April 1917: Bloody April

Previously: War and water preoccupied Homesteaders. Nationally, the Zimmerman telegram and unrestricted submarine warfare pushed the country to the brink of war with Germany. Locally, Homesteaders lobbied for better water. Neither was in their hands, but what they did do was organize a local chapter of the Red Cross to stand in readiness for what was to come.

The Last Week of Peace

19170402 saluted the flag hl

4/2/1917: With headline and design matching the 3/30 promotion for this patriotic assembly, this article reported on the first of many acts of public patriotism Homesteaders would perform in April.

As scheduled, on Monday, April 2nd, the children of Homestead saluted the flag at 1 PM “in recognition of the convening of Congress,” where President Wilson was expected to deliver his “war message.” Homesteaders learned the next day that it was 9 PM when Wilson finally spoke. “We will not choose the path of submission,” he declared to cheers. “I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it.” He received a standing ovation, even from the Supreme Court justices. Then a joint resolution was introduced “to declare that a state of war exists.”

The following day, the Pittsburgh papers, to which most Homesteaders subscribed, printed Wilson’s speech in full and dramatized the scene in Congress. Homesteaders focused as well on a different representative body that had made a fateful, long-expected decision the previous evening: their borough council had instructed their own water committee to find out the cost of a filtration plant, just as the town-wide meeting at the end of March had urged them to do. Council also considered another pressing issue, the embarrassing lack of a flag pole at the municipal building which left it “about the only building in town not showing patriotism.”

The day after Wilson’s speech, the Senate foreign affairs committee approved the war bill, but the equivalent House committee could not meet since its Republican members had not yet been appointed. Both houses adjourned early in the afternoon. That day in Homestead, there were flag-raisings at the Munhall municipal building and in the tin shop of the Homestead Steel Works. Various detachments of the national guard arrived on “home guard duty” to protect the manufacturing plants and prevent unrest. In the evening, Homestead’s Red Cross auxiliary met in St. Matthews, the church across the street from the synagogue, and elected the remainder of its Executive committee.

Wednesday, the House committee approved the war bill, and the Senate debate began, slowed by the speeches of pacifist senators who wished to delay the proceedings. That day flags were raised at the pipe fitting shop, the boiler shop, and at all the “police boxes and entrances” of the Homestead Steel Works, including a flag at the McClure Street entrance provided by the men of the 42″ and 128″ mills. The paper addressed the new mania:

3/31/1917: Part of a Half Bros. advertisement.

3/31/1917: Part of a Half Bros. advertisement.

It is surprising how many flags have been raised. At the Homestead steel mills, especially, if the enthusiasm keeps up the mills will be covered with flags. Every department vies with each other in getting the best and largest flag, some of which are quite expensive.

That same day across the river in Rankin, a flag-raising took place at the Carrie Furnace. A mill whistle was sounded to mark the occasion, but those outside of the ceremony mistook its meaning. One by one all the mill whistles in Rankin and Homestead joined the chorus for a full fifteen minutes. The Daily Messenger was inundated with phone calls: Had Congress voted? Were we at war?

4/6/1917 front page of The Daily Messenger announcing the war.

4/6/1917 front page of The Daily Messenger burying the lede announcing the war.

Not yet. At 11 PM that evening, after 13 hours of debate, the Senate voted for war. Not to be outdone, on Thursday the House debated for 17 hours and voted for war at 3 AM Friday morning. And at 1:11 PM on Friday, the president signed Congress’ war resolution. The nation was at war.1

For Whom, For What?

The world must be made safe for democracy.

—President Wilson’s War Message to Congress

As the sun set on that fateful day, American Jews sat down to their first Passover seder. Interspersed with the usual discussion of the Exodus from Egypt was surely much talk about the war. The topics were not unrelated. In the previous day’s Daily Messenger, sandwiched between Easter ads, was a sermon by one of Homestead’s rabbis, Rev. Dr. A. Kahn, highlighting Passover’s “message for the conscience and the heart of all mankind.” The holiday, he explained, “commemorates the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from most foul and cruel tyranny” which “in its various forms still [lingers] on even in civilized countries.” Contemporary readers would have recognized the allusion to so-called Prussian militarism, a tyranny subjugating the German people and the whole continent of Europe — and now threatening American freedom. Kahn’s conclusion that “against all such iniquities the Passover mightily protests” echoed America’s own justification for waging war against Germany. Wilson himself evoked the same dichotomy between oppression and deliverance when he spoke to Congress about the need to “fight” for the “liberation” of all people suffering under tyranny.  This cause was one the whole country, even many pacifists, quickly rallied behind.

“We are glad now,” Wilson had asserted to Congress, “that we see the facts with no veil of false pretence about them.” But was that true? Was America’s entry into the war, as he had claimed, solely a selfless response to German aggression? After all, the Germans had never actually wanted America in the war, though they gradually accepted it as a likely side-effect of policies they deemed necessary to win. But all along there had been a country which had urgently desired America’s entry and manipulated events to bring it about — Britain.

