U.S. Declares War On Germany

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 272nd installment in the series.   

April 4, 1917: U.S. Declares War On Germany 

The first week of April 1917 brought the decisive turning point of the First World War, as the United States finally entered the war against Germany, although no one yet knew with what effect. Was America really prepared to expend her own blood and treasure on a scale anywhere approaching the sacrifices already made by both the Allies and Central Powers? Or would it be a mostly passive affair, with a division or two of American volunteers showing the flag while the U.S. government guaranteed a fresh round of loans (the Allies’ immediate concern anyway)? 

In fact the United States would adopt mass conscription and create a “real” European-style army of over four million men, more or less from scratch, all in a remarkably short amount of time. Entry into the First World War would bring about sweeping changes in American society, already experiencing strain from the war manufacturing boom and resulting inflation. Among other effects, the shift to a war footing brought with it the rapid expansion of the federal government, including unprecedented efforts to shape and monitor public opinion. 

No Recourse 

Following the expulsion of the German ambassador and public outrage over the Zimmermann Telegram, the sinking of a number of American merchant vessels by German submarines at last left President Woodrow Wilson with no recourse: America could endure further insults or fight. 

The commander-in-chief was doubtless aware that, between Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign and his own order to arm U.S. merchant ships, many people believed the two countries were already in a “virtual state of war,” as argued by sources as disparate as U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing and German quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff. When Wilson called his cabinet to discuss the situation on March 20, its members spoke unanimously in favor of war; the following day Wilson called Congress to meet on April 2, and there could be little doubt what he meant to do. 

By the time Congress convened, major newspapers had been beating the war drums for weeks, and the general climate was one of patriotic fervor. Wilson himself was jittery in the hours before the speech, according to his friend and confidante Colonel House, who wrote: “The president was apparently calm during the day, but, as a matter of fact, I could see signs of nervousness. Neither of us did anything except ‘Kill time’ until he was called to the Capitol.” 

An anonymous correspondent for the French magazine L’Illustration left behind this account of the preamble to the historic event, as both houses of Congress met to hear Wilson’s address: 

On that evening of April 2, 1917… the House was absolutely jammed. The public galleries had been courteously placed at the disposal of the ladies, and were tightly packed. The Press galleries, too, were overcrowded. Journalists had come from Texas and Alaska to witness the historic moment. Even the Senators’ seats were crowded: some Congressmen, having been authorized to bring their youngest children, were holding them in their arms and on their knees in order that they, too, might witness the great event. 

Finally, the austere figure of Wilson himself strode to the Speaker’s rostrum amid scenes of jubilation rare in that august chamber: 

Everybody was seated when, at 8:39 p.m., the usher announced: “The President of the United States!” At once, in a spontaneous movement, everyone rose, and the room was filled with an immense acclamation, one of those strange American acclamations that include bravoes, howling, and whistles, the latter being not, as in our country, a sign of contempt, but on the contrary a mark of admiration… From an inner pocket of his tail-coat, he pulled a few small sheets of paper on which people in the galleries could distinguish a small handwriting through their opera glasses. 

Beginning in a calm, even tone, Wilson reminded his listeners of the occasion of their last meeting: 

On the 3d of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the 1st day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. 

Germany was proceeding with its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare despite repeated objections and warnings from the United States government, along with numerous other neutral powers, who rejected this brutal new form of warfare on grounds of human decency as well as the laws of war. While the sinkings obviously entailed major financial losses for American shippers and exporters, Wilson was careful to emphasize the moral transgression: 

I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people can not be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations. 

Having painted Germany as what might nowadays be termed a “rogue state,” the president argued that the United States had no alternatives if it were to preserve the national honor: “There is one choice we can not make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.” 

Now, in the speech’s climactic passage, Wilson laid his request before Congress: 

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war. 

According to the same anonymous French correspondent, these final words triggered an outpouring of emotion: “The decisive words had now been pronounced… The whole assembly was on its feet. From its throats, an ardent and deep cry – similar to that uttered on August 3rd, 1914 by the French Chamber at the announcement of the German declaration of war – rose into the air… After that, every sentence of the presidential address was greeted by applause…”

Wilson hastened to emphasize that America’s fight was with the German government, not the German people, reflecting the widespread belief that the militarist, undemocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II had plunged the nation into war without consulting its subjects: “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval.” 

This assertion wasn’t just sugarcoating or empty public diplomacy, but a central tenet of the worldview which led Wilson to seek a declaration of war in the first place. Pointing to the apparent success of the recent Russian Revolution in establishing popular rule, Wilson sought to portray the war as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, civilization and barbarism. 

This rhetoric reflected his own ideals, but also just happened to foreshadow one of the most powerful propaganda strategies employed by the government, and its allies in the press and civil society, to motivate the American people during the war:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. 

Wilson ended his historic address, asking Congress to declare war for the fourth time in its history, on a charismatic note, at once humble and messianic, frightening and portentous: 

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. 

