A More Complicated World
July 1-October 4, 1914
We are a very short-sighted and ignorant people in international affairs.
-Theodore Roosevelt, September 1914
America had changed dramatically in the two decades before the archduke's assassination in Sarajevo. The United States was now the wealthiest nation in the world, and its 100 million citizens enjoyed a standard of living inconceivable to the older generations, including the now elderly Civil War veterans who still marched each year in Decoration Day parades. The simpler Currier-and-Ives-postcard lifestyle of the United States that TR, Addams, and Wilson knew during their childhoods was gone forever, replaced by a sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating modern America that traditionalists strongly resisted at every turn.
The changes were most apparent in the major cities of the East and "Middle West," as it was called in those days. There, millions of recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe now walked the streets, many still conversing in their native tongues, a threatening presence to some natives who questioned their desire to assimilate. And a new strain of secularism in urban centers was increasingly unavoidable. That May of 1914, the dean of the Yale School of Religion lamented declining church attendance, "commonplace" divorces, "greed for gain," and, worst of all, the "overemphasis upon and a strained self-consciousness of the matter of sex."
The "new" American woman generated similar controversy, especially concerning her desire to vote. "Women as a class have neither leisure opportunity nor inclination to take up the grave study of governmental problems which should occupy men," scoffed one female antisuffragist. "The present electorate is bad enough . . . and its quality, not its quantity, needs improving." Female smoking was another battleground. The once shocking sight of a woman lighting up in a restaurant or hotel became common, much to the horror of society's moral guardians such as the Chicago Tribune's advice columnist Doris Blake. "No decent man could seriously entertain the hope of finding lovely womanhood and divine motherhood in a female cigarette smoker," she wrote. "A self-respecting, nice, girl would scorn to pollute her lips with the taint of tobacco." The growing prohibitionist movement was just as committed to ensuring that her lips should never taste alcohol either.
To a Frenchwoman visiting America, the "audacity" of young women in New York was especially startling. "They paint too much," she lamented. "A little powder, yes; that I do not mind, but the red, the white, the eye black, it is silly, very silly. . . . Then there are the short skirts. They show their stockings. Their skirts are so short, so very short." But she admired the fast pace of American life. "I like the way you jump and run and hurry about. Every one seems to have hope and ambition."
New entertainment options further accelerated America's social transformation in the second decade of the twentieth century. Cheaper models of the Victrola, introduced just eight years earlier, allowed middle-class families the once unimaginable pleasure of hearing stars like Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa in the comfort of their own homes, although they could still journey to the nearest big city to see legends such as Houdini ("The Man Who Breaks All Bonds") and Al Jolson.
The booming motion picture industry was also reshaping the nation's leisure patterns. Religious leaders not only fretted over whether the powerful lure of the "picture show" might thin out their congregations each Sunday but also feared the impact of immoral content. Throughout America, local censorship boards carefully scrutinized films for anything remotely objectionable, although standards differed wildly from community to community. A Pennsylvania censor decided that no on-screen kiss should last longer than thity-six seconds, while Chicago authorities snipped out scenes showing counterfeiters and "an immoral woman and the ruses she employs to seduce men."
But it was the emergence of the motorcar that truly reflected the new modern America, replacing the sleepy horse-and-buggy pace of yesteryear. By 1914, the automobile was no longer a toy for the rich but a valuable addition to modern living that drastically widened personal and professional horizons for anyone who could afford one (Addams did not own a car and never learned to drive; Roosevelt and Wilson had chauffeurs). Less enthusiastic observers believed the automobile was a sinister force in modern life, especially for young people. "In the last ten years," claimed the president of Brown University, "probably as many students in American colleges have been demoralized by the automobile as by alcohol. The dazzling attractions of a luxury-loving age constitute the greatest possible danger to American education."
