World War I, at home and in the trenches

The years 1914-1918 were a time of unusual tension in Wisconsin, as the nations in Europe with which the state's residents identified squared off against one another in a bloody conflict. The sizable German American population, as well as the politically dominant Progressive and Socialist parties, generally opposed American entry into the war in Europe. Wisconsin's most famous politician, Senator Robert La Follette, risked both his reputation and influence first in opposing American entry into the war, and then in opposing ratification of the settlement drafted at the 1919 Peace Conference. Several groups did manage to use the international crisis to their advantage, though, most notably activists for temperance and suffrage who emphasized the nation's wartime emergency to advocate for passage of the 18th and 19th amendments (prohibition and woman suffrage).

American opinion about participation in the war was far from unanimous in 1917, and Wisconsin, in particular, was sharply divided over the issue. The 1914 U.S. position of strict neutrality shifted during 1917 toward involvement on the side of Great Britain, largely due to Germany's decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. The U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917. Nine of Wisconsin's eleven Congressmen, plus Senator La Follette, voted against the declaration of war. This was a hazardous course and a source of deep distress to many Wisconsin citizens who passionately embraced the war effort as a patriotic call to arms.

Antiwar sentiment in Wisconsin came from many sources. La Follette's position was straightforward, never straying from President Woodrow Wilson's declared policy of strict neutrality from 1914. La Follette maintained that nothing in the aims and arguments of the belligerents on either side could possibly concern Americans or their interests enough to justify their participation.

As one of the largest immigrant groups in Wisconsin, German Americans were deeply affected by the war. Despite the wide spectrum of political and religious beliefs across Wisconsin's German American community, the vast majority maintained a strong cultural unity based on pride in German accomplishments, a vigorous German language press, and a persistent conflict with the dominant Yankee cultural values. This tension centered largely on the issue of alcohol (Protestant Yankees being generally in favor of temperance, while brewing and beer drinking were accepted norms in German culture), and often expressed unfortunate overtones of nativism by Yankees and religious intolerance by both sides. As a consequence, many German organizations devoted to preserving German heritage and defending civil liberties were subsidized by the brewing and distilling interests, which inhibited German American efforts to win sympathy outside their community.

Milwaukee Socialists were another voice of antiwar sentiment in Wisconsin. Despite the startling shift of European Socialists to national loyalties (ignoring their own previous professions of international solidarity), American socialists continued to call for an international Socialist movement and adopted a militant antiwar position two days after Congress declared war. Milwaukee Socialist Victor Berger, an outspoken opponent of war and militarism since the 1890s, voted for the antiwar plank and ardently defended his position. Despite this, Berger ultimately viewed American participation in the war as a potential boon to the Socialist cause because he thought the military's demand for food, shelter, and munitions would force the government to adopt some socialist ideas.

The declaration of war in 1917 unleashed a particularly virulent form of hysterical conformity among the American people. Many Wisconsin citizens were acutely sensitive to charges of disloyalty due to the publicity surrounding La Follette's criticisms, the influence of the Socialist party in Milwaukee, and the large number of people with German ancestry. During 1917 and 1918, German culture became suspect. Some Wisconsin towns refused to teach German in their school and German-language books were burned in Wisconsin streets. Indeed, anyone with a German name was a target for harassment; a widely publicized notice from the American Defense Society that stated that a German American, "unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy."

German Americans reacted variously to the vigilantism directed toward them. While the easy course for many was to acquiesce in the cry against everything German, others found it difficult to deny a heritage of which they were proud.

Despite many sources of outspoken opposition, the majority of Wisconsin citizens did not oppose the war. Business, labor, and farmers all enjoyed great prosperity, and over 118,000 citizens went into military service. Wisconsin was the first state to report in the four national draft registrations, and was highly commended by federal authorities for its efficiency. The Wisconsin National Guardsmen in the Red Arrow Division gained a reputation for their fearless and effective fighting. In all, 1,800 Wisconsin citizens died in the war.

