March 1917: War and Water

March 1, 1917 was one of those rare days when every American newspaper agreed on its lead story.  In Homestead, the Daily Messenger captured the country’s shock with a simple headline, “GERMAN PLOT STIRS NATION.”  The accompanying article elaborated, “This plot, revealed by the administration today through documentary proof of Germany’s Machinations, was put forth to sway a dallying Congress and stir the Nation to the real perils of the German problem.”

By the end of the month the country was on the verge of war.

This post recounts the events of those thirty-one days, as seen from the perspective of our Homestead forebears.

The Great War before U.S. Involvement

To understand how Homestead readers received the stunning news of the GERMAN PLOT, our story must begin with the history-before-the-history.  For years the world had expected another war in Europe, but most were caught by surprise at how it began, with a long-simmering regional conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that boiled over when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne on June 28, 1914.  A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then the dominoes fell:  Russia backed Serbia and mobilized its forces, which brought the Germans into the war against the Russians, and then the French against the Germans.  Great Britain hesitated until Germany invaded Belgium as a prelude to invading France.  By August 3, most of Europe was at war.  The outline of this history is well-known:  assassination of the archduke + too many alliances = gigantic war.

8/3/1914

8/3/1914

For the next two-and-a-half years Homesteaders watched the Great War unfold an ocean away.  Despite the distance, the war affected them directly.  When it broke out, an immediate problem was that numerous Homesteaders, including principals and teachers of its schools, had no way of returning home from their summer vacations.  Synagogue members Emanuel Schwartz, Joseph Freed, and my great-great-uncle Morris Keizler required the intervention of the state department to get out of Europe.  They arrived back in the U.S. in late August, just in time for the dedication of the second synagogue, at which Freed spoke about how he and Schwartz escaped.  They had

perhaps the most interesting and exciting experience of any of the marooned tourists from this locality as they were in Berlin on July 29 and were held there until August 20 and saw much much of the conditions prevailing and were in the center of excitement in that capital, little news of which has reached here…While Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Freed have had an experience which few can have they are glad to get back and say “America is good enough for them.” (9/3/1914)

More significantly, Homestead’s steel mill depended on a large population of unassimilated foreigners, who came to the U.S. for work and had no long-term plans to remain.  All of their countries were now at war, and those countries’ local consuls were working to recruit the men to return home to fight.  There were serious concerns that a “general exodus” would “cripple” the mill (8/1, 8/10/1914).

Worldwide, everyone thought the war would end quickly.  The Germans had a detailed plan to win in 42 days.  Instead, they botched the execution and got bogged down in Belgium and France.  1 Some experts had argued, prior to the war, that rapid advances in weaponry meant that armies would no longer maneuver on open ground, and that prediction proved accurate.  By the beginning of September half a million soldiers were dead, and the war ground to a halt at what became known as the Western Front.  Over the next four years millions more men would fight and die there, but the line did not budge.

For Homesteaders with European origins, both Jews and non-Jews, the war was more personal than for the average Homesteader.  Their communication with friends and family was suddenly cut off, and limits were imposed on the amount of money they could send back.

10/31/1914

10/31/1914

That the foreigners of Homestead are taking a great deal of interest in the European war is natural and it is demonstrated by the number who each day stop in front of the Daily Messenger office and study the big map in the window. They discuss the situation quietly but evidently with deep interest each explaining to the other the points with which they are the most familiar. By the questions that have been asked them it is evident that they are well acquainted with the situation and probably know more about the interesting details than the average American does. While we have a vague idea of the positions of the different armies at present time they seem to know and can explain the significants (sic) of these locations.

Some look upon the average foreigner as ignorant and uncouth, but while they do not know many things that we know they know a great many things that we do not know. (9/4/1914; note that the Daily Messenger seems to like commas even less than I do) 2

Men from warring countries got into street fights with each other.  Others reportedly became insane with despair or killed themselves over painful news.

