Selling a war is no easy feat; Pearl Harbor doesn’t often fall into the laps of war hungry politicians so how do you whip the public into a frenzy? In the case of World War I, Woodrow Wilson simply changed the optics from a run-of-the-mill fight between European imperial powers over control of the continent into a struggle for freedom, liberty, democracy, and civilization itself.
Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, the vast majority of Americans held firm to anti-interventionist sentiments, particularly with regard to Europe. There was a lingering suspicion of European imperialism and a sense that the petty infighting on the other side of the Atlantic would only bring chaos to our shores if we chose to get involved.
Even after the opening of hostilities in 1914, Americans still firmly held that the US should not entangle themselves in the conflict despite Woodrow Wilson’s growing urge to enter the fray. To sell the war to the people, most importantly Congress, Wilson drew on his progressive credentials to frame the fight as a struggle against the tyranny of the German Empire to “make the world safe for democracy”, the famous line he proclaimed to Congress on April 2, 1917 seeking a declaration of war.
The public relations blitz worked. Congress authorized the declaration four days later with only six senators and fifty House members dissenting. As important, the President managed to rally enough citizens to the cause and shrink anti-interventionist sentiment to a manageable level.
Immediately following the US declaration of war, propaganda posters sprouted up across the country, thousands of different designs covering everything from recruitment to children’s garden brigades. The Library of Congress has digitized nearly 2000 of these posters and can be viewed at their website.
The Statue of Liberty is the greatest symbol of America and its ideals today but until just after World War I the preeminent embodiment of America was Columbia and its personification “Lady Columbia”. Columbia had been a well-known term for the New World and the US for centuries and her image adorned dozens of propaganda posters, usually as a call to defend her from the forces of anarchy and tyranny, the Germans.
Do your part for freedom and democracy
Enlistment posters called on young men to join up and fight for a higher calling, chiefly democracy, freedom, and liberty. Some went so far as to connect the sacrifices of young men in the Revolutionary War to the defense of democracy in World War I, but this time shooting at Germans not Brits.
The demon Hun
Dehumanizing the enemy is older than civilization itself and World War I was no exception. Allied propaganda painted the German, the Empire as a whole and individual soldier, as remorseless Hun savages hell bent on torturing American troops while stamping out freedom and democracy. Huns were a nomadic people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the 4th, 5th, & 6th centuries immortalized (not necessarily accurately) in 19th century Europe for their military prowess and brutality. The Hun epithet arose from the British in the early 1900’s after Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his troops in China to decimate local resistance in the Boxer Rebellion.
“Mercy will not be shown, prisoners will not be taken. Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinese will even again dare so much as to look askance at a German.”
Top left: The brute carries Lady Colombia away from America, holding a blood-stained club, Kultur (German for culture).
In faint lettering superimposed over “Enlist” is the address of a recruiting office in San Francisco.
Bottom: A German soldier literally crucifying his American enemy. “Your Liberty Bonds will help stop this” in Spanish.
With the Allied victory in 1918, “freedom” had been saved and for a few brief years before a global depression and the onset of World War II, Americans embraced the Wilsonian idea of a war for civilization. The poster below advertised a campaign for a community building in Goldsboro, NC memorializing the local fallen from Wayne County. The building was dedicated in 1924 but unfortunately burned down in 2004.
Both images courtesy Wayne County Public Library.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but there is a rhythm
LeBron James is not, and never will be the next Michael Jordan, and the US war in Afghanistan was not another Vietnam. These comparisons are overused and just plain lazy. History is not a matching game but there are important parallels between past and present that offer avenues for understanding and tackling current events, provided we take the time to look and act on these hints from the past.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration fixated on Saddam Hussein. None of the hijackers were Iraqi, nor Osama bin Laden or any of his inner circle. Mere formalities. The government shouted from every mountaintop that Saddam had connections to the terrorist group and provided support in the years leading up to 9/11. Not content with just this accusation, US officials averred that Iraq held massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, not a hard sell considering Saddam had used mustard, sarin, and VX gas on the Kurds in the late 1980’s.
Both accusations were false, and not just untrue but in the nearly two decades since 9/11 no evidence has surfaced to even suggest a grain of truth to either claim. Thousands of American troops killed or wounded and billions of dollars wasted in Iraq when the real threat had been Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sadly the spin has not stopped and there is no better example than Syria. Over 500,000 people are dead and millions more displaced and yet the outrage from our government and much of the world is over the use of chemical weapons. In an address to the nation on September 10, 2013 President Obama stated:
Because these [chemical] weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity.
On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity. No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cell phone pictures, and social media accounts from the attack, and humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.
In April of this year, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that “some things are inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons convention, but civilization itself. So, the recognition of that means at times you are going to see contrary impulses.”
We’ve come full circle- from the war against the demon Hun to the scourge of chemical weapons, US presidents have turned “threats to civilization” into an annual tradition. The lessons of World War I are in plain sight but we have chosen to ignore them for a century.