Read an Excerpt

The Untold History of the United States

Chapter 1


Wilson vs. Lenin


The election of 1912 found Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, in a hard-fought four-party race against two former presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—and Socialist Eugene Debs. Though Wilson won the electoral college vote handily, the popular vote was closer: he received 42 percent to 27 percent for Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate, and 23 percent for Taft. Debs, running for a fourth time, tallied 6 percent of the vote.

Wilson would put his personal stamp on the office and the country to a much greater extent than his immediate predecessor or his successors. Descended from Presbyterian ministers on both sides of the family, Wilson could be strongly moralistic and infuriatingly and self-righteously inflexible. His rigidity was often fueled by the dangerous belief that he was carrying out God’s plan. He shared his predecessors’ sense of the United States’ global mission. In 1907, the Princeton president declared, “The doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down. . . . Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.”1 In keeping with that sentiment, he would repeatedly transgress against the sovereignty of unwilling nations. And he shared his southern forebears’ sense of white racial superiority, taking steps to resegregate the federal government during his tenure in office. Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”2

As Richard Hofstadter noted over seventy years ago, Wilson’s “political roots were Southern, his intellectual traditions were English.” Among the English thinkers, he was most taken with the conservative views of Walter Bagehot. Bagehot’s influence was apparent in Wilson’s 1889 study The State, in which Wilson wrote, “In politics nothing radically novel may safely be attempted. No result of value can ever be reached . . . except through slow and gradual development, the careful adaptations and nice modifications of growth.” What he liked about the American Revolution was that, in his view, it wasn’t revolutionary at all. The French Revolution, on the other hand, was an abomination. He deplored Thomas Jefferson’s embrace of revolution in general and the French Revolution in particular. He disapproved of labor and agrarian radicalism and expressed greater sympathy for business than for labor. Overall, Wilson had a deep abhorrence of radical change in any form.3

Wilson’s hatred of revolution and staunch defense of U.S. trade and investment would color his presidency and influence his policies both at home and abroad. “There is nothing in which I am more interested than the fullest development of the trade of this country and its righteous conquest of foreign markets,” he told the Foreign Trade Convention in 1914.4

Together these views shaped Wilson’s policy toward Mexico, where American bankers and businessmen, particularly oilmen, had a major stake in the outcome of the revolution. Between 1900 and 1910, U.S. investments in Mexico doubled to nearly $2 billion, giving Americans ownership of approximately 43 percent of Mexican property values, 10 percent more than Mexicans themselves owned.5 William Randolph Hearst alone held over 17 million acres.

U.S. and British corporations had thrived under Porfirio Díaz’s three-decade dictatorship, laying siege to almost all of Mexico’s minerals, railroads, and oil.6 They had reason for concern when Francisco Madero’s revolutionary forces overthrew Díaz in 1911. Many U.S. businessmen quickly soured on the new regime and applauded when Victoriano Huerta, with the support of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson, ousted Madero in the waning days of the Taft administration.7 But Woodrow Wilson, upon coming to power, not only refused to recognize the new government, whose legitimacy he questioned, he sent tens of thousands of troops to the Mexican border and warships to the oil fields near Tampico and the port of Vera Cruz.

Wilson, who had once voiced a desire to teach Latin Americans “to elect good men,”8 itched for an excuse to intervene directly, overthrow Huerta, and tutor the backward Mexicans in good government. He got what he wanted on April 14, 1914, when U.S. sailors who rowed to Tampico were arrested for being in a war zone without a permit. When the Mexican commanding officer released them a couple hours later, he apologized both to them and to their U.S. commanding officer, Admiral Henry Mayo, who refused to accept the apology in the face of such an insult. Mayo demanded that the Mexican forces give a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag. Instead, General Huerta added his apology and promised to punish the responsible Mexican officer. Over the objections of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Wilson backed Mayo. He rejected Huerta’s offer of a reciprocal salute by the two sides and asked Congress to authorize the U.S. military to exact “the fullest recognition of the rights and dignity of the United States.”9 Congress eagerly complied. Wilson sent a force of seven battleships, four fully manned marine troop transports, and numerous destroyers to Mexico. When Mexicans at Vera Cruz resisted U.S. seizure of a customhouse, over 150 were killed. Six thousand marines occupied Vera Cruz for seven months.

In August 1914, U.S.-backed Venustiano Carranza replaced Huerta. But Carranza, a staunch nationalist, refused to bargain with Wilson, who then threw his support behind Pancho Villa, beginning a bungled series of political and military interventions into the Mexican Revolution.

While the United States was busy policing its neighbors to the south, far more ominous developments were occurring in Europe. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian fanatic on June 28, 1914, triggered a chain of events that, in August, plunged the world into the most brutal orgy of bloodshed and destruction humanity had yet seen. That predominantly European bloodletting—the Great War, World War I—would be only the start of a century of unending warfare and horrific violence, human and technological barbarism on an unimaginable scale, that would later come to be known as the American Century.

The twentieth century dawned with a rush of optimism. War seemed a distant relic of a cruel and primitive past. Many people shared the optimistic belief propounded by Norman Angell in his 1910 book The Great Illusion that civilization had advanced beyond the point where war was possible. Such optimism proved illusory indeed.