Recently two [foreigners] were observed inspecting the map and both were weeping bitterly.  They were quiet in their grief, but evidently there were matters connected with this war which they felt the effects of more —ply than we can realize and it is likely that some of the cases of self destruction here and elsewhere may be attributed to their anxiety over the present conditions of friends and the terrible consequences which are liable to follow. (9/29/1914; elision due to the poor print)

In November 1914 Turkey joined the fight against Russia, pushing the war into the Middle East (which the burgeoning Zionist movement saw as an opportunity).  In May 1915 Italy joined the fight against Austria.  Later that year and the next, fighting in the Balkans pulled in Bulgaria and Romania.  Along the way, new ways of waging war entered Homesteaders’ vocabulary:  trench warfare, poison gas, tanks, zeppelin and aeroplane raids, U-boats, storm troops, flamethrowers, machine guns.  Photographs in the newspaper, lectures by eye witnesses, and even movies in local theaters showed people what was happening in as graphic detail as war had ever been reported.  They saw soldiers dying in unfathomable numbers and civilians suffering tremendously.

9/3/1915: Headline of an article about the condition of Jews in the war zone. "Dante's imagination of the tortures of the damned falls short of the activities to what the Jewish quarters of war-racked regions of Eastern Europe have been the blood dyed and tear-stained settings."

9/3/1915: Headline of an article about the condition of Jews in the war zone. “Dante’s imagination of the tortures of the damned falls short of the activities to what the Jewish quarters of war-racked regions of Eastern Europe have been the blood dyed and tear-stained settings.”

Of all these developments the Daily Messenger gave its readers daily summaries that read like horrible geography lessons.  On the Eastern front the Germans, Russians, and Austrians pushed each other back and forth across the very regions so many Jewish Homesteaders had family and friends.  The cities of their youth paraded across the headlines as the scenes of devastating battles — Warsaw, Lodz, Grodno, Lemberg.  “Just as we have learned to pronounce Przemysl, it has fallen,” quipped the paper on March 26, 1915 — at the end of the second siege of the strategic fortress town.  Battle lines shifted constantly, and the four million Jews whose homes were on the Eastern Front suffered tremendously.  As the Russians invaded new areas, the local Jews fled to avoid living under the hated czar, and wherever the front line settled, they were expelled by the Russians, who did not trust their loyalty.  Those who remained faced pogroms.  The German and Austrian occupiers proved to be only marginally better.  As early as October 1914 Homestead’s Jewish community joined the growing national movement to raise money for the “Jewish war sufferers.”  Local fundraisers by the Hungarians and Lithuanians followed.  The most sustained attention was accorded the Belgians, who were starving under German occupation.  Their desperation, covered in great detail by the paper, attracted the sympathy of all Homesteaders, starting with the society ladies, who repeatedly organized fundraisers to feed them as part of an international initiative led by Herbert Hoover (yes, that Herbert Hoover, whose efforts made him possibly “responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history”).

Homesteaders did return to fight for their countries, and of those who remained, many had relatives in uniform.  The deaths of German and British relatives of Homesteaders often made front-page news.  Within the Jewish community Harry Mendelsohn, I.J. Goldston’s and Mrs. Harry Mervis’ nephew who was a clerk at the steel mill before the war, was killed fighting for the Canadians (he had been born in England).  Rosa Heilbron’s nephew was wounded fighting for the Germans.  Such notices served as constant reminders that though the war was fought on the other side of the ocean, the events were not distant from the community; and though the United States remained at peace, there were still many ways the war could touch them.

German Provocations

For a long time, Americans saw the war as a purely European affair.  Pacifism was the prevailing attitude at home, led by President Wilson himself.  Just two days into the war Wilson set the bar extremely high with a strongly-worded Declaration of Neutrality.  “We must be impartial in thought, as well as action,” he proclaimed, “must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”  His “transactions,” though, were precisely how America participated in the war even as a neutral country, and places like Homestead relied upon these transactions.

