The Great War will indeed play a role in the adoption of two changes to the US Constitution. Although both changes had been looming on the cultural-political horizon since long before the Civil War, people and events during the Great War will propel this nation’s leaders to try two kinds of changes. One will be temporary and the other will be permanent.
The push to end the availability of alcohol in the United States picked up steam in the years leading up to the US entry into World War I. As more and more states tried to codify the making, selling, and consumption of alcohol, some wondered if states had the power to do so and thus in 1913 Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act to help states enforce their prohibition laws in light of a Supreme Court decision that struck down dry states’ attempts to prohibit the importation of alcohol. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that no one had “a right” to alcohol, thus aligning the Judicial Branch with the Legislative Branch.
By New Years Day, 1916, eighteen states had gone “dry.” Leading the anti-prohibition charge was August Busch, president of Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. Busch wanted to make it a crime to drink to excess, and pledged to work aggressively with the federal and state governments to address the issues of the day. He even announced that his company was developing a nearly alcohol free beer (less than one-quarter of one percent of alcohol) and was spending $3,00,000 to build a new plant in St. Louis specifically to make and distribute this new product.
Shortly after the US officially entered the war but seven months before Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, Dr. Irving Fischer (professor of Public Economy at Yale and adviser to Woodrow Wilson) called for either the immediate end of the war or the immediate acceptance of prohibition. The world needed bread, the member of the Council of National Defense reported. He said the US was on the verge of a “food crisis” and taking into consideration all of the food stuffs, energy, and manpower used to make alcohol, the US could instead produce 11,000,000 one-pound loaves of bread daily. “We shall be wise to adopt [Prohibition] before we have food riots on our hands” and he curbed his argument with patriotism: “The nation demands that [anti-prohibitionists] put love of country above love of whisky.”
One month before Congress adopted the Eighteenth Amendment and sent it off to the states for ratification, the Anti-Saloon League reported that making, selling, and consuming alcohol only aided the German war effort and questioned the loyalty of Americans of German descent. According to Wayne Wheeler, counsel for the League, trafficking in alcohol was how anti-American groups finance their “promotion of German ideals and German Kultur.” “We cannot serve two masters,” he said. “America must come first if we are loyal.” Thus, alcohol becomes a symbol of your allegiance during the war. One hundred and forty-four years earlier, England slapped a tax on tea and thus tea became a symbol of your allegiance. Those who consumed the taxed good supported England, while those who switched to coffee (an untaxed beverage) were considered loyal to the cause of the American colonists.
Once Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment and sent it off to the states for ratification, the American Medical Association announced their support of Prohibition, likening alcohol to slavery and arguing that the future for the US if it continues to drink can be seen in Germany and likens that country “to a man suffering from the final stages of ‘a horrible disease, leading to insanity, with delusions of grandeur and magnificence.” Medical, social, and religious groups lined up in support of the Eighteenth Amendment.
In early January of 1919, Nebraska ratified the Eighteenth Amendment making it part of the Constitution. A small news item in the New York Times noted the passing of this nation’s oldest brewery, established in 1844. “The Pabst Brewing Company . . . passed out of existence today.” Near beer, or nearly alcohol-free beer, was produced and distributed in an early attempt to keep the brewery industry afloat. The report concluded, “Milwaukee does not take kindly to near beer.” Neither did the rest of this country.
Wars and national emergencies tend to change this country –sometimes for the better and sometimes not. The adoption of Prohibition is a good example of the former, while the passage of universal suffrage is a good example of the former. If all you knew about the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was from watching the 1976 ABC Schoolhouse Rock episode entitled “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage,” you would think that a bunch of happy, upbeat, women sporting red bell-bottom jeans, white boots, and blue t-shirts with a lone white star (note the obvious flag theme) pranced into election booths simply by singing: “Oh we were sufferin’, Until suffrage, Not a woman here could vote, No matter what age. Then the 19th Amendment struck down that restrictive rule.”