British propaganda, especially about German atrocities in Belgium, had filtered into American news reports and taught Americans to call the Germans “Huns.” From the outset of the war this influence shaded how Americans viewed developments in the war. Germany also tried to win American sympathy, particularly against the British naval blockade, which violated international law and starved their people, but they were not successful. The blockade, however, did shift America’s original stance of strict neutrality: because it hurt America by cutting off trade to mainland Europe, Wilson was forced to permit not only trade with the allies alone, but also loans for this trade from American banks. Britain was thus strengthened, and Germany angered. Furthermore, the blockade was what led to unrestricted submarine warfare, which led to American casualties, which gave the U.S. a true casus belli. This chain of events was exactly what the British desired. As Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote early in the war, “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany…We want the traffic — the more the better — and if some of it gets into trouble, the better still.”2

In late 1916, both sides were close to exhaustion. Each saw a different way of involving the United States to break the stalemate. The Germans publicly declared their desire for peace, involving Wilson to bring the allies to the table and threatening them all with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare if he did not. The allies, however, claimed not to want to negotiate until their military position was improved, though their overriding attitude had long been not to end the war without destroying Germany. The Germans did not give Wilson enough time to convince the allies that “peace without victory” “between equals” was a better guarantor of peace. On April 6, 1917, the allies at last got what they had long needed: a new ally, fresh and eager, rich with money and industry and resources and people.

There was just one problem.


Wilson’s neutrality and pacifism, which delayed the United States’ entry into the war, were initially threaded with an equally idealistic, but far more dangerous ideology: anti-preparedness.

4/19/1916: A cherry article in the Easter supplement to The Daily Messenger.

4/19/1916: A cheery article in the Easter supplement to The Daily Messenger.

The Preparedness Movement began in early 1915, just months into the war, to push for stronger national defenses. Its proponents, led by Theodore Roosevelt, countered Wilson’s idealism with realism about America’s strength relative to Europe and vulnerability to attack. Preparedness was about “patriotism, self-sacrifice, duty, and American prestige,” according to its advocates, but its leaders were military and industrial men (and allied politicians) — in short, men who would personally benefit by such policies. Their chief proposal was for universal military service, which failed, though their summer training camps, according to The Daily Messenger, “opened the eyes of the American people to the enormous difficulties of the task of raising an army commensurate with the country’s probable need in an emergency” and “forcefully [demonstrated] the folly of the belief that a great army can be raised and trained within a short time.”


3/15/1917: Why Didn’t You Raise Your Son to Be a Soldier Just Like One of These?

With Thomas Edison’s guidance, they also pushed for industrial preparedness, because America was not armed for the latest developments in warfare. For example, The Daily Messenger informed Homesteaders that the military had only 4 submarines, 17 airplanes, inadequate coastal defenses, and too few battleships. To Homesteaders these deficiencies read like a shopping list. An editorial in The Daily Messenger quoted a member of the Pennsylvania Board of Industrial Preparedness, “It is well known that in the event of war, Pennsylvania will be expected to furnish not only actual firearms, but the munitions of war, accoutrements for the soldiers, blankets, uniforms, automobiles or materials to build them, coal and oil and the hundred and one other war-time necessities.” 3

4/6/1917: Miss Preparedness and Her Soldier Boy

4/6/1917: Miss Preparedness and Her Soldier Boy

The opponents of preparedness were pacifists and anti-interventionists who saw it as a pro-war ideology. They feared a defense build-up would create a corporate-military oligarchy. Initially Wilson agreed, but whether to respond to the May 1915 attack on the Lusitania or to shore up his political standing before the November 1916 election, he changed his tune and put forth his own plan for preparedness in late 1915. The modified version that passed Congress in June 1916 contemplated only modest increases in the armed forces. The more ambitious bill for expanding the navy attached a timeline that meant that the work “would almost certainly not be completed until after the war was over,” a sign of how muddled the national debate on preparedness had become. For what was America preparing? Joining the war? Blocking a German invasion? Protecting America if Germany won? Policing the world post-war? Maintaining America’s overall standing? Wilson, who became an advocate for preparedness-lite, but remained anti-war until the 11th hour, did not prepare the country for the most imminent of all of these threats.4

As a result, during the first week of April — when war was inevitable, but before it was officially declared — the president had to begin at the beginning by laying out his administration’s plan for conducting the war. Within days America was in a war for which it had no plan. While there was an initial flurry of activity when war was declared — the navy was mobilized, volunteers were called for the army and national guard, German merchant ships in U.S. ports were seized, and suspected spies and plotters were rounded up (ranging from Germans to southern Blacks) — not much of significance could happen without new legislation. Wilson had at the ready a number of proposals, most crucially around conscription and funding, each of which had to be submitted to Congress for consideration. He tried to speed their progress, but Congress would not rush; on some of the most critical priorities, there were significant differences to surmount. Wilson signed only one bill in April.5

For the soldiers in the battlefield, what America did in April 1917 had very little impact on their day-to-day. At best it gave America’s allies a faint optimism (and her enemies a faint foreboding), as everyone on all sides predicted it would be many months until America could mobilize sufficiently to affect the fighting. However, all of Wilson’s proposals, as they wended their way through Congress, were front-page news, giving Americans a sense that the country’s entry into the war was palpably changing things on the home front. Vague feeling of patriotism quickly snapped into clear focus with the first of many specific responsibilities Americans would be asked to shoulder. Long-simmering questions about “alien enemies” (unnaturalized residents from Germany and Austria-Hungary) suddenly boiled over. Americans couldn’t have known it then, but there is remarkably little that happened on the home front during the war that wasn’t directly foreshadowed by the legislative priorities of April 1917.

