Narrator: On the evening of April 2nd, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith left the Capitol and headed to the White House. Only moments earlier, Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
A. Scott Berg, Writer: It was the greatest applause Wilson had heard in his years in office. After the speech, he and his wife go back to the White House. Wilson goes into his office. And he puts his head down on the table and he weeps. And one of the men on his staff said, but Mr. President, what, what are you, what are you crying about? I mean you just had this incredible response in Congress. He said, can you imagine people applauding my asking to bring us into war? And with that he put his head down and sobbed again.
Narrator: A shaken Wilson had to confront the fact that, after struggling for nearly three years to keep America out of the Great War, he had now committed his nation to a conflict that had already left millions dead.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: We know from the record that Wilson was filled with anxieties about what he understood that he was asking the country to get itself in for he knew that he was asking the country to sacrifice in ways it had never done before, for a purpose that was not all terribly well defined.
Narrator: In his speech to Congress, the president had proclaimed that German aggression was “a challenge to all mankind.” “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he said. “We shall . . . bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
Alan Axelrod, Writer: America was unique in the war because it was not fighting for survival; it was fighting for an idea. And Wilson’s idea was to preserve, develop, defend a way of government and, it was hoped, spread that way of government to the world.
Chad Williams, Historian: Woodrow Wilson was fighting for this ideal of democracy on a global scale. But what will it mean to fight a war on largely ideological grounds? How do you rally a very divided country behind that?
Get in Line
Narrator: Americans began to notice the posters almost overnight. Within weeks they were everywhere — plastered on buildings and displayed in trolley cars, hung in the windows of restaurants and in barbershops. America was suddenly at war and the message was inescapable: Loyal citizens were expected to do everything they could to support Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy. The campaign was the handiwork of a former journalist from Missouri, George Creel, who had helped Wilson retain the White House in 1916, using the campaign slogan: “He Kept Us Out of War.” Now, only a week after the declaration, Wilson turned to Creel to convince Americans to get behind the war as quickly as possible. “It was a plain publicity proposition,” Creel recalled, “a vast enterprise in salesmanship.” Wilson needed Creel’s help. Despite his eloquent call for intervention, the president knew the nation was deeply divided about the conflict. Fifty members of the House and six Senators had voted against the war resolution. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, argued that Americans opposed the war by a margin of 10-1. The Socialist Party of America, under its leader, Eugene Debs, denounced the struggle as “a crime against the people of the United States.”
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Eugene Debs was an unyielding spokesman for working class and labor concerns. He also strongly opposed the U.S. entry into the war. He believed that workers of the world had more in common with each other than they did with the ruling parties of the nations that were at war.
Narrator: Further fueling opposition, Wilson was making plans to institute a draft. In response, the anarchist Emma Goldman founded the “No-Conscription League” and organized protests all across the country.
Nancy K. Bristow, Historian: The idea of the draft is very controversial. The idea that the government can call on you or call on you to give up your son to go put their life on the line is absolutely counter to the notion of American individualism or what an American democracy looks like.
Narrator: Facing such determined opposition, Wilson and Creel conceived of a plan to galvanize support for the war.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: Creel was a pioneer, you might say in the field of public relations. And then Wilson appoints him the head of something called the Committee on Public Information, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is essentially the U.S. government’s agency for propaganda.
Narrator: Creel was a passionate believer in the rightness of the president’s cause, and he saw it as his mission to educate Americans about the war’s enlightened aims. His Committee on Public Information, the CPI, began in tiny quarters, but was soon bursting at the seams. The Division of Pictorial Publicity featured posters painted by famous illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson that portrayed the war as a heroic fight for democracy and freedom. Pamphlets called “Loyalty Leaflets” and the “Red, White and Blue” series, were printed by the millions in fourteen different languages, explaining the principles the country was fighting for in simple terms that every American could understand.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Wilson is asking the American people to make the world safe for democracy. Germany had become a symbol of autocracy, of violence, of un-freedom that needed to be destroyed.
Narrator: “It was [a] fight for the minds of men . . .” Creel recalled “and moral verdicts took on all the value of military decisions.”
Alan Axelrod, Writer: Creel saw his problem as transforming the American people into one white hot mass of enthusiasm for the war and the CPI went from a bureaucracy of one person to an army of about a hundred thousand people in the space of a couple of months.
Narrator: Creel’s propaganda campaign was a mix of inspired improvisation and disciplined commitment to the government’s message. For Woodrow Wilson, however, it wasn’t enough. He had long argued for a law that gave him the power to penalize disloyalty and root out subversion wherever it could be found. On June 15th, he got his wish. Congress passed the Espionage Act, an unprecedented measure that made it a crime to “collect, record, publish or communicate” information that might be useful to the enemy.
Richard Rubin, Writer: The Espionage Act was passed ostensibly to prevent espionage but really it clamped down on dissent. It was used to battle any kind of antiwar vocalization. Wilson was a very complicated man. On the one hand he was a professor, he was a devotee of the constitution; at the same time he was a very proud, some might say egotistical man, and from the moment America entered the war he identified the cause of the war with himself. And he absolutely would not tolerate any dissent from anybody.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: It’s really kind of amazing how quickly the public mood changed from skepticism, reluctance, opposition to war to big majorities were full-throatedly in favor of the war. It didn’t just happen spontaneously. The government went about the business of deliberately cultivating enthusiasm for the war and deliberately suppressing any negative voices.
Narrator: The flood of propaganda and the power of the Espionage Act sent an unmistakable message to the American public: The time for open debate was over; the country was now on a war footing and every citizen was expected to get in line.
Narrator: On the morning of June 13th, 1917, the steamship Invicta was brought up to the pier at the French port of Boulogne. Standing at the rail was the commander of the American Army, General John Pershing. He had come to France to give a symbolic boost to America’s new allies, and find out for himself the status of the European war. Pershing was a tall, ramrod-straight career officer with a lantern jaw and manicured moustache; one reporter wrote that “no man ever looked more the ordained leader of fighting men.”
Richard Rubin, Writer: If you had a song, a World War I song, and you wanted it to sell, the surest way to make sure it did was to find a way to put General Pershing’s face on the cover of the sheet music. Pershing was made to sell a war. He was a man that the mothers and wives of soldiers, somehow felt that they could trust with their boys.
Narrator: As a young officer, Pershing had served in the West, leading the African-American 10th Cavalry. He had gone on to distinguish himself in heavy fighting during the Spanish-American War and in the jungles of the Philippines. Then, his expedition to hunt down the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had made Pershing front-page news. But only two years before his arrival in France his world came crashing down.
Andrew Carroll, Writer: In August of 1915, his little girls and beautiful wife all perished in a house fire. To have your whole family wiped out in one fire is just so heartbreaking and horrific. In the consequence of such a breathtaking loss, I think he almost found solace in focusing on this extraordinary mission to win the war.
Narrator: Pershing was a strict disciplinarian, and quick to fire subordinates who failed to measure up to his exacting standards. He worried about the welfare of his men, but never cultivated their affection. When he received his commission he was given command of the entire American army. Not since Ulysses S. Grant was made Supreme commander during the Civil War, had any general been given such sweeping power. But when Pershing had met with the president, Wilson hadn’t offered any vision for the conduct of the war. “I have every confidence that you will succeed,” was all he told his general. Pershing, however, was deeply worried. For nearly three years, as the United States stood on the sidelines, the warring nations of Europe had battered themselves relentlessly. In 1914, the Germans invaded France, through neutral Belgium, only to be stopped by the French and their allies, the British. Both sides dug networks of trenches that soon stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Then they proceeded to hammer away at each other, gaining little ground and suffering casualties in the millions. To the east, Germany and her ally, Austria-Hungary, flung themselves against Russia’s huge armies, and by 1917, Russia seemed on the brink of collapse. Into this continent in chaos, Pershing would have to lead his American Expeditionary Forces. Privately, Pershing knew that no one in America’s military establishment had ever contemplated the immense task of training and then transporting a huge army across the Atlantic. There was no plan, no organization, no equipment.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: When Wilson declares war, the total armed trained force of the United States is less than a quarter of a million men. The British Army loses more than that in one battle.
