By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
America had officially declared war against Germany at the beginning of April 1917. But, one problem that President Woodrow Wilson had was that different parts of the United States had very different ideas about whether the war was a good idea or not—they were divided on their response to the war.
The Zimmermann Telegram
The area that was the least enthusiastic about going to war was the American West. For westerners, Europe seemed so far away that the idea that their young men should be sacrificed in a war of this kind seemed inappropriate.
Wilson was able to consolidate western support by use of the Zimmermann telegram. British agents had picked up this coded message, which had been sent from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the government of Mexico, saying:
In the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, which ended with a disastrous defeat for Mexico, the United States annexed important parts of Mexican territory [this is all the area which is today California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, the whole of the Southwest]. If Mexico comes into this war on the side of Germany, when we’ve won, we’ll restore those territories to Mexico.
Now, this is the area in which these reluctant Americans were living and, suddenly, they become galvanized into action, because the very last thing they want to see is the loss of their homes to Mexico.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Objectors to the War
The American government did not recognize conscientious objector status. If you were a Mennonite or a Quaker belonging to one of the traditional peace churches that always refused to fight, you were, nevertheless, vulnerable to drafting into the army, and if you wouldn’t cooperate, you’d be thrown into prison.
Congress passed legislation restricting the opponents of the war. No one was allowed to argue that American participation in the war was a bad idea.
The only major group of Americans who remained committed to not participating was the American Socialists.
American Clergy For the War
One group that got completely carried away by war fever was the American clergy, particularly the Protestant and Catholic clergy. Many of them preached blood-curdling sermons arguing the importance of fighting.
Here’s the Reverend Randolph McKim in Washington, D.C.:
It is God who has summoned us to this war. This conflict is indeed a crusade, the greatest in history, the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a holy war. Yes, it is Christ, the king of righteousness, who calls us to grappling deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.
An enormous propaganda campaign began, in America, to whip up support among American citizens for the rightness of the cause.
Wilson, early on, said, “We’re fighting a war to end all wars, and we’re fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy.” Those were two of the great claims that the Americans used to justify their participation.
The Four Minute Men
A man named George Creel was made head of the Committee of Public Information which was a propaganda committee to spread the word. If you went out to any sort of public event, be it the movies, or the theater, or a dancehall, before the conventional entertainment began, a propaganda speaker would stand up on behalf of the war. They were called the “four minute men”.
They would give a brisk, snappy four-minute speech persuading you either, if you were a young man to join the army and fight, to volunteer, or if you were an older man or a woman to buy war bonds, in effect to lend money to the government to help cover its very rapidly escalating costs.
Here is a poem read by a four-minute woman at these kinds of meetings. This one was interesting because of the way in which the poem’s put together:
My boy must never bring disgrace to his immortal sires. At Valley Forge and Lexington, they kindled freedom’s fires. John’s father died at Gettysburg. Mine fell at Chancellorsville, while John himself was with the boys who charged up San Juan Hill. And John, if he was living now, would surely say with me, ‘No son of ours shall e’er disgrace the grand old family tree, by turning out a slacker when his country needs his aid. It is not of such timber that America was made. I’d rather you had died at birth or not been born at all, than know that I had raised a son who cannot hear the call that freedom has sent round the world, its precious rights to save. This call is meant for you, my boy, and I would have you brave. And though my heart is breaking, I bid you do your part, and show the world no son of mine is cursed with craven heart. And if perchance you ne’er return my later days to cheer, and I have only memories of my brave boy so dear, I’d rather have it so my boy, and know you bravely died, than have a living coward sit supinely by my side. To save the world from sin, my boy, God gave his only son. He’s asking for my boy today, and may his will be done.
Of course, it was all fiction, and this isn’t the way in which they’re doing it, that it’s noble and right to die for the country is the idea. This was putting moral pressure on citizens; that’s the point, to join the army or to give money to help, depending on your age and status.
Common Questions about a Divided America and a Propaganda Campaign During WWI
The Four Minute Men was a group of propaganda speakers who would stand up on behalf of the war. They would give brisk, snappy four-minute speeches persuading the masses for the war.
The Committee of Public Information was formed as a propaganda committee to spread the word.
A major group of Americans who remained committed to not participating in WWI was the American Socialists.