Initially, the war contributed to an “industrial slump” across the country.  “Uncertain times and depressed conditions in the industrial district” disrupted Homestead’s economy.  Without orders to fulfill, steel workers went without pay, and U.S. Steel had to take the drastic step of terminating the wage agreement that had been in force for the past fifteen years because of “the business slump resulting from the war…the European struggle was affecting all lines of business and…should the depression grow more pronounced, the company might be able better to deal with its perplexities if not restricted by the present agreement.” Local poverty grew so bad so quickly that by December the town had to re-organize its relief committee, last in action during the 1907 depression.  The newspaper’s editorials and the steel industry’s leaders kept promising that “it cannot be otherwise than that much of the products supplied by the mills here will be needed in Europe,” but things were so bad that some “[doubted] whether we should have any Christmas at all this year.”  3

The recovery took months, but the mills of the Homestead Steel Works resumed full operation by the end of February 1915, and a month later the Homestead Works was breaking tonnage records.  The boom continued throughout the war.  The demand was “the greatest ever known.”  Orders placed in March 1917 were slated for fulfillment in 1919.  Wages were raised at the beginning of 1916 and again at the beginning of 1917.  In the town building permits and real estate transactions hit record levels, and many merchants improved their stores.  Christmas shopping in 1916 produced “the best week they ever had.”  The town sold out of toys — turkeys and oysters, too.  Everyone expected continued prosperity.  Of course, all of this depended on the continuation of the war conditions. 4

During these same years, the British naval blockade of Germany, which gradually brought the German people to starvation, shifted American trade towards the allies, who were able to receive their exports.  This result undermined America’s posture of neutrality in the eyes of the Germans.

5/15/1915: I.J. Goldston saved his brother Eli's life by begging him not to take the Lusitania back to England.

5/15/1915: I.J. Goldston saved his brother Eli’s life by begging him not to take the Lusitania back to England.

It undermined America’s security in another way, too.  The German U-boat campaign, its own effort to blockade Britain and cut off its vital American imports, expanded to target neutral vessels in an attempt to break the stagnation of the war.  In response to Germany’s February 1915 declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson wrote an angry letter, concluding, “If the commanders of German vessels of war…should destroy on the high seas an American vessel or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights.”  These difficulties arose quickly.  In March, an American died when a British ship, the Falaba, was torpedoed.  In May the Lusitania, one of the fastest, largest, and most luxurious ships of the day, was torpedoed, killing 128 Americans.  Germany celebrated.  Wilson wrote a few more angry letters.  Submarine attacks subsided, though it took another year and more such incidents for Germany to agree to fully limit its submarine warfare.  5  The sinking of these ships and others received protracted coverage in the Daily Messenger, including numerous photographs of victims and survivors.  (It also produced orders for new ships, which in turn produced even more orders for Homestead steel.)  These events didn’t convince Americans they should join the war, but they did cause many to choose a side.

There were other reasons for the Americans to distrust Germany beyond their war-mongering and atrocities.  They had various espionage rings operating in the U.S. whose intrigues including sabotaging American factories and ports producing and shipping war materiel to the allies.  (Their most notable success caused significant collateral damage to the Statue of Liberty that prevents us from climbing up to her torch even today.)  Their U-boats sank merchant ships off the coast of Rhode Island.  Officials feared a full-fledged invasion and contemplated fortifications to the coast of New Jersey to protect New York City.  The most insidious intrigue, culminating with the “GERMAN PLOT,” was at this stage still rather scattershot.

***

If you re-read these old newspapers with only a vague sense of when and how the U.S. entered the war, you might, like me, greet each addition to this mounting series of provocations with a sense of, “Surely this one went too far?”  And yet, for Wilson it never did.  He was “too proud to fight.”

The war dragged on.  Harsher and harsher tactics were introduced by both sides to little effect.

Even as late as December 1916 the only question of potential American intervention was not as a combatant, but as a peacemaker, a role Wilson and his diplomats had already attempted.  Of course, such a question presupposed that America would continue to have a choice in the nature of its involvement.  It did not.