Jay Winter, Historian: There was no reason to believe from past history that the United States could build up a military that fast. Arm them, train them, equip them and get them across. The Germans were persuaded that the United States could not do it.
Narrator: When Pershing arrived in Paris he was greeted with a tremendous outpouring of emotion from the war-weary French. After a round of social engagements and ceremonial visits, he met with French commander-in-chief Philippe Pétain, and the mood turned somber. On June 16th, Pershing was taken on a tour of the front, and the magnitude of the Allies’ predicament quickly became clear. Already, the French had lost nearly a million men. British losses approached 350,000. Exhausted by the unending slaughter, tens of thousands of French soldiers had mutinied and refused to fight. Only the execution of their ringleaders, Pétain’s promotion to commander-in-chief, and his assurances of better treatment for the men, prevented the army from total collapse. When asked about his strategy, all Petain would say was “I am waiting for . . . the Americans.” With their own armies on the brink of collapse, French and British officers argued that without Pershing’s troops the war would be lost.
Richard Rubin, Writer: Pershing resisted a tremendous amount of pressure to just hand over American troops to French and British command. He didn’t like the way that they’d been waging the war up to that point. He didn’t care for trench warfare. He thought the whole thing was a big mess that was going nowhere.
Narrator: Behind Pershing’s intransigence was a direct order from the president of the United States. Woodrow Wilson wanted an army that would receive full credit for its victories on the battlefield. He insisted that American troops operate independently from the British and the French.
Jay Winter, Historian: The American army had to have a major and independent role because Wilson wanted to have, after the war, a major and independent role in the peace. The United States was the new power, it was the future.
Narrator: As his tour of the front lines came to an end, Pershing dispatched a cable that sent shockwaves through Washington. He believed he would need a million men in France, perhaps as many as three million. And he estimated it would take almost a year to get them there. As he pondered the harsh realities of the war on the Western Front, and the immense challenge of bringing American troops to the battlefield, Pershing was reminded of what Pétain had said when he first arrived — “I hope it is not too late.”
Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run;
Hear them calling you and me;
Every son of liberty
Richard Rubin, Writer: The song, “Over There” quickly became the anthem of the war. It was a very important part of Americans making peace with the fact that they had to go to war.
Make your mother proud of you;
And the old red, white and blue.
Richard Rubin, Writer: It’s a song whose lyrics and rhythm combine to get you up out of your chair, and want to go out and do something great.
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: Everybody around me was going crazy about the war. I [had] as bad a case of war fever as the next fellow. Worse probably. Because when America went into the war I’d made up my mind that for once I was going to do the same thing everybody else was doing.
Song: And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
Narrator: John Barkley was just one of tens of thousands of men responding to the Wilson Administration’s call for soldiers. He had grown up fishing and hunting along Scalybark Creek in the rough farm country of western Missouri, and claimed his skills as a frontiersman could be traced back to his distant ancestor, Daniel Boone. Barkley was swept up in the enthusiasm for the war, but the reality was, he had little choice in the matter.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: In order to just enter the war at all, the United States has to raise, from nothing, an army of millions, but they can’t rely on volunteering because it just would take too long so they realized they needed to have some kind of draft.
Jennifer D. Keene, Historian: The idea of the draft was controversial in the very beginning because the draft implies that men don't want to fight this war and you're forcing the country to fight.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: There’d only been a draft one prior time in American history, in the Civil War, and it did not go well. There were anti-draft riots in the North during the Civil War, Wilson was very self-conscious about that.
Jennifer D. Keene, Historian: Wilson has a big sales job that he has to make about conscription. And so he doesn't call it conscription and he doesn't call it the draft. What does he call it? He calls it Selective Service.
Narrator: Wilson’s plan was designed to tap into the nation’s spirit of volunteerism. Men like Barkley were urged to register and the government would then select who would serve and who would remain exempt.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: The whole system traded on the idea that we the government are simply facilitating volunteering. This idea that there is something noble and patriotic about service and that’s the emotion we are going to mobilize to get people to do their duty even against their will.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: Even though the government is reaching in and pulling Johnny out of the living room and putting him into uniform it seems like they had volunteered to be drafted.
Narrator: On June 5th, 1917, nine and a half million American men, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Great Falls, Minnesota, from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Chinatown — marched into city halls and county courthouses to register for the draft. Each man filled out a registration card, noting his occupation, and his place of birth. At the bottom, the instructions read: “If person is of African descent, tear off this corner.” The first step in the creation of a strictly segregated army.
Chad Williams, Historian: African American troops were very explicitly seen as a problem. That’s how they were described by the War Department, the problem of black officers.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: A Senator from Mississippi, I think correctly, says once you draft a negro man and give him a gun and tell him to fight with it, it's one short step for him thinking that he should fight for his rights at home.
Narrator: Although millions registered, not everyone agreed to serve in the new American Army. On his draft card under the question “Do you claim exemption from draft?” Alvin C. York wrote, “Yes, don’t want to fight.” Another man was even more direct, asserting that war was “murder.” In the end, 64,000 men claimed exemptions as conscientious objectors. More than three million others, known as slackers, evaded the call to arms altogether. The resistance did nothing to stop the Wilson administration’s plans. On July 20th, a crowd of dignitaries and journalists filled a hearing room in the Senate Office Building. As the newsreel cameras rolled, the first draft of the Great War began. By the end of day, more than 680,000 men had been selected.
Edward A. Gutiérrez, Historian: The composition of draftees is as mixed as America. Poles, Scandinavians, Germans. There are African-American soldiers, Native American soldiers, Latino soldiers. There are Mexican-Americans from New Mexico and Texas — Tejanos — and, also, Puerto Ricans.
Narrator: José de la Luz Sáenz, a schoolteacher from Realitos, Texas, was not called up in the first round of the draft, but he tried to enlist anyway.
Voice: José de la Luz Sáenz: I was hungry for adventure and accustomed to hard times. I welcomed anything…I knew that in the midst of the ruinous world war it was necessary to show everyone that I was a true representative of our people.
Narrator: John Lewis Barkley was told to report to Camp Funston, in northeastern Kansas.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: I didn’t have many good-bys [sic] to say. There were my dogs, and my old horse (Charley), and my family, and a girl . . . Just before leaving for camp I got really engaged to my girl, with a ring and everything . . . It was the most important thing that had ever happened to me. Except getting in the army.
Narrator: In the face of determined opposition, Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in laying the groundwork for the biggest armed force the United States had ever seen. And yet, Wilson knew that millions of men in uniform alone would not be enough to bring America’s power to bear on the conflict. “It is not an army that we must shape and train for war,” he proclaimed, “It is a nation.”
Selling the War
“Let’s All Be Americans Now”
Now is the time,
to fall in line;
You swore that you would,
so be true to your vow:
Let’s all be Americans now!
Narrator: Not since the arrival of the Ringling Brothers Circus could New Yorkers remember so many elephants marching down Fifth Avenue. They were part of a huge rally to sell Liberty Bonds, an innovation created to get the American public to not only support the war, but to invest in it too. In charge of selling these new bonds was George Creel, and his Committee on Public Information.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Liberty Bond drives opened up a fire-hose of propaganda. The CPI mobilized movie stars for the Liberty Loan message. Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, all of the greatest stars of their day. Celebrity culture is just starting to emerge, and they can turn out crowds, and those crowds then become some of the biggest rallies that you see on the home front during the war.