Europe was awash in imperial rivalries. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had reigned supreme in the nineteenth century. But its economic model of cannibalizing the economies of increasing parts of the globe and not investing in its own homegrown manufacturing was failing. Reflecting Great Britain’s ossified social order and lack of investment at home was the fact that, in 1914, only 1 percent of young Brits graduated from high schools compared with 9 percent of their U.S. counterparts.10 As a result, Great Britain was being eclipsed by the United States in terms of industrial production, and, more ominously, its continental rival Germany was competing in the production of steel, electrical power, chemical energy, agriculture, iron, coal, and textiles. Germany’s banks and railroads were growing, and in the battle for oil, the newest strategic fuel that was necessary to power modern navies, Germany’s merchant fleet was rapidly gaining on Great Britain’s. Great Britain was now 65 percent dependent on U.S. oil and 20 percent on Russian and was coveting potential new reserves of the Middle East, which were part of the tottering Ottoman Empire.

A latecomer to the imperial land grab, Germany felt cheated of its due. It intended to right that wrong. Its economic and political penetration of the Ottoman Empire worried Great Britain. It set its sights on Africa. It wanted more.

Other troubling signs appeared. A European arms race was occurring on land and, especially, at sea, where Great Britain and Germany battled for naval dominance. Great Britain’s big-gun dreadnought class of battleships gave it the upper hand—for now. And European nations conscripted young men into vast standing armies.

Entangling alliances threatened to turn local conflicts into global conflagrations. And in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, what looked like a third Balkan war quickly spiraled out of control. The Central Powers—Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary—lined up against the Triple Entente—France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia. Others would soon join. The battlefields would run red with blood.

Only Europe’s large socialist and labor parties and trade unions could prevent the slaughter. Many belonged to the socialist Second International. They knew that the most important conflict was between capital and labor, not German workers and their British counterparts. They pledged that if the capitalists went to war, the workers would refuse to follow. Why, they asked, should workers die to enrich their exploiters? Many supported a general strike. The more radical, like Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, vowed, if war started, to overthrow the capitalist regimes. Hopes of stopping the madness rested with Germany, where the Social Democrats were the largest party in parliament, and with France.

But those hopes were crushed when German socialists, claiming they had to defend the country against the Russian hordes, voted for war credits and the French, vowing to defend against the autocratic Germans, did the same. Only in Russia and Serbia did the socialists stand true. In country after country, nationalism trumped internationalism, loyalty to nation outweighed loyalty to class. Europe’s naive young men marched off to die for God, glory, greed, and defense of the fatherland. Humanity was dealt a blow from which it has never fully recovered.

The slaughter was on as civilization plunged into what Henry James described as “this abyss of blood and darkness.”11 American social reformer Reverend John Haynes Holmes expressed the crushing impact it had on reformers everywhere: “suddenly, in the wink of an eye, three hundred years of progress is tossed into the melting-pot. Civilization is all gone, and barbarism come.”12

Most Americans sympathized with the Allies against the Central Powers, but few clamored to join the fight. Americans of all political persuasions feared getting dragged into Europe’s bloodletting. Eugene Debs urged workers to oppose the war, wisely observing “Let the capitalists do their own fighting and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”13 As reports of the fighting filtered in, antiwar sentiment held strong. The most popular song of 1915 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”

Despite overwhelming sympathy for the Allies, the United States declared neutrality in the war. But many Americans, particularly those of German, Irish, and Italian heritage, sided with the Central Powers. “We have to be neutral,” Wilson explained, “since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.”14 It was, however, a neutrality in principle more than in practice. Economic interests clearly placed the United States in the Allied camp. Between 1914, when the war began, and 1917, when the United States entered, U.S. banks loaned $2.5 billion to the Allies but only $27 million to the Central Powers. The House of Morgan was especially involved, serving as the British government’s sole purchasing agent between 1915 and 1917. Eighty-four percent of Allied munitions bought in the United States during those years passed through Morgan hands.15 Overall, the $3 billion the United States was selling to Great Britain and France by 1916 dwarfed the miniscule $1 million it sold to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although deep-seated resentments toward Great Britain, stemming from the Revolutionary period and the War of 1812, had not completely abated, most Americans identified the Allied nations as democracies and Germany as a repressive autocracy. Czarist Russia’s involvement on the Allied side made it difficult to draw such clear lines. And both sides regularly violated the United States’ neutral rights. Great Britain, relying on its superior naval power, launched a blockade of northern European ports. Germany retaliated with a U-boat (the German word for “submarine” was Unterseeboot) campaign that threatened neutral shipping. Wilson accepted the Allied blockade but protested vigorously against Germany’s actions. Bryan foresaw clearly that Wilson’s tilt toward the Allies would drag the United States into the war and tried to maintain a more evenhanded approach. He had opposed allowing loans to the combatants, warning Wilson, “Money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands everything else.”16 Though intent on remaining neutral so that he could help mediate an end to the war, Wilson rejected Bryan’s effort to bar U.S. citizens from traveling on belligerents’ ships.

