Abilene’s Debate Over War: February 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

Two articles from the Abilene Weekly Reflector in February 1917 deserve a closer look.  On February 15, 1917, the Abilene Weekly Reflector printed a proposal responding to the cutting off of diplomatic ties with Germany on February 3 and a rebuttal of that proposal that led to an interesting discussion on the role of the citizens and the government.  During a community meeting held on February 8, 1917 in Lasita, Kansas (in Riley County, north of Leonardville), a resolution was passed that argued that the majority of Americans desired peace and that the cutting off of diplomatic relations with Germany was a step towards war.  In light of this, the resolution asked the federal government to put the question of war up for a nationwide referendum.  Every United States citizen had the right to have their voice heard and the citizens of the country should have control over whether the country went to war.

Charles Harger 1

Charles Harger

The editor of the Abilene Weekly Reflector, Charles Harger, took issue with this resolution stating that it sounded good but would not hold up to analysis.  Charles Harger argued that: “this is a republic, governed by our representatives and we must trust to them to take such action in peace or war as is provided under the constitution that is the basis of our government.  If war comes it will not be because the people want it…but because it is deemed essential to the sustaining of our national existence and national life that we must take action.  And when emergency arises there is no time for referendum.  We must trust our president and congress to act and act promptly.  If the nation is threatened it must be preserved no matter what a referendum would show; if it is not threatened our government is not going to war.  This is a time for patriotic sustaining of the government- not for tying of hands or holding referendum.”  Members of congress and the president were elected to represent the citizens of the United States and to make informed decisions on how best to serve and protect the country.  A nationwide referendum would not only hamper the government’s ability to act but could prevent the government from responding quickly enough to a national emergency.

WWI article 2-15-1917

Abilene Weekly Reflector, February 15, 1917

The second article, printed on February 22, 1917, made an unlikely comparison between World War I and Abilene’s time as a cowtown from 1867 to 1871.  Howard Courant, as reported by the Abilene Reflector Chronicle, used an example from the cowtown days in Kansas to illustrate why the United States needed to stay out of the war.  He argued that during the wild days in the cowtowns in the 1860s and 1870s, people had the “horse sense” to stay away when cowboys got to shooting at each other.  Even though every citizen had a right to walk freely through town, they knew better than to get mixed up in the fight.  In the same way, the United States should refrain from sailing in European waters until the fighting stopped.  Americans needed to use their “horse sense” and not sail on boats going into the war zone and if they do, they should not be surprised if they got hit by a torpedo.  It made no sense for Americans to complain about American ships being sunk by German submarines since those ships insisted on still sailing in areas of the ocean declared a war zone by the German government.

A rebuttal to this argument was made by the Kansas City Star and was reprinted by the Abilene Weekly Reflector.  According to the Kansas City Star, the cities of Abilene and Dodge City did use “horse sense” and stayed out of the gun fights on their streets but that was only good for a short time.  There then came a point where nothing could be done and people were unable to attend to business, church, or school.  The “horse sense” of staying out of the street during a gun fight, in the long run, did not benefit the local citizens but only the gunfighters.  Local citizens finally used “horse sense” in hiring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson to drive the gunfighters from the streets.  While some pacifist citizens argued that it was immoral to drive the gunfighters out using violence, the Kansas City Star argued that the gunfighters “…wouldn’t listen to prayers…so Wild Bill was engaged, and it happened that he was the man for the job.”  For the Kansas City Star, “one may now walk the streets of Dodge City and Abilene, and by exercising reasonable control of his mouth, may get back to the hotel without being carried on a screen door.  Horse sense is always right, but the kind of sense the Abilene pacifists would have used to this day if they had prevailed, wasn’t horse sense.”  In other words, it made sense for the United States to avoid sailing in European waters for a time, but “horse sense” now called for the United States to intervene and make it safe to sail the oceans again.

About James D. Holland

I'm a former local government planner turned real estate agent turned safety manager turned Chamber of Commerce Director, turned marketing sales representative... phew. I enjoy writing about Abilene's history, businesses, events, politics, and anything else that interests me.
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