When the United States entered World War I in April 1917 the overall population of Illinois firmly supported the American war effort; however, there were persistent anti‑war and pro‑German sentiments expressed by some in the state. The state had a long history of anti‑war activism; it had been a hotbed of “Copperheadism” during the Civil War, the members of which advocated the negotiation of a peaceful settlement allowing the South to create an independent nation.
At the time of American entrance into World War I, Illinois had more German‑ and Austrian‑born residents than any other state, and Chicago was the considered the world’s sixth‑largest German city, whose mayor forcefully opposed American involvement in the fighting. Indicative of this position, just before the declaration of war 25 German‑American leaders from Chicago went to Washington to convince President Woodrow Wilson that the United States should either remain neutral in the European war or enter on the side of Germany rather than the British and French. When the declaration of war was presented to the U.S. Congress in April 1917, five of the 50 votes against the declaration came from Illinois representatives. All of these congressmen were reelected the next year, indicating that their position was popular with their constituents.
Other leaders in the state opposed the American entrance into World War I for reasons other than ancestry. Jane Addams, the eminent Chicago social worker, chaired the Women’s Peace Party and worked for American neutrality on moral grounds. She, and such pacifists as Jenkin Lloyd Jones believed the war unnecessary. From the Chicago headquarters of the Socialist Party emerged constant criticism of American involvement in the war. The party also organized anti‑war rallies and other activities which hampered the prosecution of the war.
The International Workers of the World, a radical labor organization which was also based in Chicago, opposed the war as a capitalist machination to further enslave laborers. That the anti‑war position of these individuals and groups was appreciated by many is suggested by the 1917 judicial election in Chicago where the Socialist ticket polled approximately one‑third of the vote against a Republican/Democratic coalition of incumbents.
These were minority opinions, however, and the individuals holding them were suspected as traitors by the majority of the Illinois population. This suspicion led to action in some cases, and not all of it was legal. The confiscation of anti‑war literature in the Socialist Party headquarters in Chicago and the resultant action to restrict their use of the postal service may have been somewhat overzealous but was probably legal because of the sedition laws on the books. The sentencing of 166 members of the International Workers of the World to 20 years in prison on the general grounds that they hampered the war effort was certainly of questionable legality.
Equally unfair was the treatment of residents of German extraction. German aliens were registered by the state on 4 February and 17 June 1918 so that their whereabouts could be traced. They were barred from certain zones such as defense plants and military installations unless they obtained a special pass. Some community leaders, without any official declaration to do so, pressured German‑language newspapers to cease operations, and there was in some locales informal boycotts of businesses operated by German‑Americans. In most cases the people had done nothing to warrant any action against them, and most were actively supporting the war effort. This harsh approach toward dealing with German‑Americans was unwarranted in all but a few instances.
The most serious incident took place in Collinsville, near St. Louis, in April 1918 when Robert P. Prager was lynched. Prager was a German immigrant and a Socialist who was suspected of being a spy. Stripped, bound with an American flag, and dragged through the streets, Prager was murdered amid the cheers of some 500 spectators. Governor Lowden demanded that the guilty be punished, but when 11 men were finally tried for the murder their attorney justified the deed as “patriotic murder.” Less than 25 minutes after beginning deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty and the lynchers were released.
As tragic as these instances of intolerance were, they represented minority positions for most residents of the sate. Illinois, both the government and the population, essentially supported the war effort and took pride in the state’s performance. With the ending of hostilities following the 11 November 1918 armistice, in which Germany admitted its defeat, the nation began to demobilize. As the Illinois troops came home Governor Lowden met most of the major units at their debarkation points to congratulate them on their performance. Many of the state’s men under arms had participated in the most important and decisive engagements of the war, and before the middle of 1919 most of them had been mustered out of the service. Many of the state’s veterans went to St. Louis for the first national convention of the American Legion, an organization that remains one of the most effective voices for veterans in the United States.
The Illinois experience in World War I, like that of the rest of the nation, was a watershed in the history of the state. It was an enormously heady time, one in which the citizenry sought to “make the world safe for democracy,” to use a phrase President Wilson coined to justify the war. The state enthusiastically supported the war effort, except in these few isolated instances. But in a million ways when Illinois emerged from World War I, it was a changed entity. Just from an economic standpoint the war wrought enormous dislocations. More people moved from the farms to the factories, races were thrown together in the larger cities, and business investments were shifted. It signaled the increasing presence of the national government into the affairs of the state’s residents in the form of the draft, government loans, defense installations, income taxes, and the like. Of especial importance, as they experienced the horrors of “the war to end all wars,” the experience signified the passage to a more skeptical population.