In May 1915, Germany sank the British liner Lusitania, leaving 1,200 dead, including 128 Americans. Roosevelt called for war. Despite initial disclaimers, the ship was in fact carrying a large cargo of arms to Great Britain. Bryan demanded that Wilson condemn the British blockade of Germany as well as the German attack, seeing both as infringements of neutral rights. When Wilson refused, Bryan resigned in protest. Though Wilson had won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” he was increasingly coming to believe that if the United States didn’t join the war, it would be denied a role in shaping the postwar world.17

On January 22, 1917, Wilson dramatically delivered the first formal presidential address to the Senate since the days of George Washington. He laid bare his soaring vision for peace and the future. He called for “peace without victory” based on core American principles: self-determination, freedom of the seas, and an open world with no entangling alliances. The centerpiece of such a world would be a league of nations that could enforce the peace, a demand initially advanced by groups within America’s peace movement such as the Woman’s Peace Party.

When he concluded, the Senate erupted in applause. Senator John Shafroth of Colorado called it “the greatest message of a century.”18 The Atlanta Constitution wrote, “ ‘Startling,’ ‘staggering,’ ‘astounding,’ ‘the noblest utterance that has fallen from human lips since the Declaration of Independence,’ were among the expressions of senators. The president himself after his address said: ‘I have said what everybody has been longing for, but has thought impossible. Now it appears to be possible.’ ”19 Despite the Republicans’ carping, Wilson’s peace message struck the right chord with most Americans. But the Europeans, having shed rivers of blood in two and a half years of fighting, were not feeling so magnanimous. French writer Anatole France observed that “peace without victory” was like “bread without yeast,” “a camel without humps,” or “a town without brothel . . . an insipid thing” that would be “fetid, ignominious, obscene, fistulous, hemorrhoidal.”20

Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, after a hiatus of almost a year, and its clumsy appeal to Mexico for a wartime military alliance that would facilitate a Mexican reconquest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, intensified anti-German sentiment and heightened the pressure on Wilson to intervene. But Wilson’s real motive was his belief that only by entering the war could he be guaranteed a voice in negotiations.21 When Jane Addams and other leaders of the Emergency Peace Federation visited Wilson at the White House on February 28, the president explained that “as head of a nation participating in the war, the President of the United States would have a seat at the Peace Table, but that if he remained the representative of a neutral country he could at best only ‘call through a crack in the door.’ The appeal he made was, in substance, that the foreign policies which we so extravagantly admired could have a chance if he were there to push and to defend them, but not otherwise.”22

On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, saying, “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Six opposed it in the Senate, including Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and fifty voted against it in the House, including Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress. Opponents attacked Wilson as a tool of Wall Street. “We are about to put the dollar sign on the American flag,” charged Senator George Norris of Nebraska.23 La Follette exaggerated when claiming that the American people would vote against the war by more than a ten-to-one margin, but opposition did run deep. Despite government appeals for a million volunteers, reports of the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas dampened enthusiasm. Only 73,000 signed up in the first six weeks, forcing Congress to institute a draft. Among those who did volunteer was future historian William Langer, who later remembered “the eagerness of the men to get to France and above all to reach the front. One would think,” he reasoned,

that, after almost four years of war, after the most detailed and realistic accounts of murderous fighting on the Somme and around Verdun, to say nothing of the day-to-day agony of trench warfare, it would have been all but impossible to get anyone to serve without duress. But it was not so. We and many thousands of others volunteered. . . . I can hardly remember a single instance of serious discussion of American policy or of larger war issues. We men, most of us young, were simply fascinated by the prospect of adventure and heroism. Most of us, I think, had the feeling that life, if we survived, would run in the familiar, routine channel. Here was our one great chance for excitement and risk. We could not afford to pass it up.24

Among those offering to serve was fifty-eight-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, who visited Wilson on April 10 and requested permission to lead a division of volunteers into battle. Roosevelt was so eager to go to the front that he even promised to cease his attacks on Wilson. Wilson denied his request. Roosevelt accused him of basing his decision on political calculations. Among those who criticized Wilson’s decision was soon-to-be French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, who thought Roosevelt’s presence would be inspirational.

Imbued with the martial spirit and patriotism of their father, all four of Roosevelt’s sons did enlist and see combat. Ted, Jr., and Archie were wounded in action. Ted was also gassed at Cantigny. Twenty-year old Quentin, the youngest of the children, was killed when his plane was shot down in July 1918, a blow from which his father would never recover. Theodore Roosevelt’s health declined rapidly and he died within six months at age sixty, having been able to witness, from a safe distance, the horrors of modern warfare.