Narrator: Hollywood studios were also happy to help, staging one of their war pictures in New York’s Van Cortlandt Park. Theaters across the country showed films like “The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin,” “The Prussian Cur,” and “The Claws of the Hun.” Creel even found a way to push his message when the movie screens were dark.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: In between every reel of film, there was a four-minute break when the projectionist had to change the reels. Somewhere along the way, someone at the CPI hit on the idea that this was a perfectly captive audience for the delivery of the war message.
Narrator: Night after night, prominent members of the local community would stand up and deliver short patriotic speeches. They became known as the “Four-Minute Men,” and what began in movie theaters quickly spread to any venue where an audience assembled. In New York, Creel’s volunteer army addressed half a million people each week. Ten men gave talks in Yiddish, seven in Italian. President Wilson himself gave a Four-Minute speech.
A. Scott Berg, Writer: These four-minute men would give a talk on some aspect of Americanism — why we are fighting, what are the principles we’re fighting for?
Narrator: The appearance of spontaneity masked a carefully scripted government message. “These were no haphazard talks by nondescripts,” Creel insisted, “but the careful, studied, and rehearsed efforts of the best men in each community, each speech aimed as a rifle is aimed, and driving to its mark with the precision of a bullet.”
Alan Axelrod, Writer: They were guided by a central authority, but always in the own words of the individual giving the speech and he was usually a person who was known in the community. He was not saying this is what the government says. He was saying I’m an intelligent person, successful person, this is what I think, you should think this way too.
Jennifer D. Keene, Historian: The federal government figures out ways to come to you. Want to watch a movie? Up pops a Four-Minute Man to give you a little speech about the war. Go to the county fair? As you’re walking in, somebody comes up to you, “Would you like to subscribe to war bond?” Go to work, you’re going to have to agree to donate a portion of your paycheck to buying a war stamp. There are a myriad of ways in which the federal government inserts this propaganda into your daily life. It’s impossible to escape from it.
Narrator: The success of the first round of the draft presented the Wilson administration with a problem. They had nowhere to put their new soldiers. In the summer of 1917, the government embarked on a crash program to build sixteen Army compounds that would accommodate up to a half million draftees from every corner of the country. Camp Funston was carved out of a meadow in just five months. It encompassed 3,000 buildings sprawling over 2,000 acres, mostly two-story barracks, but also a library, hospitals, an arcade filled with stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and the biggest pool hall in the state of Kansas. John Barkley and his fellow recruits had little time to enjoy the amenities.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: Camp Funston was a dismal place . . . They started us out at once on close order drill and calisthenics, and they gave it to us on a fourteen-hour-a-day schedule . . . I didn’t mind the drilling half as much as I did the monotony.
Narrator: Barkley found himself surrounded by a babel of strange accents, exotic languages, and alien customs.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: The bunks were only a few inches apart, and there was a Mexican in the one next to mine. He was pretty sick, but he never complained, and I got to like him.
Edward A. Gutiérrez, Historian: While the army is segregated for African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans are still seen as white. So they’re included with the rest of the white soldiers.
Richard Rubin, Writer: Before this time most Americans associated only with people who were just like them in terms of background. But all of a sudden you’ve got this National Army and people don’t have the luxury or the liberty of sticking to their own kind anymore.
Narrator: No place typified the teeming diversity of the new army like Camp Upton on Long Island. It received thousands of men from what was known as the Metropolitan Division, all drawn from the streets of New York.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: It’s also called the Melting Pot division, Statue of Liberty division, it’s said that the enlisted men speak 42 different languages not counting English.
Narrator: The officers came from the city’s upper class, including Wall Street lawyers, prominent businessmen, and members of the political elite.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: These guys are dealing with the ghetto rats, the Italians from Little Italy, the Jewish tailors and pants pressers from the Lower East Side, the Chinese from Chinatown and they’re supposed to not only make them into soldiers, they’re supposed to make them Americans.
Narrator: In the decades leading up to the Great War, as many as 23 million immigrants had poured into the United States. By 1917, a third of Americans had been born in a foreign land, or had a parent who had emigrated from abroad.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: This was a moment of massive immigration in our society and there were lots of questions in the air about just how well could this society absorb immigrants on this scale. Some people saw mobilization for the war as a way to accelerate their assimilation.
Narrator: “This process will be going on for weeks,” The New York Sun declared, “[and] Uncle Sam . . . will have accomplished the biggest part of [his] task . . . welding a great national army from . . . this tremendous melting pot at Camp Upton.”
David M. Kennedy, Historian: Some of the officers used to say that a shared military service, sharing the same pup tent, would yank the hyphen out of all these immigrant communities. That was the phrase that they used. So they would no longer be Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans, they’d just be plain old Americans.
Narrator: “This will be the greatest army of them all,” The Sun boasted, “Millionaires bunk next to lads from the East Side, and they both like it and men who were earning $25,000 a year on Wall Street lock arms with boys who used to make their 18 a week, and sing their hearts out. Tell me they won’t make soldiers! Just watch ’em.”
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: If you look at the American army in 1917, you see young men from all these different countries around the world, [including] immigrants from the countries against which the United States is now fighting. For many during the war the hyphen became the real enemy, it was the sign of divided loyalties and the sign of an obstacle to American national unity. The real challenge, of course, is for people whose ancestors came from Germany.
Narrator: Immediately after the US had declared war, local governments, civic organizations, and even ordinary citizens began an attack on German Americans and their culture.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: There are children who are instructed by their teachers to cut German songs out of the music books that they use in their classrooms. There is a public stein-breaking fest at one point, to keep people from drinking German beer. There’s even, in one town in Ohio, a really gruesome slaughter of German dog breeds. But it’s important not to let these ridiculous stories overshadow what is really a wholesale destruction of an ethnic culture in the United States.
Richard Rubin, Writer: Germans were pressured to stop playing German music, to stop going to German plays. And when I say Germans, I mean German-Americans whose ancestors might have been in this country since before the revolution.
Narrator: The anti-German hysteria even extended to the federal government. The CPI published an article with tips on how to identify people who were pro-German. The president issued a decree that made any German living in the United States register as an “enemy alien.” Almost 500,000 men and women were photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated about their loyalty to the United States. The program was administered by a 22-year old member of the Department of Justice, J. Edgar Hoover. By the fall, a new series of camps capable of housing thousands of people had sprung up — in Utah, Georgia and North Carolina — not to train new recruits but to imprison anyone that the government considered a threat to its security.
Richard Rubin, Writer: There was tremendous pressure on new immigrants to conform, to have American flags, to sing American songs; we welcomed you here, now you’re here, you're with us and you're only with us.
Harlem Hellfighters — Part One
Narrator: While newly drafted soldiers stabbed dummies with bayonets in camps all across the country, another group of recruits practiced their drill steps on the streets of Harlem. The African-American Fifteenth National Guard was mustered into service in July of 1917. Community leaders in Harlem had lobbied for the creation of an all-black regiment for years.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: [They] petitioned the state legislature of New York. The legislature comes back and says okay, but you have to raise the money to equip the unit, and you also have to accept white officers.
Narrator: A prominent lawyer named William Hayward took command, and set about recruiting to get the regiment up to full strength.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: Hayward wasn’t going to be able to command any other regiment, that’s for sure. And, in fact, many of the officers, in the 15th New York who were white could not get high-ranking officer positions in other units. The 15th was this, sort of, place of last resort for many of these rich, white men.
