Watching “The Great War” documentary on PBS last week, I realized there was an awful lot I didn’t know about World War I.
I didn’t know, for example, that in order to wage a war that President Woodrow Wilson said was intended to make the world “safe for democracy,” he oversaw one of the most oppressive crackdowns on civil liberties here at home and encouraged a culture of suspicion and distrust throughout the country.
How can we be expected to learn from the mistakes of the past if we don’t even know about them?
Every history class I took in school started with Columbus coming to America. As a result, we were lucky to get through the Civil War before school ended in June. Even the Advanced Placement History class I took as a high school senior spent so much time on early American history that, by the end of the school year, there was time for only a cursory look at World War I.
That’s why “The Great War” documentary was so eye-opening for me.
I didn’t realize the level of anti-German hysteria that swept over the nation once the United States joined the war. One city hosted public beer stein-breaking events. Another town slaughtered dachshunds simply because they were “German” dogs. A bartender in Wisconsin was tarred and feathered for “pro-German utterances.”
I didn’t know there was a federal government propaganda machine, the Committee on Public Information, headed by brilliant PR specialist George Creel. Through the extensive use of posters and a traveling exposition — and by the careful release of selected information — the committee sold the American people on the idea that this was their war.
I didn’t realize the pressures put on people to support the war effort. Names of people who bought — or didn’t buy — war bonds were printed in the newspapers. “Liberty Loan Committees,” often composed of local bankers who knew exactly how much money you had, came to your house to “ask” you to buy war bonds. If you refused, you might get a less-friendly visit later.
I didn’t know that semi-official vigilante groups sprung up to enforce support for the war. The American Protective League had a quarter of a million members nationwide, with armbands and badges supplied by the Justice Department. League members conducted illegal searches and seizures, detained and arrested people without charges and intimidated anyone they judged to be not loyal enough.
I didn’t realize that the Sedition Act, passed in May 1918, mandated huge penalties not only for criticizing the war, but also for saying anything negative about anything in America. You could get 20 years in prison for complaining about food restrictions to the person sitting next to you at a bar. A man who cursed a slow subway in New York was arrested. The conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra ended up in an internment camp after allegedly refusing to play “The Star Spangled Banner.” A poet who wrote a satirical piece about America went to jail. You never knew who was listening or watching, so people assumed everyone was.
The hunt for those considered disloyal and the need to prove that you weren’t tore the fabric of American life. And it didn’t dissipate once the war was over.
In “The Great War,” historian David M. Kennedy said, “Big parts of the American public lost their minds about the nature of the society they lived in and the threat they faced from their neighbors who happened to have German names.”
Sound familiar? Replace “anti-German” with “anti-Muslim” or “anti-immigrant,” and Kennedy’s sentence could describe what’s going on in America today. Trump’s proposed deportation squads are all too similar to the American Protective League.
Early 20th century philosopher George Santayana once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Most of us don’t know how easy it was for Wilson’s government, in the name of supporting the war effort, to trample on our civil rights. We don’t know about the greatest suppression of free speech in American history.
We need to learn about our country’s more recent history, so we can ensure we don’t keep repeating the mistakes of our past.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.