Unfortunately for Wilson, not all Americans were as gung ho as the Roosevelts. Because antiwar sentiment had run so deep in much of the country, the Wilson administration felt compelled to take extraordinary measures to convince the skeptical public of the righteousness of the cause. For that purpose, the government established an official propaganda agency—the Committee on Public Information (CPI)—headed by Denver newspaperman George Creel. The committee recruited 75,000 volunteers, known as “four-minute men,” who delivered short patriotic speeches in public venues across the country, including shopping districts, streetcars, movie theaters, and churches. It flooded the nation with propaganda touting the war as a noble crusade for democracy and encouraged newspapers to print stories highlighting German atrocities. It also asked Americans to inform on fellow citizens who criticized the war effort. CPI advertisements urged magazine readers to report to the Justice Department “the man who spreads pessimistic stories . . . cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.”25

Underlying Wilson’s wartime declarations and the CPI’s emphasis on promoting “democracy” was the realization that for many Americans democracy had become a kind of “secular religion” that could exist only within a capitalist system. Many also associated it with “Americanism.” It meant more than a set of identifiable institutions. As Creel said on one occasion, it is a “theory of spiritual progress.” On another occasion, he explained, “Democracy is a religion with me, and throughout my whole adult life I have preached America as the hope of the world.”26

Newspapers voluntarily fell in line behind the propaganda effort as they had in 1898 and would in all future U.S. wars. Victor Clark’s study of the wartime press for the National Board for Historical Service (NBHS) remarkably but revealingly concluded that the “voluntary cooperation of the newspaper publishers of America resulted in a more effective standardization of the information and arguments presented to the American people, than existed under the nominally strict military control exercised in Germany.”27

Historians also rallied to the cause. Creel established the CPI’s Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation under the leadership of University of Minnesota historian Guy Stanton Ford. Several of the nation’s leading historians, including Charles Beard, Carl Becker, John R. Commons, J. Franklin Jameson, and Andrew McLaughlin, assisted Ford in simultaneously promoting U.S. aims and demonizing the enemy. Ford’s introduction to one CPI pamphlet decries the “Pied Pipers of Prussianism,” declaring, “Before them is the war god, to whom they have offered up their reason and their humanity; behind them the misshapen image they have made of the German people, leering with bloodstained visage over the ruins of civilization.”28


The Committee on Public Information, the government’s official wartime propaganda agency, recruited 75,000 volunteers, known as “four-minute men,” to deliver short patriotic speeches across the country. They flooded the nation with pro-war propaganda and urged Americans to inform on “the man who spreads pessimistic stories . . . cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.”

The CPI’s penultimate pamphlet, “The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy,” proved to be its most controversial. Based on documents obtained by the head of the CPI’s foreign section and former Associate Chairman Edgar Sisson, the pamphlet alleged that Lenin and Trotsky and their associates were paid German agents who were betraying the Russian people on behalf of the imperial German government. The documents, for which Sisson paid lavishly, were widely known to be forgeries in Europe and were similarly suspected by the State Department. Wilson’s chief foreign policy advisor, Colonel Edward House, wrote in his diary that he told the president that their publication signified “a virtual declaration of war upon the Bolshevik Government” and Wilson said he understood. Publication was withheld for four months. Wilson and the CPI ignored all warnings and released them to the press in seven installments beginning on September 15, 1918.29 Most U.S. newspapers dutifully reported the story uncritically and unquestioningly. The New York Times, for example, ran a story under the headline “Documents Prove Lenine and Trotzky [sic] Hired by Germans.”30 But controversy quickly erupted as the New York Evening Post challenged their authenticity, noting that “the most important charges in the documents brought forward by Mr. Sisson were published in Paris months ago, and have, on the whole, been discredited.”31 Within a week, the Times and the Washington Post were both reporting charges by S. Nuorteva, the head of the Finnish Information Bureau, that the documents were widely known to be “brazen forgeries.”32 Sisson and Creel defended their authenticity. Creel responded angrily to Nuorteva’s allegations: “That is a lie! The government of the United States put out these documents and their authenticity is backed by the government. This is bolshevik propaganda and when an unsupported bolsheviki attacks them it is hardly worth bothering about.”33 He flailed wildly in a threatening letter to the editor of the Evening Post:

I say to you flatly that the New York Evening Post cannot escape the charge of having given aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States in an hour of national crisis. These documents were published with the full authority of the Government behind them. They were not given out until there was every conviction that they were absolutely genuine. . . . I do not make the charge that the New York Evening Post is German or that it has taken German money, but I do say that the service it has rendered to the enemies of the United States would have been purchased gladly by those enemies, and in terms of unrest and industrial stability this supposedly American paper has struck a blow at America more powerful [than] could possibly have been dealt by German hands.34

Acceding to Creel’s request, the NBHS set up a committee, comprised of Jameson, the head of the Department of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution, and Samuel Harper, a professor of Russian language at the University of Chicago, to review the documents. They confirmed the authenticity of most of the fraudulent documents. The Nation charged that the documents and NBHS report spoiled “the good name of the Government and the integrity of American historical scholarship.”35 In 1956, George Kennan proved once and for all what most suspected: the documents were indeed forgeries.36

Historians’ and other academics’ complicity in selling wartime propaganda brought well-deserved opprobrium down on their heads during the interwar period. In 1927, H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury deplored the knee-jerk patriotic conformity that sullied all the country’s top colleges and universities. Charles Angoff wrote, “Bacteriologists, physicists and chemists vied with philosophers, philologians and botanists in shouting maledictions upon the Hun, and thousands took to snooping upon their brethren as entertained the least doubt about the sanctity of the war. . . . Such guilt against American idealism was sufficient cause, in the eyes of all patriotic university presidents and boards of trustees, for the immediate dismissal of the traitors.”37

