While the French celebrate the final hours of Bastille Day, including historic displays of US troops in Paris on this day in 1917, I want to take a moment and focus on what was happening on the home front in the US 100 years ago. Reflecting on this history is important given the concern expressed in comments and on the front page here and other places about what is happening in the US.
It is not often remarked, if it is even remembered, that during WW I President Wilson essentially leveraged all forms of national power to achieve his objectives – in terms of both the war effort in Europe and domestically at home. As a result he converted the Federal government into something of an authoritarian regime. There were still elections. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were technically still in existence and in force, but in reality the US under President Wilson during World War I was about as far from its ideals as it has ever been. President Wilson essentially federalized Jim Crow, which was in line with both his racism and his obscure religious beliefs in Anglo-Israelism.
The power of the Presidency and the Federal government was leveraged through what we now call a psychological operation (PSYOPS) campaign to ensure broad and deep support for President Wilson’s agenda. To this end he tapped George Creel who created the propaganda campaign that would mobilize Americans behind President Wilson. Creel’s work is a textbook example of how to plan and implement a PSYOPS campaign. And it was incredibly successful. Through Creel’s work, President Wilson was able to convince Americans to not just go with meatless or wheatless days at home, but to turn in their neighbors if they suspected them of not getting on board with these initiatives to ensure that the troops in Europe had what they needed for their sustainment. Creel also set the conditions for forced charitable contributions to the war effort, including enforcement that would bring public pressure (shaming, denigration, job termination, extrajudicial violence) against those that didn’t give or give enough.
And even though Creel tried to tone down the official anti-German components of his propaganda, he largely failed. German nationals in the US and German-Americans were forced to register with the government and carry ID cards. In a grim foreshadowing of what Germans would do throughout Europe during WW II, as well as what the US would do to Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals in the US, German nationals and German Americans lost their jobs, had their property taken away, were relocated into internment camps, and were subjected to extrajudicial violence and punishment. Simply for being German or Americans of German descent.
As the war dredged on, nativism took root. Newspapers printed one-sided war coverage. President Wilson railed against “hyphenated Americans,” a slight against German-Americans. Even the growing support for Prohibition was seen as a fight against the Germans.
Then, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, all pretenses disappeared. German culture was attacked. Anti-German hysteria swept the nation – especially here.
German language classes, taught in Cincinnati schools since 1840, were dropped. The Enquirer offered the headline: “Bang! Hun Study Is Floored.”
The public library moved their 10,000 German books to the subbasement. “This library has been used to further a reptilian and insidious propaganda by enemies of the United States,” said board trustee James Albert Green. “German literature published during the last 40 years is tainted with the ideas and ideals which American boys now are giving their lives to combat.”
For those wondering what tyranny and authoritarianism in the US looks like, the US during World War I is the real example. The US and its ideals survived President Wilson and his efforts during World War I. It still has the resilience to survive the trials and tribulations it is facing now. All that is required is that Americans, regardless of background, remember the ideals that America is based on and act accordingly. Small acts are as important as large, grand sweeping gestures.
For an excellent four hour documentary on the US and World War I, including an in depth examination of what was occurring domestically, I highly recommend PBS’s The American Experience: The Great War. It will be four well spent hours.