American women (and some men) had been trying to, and over time achieved varying degrees of voting rights for women. Generally speaking, women gained the right to vote in school board elections first, then municipal elections, and sometimes even in state or territory-wide campaigns. Of course, sometimes the Supreme Court removed women’s right to vote, such as in 1887 when the Court struck down an 1883 vote in the territory of Washington that granted full suffrage to women. By the Great War, women in Utah, Colorado, Washington, California, Alaska, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and Montana have the same political rights as men while women in Illinois are allowed to vote only in presidential elections and white women could vote in primary elections in Arkansas. Five Midwestern states grant full suffrage to women in 1917 while Rhode Island endorsed partial voting rights. New York became the first eastern state to provide its female citizens with the same electoral rights as their male citizens. Yet, President Wilson was unable or unwilling to ride the wave of woman suffrage (not the singular, monolithic use of the noun) as they called it.
Counter to the popular belief that American suffrage suffragists called off their suffrage work in order to fully support the war efforts not unlike their British counterparts, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) affirmed their mission in 1917. Carrie Chapman Catt called a meeting of the Executive Council days after Secretary of State Robert Lansing announced that US was breaking diplomatic relations with Germany. The reason for the meeting was to decide is the NAWSA would follow in the footsteps of British suffragettes or if American suffrage supporters will continue to work in support of universal suffrage. The seventy-six members in attendance votes overwhelmingly (63 to 13) to continue to work for universal suffrage while also supporting the federal government if indeed the US went to war against Germany.
Many women did not support Catt’s twin goals, such as pacifists who believed that Catt was selling out the peaceful message inherent to women in order to further the goals of the NAWSA. Others believed that Catt and the NAWSA had not gone far enough, such as Alice Paul.
Alice Paul’s ideas on how to achieve the right to vote diverged from national leaders of the NAWSA such as Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw or regional leaders such as Emma Smith Devoe. Catt, Shaw, DeVoe, and others asked for the right to vote. They were non-partisan. They used “womanly” tactics such as deferring, being demure, and dressing in the latest fashions. The womanly tactics served DeVoe well when she successfully facilitated full suffrage for women of Washington. Paul, on the other hand, demanded the right to vote, blamed those in power (the Democrats during the war) for preventing women to realize the right to vote, and embraced what were considered “militant” tactics. Paul’s militancy included loud protests, interrupting speeches of politicians, unfurling banners questioning political leaders’ judgments, chaining her to fences, allowing her to be arrested, and going on a hunger strike.
Paul even created and co-led (with Lucy Burns) her own suffrage organization called the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Her target was Wilson and to a lesser extent Catt. “We want to convict Wilson of evading us,” Paul wrote to Burns and Paul questioned Catt’s nonpartisanship. Paul also laid the blame of a lack of equal political rights at the feet of the Democrats in general and thus against Wilson in particular. Paul’s first attempt to win the right to vote was under the banner of the Congressional Union (CU). The CU believed the best way to obtain the right to vote was through a Constitutional Amendment. Three years later, Catt announced her “Winning Strategy” which included support of a Constitutional amendment.
The suffrage bill was not moving through the Legislative Branch as quickly as Paul had wished and thus to bring attention to this fact she led a small march/protest of a few dozen members of the NWP. The event took place at Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House on August 13, 1918. This was not the first time that the NWP marched in front of the White House nor was it the first time that the women were attacked by police. Earlier, plainclothes policemen (reportedly members of the Secret Service) broke up a NWP demonstration in front of the Russian embassy and tore up their banners and posters, some of which called into question Wilson’s support for democracy by referring to him as “Kaiser Wilson.” Paul and many others will be arrested.
Paul and other NWP members will be repeatedly arrested as the war waged on, and at the August 1918 protest, police were so violent that they broke fingers and wrists on some of the women. Thirty-eight were arrested. They were booked and released, then they went back to Lafayette Square and resumed their protest, thus they were arrested again. “We will continue to protest as long as our disenfranchisement exists,” proclaimed Paul. “Oppression and abuse at the hands of the law merely emphasized the great need of women for political power.” Refusing to eat, forced to sleep on concrete floors, urinate and defecate in communal pots, housed along side black women, and jailed along side prostitutes carrying syphilis, many of these middle class white reformers were shocked, as too as the American public who were served story after story in New York and Washington area newspapers.