Despite the well-deserved criticism, controlling public opinion became a central element in all future war planning. Harold Lasswell identified its importance in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. Lasswell wrote:

During the war period it came to be recognized that the mobilization of men and means was not sufficient; there must be a mobilization of opinion. Power over opinion, as over life and property, passed into official hands, because the danger from license was greater than the danger of abuse. Indeed, there is no question but that government management of opinion is the unescapable corollary of large-scale modern war. The only question is the degree to which the government should try to conduct its propaganda secretly, and the degree to which it should conduct it openly.38

Campuses became hotbeds of intolerance. University professors who spoke against the war were fired. Others were cowed into silence. As Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler exclaimed in announcing the end of academic freedom on campus:

What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason . . . there is and will be no place in Columbia University, either on the rolls of its Faculties or on the rolls of its students, for any person who opposes or counsels opposition to the effective enforcement of the laws of the United States, or who acts, speaks, or writes treason. The separation of any such person from Columbia University will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense.39

This was no idle threat. The following October, Columbia announced the firing of two prominent faculty members for their outspoken opposition to the war. Professors James McKeen Cattell, one of the nation’s leading psychologists, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, a grandson of the poet, were condemned by the faculty and trustees as well as by Butler. The official university statement charged that they “had done grave injury to the university by their public agitation against the conduct of the war.” The New York Times commented, “Since the declaration of war against Germany Professor Cattell has been especially obnoxious to the Columbia Faculty because of his unhesitating denunciation of a war policy by our Government.” Dana was ousted because of his active role in the antiwar People’s Council.40 Applauding Columbia’s action, the Times editorialized, “The fantasies of ‘academic freedom’ . . . cannot protect a professor who counsels resistance to the law and speaks, writes, disseminates treason. That a teacher of youth should teach sedition and treason, that he should infect, or seek to infect, youthful minds with ideas fatal to their duty to the country, is intolerable.”41

The following week, Professor Charles Beard, arguably the nation’s leading historian in the first half of the twentieth century, resigned in protest. Although an early and fervent supporter of the war and a harsh critic of German imperialism, he condemned the control of the university by a “small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and mediaeval in religion.” Beard explained that, despite his own enthusiastic support for the war, “thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments addressed to their reason and understandings are the best hope.”42 Beard had already incurred the ire of several trustees the previous spring when he declared at a conference, “If we have to suppress everything we don’t like to hear, this country is on a pretty wobbly basis. This country was founded on disrespect and the denial of authority, and it is no time to stop free discussion.” At least two other faculty members also resigned in solidarity, and historian James H. Robinson and philosopher John Dewey condemned the firings and expressed regret at Beard’s resignation.43 In December, Beard charged that reactionary trustees saw the war as an opportunity “to drive out or humiliate or terrorize every man who held progressive, liberal, unconventional views on political matters in no way connected with the war.” Similar purges of left-wing professors, as well as the application of “very strong” pressure on grammar and high school teachers, occurred throughout the country.44

The War Department went one step further, turning the docile campuses into military training grounds. On October 1, 1918, 140,000 students on more than five hundred campuses across the country were simultaneously inducted into the army as part of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). Given the rank of private, they were thereafter educated, housed, clothed, equipped, and fed at government expense.45 They also received privates’ pay. The Chicago Tribune reported, “Rah-rah days are over for American college boys. . . . College hereafter is to mean business—largely intensive preparation for the business of war.”46 Eleven hours per week were slated for military drills, on top of forty-two hours of courses on largely military-oriented “essential” and “allied” subjects. As part of this training, students at participating institutions were required to take a propaganda-laden “War Issues Course.”47

Having drawn blood in his personal campaign to make the universities “safe for democracy,” Butler set his sights higher, calling for the ouster of Robert La Follette from the U.S. Senate for his treasonous opposition to the war. Butler told three thousand wildly cheering delegates to the annual convention of the American Bankers Association in Atlantic City that they “might just as well put poison into the food of every boy” who went to war “as to permit this man to make war upon the nation in the halls of congress.”48 La Follette was also targeted by members of the University of Wisconsin faculty, over 90 percent of whom signed a petition condemning his antiwar position and several of whom began a drive to “put La Follette and all his supporters out of business,” according to one of the campaign’s leaders.49


Wisconsin’s Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette was one of six senators who voted against U.S. entry into World War I.

La Follette survived the national campaign to force his ouster, but the Bill of Rights didn’t fare as well. Congress passed some of the most repressive legislation in the country’s history. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 curbed speech and created a climate of intolerance toward dissent. Under the Espionage Act, people faced $10,000 fines and up to twenty years in jail for obstructing military operations in wartime. It targeted “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S.”50 The act empowered Postmaster General Albert Burleson, who, socialist Norman Thomas said, “didn’t know socialism from rheumatism,” to ban from the mail any literature he believed advocated treason or insurrection or opposed the draft.51 The following year, Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory convinced Congress to expand the act to ban anyone who might “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States . . . and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States.”52

The agents hired to enforce this crackdown on dissent were part of a burgeoning federal bureaucracy. The federal budget, which was less than $1 billion in 1913, had ballooned to over $13 billion five years later.

