By Andrew Pankratz
Dickinson County Historical Society
On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany and entered the war on the same side as England and France. Now it became time to gear the country towards war by raising an army and increasing the manufacture of war materials. Abilene newspapers began exploring how Abilene citizens could patriotically serve their country.
According to the Abilene Weekly Reflector of April 12, the United States entered the war to defend its safety “and for the advancement of humanity.” “They [government officials] have pledged our men, our resources, and our prayers to the cause.” While the war could be long or short, the American people owed it to their country and themselves to back the president and congress in going to war. “This is our nation, the greatest nation the world ever knew, and as a peace-loving yet patriotic people all should aid in making its destiny sure.” Every citizen had a patriotic duty to support the war effort, no matter their views on the war before the United States had entered.
Even with the country now at war, the Abilene Weekly Reflector still tried to keep things light and poke some fun at current events in their April 12th issue. In the first statement, the Reflector stated that “the movie heroes ought to make good fighters in the front line.” If the Reflector had its way, the actors who portrayed movie heroes might find themselves having to demonstrate their ability to turn acting into action on the front lines in France. The next statement argued that “Abilene is in no danger from submarines or gunboats until there is a good rain. Mud Creek wouldn’t float a gold fish.” With the lack of rain providing a natural defense against the German U-boat, Abilene citizens could focus on supporting the war effort wholeheartedly.
As the United States went to war, some worried that the citizens of the country could possibly over-react and start hunting for supposed traitors. According to The Dickinson County News (also published in Abilene) of April 12, “notwithstanding the fact that we are at war with Germany, it is the duty of every American citizen to keep cool. There will be many stories circulated, and the newspapers will be full of reports of men who are not loyal, but let us not judge too hastily. Let us ascertain the facts before censuring someone who may be entirely innocent. Help your country in the way your conscience tells you to, but at the same time do not let your prejudices get away with your judgement.” Quickly jumping to conclusions that someone was disloyal just because they did not support the country or the war effort in the same way as the majority, not only caused a possible injustice to be committed but could also harm the war effort of the country as a whole. Local citizens needed to keep calm and not fall victim to every rumor or story passed around. Not everyone heeded this warning to keep calm and as the war progressed, some mobs formed to enforce support for the war against supposed slackers through the use of tar and feathers, threats, and even attempted lynching (mostly against members of the Mennonite churches in Marion, Harvey, and McPherson counties).
For the Abilene Weekly Reflector of April 19, the entrance of the United States into the war would bring an end to the notion or even motivation of the “possibility of prosperous aggression.” Prosperous aggression was the motivation for going to war for financial, land, or other gains. America’s entrance into the war marked “an epoch in the world’s moral evolution” and that only the United States had entered the war out of duty and disinterested motivation. If the war was a moral duty, then it was the responsibility of every moral citizen to support it. As the war progressed, other Kansas newspapers even began referring to the war as almost a crusade and nearly having religious qualities.
The Abilene Weekly Chronicle of May 9, 1917 stated that not everyone in Abilene could bear a gun and fight on the front in France, but that “we shall all enlist for the war and do our bit- one boy at the front and his brother at the plow; one father at the bench and another at the desk; one woman in the Red Cross ministering to the present soldier and another in the home or class room directing the hearts and hands that shall carry the flag of liberty in future wars. With love for mankind and with malice toward none we enlist in the battle for human rights.” Everyone needed to aid in the war effort, either by fighting in France or helping out on the home front.
By May 1917, the United States had been at war for only a month and was having to come to terms with how to carry out a war with a small army and even less war material. Over the coming months, the United States would raise an army through the draft, increase production of war materials, and send both to France to help England and France defeat the Germans. The months leading right up to and after the declaration of war, though, help provide a glimpse into how Abilene citizens viewed the potential of war and how they should respond to it. With the country at war, it now remained for the citizens of Abilene to determine how to react to the different challenges brought by the war.