–by Joanna Hallac
The first week of April 1917 would turn out to hold quite a bit of historic significance related both to our involvement in World War I and to Congress specifically. The decision of President Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany mere months after winning reelection on the promise of keeping the United States out of the war that had been raging in Europe since 1914. Two issues, however, arose which made our involvement in WWI a matter of national security: first, unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans upon all ships in the Atlantic had claimed the lives of numerous innocent American civilians, most notably on the Lusitania in 1916, and had slowly eroded isolationist sentiments, especially among members of Congress; second, the Zimmermann Telegram, which was a note from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the Mexican foreign minister promising them land in the southwestern U.S. following the war if they invaded the United States, and while the Germans denied ever writing such a note (one rumor was that the British wrote it to instigate America and get them to join the war), it was enough to push Wilson into believing that an attack against the United States was imminent (despite pledges of official neutrality, Wilson had been allowing supplies and armaments to be sent by ship over to the British and French since the war began, and many believe he used the Zimmermann Telegram in particular as an excuse to finally enter the war, which is something other presidents had done before and would continue to do throughout our history).
Our path to war officially began on April 2, 1917 when Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and asked them for a declaration of war against Germany. This, however, was not the first or even second historic thing to happen within Congress that day. That morning, Jeannette Rankin, was sworn in as the first woman to ever serve in the House of Representatives, after being elected to one of Montana’s At-Large seats in 1916 (Montana’s state law permitted women to vote since before they were even a state). Rankin was , in addition to being an advocate for women’s suffrage, and was vocal in her opposition to the United States joining the war in Europe.
It seems, however, that Rankin was not the only opponent of the war to be on Capitol Hill that day, as a minor league baseball player from Boston named Alexander Bannwart showed up at the office of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts to air his anti-war views in anticipation of President Wilson’s speech that day. Although newspaper accounts varied somewhat, they all reported that after an angry exchange of words between the 67-year-old senator and the 36-year-old ball player that Lodge struck Bannwart in the jaw, thus marking the first reported time that a member of Congress attacked his own constituent. Capitol police did arrest the constituent for the attack, but Senator Lodge decided he didn’t have time to file charges against the man. Ironically, the would-be pacifist ended up getting caught up in the patriotic spirit of things and would join most other young men in enlisting to fight in WWI within days of his altercation with Lodge.
Following Wilson’s speech on April 2nd, the Senate voted 82-6 to declare war against Germany on April 4, 1917. The House would take up the measure and an extensive debate ensued. This would be only the third time in American history that a president was asking for a declaration of war, and not everyone in the House was convinced that this was really a war in which we needed to involve ourselves. House Majority Leader Claude Kitchen (NC) in fact implored his colleagues to oppose the war measure in the hopes of preserving America as the “last hope of peace on earth, good will toward men” (Office of the Clerk of the House). The measure would ultimately pass by a margin of 373 to 50 in the early morning hours of April 6, 1917. Jeannette Rankin was among those who voted “No” saying, “I want to stand by my country—but I cannot vote for war” (Office of the Clerk of the House). President Wilson would sign the declaration later that day and make the proclamation that we were now at war with Germany, thus marking our official entry into the Great War.
It would be months before any American soldiers actually arrived in Europe to assist the Allies in their fight against the Axis powers, but their presence and efforts helped secure a victory for the Allied powers; however, the war’s aftermath, namely the punishing Treaty of Versailles, would help sow the seeds of another world war that would erupt a mere twenty years later. There are no more living American World War I veterans—the last one passed away just last February at the age of 110—though we continue to remember their bravery to this day, ninety-five years this week since we involved ourselves in the first of two deadly and worldwide wars to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives—Art and History website
“200 Notable Days: Senate Stories, 1787-2002,” Government Printing Office