2/28/1917

2/28/1917

On February 1, 1917, after two-and-a-half years of fighting and with no end in sight, Germany declared it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  In response Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany.  The Daily Messenger still advised, “Every one must hope and trust they will be able to end this dreadful conflict without involving the United States in it. Severing diplomatic relations does not necessarily mean war.”  As expected, the German U-boats started sinking more and more ships.  The first American ship they hit was the Housatonic on February 3.  There were no deaths.  The Daily Messenger insisted still that the “war move must come from Berlin.”  On February 12 a U-boat sank an American schooner.  February 25 brought the first American deaths with the torpedoing of the British ship Laconia.  The nation was united in its outrage.  The Daily Messenger acknowledged what everyone now recognized:  the United States was “standing today on the very threshold of war.  Its participation in the holocaust which has involved nearly all of Europe may be forced in the immediate future.”  Germany’s new “campaign of ruthlessness” had broken America’s prolonged pacifism.  Was there any way of turning back now?

Not with the dramatic news that greeted Americans on March 1, 1917, “GERMAN PLOT STIRS NATION.”

But first, to put this latest GERMAN PLOT in context, we must step back one last time to consider that America had just concluded a war of its own — against Mexico.

Mexico

While Europe was busy destroying itself, the United States was dealing with the instability of its neighbor to the south.  The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and spurred a parallel conflict with the United States, the Border War.  Small skirmishes in border towns and a misunderstanding in a Mexican port (as well as a desire to protect U.S. oil interests in Mexico) led to an armed invasion by the U.S. in 1914.  Although all-out war was avoided, Mexico harbored a grudge against the U.S. that would prove extremely consequential.  One manifestation of the grudge was a series of Mexican raids into Texas during the summer of 1915 with the hope of annexing the border states.  The “heavy loss of life in Texas” and the adjacent “territory controlled by [Pancho] Villa…seething with anti-American feeling” received sensationalized coverage in the Homestead paper.

Peter Rome on the Mexican border, c. 1917 (MFF #4898, Heinz History Center)

Peter Rome on the Mexican border (MFF #4898, Heinz History Center).  He was the brother of Homesteaders Jennie Adlersberg and John J. Rome.

The U.S. did not enter Mexico in any sustained way until March 1916 to retaliate for Pancho Villa’s raid of a border town in New Mexico, which he conducted because the U.S. backed his rival.  The “Punitive Expedition,” during which the U.S. army under Brigadier General John J. Pershing famously chased Villa around Mexico, lasted until January 1917.  Unlike the distant violence along the border, the Punitive Expedition affected Homesteaders directly.  Thirty to forty local boys enlisted in the Eighteenth Regiment of the National Guard and left for training on June 23 and then for the border on July 4, although by then the crisis had passed.  In Texas they set up camp and drilled.  They did not see any action and returned home heroes Christmas morning.

6/28/1916

6/28/1916.  (Mt. Gretnawas a training camp.)

From a national perspective, the Punitive Expedition turned out to be a warm-up to the Great War.  It elevated Pershing and gave the American army experience practice with training and deployment.  In Homestead it served as a rehearsal on a smaller scale.  A patriotic demonstration in downtown Pittsburgh saw the boys off, and once gone, the Homestead paper became a vital conduit between the town and its boys, organizing a shipment of “smokes” and “eats” to the border and printing the boys’ letters about their experiences.  But none of these parallels with future events were then anticipated.

In January 1917 what mattered is that tensions between the United States and Mexico were high.  All along, Germany had exploited them in modest ways:  they had helped to thwart the American arms blockade and had attempted to conspire with Villa.  Now, with the United States out of Mexico and Germany on the verge of announcing their resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany needed to exploit these tensions, because they needed the United States to be preoccupied with problems at home.

March 1917

The GERMAN PLOT, as the Homestead paper explained it a hundred years ago this month, was that “Germany wants to play Mexico and Japan actively against the United States in case of war.”  A telegram containing instructions to this effect was sent by the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador to Mexico on January 19.  The so-called “Zimmerman telegram” was intercepted and decoded by the British, who were delighted to provide it to the Americans.  President Wilson released it publicly on February 28, and it hit all the papers the following day.

