To Be an American

Germany depicted as a large, dangerous ape with a club carrying away a woman. The woman is meant to represent lady libery, U.S.
The Committee on Public Information produced American propaganda posters that commonly portrayed Germans as bloodthirsty animals in an effort to spur enlistment or other goals. Subsequently, German Americans suffered as the public associated them with the enemy.
War intensified existing social pressures, including some that had been heating up and boiling over for decades. Issues such as immigration and organized labor fueled intense debates about what it meant to be an "American." At the heart of the debates was the question of conformity to the goals of the status quo. Would groups that had "stirred up trouble" in the past unite behind the government and help win the war or would they be slackers, shirkers, and disloyalists, or worse yet, subversives or German agents bent on destroying America from the inside out?

The Committee on Public Information

By 1917 President Woodrow Wilson, the progressive Democratic, finally concluded he could not escape entry into the war. He saw it as his moral duty to save democracy in Europe. But Wilson bemoaned the "illiberalism at home" that war would bring. Then almost as an act of fulfillment, within a week of the declaration of war, he created the Committee on Public Information to control public opinion. The chairman, George Creel, oversaw the actions of up to 150,000 workers nationally. He secured the cooperation of newspapers to voluntarily censor stories so the public would be informed but sensitive information would be safeguarded. And, he hired hundreds of artists and writers to launch and unprecedented propaganda campaign.

It was this propaganda that fueled the passions of Americans, both good and bad. To be sure, the committee reminded the nation it was fighting for democracy and freedom. And its propaganda helped sell war bonds and promote positive actions such as reducing absenteeism in factories. But its releases also raised hysteria by portraying Germans as Huns, evil creatures perpetrating atrocities as part of their greedy aim to conquer the world. The committee hinted that German spies were hiding around every corner; that any work stoppages were tantamount to treason; any dissent was unpatriotic; and socialists and pacifists were secretly sympathizing with the enemy.

War Madness Slams German Americans

Hamburger, renamed the Liberty Burger with bun, lettuce, tomato, onian, burger.
"Liberty sandwiches" avoided reference to the German city of Hamburg.
Following the tone of the committee's posters and releases, Americans engaged in bouts of "war madness." Vigilante groups such as the National Protective Association thrived in a culture of fear and distrust. Rumors, spy scares, and courts imposing sentences of tar and feathers followed around the country, usually aimed at German Americans.

Many people tried to remove reminders of German culture in the country. Some Americans stopped listening to German music. They called sauerkraut "liberty cabbage," while hamburgers were reborn as "liberty sandwiches" and German pretzels were removed from lunch counters. German measles became "liberty measles." And, some towns in America became Liberty instead of Berlin. In fear, many German businesses and shops changed their names to remove reference to their heritage.

The German language was also targeted. The federal Trading-with-the-Enemy Act of 1917 gave the government sweeping authority to censor the foreign language press. Many of the hundreds of German language newspapers that existed at the beginning of the war were forced out of business. The State Council of Defense for Oregon took no formal action against newspapers or the speaking or teaching German, but it did issue restrictions related to church services:

The defense council acted against the perceived German threat in other ways too. After a complaint from Linn County that a geography book "contained matter which should not be included in the school curriculum under present conditions," the council printed 15,000 inserts that it distributed to public and private schools in the state to correct the apparently favorable depiction of the German Empire.

And, the council, "as part of its regular daily routine, has taken care of reports of disloyalty and pro-Germanism arising in several counties...." It sometimes received reports from unlikely places. The Junior Red Cross in Josephine County displayed extreme vigilance when it asked parents to give written approval for their child signing a pledge to "render the best service to my country." The chapter reported that "whenever the parent or guardian refused to approve the signing of this pledge, he or she was interviewed and the reason required. In this way, the Junior Red Cross was able to help the Council of Defense to discover cases of disloyalty."

Newspapers jumped on the bandwagon against German Americans as well. Editor and future governor of Oregon, Charles Sprague, wrote in April 1918:

Audio icon Listen to a speech by former U.S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard in 1917 entitled "Loyalty and German-Americans." (.mp3,

Immigrants Suffer

German Americans were not alone in suffering suspicion and pressure to conform. Other groups, particularly unnaturalized residents and conscientious objectors, drew considerable attention from the government as well as from employers and neighbors. The defense council maintained a list of citizens of neutral countries who cancelled their naturalization declaration of intention papers "to escape the draft." Federal selective service regulations allowed such surrender but also provided that the person would then be "forever barred from United States citizenship."

Photograph of Oscar Johnson in a suit. His signature in blue ink across the top.
Swedish citizen and Newberg resident Oscar Johnson filed his declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen in McMinnville. Many Swedish citizens in Oregon were tracked during World War I after they cancelled their papers. (OSA, Yamhill County Records, Declarations of Intention)
The list included citizens of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, and other neutral countries. It noted the name, address, draft board, nationality, and workplace of those being tracked. The list also contained "remarks" about individuals that betrayed the tenor of the times. Two Swedish citizens, Gustav Kringsman and Axel M. Johnson, living in Bend lost their jobs after "each of these men were told the Local [Draft] Board would be glad to hand them passports and the fact was reported to employers who promptly 'fired them.'" Charles Strickwerda, a citizen of the Netherlands living in Arlington, had his final citizenship papers rejected after he "stated at [a] hearing that he would refuse to enter the U.S. Army in case of war with Germany or any other foreign power." He was listed as a conscientious objector.

To reduce the threat posed by immigrants being swayed into pro-German actions, the defense council started the "Americanization department." However, as of its November 1918 newsletter, it had yet to begin educating individuals: "Professor F.J. Young, University of Oregon, Eugene, has been appointed chief of the Americanization department, and is perfecting plans for the Americanization and education of all immigrants in the State." Americanization efforts would pick up steam in the 1920s.

Destroying the Wobblies

Song book of the IWW shows a man reaching 1 arm forward and industrial building with smoke stacks in background.
The IWW used songs and heroic imagery to promote its cause. (Image,
Organized labor, particularly the strident Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies), suffered in Oregon as well. The west coast of the U.S. became a hotbed of labor radicalism in the years leading up to World War I, but the federal government lacked effective tools to counter it. The war, however, provided a good excuse for federal legislation in the form of the Sabotage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918, which provided the means to persecute the IWW. The legislation allowed the government to punish any expression of opinion that was "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive" of the American government, flag, or uniform, regardless of whether or not it led to action.

The federal legislation was patterned after "criminal syndicalism" laws in many states, including Oregon, that led to numerous trials and convictions. But it was the wholesale arrests of IWW members by the federal and state governments that effectively disorganized and disabled the Wobblies. Still, in characteristic fashion, the IWW went down with "its old dash and bravado," as in a 1918 Portland trial when one Wobbly "firebrand" harangued the court and proclaimed himself to be a "man without a country," shouting "to hell with the United States!" And, in an action showing the effectiveness of the new laws, the outspoken national leader of the IWW, Eugene V. Debs, was sentenced to prison after he expressed his revulsion against the war.


(Oregon State Defense Council Records, Publications and Ephemera, Box 9, Folder 3; State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 5, 37; McKay, Floyd J., An Editor for Oregon. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 1998; Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 55, pages 26-27)