Even with his winning slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”, President Wilson felt the need to join the war with the Allies against the Central Powers. When the war broke out in Europe, popular opinion in the United States was that they were going to act neutral to the war. The United States stayed neutral exporting goods to European countries. But in February of 1915, Germany declared that all enemy shipping boats were to become target for their submarine attack. The justifiably believed that the United States was using commercial shipping to secretly send war-related supplies to England. When a German U-boat attacked the British liner Lusitania with American citizens on board, it sparked the interest and need for the United States’ involvement with the war. The First World War brought about many political changes in United States, including the restriction of rights for certain citizens.
With Germany’s continuous submarine warfare against all shipping boats, President Wilson broke off the diplomatic relations and declared war on the Central Powers. To gain acceptance from the American people for the measures, President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to promote the war. Through CPI, 100 million pamphlets, articles, and books were produced to explain the cause of the war. Also, Committee on Public Information used “Four Minute Men” which was comprised of 75,000 volunteers to give patriotic speeches before public shows to change people’s opposing minds and perspectives of war.
Compared to other wars the United States was involved in, such as the Civil War or the Spanish-American War, the volunteer rate for the military was extremely low. With a shortage of soldiers in the United States, the United States government introduced the Selective Service Act. This act made all American men aged between twenty-one and thirty-five to subject to being possibly drafted into the army through classification tests. Even though it was a mandatory draft system, the war was considered a moral crusade among Americans.
This led to many restrictions on civil liberties, particularly among the segment of the population that was German-American in origin. About 250,00o people had to register at their post offices and were forced to carry identification on them at all times. Some were even interred. J. Edgar Hoover handled these cases, and was not famous for his fairness. German commercial shipping crews caught in the U.S. or on U.S. property after the declaration of war were also imprisoned. Restrictions on teaching German were imposed, even in places famous for their German-speaking populations like Milwaukee. Socialists like Eugene Debbs were censored from mailing out their newspapers because of their pacifist and sometimes pro-German leanings.
Civil rights were unquestionably eroded during the course of the war. This led to the decline of many German-speaking communities, such as Milwaukee, not only because of legal requirements not to teach German, but also because of the pressure from people outside of their community against speaking it to prove their “Americanness”. Most of this community was loyal to the United States, and many served. They were still treated with suspicion, and some jailed, because they seemed to outsiders to be more aligned with the enemy solely because of language. People did not consider that these people themselves (or their ancestors) had left Germany for a reason. The political legacy of the war was that the established practice of interment was considered acceptable when World War II came around. In that case, many more German-Americans were interned, and Japanese Americans were also subject to forced imprisonment on a much larger scale. While the U.S. had good motivations for being in the war, its suspicions of enemy aliens and even its own citizens would set a precedent for what was to come.
“World War I, at Home and in the Trenches”. Wisconsin State Historical Society. Web.
Retrived from http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-037/?action=more_essay on 2/22/2013.