Woodrow Wilson is at the helm of the US Government when World War I begins. At the time it was referred to as The Great War.
World War I breaks out in the summer of 1914 in Europe. We have a series of episodes coming out on WWI. We aren’t going to get too much into WWI in this episode, there is just too much to discuss. Be on the lookout for those episodes where we will be joined by a representative from the World War One museum.
But I would like for you to discuss how Wilson responds to the outbreak of WWI and ultimately why and how the US gets involved in the conflict
There is so much to discuss about WWI and I do just want to add on to what you discussed.
When the war broke out, the policy of the US was one of neutrality at first. This was not OUR fight. President Woodrow Wilson said at the time that the nation “must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.” Within the US we have a multitude of immigrant groups that each sided with different countries, so this is a divisive issue. At the start of the war the US was neutral, politically at least. Economically, one could make another argument. American factories mass produced goods for European countries. We are talking things like food, arms, steel, oil) Trade grew 7 times its prewar level. Economically, WWI is very good for the United States. Just to give you some numbers. In regards to trade with the Allies, in 1914, we did over $800 million in trade. By 1916, the year before the US entered the war, that number grew to 3.2 Billion. In terms of money loaned to Allied countries, by 1917 – it was 2.5 Billion. Now we also loaned money to the central powers, but much less (about 27 Million). For our listeners who LOVE Data… how do you like them apples? Economically, WWI was very good for the US.
Emily also mentioned the Election of 1916 earlier.
This is an interesting election. For Republicans, Woodrow Wilson was elected President because of a divide within their party. Republicans in 1912, had to choose between Taft and Roosevelt which allowed for Wilson, the Democratic candidate to win the election. Republicans put forth Charles Evans Hughes, who was an Associate Justice on The Supreme Court. He resigned in order to be able to run. Hughes was considered the favorite of the two candidates and even had the backing of former Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. Hughes' campaign slogan was "America First and America Efficient". For Woodrow Wilson. His campaign slogans were “America First” and “He kept us out of war”. While he was still pushing neutrality, he was also pushing a sense of military preparedness. The US needed to be ready if we were pulled into the conflict. His platform consisted of support for Women’s Suffrage, a peace keeping organization of nations (this would become the League of Nations which the US would never join, spoiler alert), an end to child labor. It was a close election but Wilson narrowly won.
By 1917, events like the sinking of the Lusitania, continued unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram made it impossible for the US to continue to remain neutral and so in April of 1917, the US declared war on Germany and we were involved in the great war. In his message to Congress, Wilson stated the following.“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted on the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. 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”
~ President Woodrow Wilson
Historians would have a field day dissecting that quote.
Again be on the lookout for our episodes on WWI coming out next!
But let’s get back to Wilson. During his second term, some of the most controversial laws of his Presidency were passed; the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918. Not since the Presidency of John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, had laws like these been passed.
The Espionage Act of 1917, was passed after the US declared War on Germany. The law allowed the Federal Government to arrest individuals whose opinions were a threat to National Security. It was now a crime to convey information that would interfere with the US military’s ability to defeat the Axis or Central Powers. The feeling was that anti-war sentiment would undermine the war effort. Just to give you an idea, the law also allowed the Postal Service to refuse to mail anti-war pamphlets.
The Sedition Act was passed as an amendment to the Espionage Act. The law prohibited certain forms of speech related to the war or the US military. It was illegal to incite disloyalty within the military; disloyalty to the government, the Constitution, the military, or the flag in spoken or written language; It was illegal to advocate strikes on labor production; illegal to promote principles that were in violation of the act; or support countries at war with the United States.
These laws were enforced with the help of the Bureau of Investigation under the Dept. of Justice. This dept was renamed the Federal Board of Investigation or the FBI in 1935.
Over 2000 people were prosecuted under these laws. Those that were convicted were either fined $10,000 or sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Two of the most well known Supreme Court cases that arose from these laws are:
Schenck vs. the United States (1919)
Charles Schenck, a member of the US Socialist Party, mailed 15,000 pamphlets urging men to avoid the draft. He was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act. It went to the Supreme Court. Schenk’s lawyers argued their client was merely exercising his Freedom of speech. The Court made a unanimous decision and in their ruling stated the following:
words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.