Paul would be arrested in October and sentenced to seven months in jail. She would even be sent to a psychiatric hospital to determine if her actions were the result of some mental or organic disorder. Although she would be found sane, in November another group of NWP protestors joined Paul in prison. The sadistic superintendent, Alexander Whitaker, had the women thrown down stairs, threatened with sexual abuse, and had the women moved from cell to cell by being dragged by their hair. Dorothy Day was beaten by a group of guards. Alice Consu, who suffered a concussion by the hands of the guards, spent her first night in prison vomiting. The next Paul et al began a hunger strike. The superintendent responded by having the women tied down and forced fed by inserting tubes down their throats. Paul referred to these tactics as “administrative terrorism.” Letters and telegrams poured into the offices of Congressmen, Senators, and of course the Oval Office. Newspapers carried daily stories and Alice Paul’s sister, Helen, freely gave interviews in which she questions Wilson’s patriotism and humanity. After weeks of constant pressure, Wilson pardoned all the women and ordered their immediate release. Wilson was still unprepared to support suffrage however. His December message to Congress omitted any reference to the issue, later claiming that his messages to Congress were focused on war matters, not social matters. Yet shortly after the state of New York voted in support of suffrage, Wilson began pressuring members of Congress to vote in support of the federal amendment. The vote could not have been any closer: 274 to 136, the precise number of votes required to continue the process. Wilson, meanwhile, refused to publicly support the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment until the fall of 1918 when he connected suffrage at home with his desire to make the world safe for democracy as evidenced in his Fourteen Points Address of January 1918. “If we reject measures like this,” Wilson said of woman suffrage, the world will no longer believe in the civilizing mission of the United States. However, Wilson ultimately couched his support for granting women equal political status as a reward for their war work.
Wrath of God – Black Scare, Red Scare, Influenza
With the fighting in Europe and over the League of Nations behind them, Americans went back to old fashion fighting: against other races and against foreign ideas. As the African-Americans who served this nation during the Great War returned home, some believed that they would be treated as equal members of American society now that they finally proved their worth on the battle field. Others returned home and demanded that the US treat them as equal citizens after experiencing no racism from their French hosts. Simultaneously, white troops returning home noticed the increase in blacks among what were predominately white northern cities such as New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. The unemployment rate rose, many black factory workers did not want to give up their new jobs and many white military veterans demanded that blacks be fired in order to give the whites their jobs back.
Armed black and white men attacked each other. Throughout the country massive race riots exploded in the summer of 1919. In Chicago white gangs attacked black neighborhoods. The National Guard eventually ended the attacks and counter attacks that resulted in the death of at least 38 people, nearly 500 wounded, and the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses. A similar even unfolded in the nation’s capital, resulting in nearly 200 casualties.
What made the riots in Washington, DC particularly disturbing was that many white US military personal, freshly back from defending the liberty of England and France, turned against their own countrymen, women, and children. A few years later, whites in Tulsa attempted to remove all blacks from their town. The NAACP investigated the incident and reported that the prime reason why whites attacked blacks was because of the fear of “radicalism” among black residents. When questioned closely, the NAACP discovered that by “radical” white citizens of Tulsa meant that black citizens were refusing to follow the Jim Crow era codification of racism and “were asking that the Federal constitutional guaranties of “‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ be given regardless of color.”
Although race riots will decline as the 1920s ramble on, lynchings will increase to include lynchings of blacks in northern towns such in Duluth, Minnesota when three black men will be lynched on suspicion of rape: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. Ray Stannard Baker, a reporter, author, biographer of Wilson as well as Wilson’s press secretary at the Versailles peace conference and once said that “Every argument on lynching in the South gets back sooner or later to the question of rape.” Even outside of the South, whites justified rape on the suspected grounds that the lynched person had raped or tried to rape and that the victim was a white woman.