Narrator: The New York Fifteenth was forced to beg for equipment from other units, and train in the backyards and empty lots of Harlem. Still, the regiment was able to attract some of the black community’s prominent athletes and entertainers, including the celebrated rag-time conductor and band-leader James Reese Europe.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: James Reese Europe is an eminent musician in New York. Starts an orchestra that’s the first black orchestra to play at Carnegie Hall. When the 15th New York National Guard is formed, though, he decides that he wants to join for the same reason that a number of African-American men joined. They see it as this potent symbol of African-American manhood.
Voice: James Reese Europe: Our race will never amount to anything . . . unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community. . . it will build up the moral and physical negro manhood of Harlem. But to accomplish these results, the best . . . men in the community must get in the move.
Narrator: Europe convinced his writing partner Noble Sissle to enlist. When Hayward asked them to form a regimental band, the two took up the challenge.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: The band is just huge. Europe argues for at minimum, 40 men, I think gets a few more than that. Realizes that he needs a stronger wind section, so goes down to Puerto Rico and recruits Afro-Puerto Rican clarinetists mostly, but trombone players as well. So he’s got this crazy, super American mix of the black diaspora. Spanish speakers, English speakers, folks with a nutty southern dialect, all wrapped up.
Narrator: Wilson’s declaration of war brought a new urgency to the New York Fifteenth’s mission. By the summer of 1917, Noble Sissle watched as the regiment began to attract recruits in record numbers.
Voice: Noble Sissle: Our . . . daily procedure was to put the band on top of the bus and ride down in a colored section. Then we would start the band playing the ‘Memphis Blues’. . . once we got the bus crowded we would make a 'bee line' for the recruiting office…A pen put in their hands…. and before they were aware of what was going on, . . . they had raised their right hand and found themselves jazz time members of Uncle Samuels army.
Narrator: Young African-American men from all across the country were drawn to the new unit from Harlem: Henry Johnson was a baggage-handler from Albany; Needham Roberts, a drugstore clerk from Trenton; Leroy Johnston, a minister’s son from Arkansas.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: When Wilson frames the war as a war for Democracy, he offers up something that seems to promise for African-Americans expanded possibility. They go into the war thinking if we demonstrate that we are capable, that we have this ability, the country won’t be able to help but redeem their promise to us.
Narrator: Faith in Wilson’s assurances, however, were hard to reconcile with the brutal reality of race relations in America.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: New York was a segregated city. Blacks have no political power. So [some Blacks are] saying, why should we be fighting for this nation and these you know white people who are oppressing us?
Narrator: The situation in the Jim Crow South was even worse: a toxic mixture of rigid segregation, and almost daily episodes of racially motivated brutality. In July, in East St. Louis, Illinois, an exchange of gunfire between blacks and local police provoked an explosion of mob violence that reduced entire black neighborhoods to ashes and left hundreds of men, women and children dead. Seven weeks later, a battalion of black troops stationed outside Houston encountered a campaign of harassment and violence from local whites. They responded by marching into the city and engaging in a pitched battle with local police.
Chad Williams, Historian: This was the worst fears of white southerners come true. A group of black soldiers taking up arms and killing white people. There was a hasty trial. 13 soldiers were executed without the opportunity to appeal their convictions. And they very quickly became martyrs.
Narrator: Throughout the summer of bloodshed, the president said nothing.
A. Scott Berg, Writer: Woodrow Wilson grew up in the south. By any measure Woodrow Wilson was a racist. He introduced Jim Crow to Washington, D.C. At a time when it was just starting to loosen up, he brought it back and it became for all intents and purposes the law of the land.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: Wilson is so disappointing. Because on the one hand he’s got this abstract vision of a more just world that has all of this potential and possibility in it. And then on the flip side, for all of his big ideals, he is such a narrow-hearted little man.
Narrator: Angered by Wilson’s refusal to speak out against the violence, 8,000 demonstrators conducted a “Silent Protest Parade” down Fifth Avenue. They marched to the sound of muffled drums, carrying signs that read: “Mother, Do Lynchers Go to Heaven?” and “Mr. President, Why Not Make America Safe for Democracy?” In the midst of this atmosphere of racial violence and protest, the men of Harlem’s Fifteenth were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina to receive their final training before shipping out to France.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: They show up in Spartanburg a month after black soldiers in Houston had marched on the town. And so the folks of South Carolina are determined to make sure that this particular set of black soldiers, Yankees, come down, right, stay in their place. And the military leadership is incredibly jittery. They don’t want another Houston on their hands.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: For a couple of weeks, they walk the edge of possible violence in the town. They manage it pretty well. What they’re fighting here is, if they get into trouble, the army will have an excuse not to send them overseas. On the other hand if the white officers let the local whites abuse their troops, they lose face with their men.
Narrator: To try and diffuse tensions, William Hayward organized a band concert in the town’s public square. He also asked his men to pledge that they would avoid violence of any kind, even if provoked. The regiment responded with a “sea of hands.”
Richard Slotkin, Historian: Noble Sissle, goes to buy a newspaper in the lobby of a hotel and gets into an altercation with the white man behind the counter. A crowd gathers and not only are the blacks squaring off against the whites in the room, but the white national guardsmen from New York are backing their fellow Yankees against the local Confederates and James Reese Europe says, halt, stop. Brings the whole incident to an end, marches his men out of there and averts violence.
Narrator: The Fifteenth emerged stronger because of its ordeal in Spartanburg. But there were other reminders of blacks’ second-class status in the American army. Anxious to burnish the reputation of his regiment, Hayward petitioned to have it included in the famous Rainbow Division, drawn from National Guard units from more than half the states in the nation.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: Hayward asks the Rainbow Division if the 15th could join them and the response to his request is black is not a color of the rainbow. And of course neither is white.
Narrator: By the fall of 1917, the scale of the challenge confronting American mobilization was beginning to sink in. The Quartermaster Corps estimated it would need 17 million woolen trousers, 22 million flannel shirts, 26 million shoes. The U.S. would need more than 2 million new Enfield rifles, 5.6 million gas masks, and a flotilla of merchant ships to transport it all across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the nation’s newest soldiers were mustered into service as quickly as possible. On September 4th, 1917, President Wilson, members of his cabinet, and the leadership of Congress led a parade from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue. They were there to honor 1,400 newly drafted men from the District of Columbia. When he reached the White House, Wilson stepped onto a reviewing stand, and the new recruits, still in their civilian clothes, marched past. “Tears stood in the president’s eyes,” reported the New York Sun, “as he looked down the irregular, undisciplined ranks”. As Wilson walked back to the White House, he saw a familiar sight: members of the National Woman’s Party, maintaining an angry vigil outside the Executive Mansion. They were led by the radical suffragist Alice Paul. The child of devout Quakers from Philadelphia, and armed with a doctorate in sociology, Paul was a formidable adversary. One reporter wrote that she was “as incapable of deviation from a set purpose as the tides are of altering their dedication to the moon.” Back in January, Paul and her small band of a dozen suffragists had been the first Americans to actively picket the White House. When war was declared in April, most mainstream suffrage groups suspended their efforts. Not Alice Paul. “If the lack of democracy at home weakens the . . . fight for democracy 3,000 miles away,” she declared, “the responsibility . . . is with the government and not with the women of America.”
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: Alice Paul is deeply critical of Wilson. She turns his language back on him, and says, we are going to continue pushing for the vote, through the war.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: At first, Wilson sort of ignored them. Condescended to them. Had hot chocolate sent out from the White House kitchen to keep them warm on winter days, but it became increasingly embarrassing that these protests were happening. And over time Wilson wanted the protesters gone.