Here they are, and here is how they began to affect Homesteaders:

Financing the War Effort

The administration is almost nonplussed by the magnitude of the task devolving upon a nation which is unprepared in everything except money to do the part suddenly thrust upon it.

—The Pittsburgh Post, 4/21/1917

Raising an army might seem like the first problem to have addressed, since training and deployment were necessarily slow processes, but Congress and the President tackled finance first. It was the only matter settled during the month of April when a $7 billion bond issue went into effect, of which $3 billion would go to the allies. At the end of the month the U.S. advanced half a billion dollars to Britain, with loans to Italy and France to follow. Congress deferred questions of how to spend that money in the U.S. to an appropriations bill introduced at the end of the month.

Paying for the bond would involve an increase in taxation, the details of which also began to be ironed out at the end of the month, as well as a $5 billion public bond issue to be called the “Liberty Loan of 1917.” Treasury Secretary McAdoo anticipated that this public loan would give the average American a direct tie to the war effort. Starting in May, the country would have the chance to demonstrate its patriotic commitment through its Liberty Bond purchases.6



Unfortunately Homestead’s leaders were already planning a large fundraiser for the same time! On March 1, before America’s entry into the war became assured, the local hospital’s board of directors decided the time had come to address the hospital’s long-standing problems. It was overcrowded and insufficiently staffed, hampered by inadequate facilities and a poor location. The outbreak of war did not dissuade the board from announcing in early April their intentions to raise a hundred thousand dollars for a new hospital building. A week later, a ten-man committee set to work, among whom were Jewish merchants Joseph Lasdusky and Morris Half, and leading industrialists A.A. Corey, superintendent of the steel works, and Fred Mesta of Mesta Machine. Then the $5 billion Liberty Loan campaign was announced April 29. How could Homestead raise $100,000 when the country was asking the town for its share of the war costs?

Bloody April

Soon after the U.S. entered into the war, Germany’s allies, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, broke off relations with the U.S., but a much larger chain of events was set off in the Americas. Over the course of the month Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, and Panama either severed relations or declared war on Germany, while Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay considered action. But Mexico’s position was worryingly unclear. The ongoing troubles between the U.S. and Mexico continued as Mexico massed troops on the U.S. border. There was sniper fire mid-month. In light of the insinuations surrounding the Zimmerman telegram, the country feared an invasion by Germany via Mexico. Late in the month, however, the Mexican government warned the Germans against massing at the border. It was a hopeful sign.

Meanwhile, the war was going poorly for the allies — not that the Americans knew, given what their papers reported. April saw the beginning of the spring campaign with the the long-planned Nivelle Offensive, a joint operation by French and British forces to break the deadlock on the Western Front. The operation began with spectacular British gains in the Battle of Arras on which they could not capitalize. Ultimately British casualties in the offensive were significant. In particular, the losses the RFC sustained at the hands of the Red Baron and other German fighter pilots were so extreme — for example, newly-trained pilots rushed to replace the fallen lasted only a day or two — that the month became known as “Bloody April.” (Elsewhere, the British were faring poorly in their war against the Ottoman Empire, losing their second attempt to take Gaza in two months.)

Headlines from the Homestead paper during the failed Nivelle Offensive (4/18, 4/19, and 4/26/1917)

Headlines from the Homestead paper during the failed Nivelle Offensive (4/18, 4/19, and 4/26/1917)

As for the French, after their operations in the Nivelle Offensive failed quickly, the morale of their army dropped disastrously.  Troops began to mutiny. This development did not appear in the press. Instead the Pittsburgh and Homestead papers reported seemingly endless and overwhelming military success for the allies, though they did note the Germans’ curious insistence that the French drive had been a failure. 7

And finally, the state of Russia post-revolution continued to concern the other allies, who feared that the Communists were destroying the Russian army. There were two million desertions in March and April and rumors of a separate peace. The Russian foreign minister sent a note to ensure France and Britain that Russia would not desert them, but the note ran counter to public sentiment in Russia, and the other ministers had to quickly condemn his actions to quell the protests. The U.S. was concerned and prepared a commission to go to Russia, ostensibly to help strengthen what they perceived as Russia’s nascent democratic movement.8

So, with these allies the United States was to defend the cause of liberty: an air force bleeding itself to death, an army in mutiny, and a country in revolt. And yet, of some consolation was the news that Germany and Austria-Hungary were having serious problems internally. Germany was experiencing food riots and a growing strike. There was rioting in Austro-Hungarian cities, too. Given the influence of events in Russia, revolt seemed imminent, especially with May Day looming. And in light of the skewed reports from the Western Front, the public speculated that Germany might soon give up.

Nevertheless, their war machine remained undeterred. German U-boats dominated the seas under their renewed policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. At the beginning of the month, as Wilson prepared to speak before Congress, the first armed American merchant vessel was torpedoed. On the last day of the month, another torpedo attack led to the first American military casualties of the war. In between, Germany sank 875,000 tons of shipping in April, up from 500,000 in February.  (America did sink its first U-boat, though!)  The British feared starvation, and the Americans incursion: U-boats were sighted off the coast, and one fired on a warship 40 miles off Long Island.


It is realized everywhere that this country faces a stupendous task in converting itself, almost overnight, from a peace basis to a universal military, naval, industrial, agricultural mobilization…It would be “long, weary month before we can render much assistance in the field.”