Technology, industrialization, and immigration had wrought permanent changes to the American scene. Life was no longer quite so simple nor as orderly as it had once seemed, even a few years earlier, nor would it ever be again. "The world is becoming more complicated every day," Wilson had warned in a July 4 speech. "Therefore, no man ought to be foolish enough to think he understands it." It was about to grow much more complicated than Wilson or any other American ever imagined.
The developments in Sarajevo did not attract more than the usual press attention throughout much of July. The joint funeral and burial, the grieving royal family, and photographs of the assassin were all deemed newsworthy, but few grasped that a world tragedy was about to unfold. Even fewer had even the most basic comprehension of European affairs and alliances or the smoldering jealousies, fears, hatred, and greed pulsating throughout the Continent. Nor did most understand that Germany had been preparing for war, a war that might not only bring new colonies to match the British and French possessions but also neutralize the perceived threat of ÒencirclementÓ from the west and especially from the east. ÒThe future lies with Russia, she grows and grows, and lies on us like a nightmare,Ó lamented the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.
It was not until July 23, when Austria-Hungary issued a harsh ultimatum insisting that Serbia yield to a series of humiliating demands, that the words "European war" began to appear with alarming frequency on the front pages of American newspapers. "War between Austria and Servia would almost certainly embroil all the great European powers and develop into the most colossal struggle in history," The Washington Post editorialized, using the then-common spelling for the nation that Austria-Hungary blamed for the assassination. "Apparently the world is on the eve of witnessing a collision destined to set all thrones a-trembling and to abruptly change the course of events throughout Europe."
The Post proved remarkably prophetic. Austria-Hungary's July 28 declaration of war on Serbia, encouraged by her ally Germany, set off a chain reaction that entangled Europe's two major alliances. Russia soon began to mobilize its forces in support of its Slavic brothers and sisters in Serbia, prompting Germany to declare war on Russia on August 1. Since France, allied to Russia since 1894, now posed a serious threat, Germany declared war on its hated neighbor two days later.
The German military had long believed a two-front war of this kind could be won by defeating France quickly and then turning their attention to Russia. The main attack on France would come through the north by way of Belgium, thus avoiding the heavily fortified French border (the strategy was a revised version of the Germans' von Schlieffen plan, which had been in the works for close to a decade). But Great Britain was not prepared to permit a violation of Belgium's neutrality. There was also fear of what a German victory over France might mean to national security. After Germany ignored a Whitehall ultimatum to keep its army out of Belgium, the British declared war on August 4. It was exactly what the Germans had dreaded. "If England doesn't go in we are all right," a German officer told an American three days earlier. "If England goes in, I'm afraid it will be very hard for us."
The war immediately resonated throughout America, especially in the diverse immigrant populations of the larger cities. In Philadelphia, "an almost hysterical gathering" of Serbians sang songs of their homeland amid periodic shouts of "'Long Live Servia!' and 'Down with Austria!'" That same day in the City of Brotherly Love, an argument between two men that began over whether Italy would join the war ended in murder. And everywhere, reservists of the warring countries flocked to consulates, hoping to find a way get across the ocean and into the thick of the fight. In Chicago, already overworked British consular officials also had to contend with well-meaning "experts," who offered not so helpful advice on how to win the war. "All you have to do is build a tunnel under the Atlantic to Austria," one insisted. "Then you can give Austria a bully smash in the eye."
On the other side of the ocean, thousands of American tourists, students, and businessmen in Europe were faced with the daunting prospect of finding passage home. In London, desperate souls besieged the American embassy, including President Wilson's sister Annie Howe, who managed to get out of France, sans luggage, with her daughter and granddaughter. A largely unknown engineer named Herbert Hoover performed yeoman duty assisting his stranded countrymen and women, including an older lady who "demanded a written guarantee" that her ship would not be torpedoed. Hoover, taken aback, nevertheless promised her she would make it home safely.