Hundreds of people were jailed for criticizing the war, including IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood and Socialist Eugene Debs. Debs spoke out repeatedly against the war and was finally arrested in June 1918 after addressing a large crowd outside the prison in Canton, Ohio, where three Socialists were being held for opposing the draft. Debs ridiculed the idea that the United States was a democracy when it jailed people for expressing their views: “They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke.”53 He spoke only briefly of the war itself: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”54

The U.S. attorney for northern Ohio, E. S. Wertz, ignoring the advice of the Justice Department, had Debs indicted on ten violations of the Espionage Act. In solidarity with his jailed comrades around the world, Debs pleaded guilty to the charges. He told the jury, “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone. . . . I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.” Prior to sentencing, he addressed the judge:

Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship within all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.55

Upbraiding those “who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power,” the judge sentenced Debs to ten years in prison.56

Socialist publications were banned from the mail. Patriotic thugs and local authorities broke into socialist organizations and union halls. Labor organizers and antiwar activists were beaten and sometimes killed. The New York Times called the Butte, Montana, lynching of IWW Executive Board member Frank Little “a deplorable and detestable crime, whose perpetrators should be found, tried, and punished by the law and justice they have outraged.” But the Times was far more upset by the fact that IWW-led strikes were crippling the war effort and concluded, “The IWW agitators are in effect, and perhaps in fact, agents of Germany. The Federal authorities should make short work of these treasonable conspirators against the United States.”57


Under the 1917 Espionage Act, the U.S. imprisoned hundreds of draft protesters and war critics, including IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood and the Socialist Eugene Debs. Debs (pictured here addressing a crowd in Chicago in 1912) had urged workers to oppose the war, proclaiming “Let the capitalists do their own fighting and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”

All things German were vilified in a wave of intolerance masquerading as patriotism. Schools, many of which now demanded loyalty oaths from teachers, banned the German language from their curricula. Iowa, not taking any chances, went further and, under the 1918 “Babel Proclamation,” banned the speaking of all foreign languages in public and over the telephone. Nebraska followed suit. Libraries across the country discarded German books, and orchestras dropped German composers from their repertoires. Just as French fries would later be renamed “freedom fries” by a know-nothing Congress furious at French opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, their World War I counterparts renamed hamburgers “liberty sandwiches,” sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” German measles “liberty measles,” and German shepherds “police dogs.”58 German Americans faced discrimination in all aspects of life.

Given the widespread pressure for “100 percent Americanism,” it is no surprise that dissidents were not only ostracized, they were occasionally murdered by patriotic mobs.59 The Washington Post assured its readers that occasional lynchings were a small price to pay for a healthy upsurge of patriotism. The Post editorialized in April 1918, “In spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur.”60

The nation’s heartland had indeed been slow to rally to the cause. Early on, the conservative Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal noted that there was “scarcely a political observer . . . but what will admit that were an election to come now a mighty tide of socialism would inundate the Middle West.” The country had “never embarked upon a more unpopular war,” it contended. Antiwar rallies drew thousands. Socialist Party candidates saw their votes increase exponentially in 1917 in cities throughout the country. Ten Socialists won seats in the New York State Legislature.61

Despite the ostracism, mass arrests, and organized violence, the Socialists and radical laborites known as Wobblies would not be silenced. While some Americans marched off to war to the strains of the hit song “Over There,” the Wobblies responded with a parody of “Onward Christian Soldiers” titled “Christians at War,” which began “Onward, Christian soldiers! Duty’s way is plain; Slay your Christian neighbors, or by them be slain.” And ended with “History will say of you: ‘That pack of God damned fools.’ ”62

Wilson’s lofty rhetoric and assurances about fighting a war to end all wars seduced many of the nation’s leading progressives, including John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. They convinced themselves that war afforded a unique opportunity to implement long-desired reforms at home. Antiwar midwestern progressives like Senators La Follette and Norris more accurately understood that war presaged the death knell of meaningful reform.

Among those who seized the opportunity to implement long-sought changes were the moral reformers, especially those who viewed the war as an opportunity to combat sexual vice. Ostensibly concerned about the health of the soldiers, they waged an aggressive campaign against prostitution and venereal disease. Red-light districts around the country were shut down, driving prostitutes underground and into the hands of pimps and other exploiters.63 The crackdown intensified after the passage of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act in 1918, according to which any woman walking alone near a military base was subject to arrest, incarceration, and a forced gynecological exam, which reformers condemned as “speculum rape.” Those found to have venereal disease were quarantined in federal institutions.64

The Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) also endeavored to rein in male sexuality with an abstinence campaign that impugned the patriotism of soldiers who contracted venereal disease. The CTCA plastered training camp walls with posters reading “A German Bullet is Cleaner than a Whore” and “A Soldier who gets a dose is a Traitor.” One pamphlet asked, “How can you look the flag in the face if you were dirty with gonorrhea?”65 While VD rates among soldiers did not rise as rapidly as some feared, pregnancy rates among high school girls living in the vicinity of military bases certainly did.



