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April 1917: The Nation Prepares for War

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 26, 2017

Even before the declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, preparations were being made that would affect the lives of most Americans. The first was the formation of a quasi-official band of citizens.

“The American Protective League was organized in March 1917, with the approval of the Attorney General of the United States, and since that time has operated under the direction of the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice.

“It is a volunteer league of citizens acting through local organizations. … It creates and is responsible for its own organization. … Local branches are installed and to be installed in the cities, towns and villages of the country.”

Its purpose was to search out any un-American activities and report them to authorities.

President Woodrow Wilson had hoped that the moral righteousness of the cause would convince enough citizens to take up arms, which would permit the formation of an all-volunteer army. The Trenton Times the day before the war declaration reported there would be a back-up plan.

“Means of registering all single men between the ages fixed under the universal training bill and of registering those to be exempted were discussed today. …

“Co-operation with state and municipal government toward accomplishing this great work will be sought under general plans of state co-operation in placing the government on a war footing.

“It apparently is the intention of the War Department to aim for an army with 2,000,000 men as its first object, the men to be raised in increments of 500,000 as rapidly as they can be officered and trained.

“All single men of 20 to 23 years of age will be subject to the first draft under the plan.”

On the day that Congress passed the declaration of war, Wilson issued a proclamation saying, “An alien enemy whom there may be reasonable cause to believe to be aiding or about to aid the enemy, or to be at large to the danger of the public peace or safety, or who violates or who attempts to violate or of whom there is reasonable grounds to believe that he is about to violate any regulation to be promulgated by the President or any criminal law of the United States or of the States or Territories thereof, will be subject to summary arrest by the United States, by the United States Marshal or his deputy or such other officers as the President shall designate, and to confinement in such penitentiary, prison, jail, military camp, or other place of detention as may be directed by the President.”

It didn’t take long before loyal Americans responded. The April 13 issue of the New Jersey Courier stated, “Some one made a report to the Secret Service at Washington that Emil Mayer of the Tuckerton Radio station, after the taking over of that plant by the U.S. government, had constructed a secret wireless on the farm of Morits Groepler, at Beach View, between Barnegat and Manahawkin. Groepler’s silos are on a high hill and command a full sweep to the sea; from the main shore road they are easily seen, and a lightning rod and weather vane from the top of the silo is probably what started the story. Saturday, when Mayer and his men were seized at Tuckerton and taken to Philadelphia, a Secret Service man and two soldiers visited Groepler’s farm; all they found was the silo and weather vane. Before they reached there, Sheriff Brown, who had heard the same story, had been there, investigated, and had found the same conditions.

“Mr. Groepler, who is a native of Germany, is highly respected in that locality … it emphasizes the importance of even the most ardent patriot’s keeping his head in these troublesome times, and not going off half cocked.”

The editor of the paper did have an important outlet for those patriotic citizens.

“Remember, we are now at war. … A home garden will raise much. … The entire world is short on food crops, because so many men are taken away from the job of producing, and set to the job of destroying. This is an actual fact. … So, if you are a good patriot, get busy.

“Some folks think that if they raise a flag, or raise their lazy bodies to their feet when they hear the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ they have proven they are good patriots. They had much better raise a garden, raise chickens, and better yet, raise a pig. There is many a family that throws away enough in the summer to keep a few chickens or a pig.

“If you haven’t got your garden in, get busy. … If the United States is to help with the war – help stop it, I would rather say – Then the people of the country, everywhere, in every district, must get their hoes into the soil and make crops. Get busy.”

That same day Wilson created the Committee on Public Information and appointed journalist George Creel as its head. The mission was to influence the American public to support the war or, in Creel’s words, to use “not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.’”

On the 15th, Wilson again issued a proclamation to win support for the war effort.

“The entrance of our own beloved country into the grim and terrible war for democracy and human rights which has shaken the world creates so many problems of national life and action which call for immediate consideration. … There is not a single selfish element, so far as I can see, in the cause we are fighting for. We are fighting for what we believe and wish to be the rights of mankind and for the future peace and security of the world.”

The president then called on all parts of the nation, from farmers to miners, housewives to clergymen, to join in the common cause. On the 20th the Courier reported on the local response to Wilson’s words.

“In these troublesome times, at the request of the State government, the Dover Township Committee has named a Committee of Public Safety … Any citizen who has any knowledge of disloyalty or disaffection should report at once in person to the Committee; do not talk about or mention it to anybody else. Complaints will be at once investigated by duly constituted authorities, township, county, state or federal. To talk your suspicions to others than the Committee might result in preventing the authorities from getting evidence.

“All people are cautioned against idle or malicious gossip against foreign born citizens. These accusations work great harm and tend to destroy the National spirit of unanimity that all should cherish. Here at Toms River in the past few days, loyal and patriotic citizens, willing to defend their adopted country with arms against even the land of their birth, have been maliciously slandered.

“To those of foreign blood, with whose former land we are now at war, the committee urges you to keep out of all arguments and to say nothing that might be misconstrued into disloyalty. We are Americans one and all!”

The town even went so far as to issue its own proclamation.

“The country is now at war. Every man, every woman, every child must do his or her share. … To plant, cultivate and harvest this year is a patriotic duty. Will Dover Township do her share? You are urged to help the nation in its need by raising more food yourself, and inducing your neighbors to do the same. Raise pigs, raise chickens, raise corn, raise potatoes, raise vegetables.”

Unfortunately, all of the talk and propaganda fell short in one vital area – men were not enlisting to fight. There wasn’t the rush to the colors that Wilson had hoped for. On May 18, the Asbury Park Press announced, “The president was expected to sign the bill immediately and to issue a proclamation fixing the day for the registration of men for the army. The war department then will set in motion the machinery for raising an army in increments of 500,000 men from 21 to 30 years of age by selective conscription.

“Machinery to register and draft the first 500,000 men already has been set up by the war department. Immediately after the president signs the bill he will, by proclamation, designate the day for registration of the 10,000,000 or (so) men of the prescribed age.”

In 1863, the last time a draft had been attempted, there were riots in New York and New Jersey. The question was how the public would handle the draft in 1917.

Next Week: Register or suffer.


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