Pulitzer-Prize winner from 100 years ago relevant today

Published 5:38 pm Monday, January 21, 2019


Guest columnist

Citizens mired in apathy. International money and foreign agents influencing domestic politics. Americans ensconced in a bubble of prosperity and isolationism, unconcerned about other nations. Greed and self-interest dividing us, damaging our reputation abroad and superseding a love of country.

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Sound familiar?

Although these charges could appear in today’s headlines, a Kentucky newspaper editor wrote about them a century ago.

The editor, Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal, used these themes to urge Americans to support the nation’s involvement in the First World War. In doing so, he won the Pulitzer Prize.

A former Confederate soldier and the son of a U.S. Congressman, Watterson worked in Ohio and Tennessee before taking over the Louisville Journal in 1868. After guiding the merger of the Journal and the Louisville Courier, he led the blended Courier-Journal for the next 51 years. Thanks to his work, it became a national newspaper of record.

In two editorials written shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, Watterson called on citizens to abandon isolationism and pacifism. In reviewing Watterson’s work, one journalist noted that, “Rarely have American ideals and purposes in the Great War been stated with such power and clarity as in these ringing calls to duty and sacrifice.” The next year, Watterson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

In the first editorial, published on April 7, 1917, under the headline “Vae Victis!” (Latin for “Woe to the Vanquished”), Watterson built a bulwark against appeasement: “It is a lie to pretend that the world is better than it was; that men are truer, wiser; that war is escapable; that peace may be had for the planning and the asking.”

He had seen foreign influence on American politics and it infuriated him. For the previous three years, Watterson argued, Germany had been “making war secretly” against the United States “through his emissaries in destruction of our industries, secretly through his diplomats plotting not merely foreign but civil war against us.” By dividing the populace, bolstering American pacifism and treating the nation “with scorn and insult,” Watterson asked, “Where would the honest passivist [sic] draw the line?” When would this foreign influence become too much for Americans to bear?

The reason for Americans’ apathy toward foreign meddling, Watterson argued, was prosperity. The American economy was booming and he wanted to shake citizens out of their gilded lethargy. The comfort of the previous 50 years, he wrote, “has over-commercialized the character and habits of the people.” Pacifism had linked arms with business to become “a cult.” Most grievous, the editor contended, was that the desire to make money had been placed “above and against patriotic inclination and duty.” Self-interest had led to a patriotic indolence.

The United States had watched other nations fall to aggression, Watterson wrote, yet “All the while we looked on with either simpering idiocy, or dazed apathy.” German sabotage or the 1915 destruction of the Lusitania — a British ocean liner that was obliterated by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of 1,200 men, women and children, including 128 Americans — “did not awaken us to a sense of danger and arouse us from the stupefaction of ignorant and ignoble self-complacency.”

Watterson continued this message in a second editorial published three days later.

Written under the headline “War Has Its Compensations,” the editor argued that Germany had intentionally sidestepped efforts for world peace. Previous calls for global tranquility had been well-funded in the United States and had been embraced by a multitude of nations. One country, however, ignored the call. “That was Germany,” he wrote. “Why, we now see clearly what we then did not see at all.” Therefore, it was time to act.

Watterson again criticized German meddling in U.S. domestic affairs. German financial donations sent to American pacifist organizations bolstered national isolationism and worked “to maintain a propaganda to divide our people and paralyze our Government.” In our time, Watterson may have made similar complaints about alleged foreign intervention in national party politics.

With the world engulfed in war, the interference of foreign powers in domestic matters, and elected officials frequently changing with the political winds, the editor fired a warning. “Those who are most in danger and only in danger are the honest simpletons who stick to it that war is a crime,” he wrote. He added that those most at risk “go around mouthing socialistic and infidelistic platitudes about a paradisiac dreamland which exists nowhere outside their muddled brains.” Instead, he argued, American pacifists needed to see the world as it existed and support the war effort.

Repeating the calls from his earlier editorial, Watterson decried those who placed capitalism above patriotism, affinity for money over a love of country. Those “who were born without enthusiasm and have lived to make money,” needed to realize that inaction meant risk. Selfish citizens, “with whom ‘business is business;’ men who are indifferent to what happens so it does not happen to them … have sprung from the over-commercialism of fifty years of a kind of uncanny prosperity. Their example has affected injuriously the nation’s reputation and has trenched perilously upon the character and habits of the people. It needs to be checked.” The days of isolated self-interest were over, the editor argued.

While Watterson earned the Pulitzer Prize for his arguments, we should ask ourselves: does his message apply to us today?

Watterson wrote about Americans driven by self-interest over patriotism, an obsession with individual prosperity, and foreign influences on domestic affairs. With these issues making news today, how do we shake ourselves loose from, as Watterson wrote, a “simpering idiocy, or dazed apathy”?

Watterson, who died in 1921, is silent on the matter. But if you listen, his bones are rattling.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.