WWI anti-venereal disease posters. Moral reformers seized on the war as an opportunity to implement long-sought changes. The Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) endeavored to rein in male sexuality with an abstinence campaign that impugned the patriotism of soldiers who contracted venereal disease.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during the war, tried to ride herd on troops when they got to France—a task that proved more difficult than defeating the Germans on the battlefield. CTCA head Raymond Fosdick took notice of the vast difference between French and American sexual attitudes. The French, he observed, “felt that an army could not get along without sexual indulgence and that to attempt to carry out such a policy was to court discontent, a lowering of morale and health standards, and perhaps even mutiny.” French Premier Clemenceau offered to set up licensed brothels for U.S. soldiers like the ones that serviced his own fighting men. Upon receiving the letter with Clemenceau’s offer, Secretary of War Newton Baker reportedly blurted out, “For God’s sake . . . don’t show this to the President or he’ll stop the war.”66

The warnings proved futile. Those afflicted were segregated and ostracized. Moral reformers feared the veterans would return home and infect American women. But that was only one concern. Reformers also worried that the troops, having discovered what some called the “French Way,” would foist their newfound appetite for oral sex on innocent American girls. Colonel George Walker of the urological department fretted, “When one thinks of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young men who have returned to the United States with those new and degenerate ideas sapping their sources of self-respect and thereby lessening their powers of moral resistance, one indeed is justified in becoming alarmed.”67

For the most part, reformers’ efforts to use the war as a laboratory for social and economic experimentation were cut short by the limited duration of U.S. involvement. The war years did, however, bring unprecedented collusion between large corporations and the government in an attempt to rationalize and stabilize the economy, control unfettered competition, and guarantee profits—something that the top bankers and corporate executives had striven for decades to achieve. As a result, American banks and corporations thrived during the war, with munitions makers leading the pack. Randolph Bourne, who decried fellow progressives’ fraudulent rationales for defending the war in his scathing article “Twilight of Idols,” observed elsewhere that “war is the health of the state.”68

While reformers were hard at work, U.S. troops finally began arriving in Europe, where they contributed significantly to the Allied victory. Their arrival boosted Allied morale, and they assisted in winning some major battles. Arriving late, they managed to avoid the most brutal trench warfare Europeans on both sides had endured during the darkest times in 1916, when Great Britain suffered 60,000 casualties in a single day at the Somme. France and Germany together suffered almost a million casualties during the Battle of Verdun. Ordered to charge into the teeth of German machine guns and artillery, France lost half of its young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Americans first saw meaningful action in May 1918, six months before the war’s end, when they helped beleaguered French forces turn the tide and repulse the Germans along the Marne. In September, 600,000 Americans fought valiantly to break through the German lines. The Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918. In all, of the 2 million U.S. soldiers who reached France, over 116,000 died and 204,000 were wounded. By comparison, European casualty figures were truly staggering—perhaps as many as 10 million dead soldiers and 20 million dead civilians, the latter due mostly to disease and starvation.

Had the war dragged on, the casualty figures might have been much higher. The unprecedented wartime mobilization of science and technology had already begun to transform the nature of warfare. Even more frightening innovations appeared to be imminent.

Atop that list was a new generation of chemical weapons. The taboo against using chemical weapons and other poisons in war dates back to the Greeks and Romans. Various efforts were made to codify this ban over the centuries. In 1863, the U.S. War Department’s Lieber Code of Conduct prohibited “the use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or food, or arms.”69 Just one year earlier, in 1862, John W. Doughty, a New York schoolteacher, had sent Secretary of War Edwin Stanton a design for a projectile filled with explosives in one compartment and liquid chlorine in the other that could be used to drive Confederate troops out of their fortifications. The War Department didn’t pursue that suggestion or a later one by Forrest Shepherd, formerly a professor of economic geology and agricultural chemistry at Western Reserve University, to incapacitate Confederate soldiers with hydrogen chloride vapors. Other ideas for chemical weapons were also afoot during the Civil War. An 1862 article in Scientific American informed readers that “several incendiary and asphyxiating shells have been invented for the purpose of scattering liquid fire and noxious fumes around the space where they explode.” The 1905 Washington Evening Star obituary of chemist William Tilden contained the followed intriguing tidbit: “Tilden had a scheme for producing chemically a means of settling wars quickly by making them terribly destructive. He is said to have interested General Grant in this matter, and at the suggestion of the latter finally abandoned it, because, as General Grant said, such a terrific agency for destroying human life should not be permitted to come into use by the civilized nations of the world.”70

Others shared Grant’s sense of how “civilized” nations should behave. The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899 outlawed the wartime use of “projectiles” whose “sole object” was “the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”71

