World War I—Support and Opposition in Iowa

When the United States entered World War I in 1917 many Iowans enthusiastically supported the war effort. But some Iowans were opposed to the war. There were many issues that caused debate among Iowans at the time—conscription (military draft), espionage and sedition laws, Liberty Loans, the Babel Proclamation, the American Protective League and the Councils of National Defense.

Wartime Stress

In World War I the United States was at war with Germany. Because of this, many Iowans of German descent were targeted and their civil rights were violated. There were very large numbers of German-speaking immigrants in Iowa. When Governor William Harding issued a statement that made it against the law to use any language but English in public, many Iowans were angry. The “law” was nicknamed the “Babel Proclamation.” Governor Harding even made the point in a public speech that God did not hear prayers that were spoken in any language but English.

As World War I continued throughout 1917 and 1918, there was increased stress on citizens and communities. Many inconveniences weighed on Iowans. There was a short supply of labor. Prices were high for many products. Supplies of everyday items were reduced. Few luxuries were available. And citizens were expected to support the war effort with their time and money.

One way citizens contributed time and money to the war effort was through the sale and purchase of “Liberty Loans.” The federal government issued bonds “Liberty Loans” to raise money for the war. People bought the bonds. They could turn them in later and get their money back plus interest. All Americans were encouraged to buy the bonds. Even children were enlisted by the government to sell them. In some Iowa towns the names of people who bought the Liberty Loans were published in the newspaper. People who did not buy the bonds were considered unpatriotic.

Loyalty—It’s the Law

Some laws that were passed during the war became unpopular in Iowa. The federal government passed the Espionage Act in 1917. The Sedition Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1918. The Espionage Act made it illegal to do anything that caused insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty by a member of the armed forces, and to do anything that willfully obstructed recruitment or enlistment service. The Sedition Act forbade Americans to use "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, flag, or armed forces during war time.

In 1916 the federal government established the Council of National Defense. In Iowa the state Council of National Defense was created by Governor Harding. Councils of National Defense were created at the county levels too. The purpose of the councils was supposedly to encourage citizens to perform patriotic duties, but in many counties around Iowa they were used to target German-Americans.
Misuse of power by county Councils of Defense led to much persecution of innocent people. People who spoke Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Czech were hurt as well as those who spoke German. Elderly women in Scott County were jailed for speaking German over the telephone. A Lutheran pastor was jailed for preaching part of a funeral service for a soldier killed in the war in Swedish because the young man's grandparents did not speak English.

One of the most effective tools of the pro-war population was the American Protective League, organized in 1918 to root out German spies and sympathizers. Iowa's American Protective League was headquartered in Davenport, but branches were organized in every county. They worked with the county Councils of National Defense. They used intimidation, coercion and entrapments. They used informants and even assessed fines. Because many small communities in Iowa valued conformity, this regulation was quite effective. For instance, there were rumors of bacterially-contaminated adhesive bandages that led to arrests, but no convictions. And there were rumors of ground glass in sacks of flour that led to several bakeries going out of business.

Conscription Causes Concern

Conscription (military draft) was the most immediate effect of the war in Iowa. Anti-draft meetings and petitions were held immediately after the declaration of war in April 1917. But threats of violence usually put an end to these expressions of dissent.

By law registration was required of all men between the ages of 21 and 30 whose birthdays fell before June 5, 1917. A total of 216,299 Iowa men were subject to conscription. Of these, 1,822 were German-born, and as "alien enemies," they could not be inducted into the army. Draft quotas were imposed by counties. And county boards handled registrations, exemptions and deferments. Anyone placed in the “Class 1” category was eligible for immediate induction. Others were “deferred” for a variety of reasons. They might work in “strategic occupations” such as farming and telegraph operations. They might have dependent relatives. Or they might have physical handicaps. There was a great amount of hostility, especially among farmers, who believed that money and political power could influence draft boards to offer deferments and exemptions.

Thousands of young men were drafted into the army. Many were sent to Europe to fight in the war, and many were killed. Every week the names of soldiers who were killed in the fighting were published in the newspapers across the state. As Iowa soldiers were killed and returned home for burial, communities felt the cost of war sharply.

The conscription possibility was especially hard on families of immigrant heritage whose ancestors had left Europe to avoid conscription there. There were many documented suicides, especially in rural areas, caused by the draft law. Conscientious objectors were subject to harassment and persecution, even if they came legally under the deferment or exemption categories. Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Hussites, Seventh Day Adventists and Russellites (which later bacame known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) all had religious doctrine against bearing arms. Some of these groups were German-speaking, others were not.

The Amana Colonies were a special case. They were communal, lived in an isolated situation, spoke German and had a large land-holding in common. The meatless, wheatless, sweetless, and heatless days endured by most of the population, in an effort to support the war effort, was eased for the people in the Amana Colonies because they raised most of their own food and fuel. Jealousy from neighboring towns led to rumors and threats to blow up the mills there.

People living in the Amana Colonies showed their patriotism by buying Liberty Loan bonds, but critics said that was just because the leaders liked the four percent interest return on them. In the first registration call, 73 Amana men were eligible. All registered. In the first draft call, the 24 Amana men appealed their classification and petitioned to be deferred. The District Exemption Board reclassified them, which annoyed some people in Iowa County, because they would have to make up the quota.

Because of local pressure, 31 Amana men were classified as Class 1 by July 14, 1918. Of these, 18 Amana men were drafted and served at Camp Pike, Arkansas, where they worked as non-combatants. They did march and wear uniforms, but did not carry weapons. Rather, they worked in the base hospital, in the quartermaster corps, and in the canteen. Only one Amana man was ever sent overseas, but two died—not from combat wounds—but from the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918.

War time creates many challenges and hardships. World War I brought stresses and hardships to Iowans—to those who supported the war, as well as those who opposed the war.


Look at this time in Iowa history from many of the perspectives: a German immigrant, a solider, a mother, a politician. How does that perspective change the way your view his part of history?

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