The Zimmerman telegram, encoded.

The Zimmerman telegram, as originally encoded.

We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President [of Mexico] of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.
Signed, ZIMMERMANN 6

“COUNTRY SOLIDLY BEHIND WILSON,” proclaimed the Daily Messenger, but behind what?  The president still was not ready for war, but with this latest German intrigue made public, the country was.  Nevertheless, “the President, his advisers say, will not change his plans for dealing with the German submarine situation because of the German plot or because of the loss of American lives…He believes that the plan which he outlined to Congress must be tried out first. This includes the perfecting of his scheme of ‘armed neutrality,’ which includes the arming of the American liners and all other vessels flying the American flag.”  With the current session of Congress set to end in two days, the vote on his plan was imminent.

Despite Wilson’s restraint and Congress’ delay, the following day Germany not only admitted that the telegram was not a forgery, but also insisted it was “not only [their] right, but [their] duty to take precautions if there was a possible adhesion of a new enemy to [their] enemies.”  With Germany doubling down on its threats, how did Congress respond?  Isolationist senators filibustered Wilson’s armed neutrality bill in the final hours of its session.  “A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible,” Wilson fumed.

On March 6, President Wilson was inaugurated for his second term in office.  Only four months earlier he had won a narrow re-election on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”  Now, as the Daily Messenger‘s headline read, “PRESIDENT WILSON GIVES WARNING — Hopes for Peace, But Ready to Fight if Necessary.”  Congress was now in recess with no session planned until June.  Public pressure increased.

While the nation awaited their government’s next move, a related Congressional issue particularly worried Homesteaders.  For years the government had been investigating building its own armor plate mill, because obvious collusion amongst the three U.S. producers kept prices high for this vital defense product.  There had been a hearing on the subject in January, and in the midst of March’s run-up to war, the Daily Messenger published an editorial defending the town’s interests.  “If Congress should permit…amateur executives and legislators in the war game” to “take over and operate, as governmental institutions, munition factories, shipyards and whatnot,” the paper warned, they would “hamper and render infinitely more costly the whole project of national defense.”  They would also take away one of the Homestead Works’ chief lines of profit.  Until Congress reconvened, though, there was little to do but prepare arguments.

19170105 water hl

1/5/1917

Already at the crisis point was a different local issue: the “water question.”  For years the water plant had been breaking constantly.  The town was regularly without running water while the offending part — the pump, the filtration system, the intake pipe, the reservoir — was cleaned or repaired or replaced.  This time it was the pump, and during January and February more ink was spilled on the water situation than the war.  Frustration was high.  Many families from the Second Ward, the section of town where the Jewish community was concentrated, were left to draw water from a well adjacent to the elementary school.  Society women were ashamed when out-of-town visitors turned on the faucet and mud came out.  One resident routinely left his water spigots open when the water was off to be alerted when it came back on.  He twice flooded Morris Grinberg’s store below, causing $1,100 in damage.  The fire department could not fight fires without running water, a terrifying situation given how often fires broke out in the business district.  Some people found the situation so intolerable that they left Homestead altogether and moved to the up-and-coming neighborhood of Squirrel Hill across the river.  On March 10, the water committee of the borough council at last examined the options and announced that the only way forward was to contract with the South Pittsburgh Water Company.  Then the committee lapsed into silence.  The town’s anger grew.

Nationally, no further steps were taken towards war, but on March 12 the Germans torpedoed the American cargo ship Algonquin.  After the news became public in the U.S., German Ambassador Gerard insisted that “‘Friedensseuhnsucht’–longing for peace–is the great, deep-seated emotion of the German people today.”