—The Pittsburgh Post, 4/14, 4/18/1917, quoting Senator Furnifold McLendel Simmons

Thus the war stood as Congress debated how to raise an army. The day he signed the war bill, Wilson submitted a bill to Congress to raise an army of two million men by conscription, but as of mid-April, Wilson’s bill did not have the votes. Many congressmen demanded that the voluntary system get a fair trial.

However, the volunteer system was already in effect, and it was not succeeding despite all efforts. The Pittsburgh papers drummed up support by publishing a daily honor roll of enlisted men from the area, and the Homestead paper wrote articles about its local boys who signed up. An army engineer regiment dubbed itself the Pittsburgh Pioneers to target local mill men. Pittsburgh organized recruiting parades, which boosted Pittsburgh into first place among all American cities (or so the The Pittsburgh Post claimed), but nationally only 21K recruits enlisted during the first twenty days of April. Clearly, the pace wasn’t fast enough to produce anywhere close to the first half-million men by September 1. Sentiment gradually shifted, and the draft soon passed the House and Senate. At the end of the month it wasn’t yet law, but Americans knew then that a draft would take place soon. How all these men would be trained remained unresolved.9

Throughout April, England and France had wondered at American opposition to conscription; their own experience proved the volunteer system a time-wasting blunder. As the draft debate was winding down, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and French General-in-Chief Joseph Joffre arrived in the U.S. to conduct war conferences — ostensibly to help the U.S. avoid this and other mistakes the allies had made earlier in the war — but after months of hoping for America’s entry into the war, if not activity steering events in that direction, it’s impossible to believe that was all. Balfour insisted, “We ask nothing, suggest nothing; here to answer questions only,” but Britain needed food, ships, money, and a pledge that the U.S. would not make a separate peace. The French delegation echoed the sentiments that they, too, came “to advise and serve and not to make demands,” but Joffre, having had field experience, arrived with specific recommendations for how to train the American army and incorporate them into the fighting. He recognized that America knew nothing about modern warfare as it was then being conducted at the front, and he knew how much deadly trial-and-error had gone into developing effective tactics. He also knew that French morale was at a low ebb, and a real show of American force, the sooner, the better, would make a tremendous difference.10

Wilson may have declared at the start of the month that the U.S. had nothing to gain personally by the war, but its allies did. Their spring offensive had failed. It was clearer than ever they needed the might of the United States to break through. Churchill suggested that the allies should postpone their “extreme effort for a complete victory” until the United States was mobilized the following year. Various congressmen, in turn, suggested doubling the loan to the allies so they could end the war without the sacrifice of any American lives.

Although the draft was pending, mobilization of existing armed forces continued within the June 1916 parameters. In Homestead there was much focus on the local Eighteenth Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard, which continued its recruitment efforts. When it became public they were assigned to guard duty in the eastern part of the state, Pittsburghers insisted they were needed at home to protect the local industry, and the regiment’s officers protested that this report hindered their recruiting efforts. Soon the papers were reporting that the regiment was starting “war duty” in a “destination unknown,” but in reality the assignment remained unchanged. The 50 or so Homestead boys who had returned from Mexico in January departed once more.

Homestead Homefront



In the end, too few Homestead boys enlisted in April to make an impact on the community. Instead, the most significant feature was the continued frenzy of increasingly elaborate flag-raising demonstrations. The day after America entered the war, the workmen of the 30″, 42″, and 128″ mills paraded through town to the mill before raising their flag. The next day — Easter Sunday — passed quietly, the weather too rainy for the the women to promenade with their elaborate hats, but on Monday the activity resumed. No day passed without news of a flag-raising that had just happened or was in planning. Successive Saturdays continued to feature large parades that wove through town and attracted thousands of spectators. Over the course of the month the steel mill made by far the biggest showing, with flag-raisings at the Carrie Furnace, Carpenter and Paint Shop, Template Department, Tie Plant, and the 12″, 16″, 23″, 28″, 33″, 35″, 38″, and 40″ mills. Towards the end of the month, the Rigging Department, who had been “busy of late erecting flag poles all over the plant,” finally got around to raising one of their own. The district’s other industrial establishments were not to be outdone; the National car wheel works, Equitable Gas Company, Union Railroad, Keystone car wheel works, Harbison-Walker brick plant, and Howard Axle works all made showings. The churches got involved, too, with flag raisings or flag presentations at the First Baptist Church, St. Matthews Episcopal Church, First M.E. Church, and the First Presbyterian Church. The Homestead Park Fire Company raised a homemade flag “owing to the scarcity,” and Munhall borough kept its lead over Homestead with one the Munhall Volunteer Fire Company No. 1’s parade and flag-raising the last Saturday of the month.

4/27/1917: Half Bros. upgraded their flag inventory and advertising to respond to the demand.

4/27/1917: Half Bros. upgraded their flag inventory and advertising to respond to the demand. Another ad offered a “special flag outfit” with a 3’x5′ flag, rope, pole, and holder for $1.49.

Mid-month Homestead’s municipal building finally got its flag pole (a gift from Superintendent Corey) and three days later threw “The Greatest Public Demonstration Homestead Ever Witnessed.” The headline went on to note that at this demonstration “many new features [were] introduced,” but the same could have been said about every such event. The various groups “vied with each other in giving interesting entertainments.” The flags grew larger, the presentations more elaborate, the bands more numerous. The Tie plant, for example, “[saw] the men in the other departments of the great works and [went] the one better” by adding a spotlight pointed at their flag so it could be seen at night. These events drew thousands of people from all over Homestead, both as participants and spectators, beyond the sponsoring organization. School children were especially involved. By the end of the month the town’s private residences, schools, and industrial establishments had been doused in red, white, and blue, but “there is a sad lack of it on the principal thoroughfare of the town” and “it has been so noticeable as to be called to the attention of many people.”

