One Hundred Years Ago … the Difference

PBS’ The American Experience just ran an outstanding three-episode show about the United States one hundred years ago. April saw the centennial anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany and our entry into the horrors of World War I.

The American Experience’s The Great War is fascinating, infuriating, sad, and more than a little … foreboding. As has been noted all over social media and the press since its airing, there are a great many parallels between Wilson’s administration – and its actions – in 1917 and many of the things going on today.

When Wilson asked for the declaration of war against Germany in April, 1917 there were well over 13 million immigrants in the United States – out of a population of 103 million. Think about that for a moment, about one out of every eight people in the United States in 1917 was an immigrant. The largest group, by far, was from Germany. More than 2.3 million immigrants were from Germany, joining the many millions who had been immigrating from Germany to the U.S. since the European rebellions of 1848.

Things were rough for Germans in the US after the war began in 1914. News of German atrocities in neutral Belgium, the use of submarine warfare which many Americans felt abhorrent (it was seen as unfair), the skillful employment of British propaganda (interference, really, that may ring a bell today) turned American sentiment against Germans, both here and abroad. The situation became much worse after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1916.

Anti-immigrant sentiment had been rising steadily since Wilson’s election, the Immigration Act of 1917, the first bill in American history restricting immigration, was passed over Wilson’s veto in January. It’s provisions makes Trump’s proposals seem tame.

The declaration of war and the most sweeping draft in American history that followed had far reaching consequences for immigrants – and American society as a whole. The Wilson administration took immediate steps to insure that no one publicly dissented our entry into the war. A series of laws were passed giving the government vast, unchecked power to control the news, curtail protests, arrest and hold political rivals, much, much more.

All the things, and more, that people openly worry about now, in 2017, occurred in 1917. Newspapers were shuttered; reporters arrested;Eugene Debs was imprisoned after he gave a speech advocating resistance to the draft; conscientious objectors were held without being charged, some were tortured. As the great historian Richard Slotkin pointed out, Woodrow Wilson was recognized world-wide as an advocate for democracy, but he firmly believed that as president, his views were the views of the American people and ‘not to be questioned’. Questioning him was akin to treason.

This was not a theory, it was enforced wherever it could be.

The effect on immigrants was a dichotomy. Most groups found acceptance in being part of the great call-up and joining the armed forces. The newspapers of the day were positively buoyant reporting that Italian, Jewish, Irish, Mexican-Americans were now … Americans, “they have lost the hyphen” was how it was phrased.

Not so for German-Americans, even those who signed up. German-Americans were discriminated against on a scale that probably has only been approached since by what was done to Japanese-Americans thirty-four years later. Except, of course, there were so many more German-Americans spread across the country. German-language newspapers were shuttered, towns with German names were renamed, German had been taught in most high schools – that was stopped; German-Americans were forced to register with the government; some were interred in camps; German songs were banned; there were well-organized, well-attended beer stein smashing events held across the country; German-Americans were attacked, some were lynched.

Through the war and immediately after, these conditions persisted until they slowly petered out, to be replaced by the newest fear – like the Red Scare of the 1920s.

Again, many people have been writing about the parallels between 1917 and 2017, fretting that under Trump we are headed the same way. But, we think not. Something glaring is missing in The American Experience’s The Great War that is prevalent today – the courts.

There is hardly a mention of the federal courts in the entire six hours of the show. The courts never stepped in, never stopped any of it. And, there’s the great difference with today. In 2017, we have the mechanisms, and the willingness of the courts to be involved, in place before to stop things before they are allowed to be mindlessly enacted and subsequently entrenched.

We’ve already seen this in action over the last few months, I suspect we will see it in action a lot more over the coming months. It’s heartening … it’s also something we very, very much need to stay on top off. Lest we end up like our forefathers one hundred years ago.