Scared by the Government

Mar 5, 2018

German American John Meintz punished with tar and feathering during World War I.
Credit National Archives

In previous comments about Erik Kirschbaum's new book Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I, I considered how wartime Americans were taught to fear one another and how that fear short-circuited their powers of reason. I also spoke of the role the press played in fomenting that hatred.

This time, I want to take a look at the government's role. I have often thought that if a government can scare people enough, they will throw themselves at its feet. World War I provides compelling evidence for that conclusion.

I'll give you three examples. The first thing the government did during World War I was tell people what to think. Almost two weeks after President Wilson made his case for war before Congress on April 2, 1917, he established the Committee on Public Information to do the same thing for the American public. Heading the new agency was a Missouri journalist and Wilson campaign veteran named George Creel.

For the next two years, Creel's committee planted hundreds of articles in American newspapers defending the President's foreign policy, launched an army of so-called "Four Minute Men" to give short pro-war speeches wherever crowds gathered and promoted new names for common contributions German culture had made to American daily life. It was because of Creel's committee that Americans learned to call sauerkraut "liberty cabbage" and Dachshunds became "liberty hounds."

The American government did more than promote its own view, however. The second thing it did was clamp down on those who thought differently -- especially if they were German-Americans. Before the war, no fewer than 488 German-language newspapers called the United States their home. Collectively, they attracted an audience of more than 3 million. But as far as some Americans were concerned, they were all suspect. The Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 authorized the Post Office to demand English translations of anything sent through the mail. Though the act was more often used as a threat than a blunt instrument, it crushed America's German-language publishing industry, and by 1920, almost seventy percent of those newspapers had closed.

Finally, the third thing government did was punish people who didn't think the right way. Sometimes this involved government officials using the prestige of their offices to exert social pressure. James Gerard, Wilson's ambassador to Berlin, once predicted that if America's five hundred thousand German-Americans proved less than completely loyal, there would soon be five hundred thousand people hanging from American lampposts. At other times, the government flexed its lawmaking muscle. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 gave federal authorities the power to confiscate property from war opponents and, in some cases, to put them in jail.

If, like Germany, the United States had been an autocratic monarchy, it would be easy for us to shake our heads at these wartime excesses of power. But in a democratic republic, the government belongs to us, so when things like this happen, our hands aren't completely clean. And that leads me back to my point about governments scaring people into giving them more control. The policies I've described were popular at the time -- some people considered them essential. Why? Because the first thing Americans had done was let the government teach them what to fear.