America Learns That War Can "Touch Us"

When the "European War" broke out in 1914 Americans, on the whole, took the attitude that it was none of our business and that nothing could induce us to go into it. "It can’t touch us" seemed to be the principal editorial and oratorical theme. America forgot, or failed in, the lessons she should have learned during the Napoleonic Wars. We know now, after a bitter experience, that we are involved in the policies of Europe and that keeping out of a general European conflagration will always be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

At the outbreak of the War there was very little deep pro-Ally or pro-German sentiment in the United States; in fact, the country was strongly pro-American. As the War progressed, American citizens began allying themselves into groups known as German-Americans, Polish-Americans and what not. On the high seas there was constant interference with American commerce by the Allies, the principal offender being England, and by Germany. Great Britain claimed that ships bound for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland were subject to seizure. American ships bound for these neutral countries were seized by Great Britain and taken to a British port to be leisurely searched for what the Allies listed as contraband, which now included food and practically everything useful. While these acts aroused much resentment against England, the torpedoing of ships by Germany tended toward the crystallization of Allied sympathy. Numerous ships sunk without warning, caused the loss of American life. These incidents were followed by lengthy correspondence between the two governments, always culminating with expressions of regret and promises of indemnity on the part of the Imperial German Government.

On April 30, 1915, the advertisements of the Cunard Line sailings had immediately beneath them the following extraordinary notice:

N0TICE.—Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the water adjacent to the British Isles; that in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or any of her allies are liable to destruction in these waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY

Washington, D. C., April 22, 1915.

The notice was not taken seriously as no one believed that any government could think of doing what the notice implied. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania, eight miles off the southern coast of Ireland, had two torpedoes split into her sides, without warning. Of the 1,924 passengers, 35 of whom were babies, 1,198—including all but 4 of the babies—were drowned. Of the 188 Americans aboard, 114 were drowned. America stood appalled. The demands for a declaration of war against Germany came from the press and the public.

On July 24, 1915, Doctor Heinrich F. Albert, German Councilor, lost his brief case on a New York elevated train. It was picked up by Frank Burke, an operative of the U. S. Secret Service Department, who had been shadowing the German. The papers in Herr Doktor’s brief case were marked "Streng Vertraulich" but Burke did not know that this meant "strictly confidential." The contents revealed that under Dr. Albert’s direction:

The German Government had spent twenty-eight million dollars on propaganda and plots in the United States;
German spies had placed time fire bombs on steamships departing from the United States;
A German spy had been given money and had been sent to Buffalo to blow up the Welland Canal;
Spies had been sent to foment strikes and start fires in American industrial plants;
Two million dollars had been spent on coal which was ostensibly shipped to South America, but was delivered to German raiders;
Germany’s agents had forged passports to enable German spies to enter America, and to enter Allied countries through America.

The publication of the information from this "Pandora’s Box" tended to swing sentiment definitely against Germany. The United States immediately demanded that Germany recall its military and naval attachés from this embassy, Captain Franz von Papen and Captain Karl von Boy-Ed, and that Austria recall its ambassador, Doctor Constantine Dumba. The war clouds were gathering.

Only the steadying influence of Woodrow Wilson kept us out of the war at this time. Correspondence between the two governments on the Lusitania affair continued for nearly a year during which time submarine warfare continued. On April 18, 1916, Woodrow Wilson addressed his final note to Germany:

"[The] roll of Americans who have lost their lives upon ships thus attacked . . . . has grown month by month until the ominous toll has mounted into the hundreds. [The United States had] been willing to wait until the facts became unmistakable and were susceptible of only one interpretation . . . . It now owes it to a just regard for its own rights to say to the Imperial German Government that that time has come. . . . Unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare, the government of the United States can have no other choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire."

To this ultimatum Germany replied on May 4, 1916, advising that the German Naval forces had been given the following orders:

Merchant vessels . . . . shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives unless those ships attempt to escape or offer resistance.

Woodrow Wilson won his point but during the long negotiations the American Press had hurled unkind epithets at him for using words instead of bullets. That the majority of Americans were in sympathy with the President’s course is evidenced by the fact that he was re-elected, though by a narrow margin, in 1916, on the slogan: "He kept us out of war."

For nine months German submarine warfare was restricted to the Wilson limits. However, Great Britain continued to seize all American ships bound for neutral countries bordering Germany. Over eighty American firms were "black listed" by Great Britain on the suspicion that they were trading with Germany indirectly, which was their right, if they could. This prevented their trading with neutrals. Without British approval an American firm could not do business with Europe. Before "permission" was granted to any firm it had to furnish the British Embassy with a list of its customers. These lists then became available to British competitors. Britain rifled American mails and filched American trade secrets. International law was ignored and violated every day by Britain. Only the diplomacy of Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to the court of St. James, was delaying the break of diplomatic relations with Britain. Anti-British sentiment in America was growing strong and the President was discussing the advisability of notifying England that American merchantmen would be sent with convoys, when Germany made her prize blunder.

On January 31, 1917, Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador, handed to the American Government a note announcing that on February 1, Germany would begin unrestricted warfare and would "forcibly prevent" any vessel of the United States (or of any country) from going to England, except that it would permit the United States to send one passenger vessel each week, provided: It must go to the Port of Falmouth; it must arrive on a Sunday; it must leave on a Wednesday; it must travel by a specified course; it must be marked in a special way; the United States must guarantee that the ship carry nothing on the German contraband list.

The American people were utterly shocked. The grievances against England were forgotten. The demand for severance of diplomatic relations with Germany became almost universal. It was felt that no greater insult had been offered to any people; that to submit to Germany would prevent our ever again posing as a nation of free people; that if we submitted, Japan or any other country could, at any time in the future, issue similar or even more humiliating orders.