3/16/1917: An optimistic headline about events in Russia

3/16/1917: Optimism about the situation in Russia

On the same day, the Russian people forced the czar to abdicate.  Although the Daily Messenger did not note it, revolution had broken out a week earlier — on Purim! — as a result of the country’s disastrous involvement in the war.  Jews worldwide rejoiced that the hated czar was gone.  Many American Jews had supported Germany in the war only because Germany sought to destroy Russia, but with the czar out of the picture, it became much easier for them to support the United States against Germany.  The allies, however, were concerned:  if revolution forced Russia out of the war, the closing of the Eastern Front would enable Germany to strengthen its operations in the west.

Over the next three days the peace-longing Germans torpedoed three more American ships.

“PEACE HOPES HAVE ABOUT VANISHED,” read the headline in the Daily Messenger on March 19.  The article explained, “In official circles everywhere [the sinkings were] accepted as an overt act of war.”  That article predicted, and a 3/21 headline confirmed, “SPECIAL SESSION OF CONGRESS CALLED,” where Wilson would “announce that a state of war has existed between the United States and Germany” since the sinking of the Algonquin.  But that session was not scheduled until April 2nd!

Meanwhile, an accompanying article reported that “Germany is preparing for another peace move.”

That same day (though the news didn’t hit the papers until two days later), the Germans torpedoed the American oil tanker Healdton.  What else could the Daily Messenger conclude but, “Germany is Forcing Wilson’s Hand.”  Germany, however, protested that it “cannot see why Americans should regard the sinking of the tanker Healdton by a German submarine as an ‘overt act.'”

***

The first time I read the back-and-forth of these articles, I couldn’t help but wonder, what the heck was Germany doing?!  I had watched them skirt the edge of this precipice for years, and yet now that they were so perilously close to falling in, every effort they made to pull back from the brink was followed by an even harder push!  They had enraged an isolationist country with their repeated, unprovoked attacks.  They had spent years turning a pacifist president away from his writing desk.  Knowing what we know a century later, I couldn’t help but read these articles as Germany step-by-step sealing its own doom.  Why didn’t they see this at the time?  Why weren’t they more worried about the United States entering the war?

From researching these questions, I can offer a few possible explanations for their actions.  The first two are easy to believe from following the events as they unfolded:  the British blockade was starving them to death, so they had to try anything and everything to break it; and the stalemate was bleeding them to death, so they had to try anything and everything to shift the tide of war in their favor.  The third explanation, though, was the hardest for me to see, having lived in the decades I have, but the Germans thought they had little to fear from the Americans.  They believed the United States was weak.  They could see that the United States was woefully unprepared.  With the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, they were sure they would win the war before the United States could sufficiently mobilize.  All of the United States’ history to that point and all of the attitudes Wilson and Congress had adopted over the past two-and-a-half years seemed to support these assumptions.  Not all of Germany’s military leaders agreed about these points, but ultimately on them they risked everything.

***

As March wound down, the U.S. was proving the Germans’ risk justified.  “On the surface all that the United States can do for the next 10 days is to ‘mark time,'” fretted the paper, noting that in the meantime Germany might itself declare war and/or launch a U-boat campaign directly against the U.S. navy.  The Daily Messenger marked the time by calling for volunteers to enlist and printing baseless reassurances about how prepared the U.S. was.  “Everything has been done that can be accomplished without additional authority from Congress,” they insisted.

The Daily Messenger also marked time by catching up on the seemingly-neglected water question.  At the insistence of the townspeople, they discovered that the the water committee had not obtained pricing because the president of the South Pittsburgh Water Company was in the hospital.  And then the water question faded again.

War and water might be out of their hands, but the people of Homestead organized where they could.  On the 26th they met in the Carnegie Library Music Hall to organize the Homestead District Auxiliary of the National American Red Cross.

On the 28th the spring-like weather turned cold again.

Friday, March 30, the news spread that the German chancellor’s recent speech to the Reichstag defended their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and assigned all the blame to the U.S. if they declared war.  “Actual War is Now Looked For,” concluded the Daily Messenger.  After a weeks of talking in circles about what was happening in Washington, the paper finally stated clearly where things stood.