Walter White, a writer and the Executive Secretary of the NAACP published an article in The Crisis in which he outlined the reasons for these race riots, to include the attitudes of African-American veterans:
These men, with their new outlook on life, injected the same spirit of independence into their companions, a thing that is true of many other sections of America. One of the greatest surprises to many of those who came down to “clean out the niggers” is that these same “niggers” fought back. Colored men saw their own kind being killed, heard of many more and believed that their lives and liberty were at stake. In such a spirit most of the fighting was done.
Racial tension, violence, and death during the “Black Scare” of the 1920s are but precursors to the racial tension, violence, and death that will characterize the civil rights movement following World War II and culminating with forced bussing of the 1970s.
Simultaneously, Americans attacked (real and imagined) Socialists, Communists, and those who sympathized with Socialists or Communists. Sometimes those attacked fought back. Unions, union activists, and eastern Europeans in general (especially Poles and Germans) had been intimately linked with Socialism and Communism ever since the Haymarket Square incident in 1886. Unions had typically been viewed in this country as un-American because of the collective nature of unionism seemed to counter the individualistic nature of the United States.
In February of 1919, labor leaders throughout Seattle worked together to hold a city-wide strike. This “general strike,” as they called it, was in protest to a lack of raises. Part of the WIB’s role during the war was to work with labor organizations to keep the salaries low in order for businesses to make more war-related stuff. Workers were told they were being patriotic by participating in these war time wage controls. Many workers believed, and some were even led to believe, that once the war was over then wages would naturally rise.
Shipyard workers were refused a pay raise in 1919 and thus the Metal Trades Council union alliance declared a strike and closed the yards. Most of the city’s unions voted to strike in support of the shipyard workers. Seattle shut down as more and more businesses were unable to operate (a port town relies heavily on the use of its ports). By February 11th, the strike had ended as a result of pressure labor leaders felt from the stationing of thousands of federal troops, state police, and armed volunteers throughout the city. Most workers had returned to their jobs (expect those from the shipyards who originated the strike) yet local police decided to use the general strike as a justification for attacking a pro-communist union, the International Workers of the World as well as the headquarters of the Socialist Party in Seattle. The strike was a failure for the unions because neither public opinion, nor local media, politicians, even the leaders of the University of Washington supported their tactics of trying to shut down the city. Although the general strike in Seattle ended without almost no violence, a “Red Scare” swept across the United States.
Strikes happened in nearly every major city and local politicians reacted with the use of violence. The American Legion, an organization founded by military veterans in 1919, reported that it had evidence that communists were to lead a revolution following May Day parades (the first of May was a European day of celebrating workers although in the US anarchists, socialists, and communists used “May Day” to remember the Haymarket Square incident).
“Reds Planning to Overthrow U.S. on May Day” American newspapers warned in April on 1919. Package bombs addressed to prominent Americans were discovered in various US post offices and Boston newspapers informed the public of a “Bolshevik plot” to over throw this country under the banner headline “REDS PLAN MAY DAY MURDERS”.
The federal government responded to this (real or imagined) fear of a communist takeover by expelling suspected “alien radicals” such as Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and more than 500 others. Many states, such as California, adopted loyalty oaths in which you had to pledge to protect the state and the federal government if you wished to secure certain state jobs. Many of those arrested were denied bail, denied trial by jury, and in some cases there was no evidence against them except the word of the arresting authority. In reaction to this attack on Americans’ civil rights (especially the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments), progressive reformers such as Helen Gurley Flynn helped create the American Civil Liberties Union.
In June of 1919, several bombs went off nearly at the same time throughout the Northeast and in Washington, DC. One in particular was set off in a carriage parked outside the home of the US Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. At this time President Wilson was still recovering from his latest stroke and thus Palmer, working on his own, created a new national intelligence unit called the General Intelligence Division (GID) and hired a young attorney named Herbert Hoover to lead the GID. During the summer and fall of 1919, and using the broad powers of the Alien and Espionage Acts, Palmer ordered a series of attacks against suspected internal enemies. Known as the “Palmer Raids,” thousands of suspected radicals were arrested and held without bail.