4/20/1917: The flag raising at the Homestead municipal building (today the Voodoo Brewery)

4/20/1917: The flag raising at the Homestead municipal building (today the Voodoo Brewery)



Amidst all this patriotic one-upmanship, a singular occurrence stood out to the paper, when at the 35″ and 40″ mills’ event everyone was requested to “bow their heads in silent prayer for the soldiers on the battle front in Europe” while the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” “Many gave way to tears and only those present can know the impressive service this was.” It was perhaps a rare moment when Homesteaders were forced to confront what really lay ahead. With the government still deciding how to wage the war, there was little they had actually been called upon to do.

4/17/1917: "Outside the mills 394 have been enrolled in the Red Cross and $469 has been obtained, making a total of 4,982 members and a total of $7,580...The Red Cross has not been sufficiently explained in detail."

4/17/1917: “Outside the mills 394 have been enrolled in the Red Cross and $469 has been obtained, making a total of 4,982 members and a total of $7,580…The Red Cross has not been sufficiently explained in detail.”

For the women, the new Red Cross chapter gave them a way to direct their energy. The group began teaching first aid classes and organizing Saturday sewing sessions to make articles for the Red Cross hospitals. Prior to the first sewing session, the paper reported, “Every woman in the Homestead district is urged to attend this meeting,” though the organizers were drawn from the leading women in town. They solicited members from all over Homestead, but after a month the membership was predominantly comprised of steel workers!

For the men, there was an even newer organization. Accompanying the paper’s announcement of war was the news that Superintendent Corey and Reid Kennedy, president of the town’s leading bank, were commissioned by the state to form a “local safety committee.” The first “public safety meeting” took place the following Tuesday, assembling the eighty men Kennedy and Corey had hand-picked to join, the town’s leading “mill superintendents, mill workers, borough officials, doctors, lawyers and business men.” (Surprisingly, none of the prominent Jewish businessmen, even those who routinely participated in the top ranks of the town’s organizations, were included in their number.) “Everyone pledged himself to stand by his country and do anything called upon,” the paper asserted, but what? Even Corey didn’t know, admitting that “the duties of the organization were vague at present as it was something entirely new and the details would have to be worked out.” The only clue came from the list of committees:

Division of Administration–Finance, Publicity, Legislation, Allied Bodies.
Division of Relief–Sanitation and Medicine, Civic Relief.
Division of Equipment and Supply–Materials, Plants, Motors and Motor Trucks.
Division of Service–Civilian Service, Military Service, Naval Service, Guards, Police and Inspection.
Division of Transportation–Railroads, Electric Railways and Motors.


4/19/1917. The town’s bells were tolled at 11 PM and students read the Longfellow poem.

Their initial public activities did not look all that different from what was already happening. At the request of the “mayors committee on national defense,” they arranged for the town to commemorate the anniversary of the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the Battle of Lexington to invoke the “Spirit of ’76” to “wake up America.”  Then they set to work on a gathering of a more educational nature to take place on May 1st. The paper explained, “If you do not now understand what this conflict really means, what modern warfare really means, the purposes for which it [is] waged and the duty of every citizen at the present time, you will learn it by attending this meeting.”

4/30/1917: "Soldiers are not the only thing the country is in need of. There are other things just as vital--things that you can do. Attend the meeting and learn what these things are."

4/30/1917: “Soldiers are not the only thing the country is in need of. There are other things just as vital–things that you can do. Attend the meeting and learn what these things are.”

Famine and Prohibition

Victory Hinges on Crops

—Headline in The Pittsburgh Post, 4/27/1917

A more immediate concern altered life on the home front: food production and conservation. As the country came to understand the extent of the allies’ need for American food shipments, experts claimed the nation would face a “wheat famine” if it didn’t plant enough. In light of experiences in Europe, the consensus was that federal food control would be necessary — fixing prices, supervising production, even taking over businesses — and Congress took up a bill to that effect on the last day of the month. The Homestead paper agreed that “the food army must be mobilized as thoroughly as the fighting men.”


4/16/1917. President’s Direct Appeal To People Summarized in Pointed Paragraphs.

Increasing the country’s food resources was one area where the general public didn’t need to wait for new legislation — and couldn’t. Planting season was now. In Homestead gardening suddenly became a new area for civic engagement, and a glut of organizations new and old took charge. The federal Department of Commerce urged the town’s Credit Bureau and Business Men’s Association to create a “committee on the production of foodstuffs” and involve the women’s organizations. With the National Emergency Food Garden Commission, the paper began to publish a regular column “to inspire the planting of more food gardens.” The county’s “War Farm Gardening Association” also provided guidance for “this patriotic work.” The steel works’ welfare department plowed over 26 acres, which they handed over to the women for cultivation, and the Homestead Park Land Company donated 20 acres in “one of the ‘sunny sections’ of this smoke beclouded district.” Besides putting vacant land to use, individuals began to cultivate whatever patches of lawn they had, and young men volunteered to work for area farmers despite the lower wages. If only the town’s stray dogs would stop digging up the new gardens!

