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Making World ‘Safe for Democracy’

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 03, 2017

Fighting a modern war with the slogan “Make the world safe for democracy” would prove to be a double-edged sword for President Woodrow Wilson and the U. S. government. On April 16, 1917, just 10 days after the declaration of war on Germany, Wilson issued a proclamation to the American people, “to call especial attention to the following provisions of the Constitution and the laws of the United States:

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. … Whoever is convicted of treason shall suffer death; or, at the discretion of the court shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined not less than ten thousand dollars.”

Just what would fall under this definition?

“The courts of the United States have stated the following acts to be treasonable:

“The use or attempted use of any force or violence against the Government of the United States, or its military or naval forces:

“The acquisition, use, or disposal of any property with knowledge that it is to be, or with intent that it shall be, of assistance to the enemy in their hostilities against the United States:

“The performance of any act or the publication of statements or information which will give or supply, in any way, aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States:

“The direction, aiding, counselling, or countenancing of any of the foregoing acts.”

The president then put all loyal Americans on alert.

“Any such citizen or alien who has knowledge of the commission of such acts and conceals and does not make known the facts to the official is guilty of misprision of treason. … I further proclaim and warn all persons who may commit such acts that they will be vigorously prosecuted therefor.”

It didn’t take long for the patriotic citizens to start reporting their neighbors. On April 20, the federal authorities in Philadelphia reported a “traveling representative of the El Draco Cigar Mfg. Co., called at the office and reported his belief that F. Ostendorff who conducts a restaurant at 1231 Market Street, this city, is connected with German propaganda interests.”

What had caused the suspicion?

“His belief is based chiefly on the fact that Ostendorff constructed an unusually large garage at Beach Haven on the Jersey coast, the size of the plant being entirely out of proportion to the small community it was to serve and that last summer his parents attempted to purchase some gasoline from this garage, but that the attendant would not sell them any and refused them admittance to the garage, saying ‘You can’t come in here.’”

What was going on in Beach Haven?

“He stated that an unusually large amount of machinery had been installed in this building. In view of the deep waterway behind the island where Beach Haven is located and the isolation of some parts of this locality, he conceives it possible that the submarine recently reported off the Jersey coast was constructed near this place, and thinks that perhaps a wireless plant is also operated there, the location not being far from the Tuckerton (Wireless) station.”

Over the next 18 months, federal agents would keep an open file on Ostendorff and monitor the activities of those living in the little Jersey Shore community.

In an effort to maintain support for the war, on May 10 the United States entered the propaganda business by starting its own newspaper.

“The OFFICIAL BULLETIN, of which this is the first issue, is designed to inform the public on the progress of the war and of official acts incident to its prosecution. It will be published daily by the Committee on Public Information.

“It is proposed to present in its columns all proclamations and Executive orders issued by the President … official bulletins and statements; statutes bearing on the war and their construction, and all other subjects related to the prosecution of the war, to which publicity may properly be given. … It will be conspicuously posted in all post offices, and the committee urges all libraries and other public or semipublic institutions receiving this publication to make it available to the public whenever possible.”

Attempts to fight the war with a volunteer army had failed to raise enough men, and Congress had authorized the use of conscription. On May 19, newspapers across the country carried Wilson’s next proclamation, setting June 5 as the big day.

“That all male persons between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, both inclusive, shall be subject to registration in accordance with regulations to be prescribed by the President; and upon proclamation by the President of other public notice given by him.”

The young men of the democracy were reminded by the president, “And any person who shall willfully fail or refuse to present himself for registration or to submit thereto as herein provided, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall, upon conviction in the district court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year, and shall thereupon be duly registered.”

Wilson concluded with “The power against which we are arrayed has sought to impose its will upon the world by force.

“The significance of this can not be overstated. It is a new thing in our history and a landmark in our progress. It is a new manner of accepting and vitalizing our duty to give ourselves with thoughtful devotion to the common purpose of us all. It is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling; it is rather selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass. … It is nothing less than the day upon which the manhood of the country shall step forward in one solid rank in defense of the ideals to which this Nation is consecrated.”

On the same day that the headlines announced the draft, a small article in the Asbury Park Press foreshadowed a major change for those living in New Jersey.

“32 Concentration Camps.

“It will be necessary to establish 32 concentration camps to take care of the 32 army divisions to be formed out of the national army and the National guard army. All camps for the National guard divisions will be in the southern, southeastern, and western departments of the army.”

Two days later the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a special notice.

“MOUNT HOLLY, N. J., May 21. - The appearance of Adjutant General Barber and two regular army officers here today proved to be a part of their trip to inspect several hundred acres of land in the vicinity of Wrightstown, Pointville and Juliustown for the purpose of picking out an available site for the mobilization of about 30,000 troops.

“The tract inspected today is said to include all or parts of about fifteen farms, accessible by good roads and right along a railroad. The site is about twelve miles from Mount Holly. Nothing is known as to the conclusions reached by the army men.”

On the 24th, the Official Bulletin told the nation how to prepare for the big day.

“Registration day should be celebrated as a consecration of the American people to service and to sacrifice. It should be a welcome to those registering. It should be a public expression by each community of willingness to surrender its sons to the country.

“It should be celebrated in a serious spirit and kept as registration day only.

“The celebration should be centered around the registration places, and those who register should be especially distinguished.

“The registration places should be decorated with the national colors and emblems.

“Bands should be played near the registration places, and the parades should make a feature of stopping thereat. The men of registration age should be the feature of the parades and should be escorted, where practicable, to the registration places with patriotic music by their kinsfolk, neighbors, and friends.”

As May 1917 was coming to an end, there were two lingering questions: would Americans voluntarily lineup to be drafted, and what was going on in the Pinelands of New Jersey?

Next Week: Resistance and seizure


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