One possible reaction to these raids was a massive bombing of Wall Street. On September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage parked near the entrance of the J.P. Morgan bank. Nearly forty people were killed and 400 were injured. “The horrible slaughter and maiming of men and women,” wrote the New York Call, “was a calamity that almost stills the beating of the heart of the people.” “There was no objective except general terrorism,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The bomb was not directed against any particular person or property. It was directed against a public, anyone who happened to be near or any property in the neighborhood.” The Washington Post labeled it an “act of war.” This 1920 attack will be the worst act of terrorism witnessed in New York for another 81 years.
Even elected officials were not safe during this “Red Scare.” Sam DeWitt was elected to the New York state assembly was expelled because he was a Socialist. The voters of Wisconsin elected Victor Berger to represent them in Washington, DC on the Socialist ticket. Berger was refused admittance into Congress and he was expelled from the national capital. The Washington Post applauded the Senate’s decision calling it an “impressive demonstration of Americanism.” Berger will be re-elected but will still be barred from taking his seat Washington, DC.
The political fear of the “Red Scare” following World War II is but a small example of the aligning of the political universe following World War II when the bipolar world of the Cold War will be the driving characteristic of the second half of the twentieth century.
Soldiers returning from western Europe will bring back stories, medals, souvenirs, and influenza, which Americans will call the Spanish Flu in large measure because Spain will be the place where most Americans soldiers were kept before retuning to the US. The disease inflected approximately 28% of the US population. Worldwide deaths averaged 30 million people, or, ten times as many people died from the 1918 influenza pandemic (which probably was born in the trenches and incubated in the overcrowded port towns of Spain while troops waited for ships to take them back home) than from fighting in the trenches during the Great War. 1918 saw the end of the Great War and before the first anniversary of the Armistice, 675,000 Americans will die from influenza.
The “War to End all War”, the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy”, the “Great War”, and eventually “World War I” were all phrases used to describe the hostilities that erupted throughout Europe and the Middle East between 1914 and 1918. When the war came to an end millions of people were dead, Germany was an occupied nation, American troops were still fighting in Russia and National Guardsmen had been deployed around this country in wake of the racial and political violence. Americans rejected being a player on the international stage, influenza ravaged the world, and American literature and art seemed to reflect this era of death and misery.
The Versailles meeting among American, Italian, French, and British leaders certainly did not settle any of the big questions that Wilson posed in his January 1918 address. Most of the colonial holdings of the Ottoman Empire, Austria, and Germany were redistributed among Great Britain, France, and Italy. One group of people known as the Kurds desperately clung to Wilson’s idea on “self determination.” They tried to carve a country for themselves out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire. They called their country Kurdistan and the League of Nations turned to the United States to tutor the country’s political, economic, and social leaders. The US refused and Kurdistan was consumed among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, not unlike how the world was consumed by the flu. Since the Great War, the Kurds have been but the fuzzy, yellow tennis ball being smacked around in a game in geo-political mixed doubles among the governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. We are still dealing with the Kurdish question today.
Palestine was a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire yet Palestinians sought independence and they were not willing to change one master (Istanbul) for another (England). A young Arab military leader named Faisal traveled to Versailles in the hopes of being able to convince the Allies to allow Palestine to become an independent country. The allies refused, Palestine was taken by England. We are still dealing with the question of Palestine today both in terms of billions of US dollars each year, the cost of the Israeli occupation, and in the loss of lives.
A young Vietnam nationalist leader named Ho Chi Minh traveled to Versailles in the hopes of meeting with President Wilson. Minh wanted the help of the US to transform his country from a colonial holding of France into an independent nation based on the political and economic example of the United States. Wilson refused to help and ultimately over one million American troops will be sent to fight against Ho Chi Minh’s forces resulting in the over 60,000 American deaths and nearly 400,000 wounded Americans.
Right around the corner is the “Roaring ‘20s”. Just how can such a depressed and dejected nation seemingly bounce back into a decade of dancing, music, and never-ending celebration? They don’t. Just like the War to End all War failed in its titular objective, the Roaring 20s were certainly not roaring for those in the center of the decade-long social, political, and economic hurricane as you will see.
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