Such demanding attitudes were all too common in the first hectic days of the war. A Frenchwoman trying to get home to her family in Philadelphia was shocked by what she encountered at a Paris train station. "People of culture beat one another over the heads with canes, umbrellas and luggage," she marveled. "They pulled and dragged at each other and shrieked in their anxiety to get aboard the only train departing." Tired of waiting to buy a ticket, one pompous American complained long and loud that he was "a man of some consequence in New York. I am president of a bank and director in a trust company." Ultimately, those who were willing to pay scalper's prices for passage or superior accommodations fared best, much to the chagrin of those forced to go home third-class or even in steerage.
Some were in no hurry to leave the Continent. "Most Americans traveling in Germany have not yet come to realize the real gravity of the situation," remarked one journalist who had just left Berlin for The Hague. "They seem to think the war a kind of play, 'great fun,' and cannot realize that war in Germany is not like war in Mexico." But scenes of French "peasants singing 'The Marseillaise' . . . at 3 o'clock in the morning in some little village buried in the woods" and angry Germans mobbing an unfortunate Russian violinist in a Berlin cafŽ could not help but open American eyes to the reality of the nightmare unfolding.
That America might somehow be ensnared had already begun to occur to the pacifist George Herman Borst, who noted that many on his transatlantic steamer had mistaken a tanker for a cruiser: "Is it not then quite easy to see how a German, French or even British ship might mistake a signal or possibly be commanded by a stupid officer and subject an American ship to some indignity? Would such an event warrant plunging a whole nation into war?"
Not everyone regarded the prospect of war as distasteful. Thirsting for adventure, more than a few young Americans were determined to get into battle. "We came over to Europe just for a pleasure trip, but have made up our minds we want to fight for the allies," one college student from North Carolina explained. "France is in the thick of the fight and we want to help her out as best we can. . . . We realize how serious the game is, but are willing, if necessary, to offer our lives for the allies." Some flocked to the French Foreign Legion, avoiding the current ban on service under the flag of any foreign nation, while others signed up to serve as ambulance drivers or in other noncombat capacities.
In London, a twenty-seven-year-old would-be writer named James Norman Hall found himself succumbing to war fever. Back in the spring, he had quit his social worker job in Boston to travel abroad in hopes of finding his literary muse. By the end of July, not only had he accomplished little, but he was also facing returning home with no prospects. The outbreak of war seemed to be an answer to his prayers. He watched young men by the thousands flock to recruiting stations drunk with patriotism and an unshakable belief that war was something glorious and beautiful. Such feelings resonated in Hall, as did a sense that the "adventure" of the thing would be far preferable than returning home with his tail between his legs.
His close friend Roy Cushman back in Boston sensed what was about to happen. "Whatever you do," he wrote Hall in desperation, "keep your head and don't enlist! Do you hear, Don't enlist!" By the time the letter arrived, it was too late. After changing his mind twice, Hall finally managed to join the British army as a member of the Royal Fusiliers even after informing the recruiting officers that he was an American. "We'll take you," they told him. "You'll just say you are an Englishman, won't you, as a matter of formality." His fellow recruits quickly saw through his disguise and dubbed him Jamie the Yank.
He was sure he had made the right decision, even though he feared telling his parents back in Iowa. "There are really very many reasons . . . why it will be good for me," he wrote Cushman. "I believe that a period of good strenuous military training will be invaluable. . . . And if I do go to the continent and go through the supreme tests and come out with honor which I am determined to do if I come out at all-that satisfaction of knowing that will be certainly a treasure." But Hall could not hide his anxiety over going into combat in the future. "It makes one serious to think that perhaps, just perhaps he has something less than a year to live."
His parents could not understand why he would place himself in harm's way. After all, this war was not America's fight, and the United States was protected by two oceans. "The first, most important duty of the United States in this world crisis is to mind its own business," The Washington Post advised. Such advice, however well intended, would prove unrealistic. In the coming months, the United States would be confronted with a series of complex questions not easily answered. Should America take sides in the war or retain her usual neutrality? What course was most appropriate to ensure our national security? How will a country of more than 13 million immigrants respond to a war involving their native countries? How will a global war affect our economy? And exactly what should America's global role be?