Narrator: The president came to see the defiant women outside his window as a threat to the war effort, and conspired with the Washington police to crack down on them. In June, when the suffragists raised a banner reading “This Nation is Not Free,” mobs of angry men and women assaulted them, throwing eggs and tomatoes, and shredding their signs. Police and Secret Service men on the scene did nothing to stop the violence, intervening only to arrest the women for “obstructing traffic” and “loud and boisterous talking.”
Jennifer D. Keene, Historian: You got to love these women because you know they’re jailed, bad press for Wilson. He says, go ahead, let them out. They get released, boom, right back in front of the White House. It’s like they are not going to be deterred, right. They’re the radical voice.
Narrator: When the women unveiled a new sign that proclaimed “Kaiser Wilson,” the violence against them only increased. On October 20th, Paul herself was arrested and sentenced to seven months in a Virginia prison. The suffragist press made heroes and martyrs out of Paul and her fellow prisoners. “In spite of the dampness and chill of the old stone building, which forces the women to wrap themselves in newspapers” one article proclaimed, “their spirit is undaunted.”
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Alice Paul knows that imprisoned women suffragists, particularly young, middle-class women, make very good newspaper copy. So she encourages women to stay arrested, to refuse to pay bail.
Narrator: Shortly after arriving at the prison, Alice Paul went on a hunger strike. Doctors forced a tube down her throat three times a day. When she became too weak to stay in her cell, she was transferred to the hospital, then the psychiatric ward. By November 24th, Paul had gone weeks without food.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Most Americans, I think, thought that Alice Paul was crazy. That she had gone too far. But then, a crucial thing happened. Late one night in prison, Alice Paul is visited by a close Wilson confidante. Now, we don’t know why he went. We don’t know what they said. But we do know that very soon after this visit, Alice Paul encouraged the National Women’s Party to call off their protests. And we also know that very soon after that, Woodrow Wilson came out in support of women’s suffrage.
Kimberly Jensen, Historian: Wilson understands that these are women who are resilient, who will not give up. Alice Paul is a force of nature. The publicity was destroying the credibility of the Wilson administration in many people’s minds. So a deal is struck. There are images, and a lot of press coverage of the women leaving that prison in blankets, many of them skeletal because they’ve been on hunger strikes. There’s the political reality for politicians like Wilson and others, that women are a force.
Narrator: Despite the possibility of progress, Alice Paul continued to accuse the government of hypocrisy. “We are. . . imprisoned, not because we obstructed traffic,” she said, “but because we pointed out to the President … that he was obstructing the cause of democracy at home, while Americans were fighting for it abroad.”
Narrator: During the war years, visitors to the White House had cause to be concerned about their own safety. An aggressive ram, with a penchant for chewing tobacco, kept jealous guard over Woodrow and Edith Wilson’s flock of 18 sheep that grazed on the grounds. It regularly attacked members of the White House staff. But the ewes produced fine wool, so he remained a menacing presence on the South Lawn. The sheep were part of the Wilsons’ effort to set an example by personally supporting the war. The sale of White House wool raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Red Cross, and Edith knitted socks for soldiers. She also signed a Food Pledge, vowing to forego meat, wheat, and sugar, so more of these vital supplies could be sent overseas. The First Lady’s conservation efforts helped launch a campaign to mobilize the nation around food. With most of Belgium and large parts of France under German occupation, and farmers off at the front, millions of Europeans were struggling to survive. America, on the other hand, was an agricultural powerhouse, whose output of food could become as important as its manpower or its financial resources. In December 1917, Herbert Hoover, America’s first Food Administrator, proclaimed “food will win the war.”
Helen Zoe Veit, Historian: It became evident that food was going to be a weapon in the war. Herbert Hoover immediately worked to get Americans to think that saving food and conserving food was the most important thing that they could do as individuals to help the effort.
Narrator: As many as 500,000 women volunteers fanned out across their communities, urging neighbors to join Edith Wilson and sign a food pledge. Fourteen million families put a sign in their window showing that they were behind the campaign.
Helen Zoe Veit, Historian: There was no rationing, but there were suggested days where people should give up certain foods. Tuesday was a meatless day, Monday was a wheat-less day, Saturday was a pork-less day. So if someone was buying meat on a Tuesday, if you could smell meat coming from your neighbor’s house on a Tuesday, I think it helped with the informal surveillance of friends and neighbors.
Kimberly Jensen, Historian: They were very sophisticated in the ways that they tried to persuade people. Local newspapers published the names of people who contributed or not. There was a tremendous amount of pressure, visiting of houses. And there were lots of consequences. Firing from jobs, being ostracized in a community.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Americans came to feel watched and came to live as if they were watched. There’s a real sense of unease and also maybe of distrust on the home front. In some communities, when they did Liberty Loan drives, a Liberty Loan committee might be composed of bankers of a town who knew who had how much money, and if they knew that someone hadn’t bought a bond, the committee might pay a friendly visit to see why you hadn’t bought a bond. And if you still didn’t, then another group of people might come later at night, with a less friendly visit.
Narrator: Volunteer organizations sprang up to help enforce the new conformity. The largest was the American Protective League, with over 600 branches and 250,000 card-carrying members across the country.
Richard Rubin, Writer: These vigilante groups were there to make sure that every American was doing his or her patriotic duty. Imagine that you're going about your business, especially if you’re an immigrant whose Americanism is in question anyway, and you never know where you go if what you're saying is being listened to.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: At times it was an official in a uniform, but as often as not, it was your teacher, your minister, the president of the women’s club who was keeping an eye on you.
Narrator: Even the famous community organizer and committed pacifist Jane Addams could not resist the pressure. After weathering a storm of harsh criticism in the press, she embarked on a government sponsored speaking tour to rally support for the food effort.
Nancy K. Bristow, Historian: To oppose the war was a very difficult position to take and a dangerous position. To be an activist, even of a respectable type like Jane Addams was very difficult. You became a public enemy if you refused to step in line in support of the war.
Harlem Hellfighters — Part Two
Narrator: In late December, 1917, an aging tramp steamer named Pocahontas, carrying James Europe and the rest of the New York Fifteenth, sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Anxious to avoid any more racial incidents, the Army had shipped the regiment overseas. They were now on their way to join some of the first Americans in France. General Pershing had only four divisions stationed in relatively quiet sectors of the Western Front, where they were undergoing training alongside French and British units. They participated in reconnaissance patrols, and endured artillery bombardments and sniper fire. Already, 162 Americans had been killed and 475 wounded. But when the Fifteenth arrived at the port of Brest on January 1st, they were promptly assigned to the logistical arm of the military, known as the Services of Supply, and given the dirty work of the army — clearing swamps, unloading ships, digging graves. The overwhelming majority of the men in these labor battalions were black.
Chad Williams, Historian: Most black troops who served in the Services of Supplies recognized that this was not what they signed up for. This was not their ideal of what a soldier meant. They were manning shovels instead of rifles.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: If you’re not in a position to show bravery and courage as a fighter, then you’re not really a complete soldier. These are the things of which soldiers are made and heroes are made and what we write about. We don’t write about those who are digging ditches or burying the dead.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: On the one hand, these soldiers are so proud that they are serving. At the same time, the army leadership is not excited about having black soldiers. They are determined that black soldiers won’t see combat. And their fellow soldiers, are really concerned that military service doesn’t give them any big ideas about democracy at home.
Narrator: For two months, the Fifteenth worked as laborers in France and became increasingly disillusioned. William Hayward pulled strings to try and get his unit to the front lines, while the regiment’s band played concerts for the men to keep up their spirits. One day a pair of talent scouts, looking for entertainment for soldiers on leave, heard them play. It was an “organization of the very highest quality,” they reported, “led by a conductor of genius.” Europe and his band were sent south to a rest camp, stopping all along the way to give concerts. When the band relaxed their military reserve and launched into “The Memphis Blues,” Noble Sissle witnessed the reaction.
