On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared America’s entrance into the First World War and initiated a nation-wide drive to strengthen the armed forces. It was decided that the commemorations of Patriots’ Day on April 19 should coincide with a “Wake up America Day” of recruitment. Every city hosted its own parties and spectacles.
In New York City, festivities were organized with decorated floats, patriotic banners and a grand vaudeville at Carnegie Hall starring Will Rogers, Ethel Barrymore, and others. James Montgomery Flagg designed the posters announcing the event. Fifth Avenue hosted a parade, whilst Army and Navy planes dropped pamphlets encouraging the crowd to summon the “Spirit of 1776.”
The manifestation started with a parade that re-enacted Paul Revere’s legendary “Midnight Ride” in April 1775 to warn the colonial militia of approaching British forces. At midnight the bells at Trinity Church rang whilst, dressed as a Continental soldier, a young feminist named Jean Earle Moehle rode on horseback through Manhattan beckoning both men and women to “wake up” to the fight.
Despite America’s initial neutrality, the conflict was a headache for New York’s authorities. After recent mass arrivals, the city was largely populated by first- or second-generation European immigrants. With their former homelands at war, residents responded by either declaring allegiance to the “motherland” or by identifying with their adopted nation and engaging in debates regarding the morality of global war.
The arguments were taken outdoors. The fighting front may have been far away, but the battle raged on the streets of the city. The war sharpened the focus on issues of American and civic identity.
A City of Foreign Villages
New York had grown rapidly with different immigrant nationalities living in a network of small communities. By 1900, the metropolis consisted of multiple foreign “villages” with a population that included 300,000 Germans; 275,000 Irish; 155,000 Russians; 145,000 Italians; 117,000 Austro-Hungarians; 90,000 British; 30,000 Polish people and many other smaller groupings.
One of the most extensive communities was Little Germany (Klein Deutschland) in the Lower East Side where German banks, businesses, breweries and newspapers flourished. Little Italy (Piccola Italia) on Mulberry Street was likened to an insular Neapolitan village with its own language, customs and institutions.
By 1900 there were many other ethnic enclaves dotted around the city. Little Syria was centered on Washington and Rector streets. Its name derived from some 95,000 Arabs who had arrived from Ottoman controlled Greater Syria (covering what is now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) in the Great Migration between 1880 and the early 1920s. In 1892, the first American-Arabic language newspaper Kawkab America (Planet of America) was printed there.
Throughout the nineteenth century New York served as a financial hub for industrial growth and became the nation’s de facto cultural capital. It created a divided city. While Fifth Avenue and the Central Park district were monopolized by the elite, part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was stricken by poverty. New York’s political landscape became shaped by migration issues in which the Democratic Party and Tammany Hall dominated municipal government.
The loyalty of immigrants to the Democratic Party was born out of the perception that the city’s wealth was not shared, causing stark levels of inequality. The rule of oligarchs also caused the emergence of anarchist groups.
It was against this background of social unrest and militancy that New York City was drawn into the war in Europe.
The United States initially decided on neutrality for a number of reasons. It was generally expected that the “distant” war would not last long. Politicians agreed that the fragile status quo between communities with ancestral ties to either the Allied or the Central Powers should not be endangered as the war was bringing conflicting ties and allegiances to the fore.
The German-language New Yorker Staats-Zeitung extolled the virtues of the German Kaiser; the Yiddish socialist Forverts (Forward) explained the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo as a consequence of social repression; and the Gaelic American complained that Britain’s colonial rule forced Ireland into entering the war. Large crowds with divided loyalties gathered around newspaper offices in Times Square and Herald Square to learn the latest news from the battlefields.
Consulates encouraged patriotic support. Schemes were set up to raise money for war widows and orphans. German-American residents paraded down Fifth Avenue and queued to sign up. City authorities became increasingly concerned that New York’s diverse population could prove to be a tinderbox of a conflict that was ripping Europe apart. Demonstrations of sympathy towards any of the combatants were soon forbidden.
In spite of internal tensions, Woodrow Wilson’s decision not to get involved was shared by many. That consensus changed when both Germany and Britain started targeting enemy supply lines on the high seas. The British North Sea blockade annoyed politicians, but the German move towards “total” submarine warfare became intolerable once American ships were attacked and lives lost at sea.
Outrage was expressed after a German U-Boat torpedoed the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 civilians, 128 Americans among them.
Parades for and against military participation were held around the nation. Woodrow Wilson remained determined not to take sides. Why would a President who was of Ulster-Scottish descent and the son of a Presbyterian minister commit himself to a morally abhorrent conflict that might spill over into the streets of American cities? Why imperil an emerging economy that was heavily dependent on trade with the United Kingdom in particular, closely followed by Germany?
Former President Theodore Roosevelt by contrast advocated expanding the military in anticipation of a widening of hostilities, especially since Wilson’s appeals for peace talks and offers of mediation were ignored.
One effect of growing public anger was unease about New York City’s “American” identity. Addressing an audience at Carnegie Hall in October 1915, Roosevelt stated that “hyphenated Americanism” was no longer tolerable. His words instigated a period of chauvinistic jingoism, accompanied by a campaign of orchestrated propaganda that permeated the city.
