With this week’s 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I as his backdrop, columnist John Rash looked back at the Great War, as it was known then, and its significance for 21st century America (“A century on, WWI-era debates reverberate today,” April 1). Rash observed that many of the issues swirling around World War I, including perceived threats to this country’s national security, continue to have relevance a century later.
Like many commentators noting the World War I centenary, Rash feels the need to offset the negative aspects of the war with a more positive take on the bitter military conflict and its legacy. Rash does acknowledge the suppression of civil liberties during Minnesota’s wartime era, but he goes on to quote two World War I experts who emphasize what they see as the more positive outcomes of the war.
“There was a sense that we had done something right, had done something good, had changed the world, had stopped the German menace,” declared Brian Horrigan, a Minnesota History Center developer who helped organize the center’s “WW1 America” exhibit.
Mark Samels echoed that same view. Samels, a PBS documentary filmmaker, told Rash that America emerged from World War I “as a different, stronger nation that would accomplish a great deal in the 20th century. It is a reminder that there is a resiliency and there is a meaning to being an American, and that meaning is very bound up in ideas and ideals.”
Rash’s sources may find a reflection of American ideals in the World War I experience, but those ideals clearly did not involve freedom of expression. To the contrary, that ideal was ruthlessly suppressed at the highest level of the U.S. government, starting at the White House with President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson may have used high-minded rhetoric to justify his support for the war, but his administration had no qualms about cracking down on any public dissent.
That approach, with its disregard for civil liberties, was expressed in the work of Minnesota’s Commission of Public Safety, the short-lived state agency profiled by D.J. Tice earlier this year (“Strong-arm government? It could happen here (and did),” March 12). The commission, established under state law in 1917, succeeded in removing from office New Ulm’s mayor, Louis Fritsche, and its city attorney, Albert Pfaender, because they had the temerity to express some qualms about the coercive nature of the military draft. Minneapolis Mayor Thomas Van Lear nearly suffered the same fate. Van Lear, an avowed Socialist, only narrowly averted a move to remove him from office because some of his public statements were considered insufficiently loyal.
The commission’s direct impact may have been limited in scope but it helped create a climate of opinion that bristled with intolerance at any public expressions that departed from strict loyalism. Minnesota’s mainstream media, including the Minneapolis Tribune, refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any anti-war viewpoint.
By 1918, a midterm election year, a loyalist frenzy was sweeping through Minnesota, aided and abetted by federal and state officials who were to determined to block any efforts they perceived as impeding the war effort. The frenzy exploded in violence all across the state during the election campaign of former Congressman Charles Lindbergh Sr., a war critic, who was running for governor that year. Lindbergh was hung in effigy, his organization was often blocked from holding campaign rallies, and many of his supporters were beaten and nearly killed.
During this week of centenary observances, we need to refrain from looking back at the First World War through a warm golden haze. The war was neither ennobling, nor uplifting, nor unifying, as some would have us believe. It was a difficult, painful and even shameful time for Minnesota, and for the country as a whole. To sugarcoat World War I does a disservice to our nation’s history.
In many ways, the Great War’s most important legacy may be its message to those of us in the 21st century. It reminds us about the fragility of free expression during tumultuous times, and of our need to sustain it to ensure the survival of a democratic system.
Iric Nathanson, of Minneapolis, is author of “World War I Minnesota,” published by the History Press.