in the United States at this moment. And from the vantage point of the 21st century, that might not sound like much. But you actually had a huge and pretty widespread socialist movement in the United States at this point.
A lot of that movement was centered in the Midwest. Debs himself was from Indiana, and so he was sort of the standard bearer of good cornfed Midwestern-American socialism.
ED: Debs had run for president several times, first as a Democrat and then as a Socialist candidate. . In the 1912 election, he won a million votes.
BEVERLY GAGE: Even people who aren’t in the Socialist Party like to show up at Debs rallies to hear him speak. He’s this kind of famous charismatic figure. And anyone in the United States in 1917– if you said the name Eugene Debs, they would know who he was.
BRIAN: Debs didn’t buy Wilson’s rhetoric that he was making the world safe for democracy. But in his anti-war speeches, Debs had to choose his words very carefully.
BEVERLY GAGE: Debs, like many political radicals then, faces a question of his own, which is that he’s still pretty opposed to this war. He still thinks it’s a war for blood and treasure, a war that’s exploiting the working class. And he feels this deep in his soul. But he knows that he probably shouldn’t say everything that he is thinking.
So a lot of his speeches during the war try to kind of strike that balance. And he says, you know, I don’t believe that we should be drafting working men into the army, but I’m not going to go too far with that. And so he really tries to strike a balance.
BRIAN: Right. And Debs runs afoul of that enhanced Espionage Act in June of 1918. Tell us what he does.
BEVERLY GAGE: So Debs finally does get in trouble for a speech that he makes in Canton, Ohio, in the spring of 1918.
And again, he’s pretty careful about what he’s saying. He goes and visits some working men who are themselves in jail for various speech violations for criticizing the war effort.
And he comes out and says– and I’ll just read a little of his speech here. He says, “they have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe for the world. I realize in speaking to you this afternoon that there are certain limitations placed on the right of free speech.”
So in the end, he actually gets thrown in prison for a speech that is about how difficult it is to preserve the right of free speech at a time of war.
BRIAN: In a country that is fighting a war, to quote Debs, “to preserve democracy.”
BEVERLY GAGE: That’s right. That’s one of the great contradictions of the First World War, is that Woodrow Wilson is going around the world saying, we are the great champions of democracy. We’re fighting a war for democracy. But at home, it’s really one of the most repressive periods in American history.
So many thousands of Germans are put into internment camps. Many– several thousand– people who have spoken out against the war are prosecuted. And then there are a whole series of really pretty gruesome vigilante attacks against anti-war protesters, against German immigrants, that really give this period a flavor of repression and fear on the home front.
BRIAN: And how long is Debs jailed for when he’s convicted, jailed, for defending free speech?
BEVERLY GAGE: So he is given a pretty serious sentence of 10 years.
BEVERLY GAGE: And this is for nothing more than a speech, really. And he appeals this. The case goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, and they say, that seems fine. The Espionage Act is a fine law, and we uphold it.
I mean, one of the, I guess, ironies of Debs’s jail sentence is that he ends up not going to prison until after the war is already over. And he only ends up spending a couple of years there, but they’re pretty significant years.
So he runs for president in 1920 from federal prison, which is a pretty remarkable thing. And there are these amazing photos of Debs sort of standing there in his prison uniform near his cell, trying to look very presidential. But he actually looks pretty old and defeated. He’s not a young man at this point.
BRIAN: Was anybody yelling, “lock him up”?
BEVERLY GAGE: [LAUGHTER] Well, it was a little late at that point. But they had been yelling it before.
After that, one of the good things that Warren Harding does is actually commute Eugene Debs’s sentence. So he’s let out of prison in December of 1921. So he spends about 2 and 1/2 years there altogether.
And at the time, his allies already saw him as a martyr. But many Americans thought this was a perfectly justifiable thing to have done, to have put someone who was a traitor to the country into prison.
I think over time, mainstream opinion started to shift on that, and the Supreme Court’s ideas about speech restrictions really began to change. And you began to get a new, kind of more mainstream, civil libertarian consensus starting to emerge.
BRIAN: Bev, if I could get you to step back, earlier in the show, we looked at America’s entry into the war as a turning point of consistent American involvement in shaping the world order. Is the treatment of Debs a corollary to that? Does fighting to preserve democracy around the world mean a threat to democracy at home in the United States?
BEVERLY GAGE: I’m not sure I’d put it quite so starkly, but I do think that World War I turned out to be a moment of contradictions and a moment of experimentation.
So part of what is going on in the United States with things like the Espionage Act or the German internment camps– or federal political surveillance that’s really beginning to emerge during this moment– is that the government’s trying to figure out what you do to fight this kind of war.
And some of the things that it sets precedents for turn out to be very lasting things. You see both the creation of forms of federal political surveillance and the first federal intelligence agencies really getting to work in a significant way.
