It’s the Law—Speak English Only!

"Dear Sister.
Must tell you now what happened here… Monday we had an awful time. People acted like savages. They came in mobs from towns all around and one mob got Rev. John Reichardt and made him march through town carrying a flag. Then they made him stand on a coffin, which was a rough box and kiss the flag while a band from another town played the Star Spangled Banner… Then he was ordered out of town… The sheriff got Rev. Reichardt to Tipton for protection as the mob could come any time and even kill him. Preacher is packing his goods. Papa and the boys made boxes for him all day yesterday. Mamma was there yesterday afternoon and helped pack. Quite a few people are helping them. Rev. and Mrs. look bad as they are not safe at all. We will not have any church for a long time now. When they were through with the Minister they got ahold of Fritag, kicked him and pushed him into the crowd carrying a flag. I was standing right next to Fritag when they got him. Nearly scared me stiff. Charles, Mamma, and I beat it for home… Then they went after Louis Ripe. He was just in the corn field when the mob came down there. They scared the children and Lena something awful. Lena came over there and cried with all her children. Louie had to march in Main Street and carry the flag. While all these men were marching they would ring the fire bell something awful… Then, each man had to pay $100 to the Red Cross. "

Young Lydia Conrad wrote this letter to her sister describing the celebration at the end of World War I on November 11, 1918 in Lowden, Iowa. Lowden was a town of 650 people in 1918. Over 450 of them were foreign-born or children of foreign-born parents. Most were of German heritage.

The war had begun in 1914, but until 1917 the United States stayed out of the conflict that raged between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey on one side and France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy and Japan on the other.

Immigrants Aren't Welcome

Even before the war began, some native-born Americans had come to think that it was time to stop allowing so many immigrants into the country. Because many immigrants were willing to work for lower wages, some Americans believed that the newcomers might cause native-born citizens to lose their jobs.

Dislike of foreigners grew stronger during the war. It started with a distrust of people of German heritage. Even naturalized German-American citizens did not escape suspicion. Then, distrust grew to include anyone who spoke a foreign language or who continued to practice customs from the old, home country. Almost overnight, people who had been considered fine citizens of the community were suspected of disloyalty.

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.

Arrests Are Made

This meant that foreign-born Iowa citizens could no longer listen to church sermons in what might be the only language they understood. It meant that these people could not talk to one another over the telephone. Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Bohemians could not speak in their languages either. To be “American” a person must speak only English! Although several states passed laws banning the use of the German language, no other state went as far as Iowa. In Le Claire, Iowa, four women who were overheard speaking German on a party line were arrested and fined.

Some Protest

Not all Iowans agreed with the laws against foreign language, and there were protests against the ruling by both foreign-born and native-born citizens. They pointed out that many loyal Americans of German, Swedish, Norwegian and Bohemian ancestry were in Europe fighting in United States uniforms. Still there were plenty of Iowans willing to help enforce the ban by reporting the names of people who were heard speaking a foreign language.

The end of the war did not end anti-foreign attitudes. The feelings of distrust continued. Many customs and languages were lost.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 2 (November 1981): 12-13.

My Path

  1. Black Officers at Fort Des Moines in World War I