With the formation of the Preparedness Movement in August 1915 and the concurrent rise of the National Security League (NSL: a quasi-paramilitary organization which campaigned for the assertion of “American” values), New York’s streets were closely observed by municipal and national authorities. The call for Americanization had a belligerent undertone intended to ensure law and order amongst a split population.
Americans started to doubt Wilson’s policy of “armed neutrality” and were getting ready for intervention. On May 13, 1916, a Preparedness Parade along Fifth Avenue was attended by an estimated 130,000 marchers who joined ranks behind a banner that proclaimed “Absolute and Unqualified Loyalty to our Country.”
The manifestation inspired Childe Hassam’s painting “Flags, Fifth Avenue.” An anti-German Francophile, the artist passionately backed the Allied cause.
Isolated incidents intensified the city’s febrile atmosphere. The Black Tom Island Explosion in New York Harbor on July 30, 1916, which destroyed a large ammunition depot, damaging the Statue of Liberty and buildings in downtown Manhattan, heightened the suspicion that German saboteurs were active in the city (although arrests were made, the culprits were never identified).
Americans & Traitors
Responding to recent news of the February Revolution in Russia, New York’s 95th Mayor John Purroy Mitchel stated in an address of March 1917 to a gathering of Russian-Americans that the city’s citizens should be divided in two classes: “Americans and traitors.”
In April 1917, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war. He cited Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare, its sabotage, and the revelation of the “Zimmermann Telegram” (an attempt by the German Foreign Office to recruit Mexico to attack the United States) as evidence of the nation’s hostile intent.
It was a pivotal moment. For the first time in the nation’s history, America joined a coalition to fight a war not on its own soil or of its own making.
The decision transformed life in New York City. All foreign-language publications were monitored; socialist and anarchist newspapers were censored or restricted. Vigilantes attacked people identified as “pro-German”; schools sacked German teachers; butchers no longer sold Frankfurters; orchestras stopped playing German masterpieces; the German American Bank was re-introduced as the Continental Bank of New York; and countless German-Americans changed their names to
demonstrate their loyalty.
Six weeks after formally entering the war, Congress passed the Selective Service Act which authorized the government to impose conscription. Men between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five were required to register for military service. The move was widely resisted. As the spectre of the 1863 Draft Riots haunted politicians, the process in New York (and elsewhere) was enforced by a heavy police presence, backed up by NSL volunteers.
Patriotism was tightly policed. Speaking out against the war meant risking prosecution, while posters whipped up emotions and encouraged subjects to enlist, conserve food, buy liberty bonds and keep on the lookout for foreign spies. The (intimidating) calls for loyalty raised the issue of citizenship, especially amongst African-Americans.
By supporting the government’s call many black leaders hoped to gain full citizenship, but others suspected that the war would lead to more injustice. In response to racist perpetrating the East St Louis Massacre, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and African-American Churches in Harlem conducted a Silent Parade on July 28, 1917, in which about 10,000 participants marched along Fifth Avenue.
Protesters carried banners and placards that alluded to a draft that demanded African-Americans to fight for freedom and democracy in Europe, whilst they themselves were not only deprived of representation and equal rights, but in danger of being assaulted or lynched.
Through conscription, the army grew in a relatively brief period from a constabulary force of some 300,000 troops to an American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of more than four million soldiers. These forces reflected the population’s ethnic and racial diversity.
The slogan “Americans All!” promoted wartime service as a unifying experience that rendered differences in language, culture and religion irrelevant – but race still mattered. The army-at-war remained rigidly segregated.
When American forces arrived in Europe, they quickly turned the tide in favor of Britain and France, leading to an Allied victory in November 1918. They had been engaged in six months of fighting at the cost of 53,000 lives. In addition, nearly 63,000 men died of disease, primarily from influenza (misnamed “the Spanish flu”), and 200,000 veterans returned home wounded.
The number of casualties weighed on Wilson’s conscience. It motivated him to support the creation of an international body based on collective security. Even though joining the League of Nations would require the United States to sacrifice a measure of sovereignty, the President was prepared to pay the price for the sake of peace.
His opponents declared it foolish to relinquish America’s newfound stature as a military super power. The toxic discussion on what later became known as “America First” has divided opinion ever since.
The marking of the Armistice in November 1918 was a moment that New Yorkers came together to celebrate their collective identity. Whereas in 1914, German-Americans had paraded down Fifth Avenue proclaiming their attachment both to the Fatherland and to the United States, now mobs of cheering citizens kicked effigies of the Kaiser through the city. The war had turned New Yorkers into “real” Americans.
Illustrations, from above: James Montgomery Flagg’s poster for “Wake up America Day,” April 19, 1917 (Library of Congress); detail of photo of Jean Earle Moehle (Möhle) dressed as Paul Revere at the “Wake up America Day” event in Manhattan (Library of Congress); Clifford Berryman’s cartoon showing President Wilson’s plea for neutrality in the First World War, published in the Evening Star, April 1915 (National Archives); Childe Hassam’s “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May),” 1916 (New-York Historical Society); A pier in Jersey City after the Black Tom Island munitions explosion (Library of Congress); the “Silent Parade” protest march in New York City on July 28, 1917 (New York Public Library); and a military parade in celebration of Armistice Day, New York, November 1918 (Getty Images).