Archive for April, 2017

Déjà vu, WW I edition

This week, PBS is running a three-part series commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. Called The Great War it is airing locally on WSKG as part of the on-going series “The American Experience.” The second episode which ran last night is particularly germane to the situation we face in the country today.

Notwithstanding his reelection campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson lost no time after his second inauguration on March 4, 1917 in doing exactly the opposite, obtaining from Congress a declaration of war against Germany on April 6. There is ample evidence that the Wilson administration had been secretly ignoring Congressionally mandated US neutrality in the war since its beginning in August 1914. The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915 was carrying a concealed load of arms and ammunition which exploded leading to the ship’s rapid demise. But Wilson was faced with mobilizing a country in which the largest ethnic group was German to fight against their former homeland. He built his case on a number of incidents including the sinking of the Lusitania, in hindsight clearly allowed under the rules of war. Others included the sabotage in 1915 of a weapons depot in New Jersey called Black Tom and an explosion in the Kingsland munitions factory, also in New Jersey, in 1916. Although those responsible for the first remain unknown, an arbitration commission concluded in 1931 that the latter was not the work of any German agent. The last straw, perhaps, was the infamous Zimmerman Telegram in which the German foreign minister urged Mexico to launch a war against the US in return for which the victorious Germans would return to them much of the US Southwest. That telegram was supposedly intercepted and decrypted by the British who shared it with US. Many scholars believe that it was, in fact, a British forgery intended to push the US toward intervention, a position I support.

Having brought the US into what was a very unpopular war, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee after its chairman George Creel, a former journalist who was a key player in Wilson’s 1916 reelection campaign. (It is no stretch to call him Wilson’s Stephen Bannon.) The CPI, as it was called, launched a massive propaganda campaign to drum up support for the war. Almost overnight the country was virtually papered with vicious depictions of Germans as brutes and barbarians. Needless to say, the truth was not an important part of the campaign. World War I was a particularly brutal conflict and all the combatants engaged in atrocities against civilians. Whether the Germans were worse than the French and British, or indeed the Americans, is obscured by the fact that, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin later wrote, “History is written by the victors.” (Often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill.) In any case, anti-German hysteria reached such a fever pitch that many German-Americans, some of whose families had been here since colonial times, were forced to change their names to avoid threats and violence. Citizens were encouraged to report their neighbors if they suspected them of disloyalty, wasting food, or even of questioning the conduct of the war.

It was also during Wilson’s second term that the infamous Espionage Act and Sedition Act were passed. Enacted on June 15, 1917 and May 16, 1918, respectively, these were the most serious attacks on American civil liberties since the Civil War. Although the Sedition Act which made it illegal to speak ill of the government was repealed in 1920, the Espionage Act is still in effect and is routinely used to prosecute whistleblowers.

The legacy of World War I is complicated. The United States emerged from the conflict as a world power. The unreasonably harsh terms imposed on the losing Germans almost certainly let to the rise of Hitler. And the erosion of the basic protections of the US Constitution was established. On the other hand, Wilson’s deal with the powerful anti-war women’s lobby greatly advanced the cause of women’s suffrage which was realized by the passage of the 19th Amendment adopted in time for the 1920 election. In many ways, it was the origin of the United States we know today. Unfortunately, the Wilson administration showed how utterly fragile our civil liberties are and how easily they can be subsumed to militarism. Donald Trump, while far from being in the same class intellectually as Wilson, shows all of the latter’s disregard for those civil liberties. His irresponsible rhetoric has led to discrimination and violence against Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin. His rabid supports routinely threaten and harass those they consider “libtards” disloyal to Trump. We must learn about the abuses of the Wilson administration because they are happening again.