Debs vs. The United States (1919)
Eugene V. Debs was a leader of the labor movement, a socialist and a former Presidential Candidate. He was arrested for giving a speech defending anti-war protestors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison… he didn’t serve the full term. He served almost 3 years in prison before his sentence was commuted by President Harding.
Major issues are being dealt with during his Presidency amidst the Progressive Era.
Prohibition was passed during his Presidency. The Volstead Act banned the production, consumption and sale of Alcohol in The United States. We had an entire podcast episode devoted to the 18th Amendment, where we were joined by Travis from the National Prohibition Museum. If you haven’t heard it, definitely give it a listen!
Elizabeth Karcher is the Executive Director of the President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington DC. She is with us today and we are going to talk more a bit later on about his post-presidency life and the home the Wilson’s lived in as well as his death and burial, but I do want to take a few minutes with you to discuss the evolution of Wilson’s views on Suffrage. We have an entire podcast episode on the 19th amendment and that is the only reason we aren’t going in depth here.
Suffrage and the road it took to get there is such a complex and interesting topic, if you didn’t get a chance to listen to our episode on that, definitely carve out some time to do so.
In terms of major domestic issues Wilson had to deal with as President, One topic I want to make sure we discuss today, is the Great Influenza or The Spanish Flu. Andrew, can you talk about The Spanish Flu and how the US responded to it?
Yes, once a virus is out in the world it is out in the world. In the midst of fighting a World War that the President had hoped he could avoid getting involved in, the nation was waging another war. The Great Influenza or how it is most commonly known, the Spanish Flu or some countries referred to it as Pneumonic Influenza hit the world. As we know today, influenza which interestingly enough got its name from Italy in the 15th Century after an illness that was thought to have been “influenced by the stars” is a viral respiratory illness. In 1918, we didn’t know it was a virus, the thought was that it was caused by a bacteria and this will become important when I get to the vaccines that were developed for it in the hopes of ending the pandemic.
Now, why is it most commonly known as The Spanish Flu. It didn’t originate in Spain. Spain which unlike most European countries didn’t get involved in WWI, it remained neutral. The press in Spain reported on the Influenza pandemic in great detail where other countries didn’t cover it as much. Many governments ensured the press underreported numbers and downplayed the situation. In fact, many countries had censored the earliest reports of the illness within their borders. This led many people to think this was where it began. The truth is, there is no conclusive answer. Some point to the United States because of the group of soldiers who came down with a mystery illness at a Kansas military training camp at Camp Funston in March of 1918. There are known cases in Great Britain, France and Germany in April of 1918. Some point to the terrible and unsanitary conditions for soldiers fighting in the trenches in WWI. As soldiers moved, so did the disease. As more and more men were called to enlist in the military, people crammed in local enlistment offices, people crammed into trains, and ships, unloading passengers who would then spread the disease some more. A recipe for disaster. The numbers Andrew mentioned a few minutes ago are astounding. A true death toll isn’t really known. There are some estimates of 20 Million – 50 Million deaths worldwide. There are some that think 50 Million is still too conservative of a number and that the number is much higher. The disease had a 5% death rate. Like what we are experiencing with Covid 19, there were different waves of this illness. The Second wave was deadlier than the first. Not only were they seeing the most vulnerable die (the very old and the very young) they were also seeing young healthy men and women die. The symptoms were your typical flu symptoms for some people, fatigue, fever, sore throat, headache & cough. For others, it caused pneumonia, collapsed lungs, people’s skin became discolored turning black or blue. Death from this disease must have been incredibly painful. People essentially drowned in their own fluids.
It impacted so much of the population. There were even Children’s songs about the illness. This one is my favorite, “I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened up the window and in flew Enza.”
Not only did members of the First Family get the great influenza but even the sheep that grazed on the White House lawn became sick with it! Animal lovers fear not, the USDA took great care of the sheep and they were back on the White House lawn in about 2 months.
After a number of mutations, the strain became much milder and eventually, by 1920, the worst was behind us, the disease became more manageable and like Andrew mentioned, the strains of that influenza are still in circulation today!
“While at the Paris meetings the next April, Wilson came down with what the White House said was a cold but was either the infamous 1918 flu or another stroke which is what Elizabeth Karcher from Woodrow Wilson house felt it was. He had terrible coughing fits and spasms but the diagnosis was kept a secret. His illness impacted the peace talks.