Voice: Noble Sissle: Colonel Hayward has brought his band over here and started ragtimitis in France; ain’t this an awful thing to visit upon a nation with so many burdens? But when the band had finished and people were roaring with laughter, … I was forced to say … this is just what France needs at this critical time.
Narrator: As the reputation of the New York Fifteenth grew, it became harder for General Pershing to let them languish with the rest of the black troops in labor battalions. The French and British, meanwhile, continued their desperate pleas for reinforcements.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: The French are crying for American combat troops. The Fifteenth New York is the most famous American regiment in France. So, Pershing loans them to the French.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: Pershing gives the 15th to the French because he’s not giving any white troops to the Allies. He basically says, I’ll give you a group that I don’t have much use for.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: This turns out to be a great deal for the 15th, because they’re sent to a commander who’s used to commanding African and Arab troops. He says, “They’re black, my Senegalese are black. Okay let’s train them to be soldiers as we would any other soldiers,” and so he puts them through a course of training where the action is not too heavy but you can learn the ropes.
Narrator: For black Americans, immersion in the French army was a disorienting plunge into a new world. Many struggled to understand their French officers, adjust to new uniforms, new rifles and the realities of trench warfare. Gradually, Sissle and his fellow soldiers began to feel more confident. What they couldn’t get used to, however, was the way they were treated.
Voice: Noble Sissle: The French [soldiers] treated our boys with all the courtesy and comradeship that could be expected . . . You could see them strolling down the road . . . each hardly able to understand the other, as our boys’ French was as bad as their English. . . . The French officers had taken our officers and made pals of them.
Chad Williams, Historian: It wasn’t so much that the French were color-blind or universally embraced African Americans, but for Americans it represented possibilities of a different type of racial interaction.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: Someone once wrote about the etiquette of Jim Crow, that you know folks didn’t think about white supremacy any more than a fish thinks about the wetness of water. But when you step out of a system that people have told you is the only way that is possible and then you look around and there are all of these people in the world working under a different set of rules. It changes people’s imagination of what they can do and what everyone else should be doing.
Narrator: The New York Fifteenth’s journey from Harlem had been an arduous and unpredictable one. Now with the help of their French counterparts, it seemed as though they were, at last, ready to prove themselves on the front lines.
Jay Winter, Historian: It is very, very hard to register how high the casualties were in the First World War. Americans I don’t think have ever seen how simply catastrophic and destructive it was. How stupidly ugly it was in destruction of human life, limb, property, everything. War degenerated between 1914 and ’18, and once you turn on brutal violence you can’t just turn it off.
Narrator: In its fourth year, the Great War continued to claim appalling casualties on both sides. Now, as millions of young Americans prepared to ship over to France, Woodrow Wilson was determined that the cause they were fighting for would be as great as the sacrifice he was asking them to make. On January 6th, 1918, the President gathered up his notes, took to his study, and began work on a speech. Ever since the outbreak of the war, he had sought a pivotal role for America in the conflict. He wanted to advance the nation’s strategic and economic interests, but he also imagined a sweeping moral and democratic transformation of the struggle, one that would reshape the post-war world.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: By 1917, Wilson knows, the American public know, how horrible the war is. And so he needs to make this a war that will matter, a war that will change the world.
Narrator: Events in Russia added another dimension to Wilson’s mission. In October the revolutionary Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, had formed a new government and vowed to make peace with Germany. They offered the world a vision of socialist equality, and an end to the corrupt empires that had oppressed workers for centuries.
Margaret MacMillan, Historian: Lenin, who was in his own way as great a speaker and a propagandist as Wilson was, said that we are going to build a new world order, this is the end of the divisions among nations, we’re going to build a different sort of world and I think Wilson felt he was under some pressure and perhaps obligation to make the American position very clear and possibly stake out a leadership role for the United States in any peace that was to come.
Narrator: On January 8th, the president travelled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Before a joint session of Congress, he reiterated why he had felt compelled to enter the war. Then, in fourteen separate points, he outlined a plan for the war’s end. Germany must retreat back to its borders. Freedom of the seas would be restored. Governments were to respect the self-determination of their citizens.
Dan Carlin, Podcast Producer: If you're Wilson and you really want to live up to the sloganeering they used in the war, if this is not just propaganda, you don’t just have to win the war, you have to set up the conditions that would really create that world you were selling everyone on. If you want to make a world safe for democracy, what’s the structure for that? What’s the framework? This is a realistic way to go about creating an idealistic future.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: Wilson believes that this is what the war is for, right. That America entered the war in order to determine the terms of the peace.
Narrator: It was the fourteenth point that Wilson felt was to be the keystone of the post-war world: a League of Nations that would arbitrate conflicts between countries.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: The League of Nations would be some kind of new forum for the resolution of international disputes, something really never existed before.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: Wilson is asking Americans and the world to take an enormous leap of faith, to give up national interest and national sovereignty, and to give a chance for international organization and international arbitration.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: There were people already beginning to think that the conditions of modern warfare were just so unimaginably destructive that mankind had to find some other way to resolve these perennial conflicts that the human race seems to get itself involved in.
Margaret MacMillan, Historian: Underlying the whole speech is this idea that you can build a better world order. This is really an enunciation of what the United States is going to be like as a player in world affairs. You’ve got the president saying we’re going to get out there, we’re going to get involved, and we don’t see ourselves as just policing our own back yard. We see ourselves as somehow policing the world and helping the world find a better way forward.
Narrator: Congress greeted Wilson’s speech with a sustained ovation. It received glowing reviews and banner headlines across the country. Around the globe, the response was equally positive. The Star of London gushed that Wilson was “the greatest American president since Lincoln.”
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: When we look back at claims that this would be the war to end all wars we think that Wilson and the American people were naïve to think such a thing would be possible. But if you don’t ever articulate that as a national goal, as an international dream, well then you’re definitely never going to accomplish it. I think Americans believe in Wilson’s vision of the world, not because they think it is true, but because they want it to be true. We all know that America is a nation with interests that sometimes compete with those noble goals. But I think Wilson almost better than anyone else articulated that wish, that better hope that Americans have for themselves in the world.
Over There – Henry Johnson
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: If you’ve been born and brought up in the Middle West, it’s a thrill that comes once in a lifetime. Your first sight of the ocean. I’d often stood on top of a hill at home where I could see fields of corn, with the wind blowing over them, stretching miles in every direction. I used to wonder if their waves looked anything like the waves of the ocean. I saw now that nothing else in the world could look like the ocean.
Narrator: When John Barkley, the young recruit from Missouri, stepped off the ship in France he was part of the largest movement of soldiers across the Atlantic in history. In just over a year, the United States had recruited, drafted, trained, and equipped over 400,000 men to fight in the Great War. Millions more were on their way. Jose Saenz had left his tiny town near the Rio Grande and was now almost 5,000 miles from home.
Voice: José de la Luz Sáenz: I am finally in France, heroic France. I am eager to do my part in the great tragedy. We may not be as disciplined as the sons of Germany, but we are committed to fight for what is only understood by the sons of democracy — Liberty.
Narrator: The Americans were called “doughboys,” a slang reference to the infantrymen’s buttons that resembled a doughnut. Pershing encouraged the nickname to give his army a distinctive identity. His troops liked it too.
Alan Axelrod, Writer: The mere arrival of these fresh American troops who were healthy, who were well-fed, who were well equipped, who were eager and most of all who were marching east, instead of retreating west, had a great effect on French morale.