The wheat situation provided an opening to the Prohibition movement, which was then at the height of its political influence. Its leaders argued convincingly that breweries and distilleries had to be closed during the war to conserve the country’s grain supply. Others believed curbing alcohol consumption would increase military and economic efficiency. The judges in the county’s liquor license court agreed, announcing a prohibition on saloon keepers selling to enlisted men. The Wilson administration, however, did not buy either argument, and while federal food control seemed likely, the question of prohibition remained open.

One significant advantage of the “drys” heading into the Congressional debate was that traditionally one of the strongest “wet” factions were the prosperous German American brewers. The country’s entry into the war sidelined them from the debate — and worse.

Plotters, Alien Enemies, and Slackers

The sinister side of all this concerted patriotism was a sudden, widespread suspicion of anyone who didn’t go along with it. The instant the war began, the country began targeting individuals and groups who could undermine the war effort, whether due to a lack of enthusiasm for the cause or outright support of the enemy.

Homestead is an ideal lens through which to track how all these groups fared during the war. The town had an integrated and respected German community, who had previously caused little concern, and a much larger, but segregated community of Eastern Europeans, primarily from Austria-Hungary, who were limited to low-paying jobs and then disparaged for the resulting poverty, crime, filth, and disease. Of all the problems facing them, the lack of assimilation had always bothered Homesteaders the most. After the outbreak of war overseas, “training the alien” in English and citizenship took on a national urgency. In the ensuing years, the Homestead paper noted a couple times that the foreigners were at last “adopting western methods,” but America’s entry into the war pushed aside all considerations of “lifting up” and “enlightening” them.11

The day the war began, Wilson issued a proclamation concerning alien enemies. To the existing laws rendering them “liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed,” Wilson added additional regulations “for the public safety,” such as forbidding them to possess or use weapons, aircraft, wireless apparatus, signaling devices, or cipher code. Later in the month, Homestead’s chief of police received a letter from the attorney general of the U.S. ordering him to post notices and arrest anyone who did not cooperate within 24 hours, but it received little attention because most of Homestead’s German residents were citizens. Other provisions in Wilson’s proclamation were quickly extended to Austro-Hungarians, even though America wasn’t at war with their country. A provision that alien enemies couldn’t go within a half-mile of a “workshop for the manufacture of munitions of war or of any products for the use of the army or navy” turned into a census of all industrial plants in the Pittsburgh area. Although no decision had been made, The Pittsburgh Post warned that up to 100,000 people, mostly Austro-Hungarians could lose their jobs and homes, producing a labor shortage. As a result, the number of foreigners seeking citizenship broke a record at the naturalization office in Pittsburgh.



Not all alien enemies were plotters and spies, but the news was filled with enough arrests for a reader to think they lurked everywhere. There was news of thwarted plots (to poison the nation’s food, to halt rail traffic, to disrupt Pacific shipping, to blow up the capital of Ohio, to dynamite the Lincoln Avenue bridge) and unexplained incidents (in Pennsylvania alone, fires at the Aetna Chemical Company and the Frankfort Arsenal and an explosion at the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation). A major story was the rioting of German residents in Brazil (and Brazil had only broken ties with Germany!). Given the high number of Austro-Hungarians in Homestead and the importance of the steel mill to national defense, there was every reason for Homesteaders to fear there were plotters in their midst. But so far there were only minor incidents of dissent — a Russian insulted the flag; one Slav pulled an American flag pin off another; an Austrian refused to halt and was shot by a solider; and another Austrian was arrested for saying things like, “the country is no good, and to hell with it.” The paper expressed surprise at how few the incidents given the make-up of the area. Instead, a couple of the Eastern churches organized their own public proclamations of their community’s patriotism.12



Wilson’s proclamation was only the beginning of this darker side of the war. Not only plotters and alien enemies were at risk. In Pittsburgh, a minister was arrested for anti-enlistment talk, and there was a riot against a street speaker who expressed similar sentiments. The true perils of dissent weren’t yet clear; Congress was debating an espionage bill Wilson had originally submitted in December 1915. In the meantime, community-level condemnation was the price people paid for seemingly small infractions. “Slacker” became the new dirty word for a citizen not doing his part. Grooms in the Pittsburgh marriage bureau received a frigid reception; in Homestead a steelworker named Leslie Ullum purportedly boasted of getting married to escape service, and his co-workers shamed him by driving him around the mill on exhibition. Worse was that “Ullum Boasted of Being a Slacker” was the headline on the front-page, and he had to visit the newspaper office to ask for a retraction, since he had actually married before the war. Even the Homestead post office came in for condemnation. An anonymous citizen wrote the paper that if the post office did not replace its dirty flag, “they are either very unpatriotic or are sympathizers with those who are working evil toward our old ‘Uncle Sam.'” In this brave, new world of lockstep patriotism, people were only just learning how to fall in line.

The Deadliest Weapon

No single enemy is more deadly to the submarine than the plate mill. Today, the more plates we produce, the greater the number of ships on the waves and the smaller the Kaiser’s chances of a successful campaign of frightfulness. As the output of plates grows, the submarine problem shrivels.

