Councils watched patriotism during World War I

Published 12:18 am Saturday, December 1, 2018


Guest columnist

For good or for ill, some Americans like to monitor fellow citizens’ patriotism.

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They hold those who have diverged from their patriotic ideals to public account. That’s one reason why protests during the National Anthem evoke such great passion in many people.

The same holds true for Jane Fonda, who posed with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in 1972. While Fonda later regretted her action and said the photograph was a “betrayal” of the “country that gave me privilege,” the moniker “Hanoi Jane” will follow her forever.

In the past, Kentuckians have also applied public pressure to those not deemed patriotic enough.

One hundred years ago, for example, there was an organized effort to push American citizens to support the nation’s involvement in the First World War. Councils of Defense, established in counties across the nation, organized parades, pushed for donations to charities, encouraged agricultural production and worked to enforce laws pertaining to vagrancy and rationing.

In some instances, those who failed to comply faced public shame.

In Kentucky in August 1918, the Fulton County Council of Defense placed an announcement in the Hickman Courier pledging to enforce a vagrancy law. They would do so by informing authorities about “men between sixteen and sixty years of age, who refuse to labor, as the law requires of every man to do, thus helping to relieve labor shortage, produce and save large crops and help win the war.”

The council, comprised of 10 farmers, doctors and business leaders, also scrutinized how their neighbors spent their money. They tracked how much residents had given to the YMCA and the Red Cross and noted how many war bonds they had purchased. “When a man is found who has failed to do his duty along these important lines, an investigation will follow, and such a man will be given an opportunity to show his reason for his failure to help win the war,” they said.

The council was serious about these threats. On Sept. 12, 1918, newspapers reported that a man named Barbee, who lived near Fulton, “will be given a hearing Saturday before the council on charge of disloyalty by reason of his not having purchased Liberty Bonds or War Savings Stamps.”

Barbee told the council that he had too much debt and could not afford to purchase bonds. “The council, however, is not satisfied with his pleas,” a reporter wrote. Because Barbee owned a “100-acre farm besides personal property,” the council believed that he could have done more to support the war effort.

The council — and newspapers that reported on their work — used public shame, community pressure and boycotting to force people to comply. The power of their investigations lay with local merchants, who had signed a resolution “to do business only with 100 per cent Americans.”

On Oct. 2, 1918, a headline in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer showed exactly how this played out. It read, “Alleged slackers are barred from trading.” The newspaper reported that the Fulton County Council tried J. F. McNeese from Cayce and a Mr. Morehead from Crutchfield for “not having done their part in buying Liberty bonds and war savings stamps.” The council found the two men guilty and barred them “from all trade of all kinds in this county or elsewhere. The council is going after slackers in this county.”

Blackballing McNeese paid off. Within two weeks, he “was ready to stand behind his government in the prosecution of the war and offered a check for the full amount of his quota of the Fourth Liberty Loan.” McNeese then asked the council to lift his ban and that “the public be requested to do business with him as heretofore.” Pleased with McNeese’s compliance, the council ended the sanction and said that he should “be congratulated on his change of heart.”

In addition to investigating residents’ financial support of the war, the council applied pressure to ensure an adequate workforce.

In October 1919, the Council told men to “Work or Fight!” They reminded the public that “loafing” was illegal and that those who did not carry a council-provided “Employment Card” proving that they worked were “subject to arrest and fine.”

Across the state, other Councils of Defense took similar measures. In Louisville, for example, a notice in the Courier-Journal called on readers to “Report all disloyal acts and utterances, draft or tax evasions to the Jefferson County Council of Defense.”

The Jefferson County Council also charged William Zeiser, a member of the Board of Aldermen, with disloyalty for making “violently pro-German speeches” and for refusing to wear an American flag pin. Zeiser dismissed the charges as a “political frameup,” but later said that “the charges had greatly distressed and humiliated him for fear those not personally acquainted with him might think him unpatriotic.” The council ultimately found Zeiser to be “a loyal citizen” and exonerated him.

In Harrodsburg, the Mercer County Council of Defense had J. T. Rynearson removed as principal of the Salvisa High School “for alleged disloyal and pro-German tendencies.”

In fact, across the nation, Councils of Defense watched for disloyal acts. In Scott County, Iowa, for example, four women were called before the local council and “charged with talking in German over the telephone,” which conflicted with a gubernatorial proclamation. The four “were ordered to pay fines ranging from $50 to $100” that went to the Red Cross.

Big Brother was not watching, but multiple councils of defense were. In 1918, Jane Fonda would not have fared well under their gaze.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate. He also hosts the “History Advocate” series on the Society’s YouTube channel.