APRIL 2, 1917: THE DRUMS OF A SENSELESS WAR
On the first day of April in 1917, a mob gathered in the streets of Baltimore. The provocation was not some injustice, some crime to be avenged, but the prospect of peace. Inside, the president of the World Peace Foundation stepped to a podium. A broad-shouldered man with a brimming white mustache, David Starr Jordan had barely begun speaking when the mob broke in.
As the audience watched in horror, the screaming horde stormed the stage. Jordan froze. Then the band -- there were always bands in those days -- struck up the "Star Spangled Banner." Patriots all, the men stopped, straightened, saluted. Before the audience could sing "home -- of the -- bra-aave," the president of the World Peace Foundation fled out the back door. The following evening, the nation went to war.
A century ago, America stepped to the edge of the modern world, peered into the carnage, and dove in. April 2, 1917 is not remembered with the reverence of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The war America entered that day, unlike World War II, is not "The Good War." Yet it was a romantic age when danger was called "peril,” courage was "gallantry," and dead soldiers "the fallen." And so America marched with flags waving into what historian Paul Fussell called "the full obscenity of the Great War."
The war had already claimed five million lives. Thousands each day were being mowed down by machine guns, choked by poison gas, shattered by shells. Men hunkered in muddy, rat-infested trenches, and after nearly three years, barely a yard of ground had given. "I see no end to it," a German doctor said after the Somme, a single battle that claimed one million lives. "It is the suicide of nations." Why were Americans suddenly itching to get "over there?"
April 2, 1917 was a dreary day in Washington, D.C. All afternoon rumors roamed the damp streets. A German army was said to be gathering on the Mexican border. Patriots were headed to the capital. Pacifists were already in the city. President Woodrow Wilson, just six months after winning re-election on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," was to address Congress that evening. Everyone knew his subject. It was all anyone talked about.
Eight weeks earlier, German U-boats had resumed open warfare in the North Atlantic. In a desperate gamble, Germany bet it could force surrender before an angry America could mobilize. Hundreds of ships, many flying American flags, were sunk without warning. Still, Wilson hesitated.
"Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war," he had cautioned in 1914. The following year, when the Lusitania was torpedoed, when Preparedness Parades marched, he still dreaded war. "Once lead this people into war and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance." Even as more ships were sunk, he stuck to his campaign pledge. "And so he is not going to fight at all!" the British prime minister said. "He is awaiting another insult before he actually draws the sword."
The insult came in a telegram. Intercepted in Mexico, the German telegram promised the return of "lost territory," aka the American Southwest, if Mexico would declare war on the U.S. Revealed in March 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram was the tipping point. Socialists might denounce the war as "a crime" waged for profit. Women and other pacifists might march. But the prevailing mood was summed up by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
On the afternoon of April 2, Lodge was confronted by pacifists in the halls of Congress. "Anyone who wants to go to war is a coward!" one shouted. The gray-haired Lodge, calling the man "a damned liar," decked him with a right to the jaw. Hours later, the president's limousine sped past crowds lining drizzly streets draped in bunting.
At 8:32 p.m., before both houses of Congress, all Supreme Court justices, and hundreds of invited guests, the president spoke. Hands trembling, he read the typed speech he had spent hours preparing. His baritone echoed across the hall. "...present German submarine warfare... a war against all nations... a challenge to all mankind… no quarrel with the German people... many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead..." But one phrase stood out. It would be headlined the next morning in the New York Times and chiseled into history.
Years later, after American troops broke the stalemate and helped win the war, after a German corporal of that war avenged it with further slaughter, after America's own stifling of self-rule in Iran, in Central America, in Chile... the phrase would haunt us. "The world must be made safe for democracy." But on April 2, 1917, the last evening of a romantic age, the first evening of the "American Century," the phrase rang true.
In the next few days, crowds gathered across the country, cheering, singing, sending their "boys" off to fight. Newspapers whipped up the frenzy. "Hope of Mankind in the Balance" (New York World). "A New Battle Cry for Freedom" (Springfield Republican). "Country on a March to Victory" (Cleveland Leader). Protest was crushed, German-Americans vilified and sometimes lynched, hundreds of dissenters jailed for speaking out. And after the full year it took to mobilize, America went to war.
In seven months of battle, 116,000 were killed and 200,000 wounded, a daily carnage exceeding every American war before or since. You can still read the fields of battle on monuments in small towns. Meuse-Argonne. Belleau-Wood. Saint-Mihiel. But the senseless slaughter of the Great War has been supplanted in modern memory by story after story from the Good War. The lessons of World War I, fought over tortured turf for reasons still obscure, are confined to history books. But Woodrow Wilson, a political science professor turned politician, already knew them.
After his speech, drained and damp-eyed, Wilson rode in silence back to the White House. He could scarcely believe the reaction he had aroused. Ovations. Shouts. One particular cheer, the Times noted, "so much from the heart that it sounded like a shouted prayer." Sitting with an aide in the Cabinet Room, Wilson shuddered for humanity. "Think of what it was they were applauding," he said. "My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that." Then, after lamenting "the utter futility of neutrality," he lowered his head and sobbed.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
-- "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
Wilfred Owen (killed in action Nov. 1918)