Iron Trade Review



All of these new threads wove into the pre-existing fabric of life in Homestead. Even as they watched all these developments, people continued on with their usual activities.  The war was far away.  In Homestead, demand for homes was high. The steel works celebrated its record-breaking production. Steel workers got a raise. The new Credit Bureau held its second annual banquet. Local liquor wholesalers were under heightened scrutiny. In the biggest non-war-related news story, Joseph Lasdusky and son opened the largest department store in Homestead. The paper raved, “Everyone is talking about the store since it was opened a week ago and declaring it is just what the town needed, a first class department store.” What scarcely rated mention was the town’s water situation, despite the renewed emphasis it had received in March. People began to wonder whether the issue had been dropped. It hadn’t. Council still hadn’t received pricing. Meanwhile, the town’s women petitioned to be able to vote on the water question, since it “affects so vitally their business of keeping household and and children in a wholesome condition.” (Hilariously, the Homestead city council voted to guard the town’s pumping station and reservoir to “protect these important works from any danger.” There was nothing an alien enemy saboteur could do to them that was any worse than what had already been happening for years!)

But Homestead was no ordinary town. Its steel works, especially its armor plate mill, had long been critical to the country’s military defenses. What new demands would the war bring?

At first, it seemed, nothing. In early April Homestead received a major setback when the government announced it had selected a site to build its own armor plate mill. War-time conditions, however, quickly gave Homestead a reprieve. “With our entrance into the war,” explained a trade journal, “the shipbuilding industry at once became one of the country’s principal offensive and defensive arms, since it was clear that without an abundance of ships, we could transport neither troops nor supplies.” And without an abundance of armor plate, there could be no new ships.

Homestead received its orders mid-month — and it was for much more than steel alone.

At the request of the government as an emergency measure work is to be started at once on a 110-inch plate mill…There is a great demand for plate for new ships since war has been declared on Germany and it is to help meet this increasing demand that the mill it to be built.

Ordinarily, even in these times of big things and quick work, it would take a year to build such a mill as is proposed but extraordinary means are to be taken in the construction of this plan and Superintendent A.A. Corey, of the Homestead steel works, expects to have it completed and in operation within six months.

What the newspaper concealed about this audacious estimate is how unprepared the steel works actually was to meet the government’s request. The mill was already running at capacity, and there was a labor shortage even without the possibly of losing the enemy alien and draft-eligible workers. Harder still,

A mill of this size had not been under consideration at Homestead steel works when the order to build the mill was received. There were no spare parts which could be taken from other mills, no engines, no machinery available. No pencil had ever been put to paper in the way of preliminary estimates or designs.13

The government was handing Homestead the ability to the turn the tide of the war.  Could it meet the challenge?

Next Time

The return of the Mayflower. Even more flag-raisings. Other fronts. Four bills. Liberty Loan Bonds on sale. A water decision. Memorial Day in war-time.



  1. There were 50 House and 6 Senate votes against the war, but all the news reports singled out the negative vote of the first congresswoman. From the Pittsburgh Gazette Times:

    Miss Rankin of Montana, the only woman member of Congress, sat through the first roll call with bowed head, failing to answer to her name, twice called by the clerk.

    On the second roll call she rose and said in a sobbing voice: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

    For a moment then she remained standing supporting herself against a desk, and as cries of “Vote, vote” came from several parts of the House she sank back into her seat without voting audibly. She was recorded in the negative.

    In 1941 she was the only person who voted against war with Japan after Pearl Harbor. That vote ended her career.  

  2. Regarding the British blockage, they were particularly angered that Wilson did not react as strongly to Britain’s violations of internal law as he did to Germany’s. One can imagine an alternate scenario where he was more outraged that Britain was starving Germany than that Germany was targeting British ships in response. There were far more deaths from the “starvation blockade” than submarine warfare.

    It also didn’t help that Germany was a monarchy, while Britain and France were closer to democracies. The difference in government styles led the U.S. to sympathize with the nations most like itself. It also explains why Wilson could describe the German government separately from its people.

    Regarding this famous Churchill quote, a couple additional remarks. First, although the Lusitania was not “neutral shipping,” some use this quote, along with the failures of the British navy and intelligence, to blame Britain for its sinking. Prominent naval historian and former British naval intelligence officer Patrick Beesly assessed the evidence and “[stated] that if no deliberate plan existed to put the Lusitania in danger, ‘one is left only with an unforgivable cock-up as an explanation.’ However, in a later interview…Beesly was less judicious. ‘As an Englishman and a lover of the Royal Navy,’ he said, ‘I would prefer to attribute this failure to negligence, even gross negligence, rather [than] to a conspiracy deliberately to endanger the ship.’ But, he said, ‘on the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusintania in order to involve the United States in the war.’” He dwelled, as others did, on the absence of an escort to safely convoy the ship to port. (Eric Larson, Dead Wake, pp. 323-324)

    Finally, as I’m about ready to leave behind the issue of why the U.S. entered the war, it’s worth pointing out that America wasn’t just caught between German and British machinations. The country was motivated by its own self-interest as well. The trade imbalance resulting from the blockade gave the U.S. a strong financial interest in seeing the allies prevail. Additionally, Wilson aspired to “demonstrate the global influence of the U.S. by presiding at postwar negotiations, but he figured he could do that only if the U.S. were a belligerent” (source).

    In short, while I do not challenge the standard point of view that submarine warfare pushed the U.S. into the war against its will, it’s fascinating to recognize how many other forces were involved that seem to have been overshadowed by the prevailing narrative.  

