U.S. Declares War On Germany

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 272nd installment in the series.   

April 4, 1917: U.S. Declares War On Germany 

The first week of April 1917 brought the decisive turning point of the First World War, as the United States finally entered the war against Germany, although no one yet knew with what effect. Was America really prepared to expend her own blood and treasure on a scale anywhere approaching the sacrifices already made by both the Allies and Central Powers? Or would it be a mostly passive affair, with a division or two of American volunteers showing the flag while the U.S. government guaranteed a fresh round of loans (the Allies’ immediate concern anyway)? 

In fact the United States would adopt mass conscription and create a “real” European-style army of over four million men, more or less from scratch, all in a remarkably short amount of time. Entry into the First World War would bring about sweeping changes in American society, already experiencing strain from the war manufacturing boom and resulting inflation. Among other effects, the shift to a war footing brought with it the rapid expansion of the federal government, including unprecedented efforts to shape and monitor public opinion. 

No Recourse 

Following the expulsion of the German ambassador and public outrage over the Zimmermann Telegram, the sinking of a number of American merchant vessels by German submarines at last left President Woodrow Wilson with no recourse: America could endure further insults or fight. 

The commander-in-chief was doubtless aware that, between Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign and his own order to arm U.S. merchant ships, many people believed the two countries were already in a “virtual state of war,” as argued by sources as disparate as U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing and German quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff. When Wilson called his cabinet to discuss the situation on March 20, its members spoke unanimously in favor of war; the following day Wilson called Congress to meet on April 2, and there could be little doubt what he meant to do. 

By the time Congress convened, major newspapers had been beating the war drums for weeks, and the general climate was one of patriotic fervor. Wilson himself was jittery in the hours before the speech, according to his friend and confidante Colonel House, who wrote: “The president was apparently calm during the day, but, as a matter of fact, I could see signs of nervousness. Neither of us did anything except ‘Kill time’ until he was called to the Capitol.” 

An anonymous correspondent for the French magazine L’Illustration left behind this account of the preamble to the historic event, as both houses of Congress met to hear Wilson’s address: 

On that evening of April 2, 1917… the House was absolutely jammed. The public galleries had been courteously placed at the disposal of the ladies, and were tightly packed. The Press galleries, too, were overcrowded. Journalists had come from Texas and Alaska to witness the historic moment. Even the Senators’ seats were crowded: some Congressmen, having been authorized to bring their youngest children, were holding them in their arms and on their knees in order that they, too, might witness the great event. 

Finally, the austere figure of Wilson himself strode to the Speaker’s rostrum amid scenes of jubilation rare in that august chamber: 

Everybody was seated when, at 8:39 p.m., the usher announced: “The President of the United States!” At once, in a spontaneous movement, everyone rose, and the room was filled with an immense acclamation, one of those strange American acclamations that include bravoes, howling, and whistles, the latter being not, as in our country, a sign of contempt, but on the contrary a mark of admiration… From an inner pocket of his tail-coat, he pulled a few small sheets of paper on which people in the galleries could distinguish a small handwriting through their opera glasses. 

Beginning in a calm, even tone, Wilson reminded his listeners of the occasion of their last meeting: 

On the 3d of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the 1st day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. 

Germany was proceeding with its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare despite repeated objections and warnings from the United States government, along with numerous other neutral powers, who rejected this brutal new form of warfare on grounds of human decency as well as the laws of war. While the sinkings obviously entailed major financial losses for American shippers and exporters, Wilson was careful to emphasize the moral transgression: 

I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people can not be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations. 

Having painted Germany as what might nowadays be termed a “rogue state,” the president argued that the United States had no alternatives if it were to preserve the national honor: “There is one choice we can not make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.” 

Now, in the speech’s climactic passage, Wilson laid his request before Congress: 

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war. 

According to the same anonymous French correspondent, these final words triggered an outpouring of emotion: “The decisive words had now been pronounced… The whole assembly was on its feet. From its throats, an ardent and deep cry – similar to that uttered on August 3rd, 1914 by the French Chamber at the announcement of the German declaration of war – rose into the air… After that, every sentence of the presidential address was greeted by applause…”

Wilson hastened to emphasize that America’s fight was with the German government, not the German people, reflecting the widespread belief that the militarist, undemocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II had plunged the nation into war without consulting its subjects: “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval.” 

This assertion wasn’t just sugarcoating or empty public diplomacy, but a central tenet of the worldview which led Wilson to seek a declaration of war in the first place. Pointing to the apparent success of the recent Russian Revolution in establishing popular rule, Wilson sought to portray the war as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, civilization and barbarism. 

This rhetoric reflected his own ideals, but also just happened to foreshadow one of the most powerful propaganda strategies employed by the government, and its allies in the press and civil society, to motivate the American people during the war:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. 

Wilson ended his historic address, asking Congress to declare war for the fourth time in its history, on a charismatic note, at once humble and messianic, frightening and portentous: 

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. 