Wisconsin was the first state to organize a State Council of Defense as well as a County Council of Defense. These organizations helped to educate citizens on the war and the sacrifices that were demanded of them, such as meatless and wheat-less days. Even the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee participated in preparedness parades, cooperated with the draft, and established a Milwaukee council of defense at the same time that he defended the rights of opposition voices like Victor Berger.

When the war was over, Wisconsin citizens returned to the Progressive leadership of Robert La Follette and his followers. In the Senate, La Follette opposed the Versailles Treaty and American membership in the League of Nations, seeing the treaty as a violation of Wilson's pledges and the League as an organization for victors only.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 4 and 5 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Through the World Wars" Wisconsin Veterans Museum (online at http://dva.state.wi.us/Museum/Gal_show.asp?GalleryID=3); "Wisconsin War Letters: World War I." University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (online at http://www.uwm.edu/Library/arch/Warletters/wwi/WWI.htm)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Wisconsin develops solutions to wartime shortagesWisconsin develops solutions to wartime shortages
Link to article: Two Wisconsin soldiers write home from the frontTwo Wisconsin soldiers write home from the front
Link to article: The Spanish flu sweeps across Wisconsin in 1918The Spanish flu sweeps across Wisconsin in 1918
Link to article: The State Board of Health seeks to contain influenza, 1918The State Board of Health seeks to contain influenza, 1918
Link to article: La Follette publicly opposes U.S. entry into the war, 1917La Follette publicly opposes U.S. entry into the war, 1917
Link to article: The Wisconsin Food Administration responds to national food shortages in 1918The Wisconsin Food Administration responds to national food shortages in 1918
Link to article: A German American professor is tarred and feathered, 1918A German American professor is tarred and feathered, 1918
Link to article: The U.S. Army seeks volunteers in Milwaukee, 1917The U.S. Army seeks volunteers in Milwaukee, 1917
Link to article: A high school biology class organizes a war garden competition, 1917A high school biology class organizes a war garden competition, 1917
Link to article: The aims and plans of the Wisconsin Federation of Women Wage EarnersThe aims and plans of the Wisconsin Federation of Women Wage Earners
Link to article: Health suggestions to help contain the spread of influenza in 1918Health suggestions to help contain the spread of influenza in 1918
Link to article: The end of war marked by a parade in Sturgeon Bay, 1918The end of war marked by a parade in Sturgeon Bay, 1918
Link to article: A sketch of the life of Meta BergerA sketch of the life of Meta Berger
Link to article: Wisconsin's Telephone Brigade solicits support for the United War Work Campaign, 1918Wisconsin's Telephone Brigade solicits support for the United War Work Campaign, 1918
Link to article: Patriotic songs to welcome home the troopsPatriotic songs to welcome home the troops
Link to article: Wisconsin's National Guard encourages men to enlistWisconsin's National Guard encourages men to enlist
Link to article: Suffrage publications from the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage AssociationSuffrage publications from the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association
Link to artifacts: Influenza Quarantine signInfluenza Quarantine sign
Link to book: Homefront propaganda efforts, 1917-1919Homefront propaganda efforts, 1917-1919
Link to book: Julia Grace Wales suggests an influential proposal to end the war, 1915Julia Grace Wales suggests an influential proposal to end the war, 1915
Link to book: Wisconsin's contributions to the war, 1919Wisconsin's contributions to the war, 1919
Link to book: Supporting the war one meal at a time, 1917Supporting the war one meal at a time, 1917
Link to book: Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948
Link to book: The Wisconsin men and women who lost their lives during the warThe Wisconsin men and women who lost their lives during the war
Link to book: The Wisconsin Loyalty Legion nurtures patriotism, 1917-18The Wisconsin Loyalty Legion nurtures patriotism, 1917-18
Link to book: Bringing peace through backyard gardens, 1919Bringing peace through backyard gardens, 1919
Link to images: Milwaukee's former mayor speaks out against WWIMilwaukee's former mayor speaks out against WWI
Link to images: Life magazine portrays La Follette as a traitor in 1917Life magazine portrays La Follette as a traitor in 1917
Link to manuscript: The Board of Health reports on the fluThe Board of Health reports on the flu
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