Abilene on the Eve of War: March 1917

By Andrew Pankratz

Dickinson County Historical Society

By the beginning of March 1917, it began to look like war was inevitable for the United States.  With the interception of the Zimmerman telegram from Germany to Mexico, Germany’s declaration of unrestricted warfare (Germany’s declaration that any ship, whether civilian or navy, would be subject to being sunk if found in the waters around Great Britain), and the breaking of diplomatic ties with Germany, the United States began to edge closer to war with Germany.  Abilene’s newspapers now began to discuss the likelihood of war and how local citizens should respond.

On March 7, 1917, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle wrote that Germany’s government had plotted against the United States since the beginning of World War I, even while claiming to be the friend of the United States.  Germany, according to the article, had even attempted to bring the United States into the war on Germany’s side and against the United States’ true friends (England and France).  The article argued that the German people themselves are “admirable, loving, and lovable,” but that the German government, especially the Kaiser, was controlled by self-interest, militarism, and a desire for more territory.  For the Abilene Weekly Chronicle, “what the future holds none can tell, but there is satisfaction in the fact that at least we know our enemy.”

World War 1 #3

Combat on the Front Lines

Another article on March 7 in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle argued that England and France were fighting the United States’ battles in Europe.  If militaristic Germany defeated England and France, “the United States would thence forth be the only first class power in the world denying the divine right of kings and proclaiming the doctrine that the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so far from being a creation of government, and is its moral justification.”  In other words, it was past due for the United States to recognize that it had a responsibility to aid England and France in the fight against Germany.

Arthur Capper

Kansas Governor Arthur Capper

Kansas governor, Arthur Capper, released a proclamation that was printed on March 29 in the Abilene Weekly Reflector.  Arthur Capper stated that “today, despite a patience too prolonged, the American nation is verging on war.  The spirit of Kansas is stirred as it has not been stirred for a generation…. But that the world may know Kansas stands as ready now as ever to do her full duty and more, I hereby designate, Friday, April 6, as Loyalty Day.  I further urge that beginning today all public offices and the people generally give expression to their loyalty by a daily display of the flag upon their houses, their automobiles, their public buildings, and places of business, and that school exercises be opened daily by the singing of patriotic songs.”  It was time for Kansans to prepare themselves for war and show the nation that they were ready to do their patriotic duty.

As war came closer, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle responded on April 4 to Germany’s claim that Germany had never attacked the United States but instead wanted to be friends with the United States.  The Chronicle argued sarcastically that the United States should therefore play by the same rules as Germany by not declaring war but creating new, arbitrary, and self-interested rules that it expected other countries to adhere to.  This was in response to Germany’s setting off an area around Britain as a war zone and declaring any ship as fair game to submarine attack that sailed into that zone.  (This article, though, stayed silent on England’s use of the blockade to starve out Germany by preventing any ships from reaching German ports, even if those ships belonged to neutrals.)  Another step the United States needed to take, the Chronicle reported sarcastically, was to ban all submarines from the Atlantic Ocean, with the penalty for breaking that ban “being blown out of the water.”  For the Chronicle, the next rule would be that the United States would go to Europe to liberate Belgium and that “if any German were so ‘reckless’ as to get in the way and interfere with these rules, they might get into trouble, but that would be their own affair, not ours.”  As this article demonstrated, the Chronicle, and many Americans for that matter, was fed up with the actions of Germany and determined that the United States should not passively submit to Germany’s outrages.

AWR 4-5-1917

Abilene Weekly Reflector – April 5, 1917

Then on April 5 the Abilene Weekly Reflector reported that the entire population of the United States would support President Woodrow Wilson in his declaration of war, no matter their political party.  “It [the nation] will forget the unfortunate history of the past two years of ‘watchful waiting’ during which we wasted valuable time in preparation…. It will back congress and the president in their resolve finally to get busy.  The United States is entering on a long and unfamiliar road but it will do so courageously and hope and believe that in the end it will make for assurance of national honor and for world peace.”  War had finally come and it was time for the United States to swing into action.  This hope that the war would assure world peace became widespread throughout the duration of the war and served as a common thread in government and newspaper statements on the goals to be accomplished by the end of the war.  Unfortunately, as is well known now, this hope for World War I to be the war to end all wars was to prove overly optimistic.

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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