During this troubling campaign season, when rants against Muslims and Mexican immigrants continue to make front-page news, we need to remember that our own state’s political history has been marred by similar episodes of demagoguery and ethnic bigotry.
One such episode occurred during World War I, when the state’s leading demagogue was a fiery Minneapolis attorney named John F. McGee. Though not an office-seeker himself, McGee was a key adviser to Minnesota’s Republican governor, Joseph A.A. Burnquist, and was the driving force behind a powerful but short-lived state agency known as the Commission of Public Safety.
The commission was organized in 1917 to mobilize support for America’s entry into the war and clamp down on dissent. McGee, one of five gubernatorial appointees to the commission, soon emerged as its dominant member. Fixed in his beliefs, he once declared: “I have no doubt whatever that I am right, and knowing that I am right there is no power on Earth that can budge me one inch from following the path of duty as I see it.”
McGee’s duty, as he saw it, was to root out any vestiges of dissent about the war and to use the commission to deal harshly with those political and ethnic groups whose loyalty he believed to be suspect. In his eyes, those suspicions fell on the state’s German-Americans, Minnesota’s largest ethnic group.
Choosing to ignore that the vast majority of Minnesotans with ancestral ties to Germany professed their loyalty to the U.S. and their support for the war, McGee was convinced that German-Americans were harboring a vast fifth column intent on aiding America’s sworn enemy, the hated Huns. To his list of America’s enemies, he added members of the left-leaning Nonpartisan League, then a newly formed political pressure group intent on defeating Burnquist in the 1918 primary election.
Prone to rhetorical excesses, McGee once told a congressional hearing in Washington that Minnesota’s German-American community harbored traitors who were disloyal to the U.S. “The nation blundered at the start of the war by not dealing severely with these vipers,” he added.
McGee and the Commission of Public Safety continued to target German-Americans, particularly those living in and around the largely German-American community of New Ulm. In July 1917, Gov. Burnquist, acting at the request of the commission, removed from office New Ulm’s mayor, Louis Fritsche, and its city attorney, Albert Pfaender, after the two local officials advocated for legislative changes to the country’s draft law at a public meeting. Fritsche and Pfaender maintained that they had a constitutional right to urge support for the proposed legislation, which would have allowed German-American draftees to avoid combat service on the Western Front. But the commission saw their actions as malfeasance in office.
Through the war years, Minnesota’s German-Americans continued to face widespread prejudice as local school systems faced pressures to eliminate German-language studies from their curricula, and many were reluctant to speak German in public. In some parts of the state, vitriolic attacks on German-Americans equaled those directed at Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during World War II. One southern Minnesota newspaper editor — referring to the Dakota War of 1862, when several dozen New Ulm residents were killed by Dakota warriors — remarked that “there are those who regret that the Sioux did not do a better job at New Ulm fifty five years ago.”
The November 1918 armistice brought an end to the war and the disbanding of the Public Safety Commission. But the political and psychological wounds would take time to heal. The commission’s legacy provides an important reminder about the dangers of ethnic bigotry — particularly now, 100 years later, when national security is again an overriding public concern.
Iric Nathanson lives in Minneapolis. His book “World War I Minnesota” will be published next year by the History Press.