Narrator: Each month, another 200,000 Americans flooded into France. Like John Barkley, few had any idea what awaited them.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: … [I] am feeling better than I ever did in my life . . . When the war is over and I come back I will tell you all about France. All about its good wine . . . . You talk about boose [sic] in the states. They never saw any liquor. you can go into any wine joint and get any thing from fifty year old wine up to alcohol [sic] and believe me the soldiers show the French how to drink. . . .
Narrator: Full of swagger and self-confidence, the green American troops were being thrust into the war at a critical stage. The Germans had gambled that they could prevail before the Americans arrived in force; with Russia out of the war, the German High Command was able to transfer more than half a million seasoned troops to the West. In a series of offensives beginning in March 1918, German forces attacked up and down the Western Front. The quiet sector where the New York Fifteenth was stationed was suddenly filled with enemy patrols testing the strength of the American defenses. Since their arrival in January, the men from Harlem had become a more cohesive regiment. Lieutenant James Europe was cited for bravery after participating in a night-time raid across the blasted landscape known as No Man’s Land. In the early morning hours of May 15th, privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were standing guard at listening posts twenty yards in front of their own lines, when they heard a noise.
Chad Williams, Historian: In the dead of night they heard mysterious sounds, sounding like wire cutters. And realized that a German raiding party was encroaching on their position.
Narrator: Johnson and Roberts sounded the alarm as a volley of German grenades exploded all around them. Almost immediately, Roberts was badly injured. Henry Johnson began to fight back, killing one German soldier with his rifle at point blank range. A second German rushed towards him, firing a pistol and wounding him in the thigh and foot. Johnson swung his rifle by the barrel and clubbed him senseless.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: He pulls out this what he calls a bolo knife which is a heavy two-bladed knife. [Another] German comes in to finish him off, he rises up with the bolo, disembowels the guy. At this point he’s been shot half a dozen times, in the foot, in the face, in the arm.
Narrator: As the Germans retreated, Johnson kept throwing grenades, until he passed out from loss of blood. He had been wounded more than 20 times, mostly from gunshots.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: When the light dawns the following day, there are half a dozen corpses of German soldiers and blood trails marking another half dozen wounded who have crawled away through the wire.
Narrator: The next morning, a proud William Hayward arranged for a group of reporters to be escorted to the scene of the fighting.
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: It’s this story that is picked up by all of the papers, black press and white press as a story of heroism. The white press is a little more given to stereotype and minstrel-sy. And the black press on the other hand builds him up into this super human hero that is emblematic of all black manhood and all black potential.
Chad Williams, Historian: Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts became household names. They were the war heroes that black America had been searching for.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: Johnson and Roberts are literally the first heroes of the war because there’s a censorship that prevents the naming of any American unit or soldier, but because the 15th is serving with the French, they don’t come under censorship and it goes into the newspapers as the “Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson and Roberts are awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French army, which is the highest military honor.
Jeffrey Sammons, Historian: This is a monumental event for the morale of the regiment and also for their self-confidence. It was proof of what they were capable of doing. You know we’re some bad dudes and there’s a lot more to come and a lot more that we have to show.
Narrator: Out of all the publicity, the press conjured up a nickname for the regiment. From that point forward, the men from New York would be known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The success was a vindication not only for the New York 15th, but for the hopes of African-Americans all across the country. “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances,” the activist W.E.B. DuBois, wrote “and close our ranks, shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow-citizens . . . that are fighting for democracy. If this is OUR country, then this is OUR war.”
Adriane Lentz-Smith, Historian: There’s a black solider from Virginia who filled out a survey about his war experience after the fact. And they asked him what the war had done for him. His response was, I have the world’s experience. He had lived his whole life in this corner of coastal Virginia and being dropped into the current of world events had made him realize he was a global subject. I think his answer and his experience stands in for all of the folks for whom the war for democracy was really about defining what it meant to be an American.
Narrator: As Americans were beginning to fight and die in France, the war was also generating casualties at home. An Indiana farmer named James Goepfrich had to take refuge in the county jail when a mob found out that he had threatened a Liberty Loan committee at his front door. Adolph Anton, a bartender from Ashland, Wisconsin, was tarred and feathered for his “pro-German utterances.” A German-American coalminer named Robert Prager was accused by some of his coworkers of being a spy. A mob formed and stripped Prager of most of his clothes, dragged him through the streets, and hanged him from a tree. The Washington Post celebrated the murder.
David M. Kennedy, Historian: Big parts of the American public lost their minds about the nature of the society they lived in and the threat they faced from their neighbors who happened to have German names.
Narrator: Rather than reining in the violence, the federal government took steps that fueled the climate of hysteria sweeping the country. At Wilson’s urging, on May 16th, 1918, Congress passed a new law called the Sedition Act, that made it illegal to say almost anything against the United States or its armed forces.
Christopher Capozzola, Historian: The Espionage Act was considered not even strong enough, so it’s amended in 1918 with the Sedition Act that basically creates enormous penalties for not only speaking out against the war effort or obstructing it, but really for criticizing America in almost any way.
Richard Rubin, Writer: The maximum sentence was twenty years, for going to a bar and grumbling about food restrictions to somebody who was sitting next to you at the bar. Or even saying that you thought the uniforms looked ridiculous or questioning what we were really fighting for. Anything at all that might interfere with the war effort, with morale of troops.
A. Scott Berg, Writer: The Sedition Act is probably the greatest suppression of free speech that the country has ever seen. Wilson had a very firm conviction that he was going to do everything he could to protect his fighting men. That meant if anyone was going to say something that might put an American soldier in further harm’s way, he, the president, could step in and stop it.
Jay Winter, Historian: A draft which forced people to put on a uniform is a very severe curtailment of the liberty of individuals. For Wilson the nation has to be united in order to justify this possible death sentence. Civil liberties became a price that had to be paid in order for a democratic nation to wage war.
Narrator: The passing of the Sedition Act prompted a wave of new crackdowns and arrests. A poet who wrote a satirical piece about the United States was imprisoned. When a Bavarian waiter cursed the slow speed of the New York City subway, he was promptly arrested. The conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra supposedly refused to play the Star Spangled Banner and found himself in an internment camp. No one was safe from the reach of the new law. Even one of the nation’s most articulate and respected political figures, the socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs, was arrested.
Michael Kazin, Historian: Debs is a symbol of unending opposition to the war. He gives a speech at a picnic in Canton, Ohio, saying things he’s said before. But the Justice Department decides he has to be cracked down on at this point. So he’s arrested and put in jail.
Narrator: Wilson denounced the radical leader. While “the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization,” the president wrote, “this man, Debs, stood behind the lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing them.”
Richard Slotkin, Historian: At the start of the war Wilson predicts that once the war starts, once they’re in the war, Americans will forget everything they ever believed about civil liberties. But in fact it’s Wilson who forgets everything he ever believed about civil liberties. Becoming the president of a nation at war with a population that’s not entirely behind the war. He adopted the most stringent methods to limit dissent and limit resistance to the war effort.
Richard Rubin, Writer: Wilson was a man who was able to carry two contradictory ideas in his mind at the same time and not go crazy. He absolutely had no qualms doing what he did at home, all the while waging a war to make the world safe for democracy.
Belleau Wood — Second Marne
Narrator: By the late spring of 1918, General John Pershing’s American Army had grown into a force approaching one million strong. All the while he had steadfastly refused to allow his men to fight under French command. But the situation on the Western Front threatened to force his hand. During a tour of the battlefield, Pershing shared a meal with a French general and his staff. “It would be difficult to imagine a more depressed group of officers,” Pershing recalled. “They sat through the meal scarcely speaking a word as they contemplated what was probably the most serious situation of the war.” The German spring offensives had been devastatingly effective. Elite storm troopers penetrated Allied lines, allowing German divisions to pour through the break, rupturing the stalemate that had existed for years. Now German troops had advanced to within striking distance of Paris. Their huge siege guns lobbed shells into the French capital. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau made plans to evacuate the government to Bordeaux. Thousands of Parisians fled the capital.
