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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

Firing a Seattle Teacher

Men registering for the draft, New York City, June 5, 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

In late February 1919, the Seattle Times reported that someone had run an advertisement attacking a West Seattle High School history teacher for being a "Hun" and "un-American." The first charge almost certainly stemmed from ignorance concerning his name; he was Swiss, not German. As for his "Americanism," he had declined to salute the flag, a refusal he ascribed to the ceremony itself, and which he'd later recanted.

 

However, he was also an avowed conscientious objector; his enemies said he "fed ideas" to his classes.

 

A blind poll among his ninety or so students showed a twenty-to-one margin of support. Nevertheless, the school board fired him, saying that they couldn't have a conscientious objector as a teacher; what if everyone had been a conscientious objector when the nation declared war?

 

The newspaper reports leave much unsaid, as they always do. But you sense that the teacher's real crime was encouraging his students to think critically, which the vast majority appreciated.

 

What's more, according to the Selective Service Act of 1917 and its revisions, he'd most likely done nothing wrong. If he'd passed his thirtieth birthday, he wouldn't have had to register for the draft until mid-September 1918, and not at all if he'd reached the age of forty-five. Further, failing to register would have attracted attention and left him open to punishment, yet the newspaper reports said nothing about this. Finally, the act did allow for conscientious objection, though only on religious grounds.

 

Consequently, I'm guessing this teacher's viewpoint was entirely theoretical, maybe spoken of in class to spark discussion. With nothing else to hang him for, his enemies fixed on it, and the school board went along.

 

So much for academic freedom and the war to make the world safe for democracy.

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The Young Women in White

Schneck, 1917, Acme Litho. Co. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Building on last week's post about the Seattle parade, here's more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?

 

Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to defend itself.

 

When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

 

While the invasion was taking place, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.

 

Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist's perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.

 

That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn't they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America's business, but the perceived outrages wouldn't go away. For instance, The New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a widowed Belgium comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: "At Least They Only Drown Your Women."

 

Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. The poster above, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia--in white, of course.

 

But the propagandists were just getting started.

 

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Not Just a Parade

From the front page of the Seattle Times, April 26, 1919. Note the evergreen shoulder patch, emblem of the Wild West Division but, more important, the hero-worshiping sister/sweetheart/wife.

 

 

 

Here's a nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

To soak up the historical background, I read several months' worth of the Seattle Times from 1919 and learned about a parade in late April welcoming home some four hundred soldiers from Over There.

 

But it wasn't just a parade. It was as though a phalanx of hopes, attitudes, prejudices, expectations, and flat-out misconceptions marched through Seattle that day, not just men from the 361st Infantry Regiment, 91st ("Wild West") Division. And the pride, earnestness, gratitude, awkwardness, and ignorance on display provide a stew of conflict in which my protagonists, a man and a woman, have to swim.

 

The parade organizers mixed solemnity with "stunts," a word typically applied then to party games or entertainments. The soldiers, supposedly the stars of the show, made up the rear. Next came white horses drawing a large gold star, to commemorate the fallen. Farther up, young women in white rode the running boards of cars and strewed white flower petals along the route.

 

Ahead of them walked Elk Lodge brothers dressed in feather headdresses and war paint, while leading the column were police officers wearing chaps who fired off blanks from their pistols. Cowboys and Indians; a Wild West "stunt."

 

I tried beginning my novel with this scene and wound up cutting it. But my male protagonist is a soldier who thinks the hoopla insults his dead friends and wonders what country he's come home to. That newspaper article was a gold mine.

 

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