With these stirring words ringing in their ears, two days later, on April 4, 1917, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of war against Germany, by a margin of 82 to six (the six holdouts were an eclectic bunch, and included Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi, an isolationist and notorious racist; George Norris of Nebraska, a left-leaning Progressive Republican who blamed Wall Street for bringing on the war; and Robert LaFollette, the pacifist Republican from Wisconsin, who had opposed even arming merchant ships as a belligerent act, and also had a large number of German-American constituents). 

Two days after the Senate vote to declare war, on the morning of April 6, 1917 the United States House of Representatives also voted to declare war by a margin of 373 to 50. At 12:12 p.m. the war resolution returned to the Senate and was immediately forwarded to the White House, where Wilson signed it at 1:13 p.m. The United States was officially at war with Germany. 

“This Is A Great Day”

The reaction in the Allied powers to the U.S. declaration of war was understandably jubilant, as the world’s largest neutral country (possessing the world’s largest economy) finally swung into action after years of prevarication and delay. 

Mildred Aldrich, an American writer living in a small French village, recorded a typical reaction from a French soldier she had billeted, who wrote: 

Today’s paper brings us great and comforting news. At last, dear madame! At last your marvellous country is going to march beside us in this terrible war. With a full heart I present to you my heartiest congratulations… Here, in the army, the joy is tremendous at the idea that we have behind us the support of a nation so great, and all our admiration, all our gratitude goes out to your compatriots, to the citizens of the great Republic, which is going to enter voluntarily into this Holy War, and so bravely expose itself to its known horrors. Bravo! et vivent les Etats-Unis! 

In her diary entry on April 4, 1917, Aldrich noted: “This is a great day. The Stars and Stripes are flying at my gate, and they are flying over all France. What is more they will soon be flying--if they are not already—over Westminster, for the first time in history.” 

On the other side, the American declaration of war further depressed German morale, but the country had already seen off multiple comers. Furthermore chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief collaborator, Erich Ludendorff, remained convinced that the U.S. contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly financial, and German newspapers reassured the public accordingly (of course not everyone shared their confidence). One German junior officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled the general attitude at the time, as well as the skepticism of the more cosmopolitan industrial elite: 

In April 1917 the U.S. Congress declared war, but the German people were not too frightened. We knew the Americans had a small army and navy and we could not see how these forces could influence the war’s events. It would take years for them to mobilize and by that time the war would be over. The average German knew very little about American history, and while thinking about American soldiers, he visualized an army of cowboys appearing on the battlefield with their funny hats and lassos, like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Surely they would not amount to much on the Western Front. But some educated people, especially those in north Germany who knew the United States well, now feared it might be impossible to win. 

Another German officer, Herbert Sulzbach, confided his worries in his diary: “State of war with America. You feel pretty dubious when you consider that this huge, rich country is now going to furnish active support – both troops and equipment – to the British and French. The economic position at home doesn’t seem to look too rosy any more either. But we have to stick it out and win through to a victorious finish.” On April 15 the German government cut the daily bread ration from 1800 grams to 1350 grams (or from four pounds to three pounds) per person per week. 

The APL and CPI

The large margin in the House of Representatives is a fairly safe indication that the measure was broadly popular with the American public at the time, but there were still considerable resistance to U.S. intervention continuing after the declaration of war, including from socialists, pacifist religious groups like the Quakers, some women’s suffrage activists, and various German-American groups. At the same time U.S. entry into the war emboldened hyper-patriotic Americans who had long questioned the loyalty of untrustworthy elements, including immigrants and socialists, and now set out to protect the war effort from saboteurs and troublemakers in their midst.

On March 22, 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago ad exec, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. 

The APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members. Other groups with similar agendas included the National Security League and American Defense Society. The country got its first taste of the new nativism on April 5, when pro-war rioters broke up a meeting of the American Union Against Militarism, a socialist group.

The propaganda counterpart of the APL was the Committee for Public Information (CPI), established by Wilson on April 14, 1917 in order to promote awareness of the reasons for America’s entry into the war, generate support for the war effort, and disseminate information about how ordinary Americans can contribute. 

Led by journalist George Creel, the CPI quickly grew into a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine, using every means available to persuade Americans that the war was just and discredit its opponents. Media employed by the CPI included posters, books, pamphlets, movies, gramophone records, music, live theater, and “spoken word,” including the famous “four-minute men,” an army of 75,000 speakers who could deliver a carefully rehearsed speech in favor of some aspect of the U.S. war effort in any public setting (a powerful tool before the widespread adoption of radio). 

One of the main goals of the CPI was inducing compliance with the draft; it would go on to play a key role raising awareness of the “Liberty Loan” public bond sales and convincing Americans to put their savings at the disposal of the war effort, as well as defending unpopular measures like rationing. 

Although propaganda doubtless played a role in shaping public opinion, America’s patriotic fervor was real and widespread. A classic cultural artifact of the era is the song “Over There,” penned by George M. Cohan in a few hours on April 7, 1917, with lyrics concluding:

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware -

We'll be over, we're coming over,

And we won't come back till it’s over, over there. 

 See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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