A Sudden Belligerent
In April 1917 President Woodrow Wilson, his administration and Congress found themselves no longer able to walk the tightrope of strict neutrality they had cautiously trod during the preceding thirty-two months. From August 1914 to this critical moment in 1917, the United States experienced escalating frustrations with the British blockade (including seizure/impound of merchant vessels destined for neutral ports and the blacklisting of American firms suspected of trading with the Central Powers). Relations with Germany were even worse; ships of American and other nationalities (both combatant and neutral) were repeatedly sunk, with casualties of American crew or passengers. Operations of the German Foreign Office became the subject of intrigue and speculation as suspicious fires and apparent acts of sabotage occurred in American factories that supplied the Entente. In the autumn of 1916 Wilson proposed to broker a negotiated peace and as late as January 1917 diplomatic responses from Germany and Britain gave him reason for optimism, but in February Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare. This was, for America the final breaking point. Not only had Germany planned the action while presumably seeking peace, but also the recently discovered Zimmerman Telegram (in which Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico and promised Mexico U.S. territory in return) confirmed that Germany's militaristic government could not be trusted. Wilson delivered his war address to a joint session of Congress on the evening of April 2 and on April 6 the United States entered the war on the side of the Entente1
Overnight, songs like the hit "I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier" and "Neutrality Rag" became anthetical to national interest as a divided and underprepared nation was suddenly forced to mobilize for war. Throughout the period of neutrality there had been deep divisions between the progressive and conservative factions in both political parties as well as in public opinion in the South and Midwest as against the Northeast and West Coast. There was a large German-American population (which gradually and overwhelmingly came to reject support for the Fatherland) as well as anti-British Irish-Americans. The U.S. had a substantial Navy which it made an effort to maintain, but until the 1916 Congressional preparedness debates, nothing was done to expand the approximately 100,000 member Army, which, when it entered the war, remained woefully lacking in modern armament. The American public largely supported France and Britain and expressed outrage at Germany's invasion of Belgium and the death of non-combatants on the high-seas, but it was even more in agreement that America should stay out of the European War. When war was finally declared, as historian Justus Doenecke notes, "Despite the surface consensus, the decision for war did not engender widespread enthusiasm. The national mood reflected more resignation than eagerness, insofar as it is possible to measure such an elusive phenomenon." 2
Certainly, there were opinion makers and advocacy groups already in place that had been calling for war preparation or intervention. The National Security League (established 1914), American Rights Committee (1915), and American Defense Society (1915), along with the still politically active and very vocal former President Theodore Roosevelt all sought to sway popular and congressional opinion toward a more nationalistic mindset in general and a war-ready military in particular, but their messages resonated to their own supporters, not across national divisions. Within four days of the war declaration Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), an independent government agency that was to be the official propaganda instrument. Headed by journalist and political reformer George Creel, the CPI engaged in both dissemination of the national message and censorship of war news, all in the service of generating patriotic enthusiasm. Most notable of the CPI's activities was the "four-minute men" lecture series. So called for the approximate length of their speeches, the "four-minute men" delivered some 750,000 addresses nationwide. The CPI also established its own film unit (which produced many shorts and a few full-length features) and it commissioned posters.
Despite the pervasiveness of the CPI, it was popular demand, not directive, that prompted American songwriters and publishers to turn out work reflective of the new reality. In 1917 Vaudeville remained the dominant entertainment medium in the nation; cinema, still in its infancy, had yet to overtake it. Tin Pan Alley—New York City's music publishing district—3 existed expressly to create hits for the publishers' "pushers" to promote, Vaudeville's stars to present and the public to play at home, with sheet music sales the music publishers' chief source of income. Sound recording, though an important and growing industry, was still considered a "secondary exploitative vehicle"4. Tin Pan Alley responded immediately to the new demand for war-related material and produced songs to entertain and to motivate, but primarily to sell. Amateur songwriters and "wannabe" lyricists mimicked popular war song topics, occasionally presenting an alternative perspective. The United States' involvement in the war was now the overarching reality of American life, and its sheet music was a reflection of that life.
Paul C. Fraunfelter
Digital Conversion Specialist
Library of Congress
- Debate of the war resolution took place April 3-6, final votes being; Senate 82-6, Congress 373-50.
- Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War (University of Kentucky Press, 2011), p. 297.
- New York City's music publishing district, 28th St. between 6th Ave. & Broadway. So named for the percussive din of countless pianos, muted with newspaper.
- Leonard Feist, Popular Music Publishing in America (New York: National Music Publishers' Association, 1980) p.36.