But you also see the birth of a kind of reaction against that. And the best symbol of that is a new civil liberties consciousness that then takes form, first in something called the National Civil Liberties Bureau, in 1917, that later goes on to be better known as the ACLU. And they really go on to have a huge influence in shaping how the courts are going to think about these questions, but also in shaping how ordinary Americans are going to think about civil liberties.
So I think it’s not quite that fighting for democracy abroad represses democracy at home, but it is a moment for people to really have a pretty significant struggle and pretty significant debate about what it’s going to mean to be involved in the world this way and what its consequences at home will be.
BRIAN: Beverly Gage is a historian at Yale University. She’s the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded– A Story of America in its First Age of Terror.
Ed, Joanne, at the beginning of the show, historian Will Hitchcock argued that Wilson’s actions in World War I set the stage for America’s emergence as a world power.
But after the war, the United States actually retreated from the world stage. The Allied powers declared victory in November 1918, and then President Wilson lobbied these countries to work together and create a League of Nations, which was really a forerunner of the United Nations.
ED: Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like a pretty audacious move on Wilson’s part. He looks around and sees the smoldering wreck of Europe and says, hey, let’s put this all behind us build a League of Nations and get along.
BRIAN: Well, the idea was that this kind of international body could help governments resolve conflicts peacefully to avoid another Great War. Audacious, to say the least.
JOANNE: That’s pretty hyper-idealistic, isn’t it?
BRIAN: For sure. Even more idealistic, Wilson wanted the United States to lead the way. But try as he might, Wilson couldn’t convince members of Congress– or for that matter, the American people– to participate.
I have something I want to play for you guys.
BRIAN: This is Woodrow Wilson– not an actor this time– in a 1923 Armistice Day address, one of the first live radio transmissions ever.
It’s hard to understand, but he’s saying that America turned its back on its European allies by refusing to join the League of Nations. Wilson said that return to isolationism was cowardly and dishonorable.
Hitchcock told me that Wilson was shattered by his failure to create a more peaceful world order.
WILL HITCHCOCK: He has a stroke while he’s in the White House. He’s ill and largely maligned.
And so he genuinely believed that America would wage war on moral principles and would try to make the world better by fighting to make a safer world, a world safe for democracy. At the same time, what he failed to do was really prepare the country for the kinds of sacrifices that would be involved. Over 100,000 Americans were killed in France for reasons they didn’t really fully understand why they were fighting. And that created a backlash against a robust American role.
ED: There was that backlash on the foreign policy front, but some of the other processes that had started during the war certainly continued. That introduction of jazz to Europe– that really took off in the 1920s, and world culture bears the imprint of American culture from then on. And the American business that surges during World War I accelerates even more in the 1920s and 30s.
So even though Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic vision of America as a leader of a League of Nations and a new world order fizzles, America’s role as a cultural and economic leader takes off.
JOANNE: OK, but here’s my question. Given what Ed just said about business and about American culture, was it even possible for the United States to be isolationist in the wake of World War I?
BRIAN: It’s a great question, Joanne, and the answer is, we tried awfully hard. Those Republicans who were in the driver’s seat for the 1920s– they tried to raise trade barriers as high as they could. That’s kind of the hallmark of isolationism, if you will.
But increasingly, both business interests and primarily the Democratic Party under the New Deal regime– Franklin D. Roosevelt– saw that the way to get out of the Great Depression was through free trade.
And then I think we have to give a nod to technology. The fact that airplanes could travel more and more distances suggested that those oceans– that so many Americans thought would protect the United States in 1916– were no longer barriers, even if we wanted them to be.
JOANNE: So business and culture and technology are making it hard to be isolationist.
ED: And yet we still have the longing to be isolationist. You can hear, at virtually every moment from World War II on, there are people saying, OK, now– now let’s be isolationist again. Let’s go back to some time before World War I when we didn’t have to worry about the world’s problems.
BRIAN: Well, Ed, sadly– but not surprisingly– we want all the benefits of those entanglements. We want the security of having alliances. We want the economic benefits of having free trade. But when the downside starts coming home to roost, when in fact we’re losing jobs to other countries in a global economy to both allies and former foes around the world–
ED: Or losing soldiers.
BRIAN: Or losing soldiers– that’s when Americans begin to have second thoughts about what George Washington long ago called “entangling alliances.” And I guess, Joanne, you and Ed won’t be terribly surprised that we kind of want it both ways.
ED: Yeah, in some ways, we long for that world we lost after World War I, when we did seem to have it all. The American Century was just beginning.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode. Also, don’t forget to tell us what pieces of history you collect.
You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send an email to email@example.com. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter– @BackStoryRadio. And if you like the new show, feel free to review it in the iTunes Store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramon Martinez. Jamal Millner is our Technical Director, Diana Williams is our Digital Editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Gregg, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spania, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth [? Spaich. ?]
Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in this episode came from Podington Bear, Ketsa, and [? Jazar. ?] Special thanks to Archeophone Records and the Library of Congress.
Thanks, too, to the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and to Ed Golterman and Jim Golterman.
JOANNE: BackStory Is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
NINA EARNEST: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.
BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.