By Christopher McKnight Nichols
One hundred years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, what was known then as the Great War came to an end. Propelled by new technologies like the telephone, telegraph and airplanes, news of the armistice agreement spread across the nearly 30 combatant nations and through the roughly 100 countries and colonial regions involved. The belligerents had to face a globe transformed.
A month before the ceasefire on the Western Front, a young private in the United States army stopped in Portland on his way from Camp Lewis in Washington state to an officer’s training camp in Texas. He brought with him an influenza virus that would ultimately infect one-third of the world’s population and kill approximately 50 million people worldwide — more than twice the number of people killed in the war. In the U.S., induction camps, cramped quarters, wartime transport and industry generated optimal conditions for the flu to incubate and spread. Oregon quickly marshalled the resources to fight the disease. At Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University, the administration established an effective quarantine and care program. Of the 50,000 Oregonians infected, “only” 3,675 died.
Roughly 2,000 college faculty, students, staff and alumni served in the armed services. Another 2,000 signed up for the Army Training Corps and specialized training programs. Reed College operated one of the largest programs in the nation for training female Reconstruction Aides, who served as occupational and physical therapists. According to Oregon State Librarian Cornelia Marvin, 34,430 Oregonians served during the conflict, including an all-African American unit nicknamed the “Portland Bunch,” who joined with the hope that fighting abroad would bolster their claim to full citizenship at home.
In fact, the U.S. lost more personnel to disease (63,000) to disease, including influenza, rather than combat (53,000).
Having come late to the war fought exclusively on foreign soil, the U.S. suffered far less than others with casualties totaling 323,018, including 116,516 killed, 204,002 wounded and 4,500 taken as prisoners or missing. That was about 7 percent of America’s total forces, compared to 73 percent for France, 76 percent for Russia and nearly 90 percent for Austria-Hungary.
More than 1,000 of Oregon’s citizen-soldiers never returned home. Another 1,000 were walking wounded. Oregon created a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Commission to provide assistance to veterans and their families.
Today, the general lack of awareness of WWI and its consequences is a problem. Why? Because WWI inaugurated the same debates about dissent, identity, patriotism, nationalism, citizenship, and memory that divide America in 2018. The war fundamentally changed the size and power of the US state: Wilson’s administration instituted price controls, established a government apparatus to finance the war, set up a bureaucracy to produce government propaganda, and built the controls for centralized government surveillance and oversight. The repressive Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized free speech and dissent, and led to the arrest of nearly 100 Oregonians.
Hyperpatriotic organizations sprung up to enforce these acts. They often aimed their efforts at non-white and minority populations, contributing to the post-war rise of the Klan in Oregon (and across the nation). Some people, such as Mary Equi, pushed back. The anti-war and women’s rights advocacy of this Portland doctor and labor organizer fueled harassment and intimidation. She became the only Oregon woman convicted of sedition, joining 2,000 other citizens jailed across the nation for speaking out against the war, the draft or the president.
Just as Oregon State managed the flu epidemic through quarantine, U.S. statesmen thought they could cordon the U.S. from international instability — communism, anarchism, fascism, refugees — through isolationist foreign policies and xenophobic immigration laws. The sizable population of Japanese immigrants in Oregon fell prey to post-war reactions against immigrants of all stripes. Oregon’s Anti-Asiatic Association, which was established in 1919, and its Alien Land Law, passed in 1923, paved the way for FDR’s internment order.
Women won the vote in 1920 but were hardly full citizens. The “Portland Bunch” troops returned from the war but, despite their service, the state did not ensure that they enjoyed full citizenship in voting, housing or soldiers’ benefits.
The methods the state employed to control citizens in wartime, including loyalty oaths, censorship, surveillance, vigilante action and centralized state power, became the mechanisms by which the government controlled the population in peacetime.
One hundred years later, the global conflagration that was World War I rarely enters into American consciousness. Few realize the extent that the restrictions produced by that war — and the debates that it inspired — still shape the nation today. This is a reality that we ignore at our peril.
— Christopher McKnight Nichols is a history professor and director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University. He co-edited, with Kimberly Jensen, a special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly on WWI. Nichols is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow and the author of several books, including Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age.
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