With these stirring words ringing in their ears, two days later, on April 4, 1917, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of war against Germany, by a margin of 82 to six (the six holdouts were an eclectic bunch, and included Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi, an isolationist and notorious racist; George Norris of Nebraska, a left-leaning Progressive Republican who blamed Wall Street for bringing on the war; and Robert LaFollette, the pacifist Republican from Wisconsin, who had opposed even arming merchant ships as a belligerent act, and also had a large number of German-American constituents). 

Two days after the Senate vote to declare war, on the morning of April 6, 1917 the United States House of Representatives also voted to declare war by a margin of 373 to 50. At 12:12 p.m. the war resolution returned to the Senate and was immediately forwarded to the White House, where Wilson signed it at 1:13 p.m. The United States was officially at war with Germany. 

“This Is A Great Day”

The reaction in the Allied powers to the U.S. declaration of war was understandably jubilant, as the world’s largest neutral country (possessing the world’s largest economy) finally swung into action after years of prevarication and delay. 

Mildred Aldrich, an American writer living in a small French village, recorded a typical reaction from a French soldier she had billeted, who wrote: 

Today’s paper brings us great and comforting news. At last, dear madame! At last your marvellous country is going to march beside us in this terrible war. With a full heart I present to you my heartiest congratulations… Here, in the army, the joy is tremendous at the idea that we have behind us the support of a nation so great, and all our admiration, all our gratitude goes out to your compatriots, to the citizens of the great Republic, which is going to enter voluntarily into this Holy War, and so bravely expose itself to its known horrors. Bravo! et vivent les Etats-Unis! 

In her diary entry on April 4, 1917, Aldrich noted: “This is a great day. The Stars and Stripes are flying at my gate, and they are flying over all France. What is more they will soon be flying--if they are not already—over Westminster, for the first time in history.” 

On the other side, the American declaration of war further depressed German morale, but the country had already seen off multiple comers. Furthermore chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief collaborator, Erich Ludendorff, remained convinced that the U.S. contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly financial, and German newspapers reassured the public accordingly (of course not everyone shared their confidence). One German junior officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled the general attitude at the time, as well as the skepticism of the more cosmopolitan industrial elite: 

In April 1917 the U.S. Congress declared war, but the German people were not too frightened. We knew the Americans had a small army and navy and we could not see how these forces could influence the war’s events. It would take years for them to mobilize and by that time the war would be over. The average German knew very little about American history, and while thinking about American soldiers, he visualized an army of cowboys appearing on the battlefield with their funny hats and lassos, like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Surely they would not amount to much on the Western Front. But some educated people, especially those in north Germany who knew the United States well, now feared it might be impossible to win. 

Another German officer, Herbert Sulzbach, confided his worries in his diary: “State of war with America. You feel pretty dubious when you consider that this huge, rich country is now going to furnish active support – both troops and equipment – to the British and French. The economic position at home doesn’t seem to look too rosy any more either. But we have to stick it out and win through to a victorious finish.” On April 15 the German government cut the daily bread ration from 1800 grams to 1350 grams (or from four pounds to three pounds) per person per week. 

The APL and CPI

The large margin in the House of Representatives is a fairly safe indication that the measure was broadly popular with the American public at the time, but there were still considerable resistance to U.S. intervention continuing after the declaration of war, including from socialists, pacifist religious groups like the Quakers, some women’s suffrage activists, and various German-American groups. At the same time U.S. entry into the war emboldened hyper-patriotic Americans who had long questioned the loyalty of untrustworthy elements, including immigrants and socialists, and now set out to protect the war effort from saboteurs and troublemakers in their midst.

On March 22, 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago ad exec, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. 

The APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members. Other groups with similar agendas included the National Security League and American Defense Society. The country got its first taste of the new nativism on April 5, when pro-war rioters broke up a meeting of the American Union Against Militarism, a socialist group.

The propaganda counterpart of the APL was the Committee for Public Information (CPI), established by Wilson on April 14, 1917 in order to promote awareness of the reasons for America’s entry into the war, generate support for the war effort, and disseminate information about how ordinary Americans can contribute. 

Led by journalist George Creel, the CPI quickly grew into a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine, using every means available to persuade Americans that the war was just and discredit its opponents. Media employed by the CPI included posters, books, pamphlets, movies, gramophone records, music, live theater, and “spoken word,” including the famous “four-minute men,” an army of 75,000 speakers who could deliver a carefully rehearsed speech in favor of some aspect of the U.S. war effort in any public setting (a powerful tool before the widespread adoption of radio). 

One of the main goals of the CPI was inducing compliance with the draft; it would go on to play a key role raising awareness of the “Liberty Loan” public bond sales and convincing Americans to put their savings at the disposal of the war effort, as well as defending unpopular measures like rationing. 

Although propaganda doubtless played a role in shaping public opinion, America’s patriotic fervor was real and widespread. A classic cultural artifact of the era is the song “Over There,” penned by George M. Cohan in a few hours on April 7, 1917, with lyrics concluding:

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware -

We'll be over, we're coming over,

And we won't come back till it’s over, over there. 

 See the previous installment or all entries.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

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2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

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Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

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3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

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Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

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4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

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Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

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5. Gingerbread House; $212

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Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

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6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

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7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

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8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

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9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

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10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

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How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

Something akin to a nightmare

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

A Wonderful free-for-all

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

This story has been updated for 2020.