  3. The Daily Messenger 9/11/1915; 8/20/1915, 9/1/1915, 9/8/1915; 7/21/1916. Although there were preparedness parades and rallies across the country, there wasn’t one in Homestead, but there were ones on the Northside on 7/20/1916, in Swissvale 7/25/1916, and in Pittsburgh on 8/12/1916.  

  4. The Army and National Guard were slated to expand to 175,00 and 450,000 men, respectively, and add air capabilities. (For comparison, German forces had 4.5 million men at the start of the war and had mobilized 11 million by the end. British forces grew from 975,000 to 9 million.) The “Big Navy Act” of August 1916 planned for — what else? — a bigger navy, but just 30 submarines. (Germany had 48 at the start of the war and had built 360 by the end.) (Source: army stats, U-boat stats.)

    Analysis of the Preparedness Movement from A Companion to Woodrow Wilson. Assessing the movement produces a sort of Catch-22: its opponents in the Peace Movement complain that it began the march to war, but given that the country did go to war, the shame is that the movement wasn’t better heeded. On the other hand, the huge militaries built up by Britain and especially Germany before the war contribution to many years of bellicose brinkmanship that eventually exploded into the war.

    The Peace Movement deserves a far deeper treatment than this brief mention. In focusing only on how its philosophies weakened America’s position in light of the eventual course of events, it discounts the strength of their arguments in the years prior, when it was by no means clear that America would enter the war. I hope to be able to discuss the peace movement in more detail in a subsequent post, perhaps when examining how their principles influenced Wilson’s ideas about a post-war settlement should look like.  

  5. He did, however, sign nine executive orders in April after war was declared. He also made three proclamations that month related to Indians lands, which gained little attention because obviously.  

  6. Federal Reverse History: Liberty Bonds. This article makes the fascinating argument that because at the time the war began the American economy was operating at full capacity, there were no resources available to work on the war effort. Instead, resources had to be forcibly freed by taxing people to reduce their purchasing power and thus shifting resources to support the war instead of consumer consumption. A longer treatment of the liberty bonds is available in this academic article. McAdoo also probably recognized that the same tactic was successfully financing Germany’s war effort.  

  7. The operation had been in planning for too long; the Germans knew exactly what was coming and prepared defenses accordingly. Nivelle’s overconfidence in predicting the precise success of his plan recalls the German’s similarly precise confidence in their original war plan.  

  8. Jewish Americans were particularly invested in the success of this commission since so many Jews suffered under the czar, and even non-Jews saw the value of having American Jews on the commission to counter the purported efforts of German Jews to sway Russian Jews in how to influence their country. In April it seemed quite possible the commission could include one or more Jewish members, though it was headed by an official many in the Jewish community distrusted. (source)  

  9. Congress still had to iron out differences in the draft bills passed by the House and Senate. One issue was the request of former president Theodore Roosevelt, then 58 years old, to raise his own volunteer regiment and lead it into France. There was a surprising amount of enthusiasm for this idea at home and abroad. The senate bill included this provision, but the House bill did not.  

  10. The Pittsburgh Post, 4/23/1917; The Pittsburgh Press, 4/27/1917  

  11. The Daily Messenger, 11/7/1913, 11/22/1913, 9/16/1914, 8/30/1915, 7/6/1916, 9/2/1916, 3/13/1917. Many of the paper’s editorials on this subject are astounding in their tone. Here’s one of the most positive ones, from 7/6/1916:

    Any one who had taken the trouble to go through the foreign section of the Second ward on the evening of the Fourth of July would have been edified and impressed by the manner in which the people of the European nations, recently settled here, celebrated our national holiday. It is of course difficult to tell how much or how many of them understood fully the meaning of the holiday but…it was pleasant to observe the general manner in which it was observed by the display of the flags in front of their homes. There were in fact more in proportion to the territory than in some districts where native Americans live.

    It is also impressive to observe the better condition in which they live than they used to. The women were out with their numerous proginy (sic) and all without exception were clean and well dressed, all of which proves the great advancement made over their slovenly appearance in past years. They is no doubt they are rapidly becoming what we familiarly call Americanized. Almost all of their surroundings and manner of living indicate they are adopting western methods.

    In 1915-1916 the Bureau of Nationalization, Bureau of Education, and various “Americanization conferences” discussed how to teach immigrants English and citizenship, but within Homestead the library’s night school, for those who could attend, actually did the work (12/13/1916).  

  12. The Daily Messenger, 4/5, 4/11, 4/17, 4/18, 4/30/1917  

  13. The Daily Messenger, 4/21/1917. Iron Trade Review, Volume LXII. I could not find this announcement in any of the Pittsburgh papers and found it difficult overall to trace the history of the government’s decision to give Homestead this order. The plate was intended for the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which was created the day before the order came to manage America’s merchant shipping. It started with no ships (or much of anything else), so the need was urgent. I have to assume the idea to call upon Homestead had a much longer history, but not once I’ve been able to unearth in my (admittedly, limited) investigations so far.  

  2 comments for “April 1917: Bloody April

  1. Jules Duga
    May 11, 2017 at 11:44 am

    An excellent article regarding the onset of WWI (and the vignette on Congresswoman Rankin). As with most of the featured articles, this one is slated for a couple of read-agains. Thanks for this “gift” to the community. I look forward to continue receiving future issues of Homestead Hebrews.

  2. Karen L Grossman
    May 11, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks for the most interesting, thorough article. Keep up the good work!

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