The people of Homestead also stated where they stood.  Fed up with inaction on the water question, the Business Men’s Association, of which many of the town’s merchants were members, obtained a permit for a mass meeting to submit a petition to the council.  (They needed a permit because Homesteaders weren’t allowed to have mass meetings lest the steelworkers unionize. 7 )  Dissatisfied with the council’s decision that a contract with the South Pittsburgh Water Company was the only solution, they wanted a town-wide vote for the people to decide how they would receive their water.  That same evening, in another meeting, a different group of civic-minded Homesteaders elected officers for the new Red Cross chapter.  The superintendent of the town’s steel mill, often looked to for civic leadership, was elected as president, a sign of how prominent the group expected to be.  “The enthusiasm of the meeting showed the civic spirit of this section, which has always come to the front in time of need,” praised the paper.  These meetings, on the eve of war, were only the beginning of all the ways in which the town would have to organize in the coming months to improve their community and perform their patriotic duty.

On the last day of March a hundred years ago, our ancestors received the following newspaper at their doorsteps, the culmination of these recent efforts and years-long developments.  About the most important of all these unfolding stories, the paper published only one, oblique notice.  On the second of April, at the fateful hour Congress would convene, the schoolchildren of Homestead would salute the stars and stripes and sing “America.”

3/31/1917 front page of the Daily Messenger

3/31/1917 front page of the Daily Messenger.  (Click to enlarge.)

Next time

Congressional activity and inactivity.  Competitive flag-raising.  The Red Cross in action.  A $100K fundraiser.  Cracking down on alien enemies.  A new mill.  The first deployments.

8/21/1915: The Two Greatest German Industries

8/21/1915: “The Two Greatest German Industries.  The Krupp Gun Works, the Greatest in the World.  Cork Legs to take the Place of Those Shot off by the Guns.”

12/18/1916: These Nurses are Really Good Looking

12/18/1916: “These Nurses are Really Good Looking…They had to put on the gas masks to go into trenches filled with poisonous fumes to recover the wounded.”


  1. The heroics of how the French saved Paris are pretty amazing.  They involve reservists driven to the front by Parisian taxicabs!  

  2. Ironically, when the country actually entered the war two-and-a-half years later, the paper changed its tune.  “It would seem perfectly natural that foreigners, and especially aliens who do not understand the situation and have not kept in touch with the conditions in Europe would mistake the attitude of America” (4/18/1917).  

  3. Daily Messenger 10/3/1914, 12/2/1914, 12/26/1914, 2/23/1915, 3/19/1915, 8/19/1915  

  4.  In an unsettling editorial before the New Year, the Daily Messenger went so far as to state that the U.S. should not attempt to broke peace in Europe because after the war, “This country will find itself confronted with the most competent and energetic set of competitors in trade the world has ever seen. The United States is…an infant in foreign trade competition…with all our vast resources we will be left behind in this trade war which is bound to come.”   

  5. To be fair, the British were secreting munitions on passenger ships (the Lusitania contained 1,248 cases of shrapnel from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, for example).  The sequence of events behind Germany’s change of heart on unrestricted submarine warfare was a bit more nuanced than how I presented it above.  In September 1915 Germany forbade its U-boats from attacking neutral ships.  However, in March 1916 a U-boat torpedoed a French ferry carrying Americans. Wilson issued an ultimatum threatening to sever diplomatic relations if Germany continued attacking civilian ships, and Germany agreed in early May.  

  6. The full story of how the British intercepted the telegram is worth reading.  A recent book on the telegram debunks the notion that it was part of a well-considered plot: “The scheme originated with a minor foreign office official, Hans Arthur von Kemnitz, who wrote the first draft of the telegram. Zimmermann spent ‘hardly any time’ studying it before signing it…When another functionary saw news reports of the telegram’s disclosure, he exclaimed, ‘Kemnitz, that fantastic idiot, has done this!'”  

  7. Serrin, p. 150 

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