How should World War I be remembered? Connecticut libraries and historical groups are now gearing up for this year’s 100th anniversary of April 6, 1917– the day we entered the “Great War.”
What exactly will we commemorate? Thirty-seven million people were killed in the war from 1914 to 1918. U.S. forces averaged 297 casualties a day. Here was a conflict, historian Howard Zinn wrote, where “no one since that day has been able to show that the war brought any gain for humanity that would be worth one human life.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Hofstadter noted that the “peace” president Woodrow Wilson committed us to the European bloodbath based on a “rationalization of the flimsiest sort.” Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin declared “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” W.E.B. Dubois warned that it was a battle for empire, natural resources, and the colonized world. The outspoken Helen Keller told reporters “the only fighting that saves is the one that helps the world toward liberty, justice and an abundant life for all.”
Will these anti-war heroes be on the program?
When Americans protested the war, they were libeled by the press, routed by the police, and jailed by the courts. The Hartford chapter of the People’s Council for Democracy was thrown out in the street when speaker Anna Riley Hale was arrested after she dared to criticize the draft. The pacifist group was then banned from every hall in the city.
This suppression was repeated many times nationwide: 2,000 citizens were prosecuted under the new Espionage Act, including Eugene Victor Debs, who spent nearly three years in prison for a speech he gave condemning war.
Should we celebrate the growth of our state’s defense industry, which provided jobs and armed the U.S. military? More than 90,000 industrial accidents occurred in Connecticut during 1917-1918. Despite the massive speed-up in war production, Hartford employees who didn’t work fast enough would be shamed by bosses who placed German Deutschmarks in their pay envelopes.
How will we remember those who criticized the industrialists and financiers who reaped millions during the war? Hartford’s Josephine Bennett told a local crowd that “Anyone who profits from war industries at the expense of the United States government is not a patriot but a profiteer.”
Poison gas was manufactured for the war effort in Stamford, subsidized by the Federal government. The Yale & Towne and American Synthetic companies produced 1 million pounds a month of Chloropicrin, a Class 1 toxin. When the war ended, they were forced to find a way to destroy 3 million pounds of the stockpiled deadly gas.
Who will memorialize religious objectors to the war, like Hartford’s Ulysses DeRosa? He moved from Italy to Hartford when he was 12 years old. He later became a Quaker and refused to register for the draft. DeRosa was drafted anyway, issued a dishonorable discharge, and imprisoned at Camp Funston in Missouri. He and 18 other conscientious objectors were brutalized and tortured over two months by Army officers and guards, according to an investigation.
Then there was Anthony Crasnitzki of Bristol, who failed to register and was arrested. The judge gave him the opportunity to enlist, but he refused, saying that as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) he would rather go to jail than go to war. He did, for a six-month term.
Will we recall that our civil liberties took a beating, too? U.S. District Attorney Thomas J. Spellacy admitted that his department secretly arrested, charged and imprisoned those who might “inflame the public mind” across the state. The secrecy was solely “for the protection of the public,” he said.
Connecticut was well-equipped to punish unpopular ideas. The state already had a ridiculously broad law against “seditious utterances” which it strengthened in 1919. Hartford aldermen passed their own law which effectively banned any sort of public speech critical of the government.
Fortune magazine estimated that while it cost a gangster $100 to kill man, during WWI each death cost $25,000. Why? Because “killing is the industrialist’s business.” Fortune dubbed them the “Big Business armament men.” Not a conspiracy as such, but still a “handful of men whose power, in some ways, reaches above the power of the State itself.”
Those who attend these World War I observances should remember they will not be viewing neutral, objective history. What we learn will either prepare us — or blind us — for the next U.S. war.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who now writes for the Shoeleather History Project.