Unpacking Long Island’s Support For World War One


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Chancellor Von Bethmann-Hollweg“New York State has prepared for war.” The headlines of the South Side Signal for April 6, 1917 announced the entry of the United States into conflict. “Local War Notes,” a new feature (later, simply, “War Notes,”) would chronicle Long Island developments through armistice.

On April 6th , it was announced, that, among other news items, Edwin N. Post, R.N. had been appointed head of the enrolling party for the naval reserves, establishing recruiting headquarters over Smith and Salmon’s drugstore in Babylon village. Recruits thronging to Babylon village, seventeen had already enrolled at Sayville and another fifteen at Bay Shore. Legislation had been introduced to increase the size of the naval militia, allow the state to appropriate lands, and expand punishments to those showing disrespect to the flag.

The front-page news of war itself came matter-of- factly; it had been expected. Yet, though the pages of The Signal give the impression of surprising level-headedness, there are signs of a general submerged panic. In one sentence Congressman Hicks assures the public of his having consulted the navy about protecting Long Island’s long, unprotected coast; in another worried beach-goers make reports of having sighted roving warships. It is up to The Signal to reassure the public that the ships are American ones preparing to engage the enemy.

The announcement that America would enter the “Titanic World Struggle” was made with Easter Sunday then only two days away. Among articles about planning family celebrations, attending church services, and making Easter baskets, a portrait of the menacing Chancellor Von Bethmann-Hollweg rises up, explained by the simple caption “Firm Against U.S.” Here the conflict, though daunting, is an easy one to understand; good against evil – black and white as newsprint. One might be forgiven for thinking that the decision for war had been a unanimous one. The president had argued for war; the general mood had been clear.

Yet an account of the vote itself gives an insight into ambiguities shortly to be forgotten. In one congressional scene, pacifists argue against those for the war with surprising vigor. That Germany was in the wrong and ought to have been opposed was not understood as the mere result of reasoned argument or development of circumstance but nearly a principle in itself. President Wilson had noted in his address to Congress that “we have no quarrel with the German people” having “no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship.” Despite this supposed sympathy for the people of Germany, the Kaiser, the German government, and the military had since been transformed into caricatures. Even before the start of war, the stereotype of the militaristic German, the seed of the German villain against whom America would strive, was alive and well in the popular imagination.

It was a surprise then not only that anyone would argue against war but that anyone even could. Among the pacifists, Representative Cooper of Wisconsin surprisingly argued Britain to be just as much to blame as Germany. “Great Britain,” said Cooper, “had been permitted to change the rules of international law, but that we now propose to fight to keep Germany from changing them.”

Representative Keating of Colorado, noted that Wilson had been elected specifically because of his anti-war stance, suggesting that going to war might in some way invalidated Wilson’s election. Even the majority of those in support of the conflict admitted the many good points for peace – not least among them, warnings of the coming destruction and loss of life. Yet, the arguments of the pacifists, while admittedly having certain strengths, were not convincing. At one point, both sides nearly came to blows. Finally, J. Fred Talbot Talbot, of Maryland, gave a rousing speech in favor of the war, bringing Congress to its feet. By the evening’s conclusion, complex attitudes towards the coming conflict had been subsumed in American unity.

New York and Long Island quickly joined in support. As a large, populous, and rich state, it was understood that the strength of New York would be essential for victory. One surprising aspect of New York and Long Island rhetoric in support of war, even in these early days, was the idea that, being one of the states closest to Europe, New York City and Long Island would prove a tempting prize to the Germans, and a site of possible future invasion.

In these same pages, a column adjacent to “War Notes” declares “Women Are Ready.” In the midst of the struggle for suffrage, leaders of the women’s rights movement saw an opportunity to emphasize the work of women towards victory, and, in doing so, convince newspaper readers to vote for suffrage in the upcoming vote. Later this same year, in the midst of war, New Yorkers would support women’s suffrage four years before the nationwide passing of the nineteenth amendment. Undoubtedly advertisements in New York papers, continual reminders of women’s war-efforts, contributed to this success.

Over the next year, the continual unfolding of the Great War would be chronicled in the pages of Long Island’s press. It is here in the pages of “War Notes” as well as in the pages of other papers, news-items, letters, and announcements that we can follow the impact of the conflict on the nation, on society, on the state, and on the many individuals impacted by great world events and the movements of history.

Photo: Chancellor Von Bethmann-Hollweg.

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