Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After nearly three years of vowing to remain neutral in “The Great War” consuming much of Europe and in the face of increasing aggression from Germany, the United States declared war on that country and entered the conflict with France and Britain a century ago today.
A copy of the 6 April 1917 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald included a massive blaring headline “U.S. Calls Volunteers” as it was noted that after 1 p.m. President Woodrow Wilson issued a call for volunteer enlistment. Just prior to the announcement, a large number of German vessels, valued at $300,000,000 and containing some 3,000 sailors and crew members, were seized by the government at various American ports. The U.S. Navy was also ordered into immediate war-related action, while government leaders advocated sending troops to Europe as quickly as possible.
The main article on the declaration noted the volunteer call-up was for both the Army and Navy, though no desired figure of recruits was given, while naval reserves and militia were also pressed into service. As the Herald expressed it, “Uncle Sam’s coat was off and it was real, swift, energetic war from the start.
Notably, the debate about how to enter the war included the statement that, while was had been declared against Germany, this was not the case for its allies, meaning the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria, but, soon enough, the decision to ally with France and Britain was determined upon.
Another interesting article had to do with the sentencing of a man in Los Angeles who was convicted of being a spy for Germany, Capt. Alfred Fritzen, who was tried in New York, pled guilty and was handed down an 18-month stint in a federal prison in Georgia. The allegations were that Fritzen acted with Fritz von Papen (later a key figure in Nazi Germany) and the famed Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa to plot to destroy an American canal.
The text of the war proclamation was also given on the front page of the Herald, in which Congress, by the authority vested in it by the federal constitution resolved that “the state of war between the United States and the imperial German government . . . is hereby formally declared.” Significantly, the United States last declared war on a foreign power during World War II, even though there have been many conflicts since then.
As to the request for volunteer enlistees, the paper also observed that “if not enough volunteers are not immediately forthcoming the draft will be resorted to,” with men between the ages of 19 and 25 called from states in proportion to their population. A White House statement did indicate that “the national army will comprise three elements, the regular army, the national guard, and the so-called additional forces, of which a first 500,000 are to be authorized immediately . . . ”
A separate article on the seizure of German ships and their crews noted that the latter were being treated as “enemy aliens,” not as prisoners of war. Moreover, it was stated that “the seizure tripled the army transport resources of this government” and it was related that fifteen of the German vessels had a capacity of some 40,000 men for transport, while the entire merchant marine force of the United States consisted of half that number.
With regard to some local war-related news, there were two front page items of note. The first was that the Los Angeles Police Department “will be put on a military basis . . . and the officers will be drilled in squads by regular army officers at Exposition park,” where an armory was located. It was further stated that “the squads will be drilled during off hours [daily] and machine gun practice with the two machine guns owned by the department will be held twice weekly.”
Then, there was a very interesting piece about a “home guard” or citizen militia being formed in Pomona and Claremont “because of the seriousness of the Mexican situation” in that area. It was reported that “a number of Mexican laborers had quit their jobs,” prompting fifty men to be sworn in as “home guard” members.
Along with this, there was a claim “that three suspicious persons had been taking pictures in the hills back of Pomona” and that “one of these was a Japanese and the other two appeared to be Germans,” though none of these men were found in a subsequent search of the area.
These types of “reports” tend to be found in almost any wartime situation, reflecting anxiety, apprehension, anger and other emotional responses that are very often directed towards ethnic groups that, even in peacetime, are regarded with suspicion for a variety of reasons. During the course of the war, there were many German immigrants and German-Americans rounded up and interned in camps as “enemy aliens,” an aspect discussed in the Homestead’s new temporary exhibit–the topic of tomorrow’s post!