Andrew Carroll, Writer: The Germans are bearing down on Paris. I mean they’re within fifty miles, they can hear the guns. They can almost feel the concussion it’s so close. The stakes could not have been higher.
Narrator: On May 30th, the French commander-in-chief, Phillipe Petain came to see Pershing. The general guided the American commander to a map on the wall and pointed to the town of Château-Thierry on the Marne River. Couldn’t Pershing commit his men, he implored, to help hold the line here? Pershing gave the only answer he could.
Jennifer D. Keene, Historian: Events go faster than Pershing expects. Pershing had plans for a lengthy training program for American soldiers, but once the Germans begin their spring offensives towards Paris, he’s faced with a choice, do you let the Germans advance or do you just start throwing men into battle before you feel they’re ready because the situation requires you to do that?
Narrator: Pershing committed 56,000 doughboys, under French command, and rushed them towards the front to save Paris. A weak point in the French line was in danger of giving way. It was centered around an ancient forest near Chateau Thierry that the Americans called Belleau Wood.
Alan Axelrod, Writer: Belleau Wood was a hunting preserve for French aristocrats. It was about half the size of New York’s Central Park. Very twisted growth. Very dense.
Narrator: As German soldiers moved into Belleau Wood, they saw it was a natural fortress of dense trees and rocky outcroppings. They fortified it with hidden machine gun nests, and layers of barbed wire. One American officer remembered the wood as a “dark threat . . . dangerous as a live wire, poisonous with gas, . . . alive with snipers.” To stop the German advance, the French needed to take back the woods. They gave the job to a brigade of the U.S. Marines. Founded as a fighting force on board naval vessels during the Revolution, the Marine Corps had seen action in almost every American conflict since.
Alan Axelrod, Writer: The marines were conditioned to be very, very hard men, to take anything, to never give up, to never retreat. But they were also simply better trained as marksmen.
Narrator: Marine units were rushed into position on the morning of June 2nd, along a four-mile front with Belleau Wood at its center. French forces were in the midst of a full-scale retreat. As he passed by, a French major ordered an American captain to withdraw as well. “Retreat, hell!” the captain shot back, “We just got here.”
Alan Axelrod, Writer: The dense forest of Belleau Wood was interspersed with farmers’ fields. And they were all planted with wheat. What this meant is that to approach Belleau Wood, the marines had to advance out in the open through this wheat.
Narrator: An American war correspondent was with the Marines that day. It was “a beautiful sight,” he wrote, “these men of ours going out across those flat fields towards the tree clusters beyond from which the Germans poured a murderous machine gun fire.” Rows of Marines were cut down. As the men struggled across the field, a gunnery sergeant yelled, “come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever!” Once the Americans gained a toe-hold in the woods, the two sides proceeded to hammer away at each other in a murderous exchange. Sections of Belleau Wood changed hands seven times over the course of the battle. The fighting was too intense to bring in reinforcements, food or medical supplies. Bodies lay where they fell, decomposing in the intense heat. Soldiers survived by scavenging food from the corpses, and drinking stale beer from dead Germans’ canteens. The Marines were on their own.
Alan Axelrod, Writer: There was found on the body of one young German soldier, a letter to his family in which he said the Americans are insane, they want to kill everything. This perception was absolutely accurate. And they did it and they did it with guns, they did it with bayonets. They would have done it with their bare hands if they had to.
Narrator: Finally, after three weeks of near constant combat, the Marines took their objective. On the morning of June 26th, their commander received a simple message. “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” Somehow the marines at Belleau Wood had held the line. Now, everything depended on whether the Americans could help stop the German advance outside the small town of Chateau-Thierry. John Barkley and the rest of his Third Division were stationed on the southern bank of the Marne River, the last obstacle standing between Paris and the advancing Germans.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: The artillery fire had stopped, but the machine- guns were still banging away . . . I consulted my map. Then I knew where we were. Just over that hill was Château-Thierry. We . . . started up the hill toward the sound of the guns. For months I’d heard, thought, lived, nothing but war. And I hadn’t known a damned thing about war. Now it had really begun for me.
Jay Winter, Historian: This is the crisis moment. The American army is there to stem the German tide at a moment when nobody really knew they could do it.
Richard Rubin, Writer: The Germans launched a massive offensive along the Marne, they knew they had to get things done very quickly or else things were going to turn against them. And there’s a ferocity and a desperation in the Germans’ attack on that day. It really was for them do or die.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: On the opposite banks the Germans were swarming. Just to our right they were forcing a crossing by boats and pontoons. Many of them were already on our side of the river. It seemed to me at first that [I was] the only [one] firing on that crowd. Then a couple of machine-gunners hidden on the slope above [me] chimed in. One good machine-gun and one sickly one, which seemed not to be working well . . . But the sound one was . . . flaying groups of Germans on the far bank. But they went right on.
Narrator: Despite appalling casualties, the Germans kept coming, pushing across the river and through the wheat fields toward the Allied lines. French forces on either side of the Third Division fell back, exposing the Americans’ flanks. Barkley, and the rest refused to retreat. They dug into their position and kept on firing.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: [The Germans] couldn’t locate me . . . and [I] went on piling up [the] score. I had to wrap a bandoleer around my hand in order to hold my rifle. It was burning hot. . . . I dropped down behind the bank a moment to pour water from my canteen over the gun and through the barrel — and to take a little drink myself. . . . [My] ammunition was nearly gone. . . . Through the curtain of dust the noon sun looked like a smoky ghost of itself.
Richard Rubin, Writer: The Third Division pushed the Germans back over the river. It was the only place along the Marne that the Germans were pushed back that day. And because the Germans were held up at the western edge of the line, they weren’t able to proceed with the rest of their offensive, and the offensive stalled.
Narrator: Three days later, the Allies launched a counter-offensive that drove the Germans back across the Marne River. For its dogged determination, the Third Division would earn the nickname “The Rock of the Marne.” At Belleau Wood, almost 5,000 Marines were killed or wounded. Yet three weeks of savage fighting imbued them with an aura of tenacity that would become an indelible part of their identity.
Richard Rubin, Writer: The Germans had been fed the line that the Americans can’t fight and so they weren’t really prepared for this and I think from this point on they have a very different opinion of whom they’re up against.
Narrator: What came to be known as the Second Battle of the Marne was a pivotal moment in the Great War, and a rite of passage for the American doughboys. After weeks of intense fighting, thousands of men in John Barkley’s division had been killed or wounded. He had emerged from the fighting unhurt, but not unscathed.
Voice: John Lewis Barkley: My birthday is the 28th. I don’t know how old I am, I lost my age at the front . . . It is very often that case. The jar of shells and the rumble of artillery changes everything with a man morally makes a man look at things different.
Narrator: Throughout June and July of 1918, the names of thousands of Americans killed in the fighting began to appear in the pages of the nation’s newspapers. It was the bloody harvest that had so tormented Woodrow Wilson as he led his country into war. Anxious to avoid the grim spectacle witnessed throughout Europe of mourners dressed all in black, Wilson approved a proposal. Grieving mothers and widows, “should wear a black band on the left arm with a [gold] star for each member of the family who has given up his life for the nation.” The President knew that many more women would be wearing armbands in the months to come. General John Pershing was about to lead his American troops into the decisive conflict of the war. A victory would validate America’s place on the battlefield and cement Woodrow Wilson’s claims for influencing the peace. No one could have imagined that it would be the biggest, and deadliest, battle in American history.