Germany broke the spirit if not the letter of the Hague Convention when it first successfully used poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915, following an abortive attempt at Bolimów on the eastern front. A yellowish green plume of chlorine gas blanketed French troops along four miles of trenches with catastrophic results. Over six hundred soon lay dead. Many more were temporarily blinded and a good number taken prisoner. The Washington Post headlined its front-page article “Crazed by Gas Bombs” and reported German threats that more potent gas weapons were on the way.72 The Germans accused France of having been the first to use such weapons. The French had in fact made prior use of a chemical irritant on a limited scale at the start of the war. But Ypres represented a new departure. The Post reported that French soldiers died from “agonizing suffocation,” their bodies turned black, green, or yellow, and were driven insane. “This use of poison gases,” the Post predicted, “will doubtless go on record as the most striking and distinguishing novelty of the present war, just as every great war of the past has been marked by some peculiarly surprising method of destroying life.”73 The New York Times editorially condemned the use of poison gas not because it killed people more cruelly than other methods but because of the suffering of survivors, which was, “according to the victims and to expert observers, of a severity unparalleled in the dreadful annals of conflict.” After this harsh condemnation, the Times threw up its hands and accepted that if one side used such weapons, “others will be obliged in self-defense to imitate the deplorable example. That, as everybody says, is war.”74 The British did indeed retaliate with poison gas at Loos in September, only to see the winds shift and the gas blown back into the British trenches, resulting in more British casualties than German.

European armies devised fairly effective countermeasures against these initially milder varieties of gases that at least reduced the number of fatalities. Between April 1915 and July 1917, British forces suffered 21,908 casualties and 1,895 deaths from gas warfare. On July 12, 1917, Germany unleashed much more potent mustard gas weapons against the British, again at Ypres. From that point until the end of the war the following November, British forces suffered 160,970 casualties and 4,167 deaths. Hence, by the time U.S. troops joined the fighting, deadlier varieties were being used by both sides, including those with phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, and mustard agents. Casualties skyrocketed, but, in relative terms, the number of fatalities declined sharply.75 American chemists were determined to change that.

The United States launched a large-scale chemical warfare research program run initially under the aegis of several different departments until centralized under the newly established Chemical Warfare Service on June 28, 1918. Research programs were initially dispersed on a number of campuses before being consolidated in the Experiment Station at American University in Washington, D.C., in September 1917. Most of the nation’s leading chemists descended on the campus to conduct the research. The effort eventually employed over 1,700 chemists, working out of more than sixty buildings, many hastily constructed. By war’s end, 5,400 chemists were serving in the military in what was being labeled “the Chemist’s War.”76

In rushing to serve their country, American chemists were following in the footsteps of their European colleagues. Germany’s chemical warfare research was centered in its prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, where such luminaries as Fritz Haber, James Franck, Otto Hahn, Walther Nernst, and Richard Willstätter all lent their services. Institute Director Haber rallied the others behind the notion that “science . . . belonged to humanity in peacetime and the fatherland in war.”77 In Great Britain, scientists at thirty-three laboratories tested 150,000 organic and inorganic compounds in an effort to discover ever deadlier concoctions. The largest facility alone employed over a thousand scientists.78

Scientists of all nations were eager to do their part to assist the war effort. Johns Hopkins physicist J. S. Ames wrote, “For the first time in the history of science men who are devoting their lives to it have an immediate opportunity of proving their worth to their country. It is a wonderful moment; and the universities of the country are seizing it.” University of Chicago physicist Robert Millikan gushed, “the world has been waked up by the war to a new appreciation of what science can do.”79

The Chemical Warfare Service prioritized speed over safety. As a result, numerous deaths were recorded, according to electrical engineer George Temple, who had been head of motor maintenance at “Camp American University.” In an interview years later with the American University student newspaper, the Eagle, Temple recounted several incidents. In one, “three men were burned by a deadly dose of gas. The bodies were hauled away on a cart, the flesh ‘jiggling off their bones.’ ”80 Each morning, during roll call, workers were asked to volunteer for burning with experimental gases. Temple volunteered seven times. In the laboratories, leaks often occurred. Canaries were kept nearby. The death of a canary meant that it was time to evacuate the building.81

Temple described what it was like when researchers headed home after a day in the laboratories: “At the end of the day the camp personnel, their clothes impregnated by gas, would pile into the trolleys. As the trolley cars neared the downtown area, civilians began boarding them. Soon they were all sneezing or crying, depending upon the type of gas the soldiers had been working with.”82 Living near campus was not particularly safe either, as former U.S. Senator Nathan Scott discovered. Scott, his wife, and his sister were “gassed” by a “cloud” that escaped from one of the campus labs. Scott and his sister sought treatment from the Experiment Station doctor and then at a local hospital.83

Among those at American University was young Harvard chemist James Conant, who would go on to head U.S. scientific research during the next world war. His successful research on lewisite earned him a promotion in July 1918. The newly appointed twenty-five-year-old major was deployed to a Cleveland suburb to oversee a project to mass-produce lewisite. Working out of the factory of the Ben Hur Motor Company in Willoughby, Conant’s team produced artillery shells and aerial bombs packed with the deadly substance, of which contact with even the smallest amount was believed to cause “intolerable agony and death after a few hours.”84

The CWS established its largest production facility adjacent to the Aberdeen, Maryland, proving ground. In early 1919, the New York Times detailed the massive operation at the site officially known as the Edgewood Arsenal, which it described as “the largest poison gas factory on earth,” producing three to four times as much as the British, French, and Germans combined. Reporter Richard Barry, who toured the facility, wrote, “I went through the hospitals and saw the men who had been struck down by the fiendish gases while at work; some with arms and legs and trunks shriveled and scarred as by a horrible fire, some with the deep suppurations still oozing after weeks of careful nursing.



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