On February 3, 1917, President Wilson, in an address to Congress, said: "I think you will agree with me that this government has no alternative consistent with the dignity and honor of the United States; . . . I have, therefore, directed the Secretary of State to announce to his Excellency, the German Ambassador, that all diplomatic relations between the United States and the German Empire are severed, and to hand to his Excellency his passports."

On February 24, 1917, Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador to England, advised his government that the following message from the German Government to the German Minister to Mexico had been intercepted:

"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer her lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President (President Carranza of Mexico) of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain."

Alfred Zimmermann, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, frankly admitted the authorship of the note, but emphasized that "the instructions were only to be carried out after declaration of war by America."

The House of Representatives immediately passed, by a vote of 403 to 13, a bill authorizing the President to arm merchant ships. In the Senate, 11 Senators, led by LaFollette of Wisconsin, filibustered for three days until the "Lame Duck" session ended on March 4 and prevented the other 75 Senators from voting on the bill.

However, the Attorney-General advised the President that without specific authorization by Congress he had the power to place gunners on merchant ships as protection against the submarines. On March 9, the President announced that this would be done, and at the same time issued a call for a special session of Congress, to meet on April 16.

Germany’s reply to the President’s order was a proclamation announcing that American gunners would be taken from the American merchant ships and executed as pirates. The proclamation was so unreasonable that the President advanced the call for the special session to April 2, "to receive a communication concerning grave matters."

Within a week three American vessels, the Illinois, the Vigilancia and the City of Memphis, were torpedoed and sunk without warning. On the afternoon of April 2, 1917, the President delivered his immortal war speech, asking that the United States accept the status of belligerent which had been thrust upon her by Germany. On Good Friday, April 6, the declaration of war was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 373 to 50, and in the Senate by a vote of 82 to 6. The bill was immediately signed by the President.


Notwithstanding the fact that the declaration of war with Germany met with the approval of the great majority of the American people, who preferred war to national humiliation, it was thought necessary to create "The Committee on Public Information." The principal purpose of this committee was to mobilize the American mind and make America war-conscious.

Under the able leadership of George Creel, every avenue of publicity and every possible attention-compelling device were used. The artists, cartoonists, and illustrators were mobilized to prepare posters, which covered barns, billboards, and street corners. The advertising men, novelists, dramatists, moving picture producers, and college professors were mobilized to do their bit in their respective fields. The "Four Minute Men", 75,000 strong, were selected from volunteers who at theaters, lodge meetings, labor meetings, schools, churches, or wherever citizens gathered, delivered four minute speeches prepared under George Creel’s direction. A total of 314,454,514 groups were contacted.

The first subject discussed was: "Universal Service by Selective Draft." This was for the purpose of preventing a repetition of the draft riots of Civil War days. When Liberty Bond drives were on, the Four Minute Men urged the public to invest. Among other subjects discussed were "Food Conservation," "Support the Red Cross," "Why We Are Fighting," "Maintaining Morals and Morale," "The Importance of Speed," and, to offset German propaganda, "Where Did You Get Your Facts?"

The Committee on Public Information also gave out the news to Washington correspondents. Creel had no censorship on war news except as the newspapers would impose on themselves, after he had explained the necessity. News, good or bad, was not suppressed. There were no exaggerated claims of victories won. Losses were not minimized. This was quite different from the strict censorship and false statements released by all of the other belligerents.

The net cost to the taxpayers for this propaganda committee was $4,912,553. George Creel reached his objective. As an organizer he was a genius. Through his efforts the American mind was mobilized, America was made war-conscious, minorities were silenced, and the government was enthusiastically supported.


The Magna Carta was signed in June, 1215. Practically all political changes, from that day up to the World War, had been in taking power away from the state, for the benefit of the individual. Six months after our entry into the war, the individual had been, through the use of propaganda, clever slogans, and pep talks, induced to surrender the liberties, which centuries of contest had given him.

Every man between 18 and 45 was asked to surrender his body; 163,738 were arrested and many sent to jail for refusing.

No one was permitted to talk against the method or purpose of the war; 1597 were arrested for violation.

The use of gold and silver for artistic or industrial purposes was prohibited.

Factories engaged in war work could not advertise for unskilled labor.

Tire manufacturers were ordered to cut production 50 per cent by August 1, 1918.

After February 15, 1918, no imports or exports were permitted except by special license.

Bakery products must contain 20 per cent wheat substitutes.

Clocks had to be advanced one hour, (Daylight Savings Time).

Sugar rations, three pounds per month per person; reduced to two pounds on July 26, 1918.

The meat packing industry was put under Federal license June 18, 1918.

The entire wheat crop was taken over by the government at $2.20 per bushel (May 15, 1918).

Use of coal or fuel oil was prohibited on pleasure yachts.

The Federal Fuel Administrator ordered 170 silk factories in Patterson, N. J., closed (January 3, 1918).

The government took over and operated the railroads, express companies, telephone, telegraph and coal mines.

Automobile manufacturers were ordered to cut production 25 per cent (June 10, 1918) and to convert their plants to 100 per cent war work by January 1, 1919.

Lightless nights and meatless days were ordered. People were requested not to drive automobiles, motorcycles, or motorboats on Sundays; the few who disregarded this request were roughly treated by enraged citizens. Factories not engaged in war work were ordered closed in various sections of the country at various times.

The American people willingly gave up their liberty, assuming that the passing of the emergency meant its restoration. However, the records show that governments have learned that by the use of clever slogans and the declaration that an emergency exists, it is possible for the National mind to be mobilized. Since the World War the tendency has been to give to the central government many of the rights which during recent centuries have been regarded as belonging entirely to the individual.
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