Column for the September 2009 issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly
History is a remarkable teacher. Unfortunately, we are very poor students.
In this issue, Beth Kirby – in a fine piece titled “Over Here: Cowlitz County Home Front During World War I” – describes the enthusiasm with which local residents got behind the war effort. They grew Victory Gardens, purchased Liberty Bonds, joined the Yankettes, and attended Red Cross fundraising dances.
They also agreed to suspend the First Amendment.
My maternal grandparents were Germans from Russia. They arrived in the U.S. several years before the start of World War I and attended the Castle Rock Lutheran church, which – because of its large immigrant population – conducted services in German. In early 1918, the local Council of Defense requested that Pastor William Rhode switch to English-only services. At the same time, an evangelist known as Three-Fingered Jack was touring the Pacific Northwest, delivering verbal attacks on alleged German sympathizers and adding to the climate of suspicion. Pastor Rhode and his congregation likely could not fathom how switching church services from German to English could aid the war effort. I’m guessing that they saw the request for what it was – a demand – and relented rather than risk public condemnation.
What began as unsanctioned prejudice toward German-Americans evolved into “careless talk” laws. In April 1917, the Kelso City Council passed Ordinance 204, which “[prohibited] utterances and actions of disrespect toward the American National Flag and the government of the United States.”
The editor of the Kelsonian said, “The time has passed when disloyal comments upon the United States and its attitude toward the war can be permitted. In the interests of the nation, it is necessary that every individual be guarded in public utterances, and swift punishment will be meted out to persons attacking the flag, or nation, or expressing hope in its defeat.”
On the national level, the Espionage and Sedition acts made it a crime to criticize the government.
No “careless talk” laws accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the majority of Americans were again willing to accept the loss of a broad range of personal freedoms and assume the role of mutes – in large part because expressing an opinion was creatively cast as an unpatriotic act that gave aid to the terrorists who had launched the September 11, 2001, attack that brought down the Twin Towers.
In April 2006, when public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war had begun to translate into protest, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “Any kind of moral and intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can severely weaken the ability of free societies to preserve.”
Simply put, we were told that in free societies there is nothing to discuss, this despite the fact that the Iraq conflict would claim the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 100,000 Iraqi civilians and cost taxpayers upwards of $800 billion.
Fear and intimidation are potent adversaries, especially during a crisis. They can cause us to follow like sheep and freely relinquish the freedoms we profess to cherish so dearly.
In Following the Equator, Mark Twain said, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”
Uncle Mark’s been gone for a century, but – if history is any indication – his words will still ring true for many years to come.