In June 1917, the United States is coming to grips with its new status as a belligerent power. President Wilson signs the Espionage Act, which makes it unlawful to interfere with military or naval operations and gives the Postmaster General broad authority to refuse to deliver material he judges to be in violation. The President issues an order creating an Export Council with power to control all exports from the United States. Mandatory registration for the draft begins. General Pershing arrives in Europe, where he confers with his counterparts in London and Paris; shortly thereafter the first American Army units arrive in France. The first issue of Liberty Bonds sells out quickly. A commission headed by former Secretary of State Elihu Root arrives in Russia as anarchists march in the streets of Petrograd and Lenin calls for an end to the war. The provisional government, responding to an overture from the Central Powers, states that it will not enter into a separate peace. Former President Roosevelt announces that two of his four sons have gone to France and that the others will follow shortly. The British Army in Flanders attacks and occupies Messines Ridge. Gotha bombers attack London. King Constantine of Greece abdicates, clearing the way for Greece to enter the war on the side of the Allies.
President Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law on June 15. A provision authorizing the President to impose press censorship was strongly supported by the President but was removed from the bill in conference. The legislation as passed still imposes unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties. It is now unlawful to “willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies” or to “incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States,” or to “willfully obstruct . . . the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States,” or to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States,” to “display the flag of any foreign enemy,” or to “urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production.” Nor may Americans “advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of [those] acts or things” or “by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war,” or “oppose the cause of the United States therein.” In addition to imposing criminal penalties for violations, the Act authorizes the Postmaster General to refuse to mail any publication he judges to violate any provision of the Act or to advocate treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to any American law.
Using authority conferred by the Espionage Act, President Wilson signed an executive order on June 22 creating an Exports Council comprised of the Secretaries of State, Agriculture and Commerce to “formulate, for the consideration and approval of the president, policies and make recommendations necessary to carry out the purposes of the Act” and authorizing the Secretary of Commerce to grant or refuse export licenses in accordance with instructions issued by the President. The order provides that the Council will also include the Food Administrator, although the legislation creating the Food Administration is still pending in Congress. Herbert C. Hoover, who since the outbreak of war has organized and administered the distribution of vast quantities of food to occupied Belgium and northern France, is expected to fill the new position and is already attending Council meetings.
The Manpower Bill passed last month imposed the first draft law since the Civil War. On June 5, pursuant to a proclamation issued by President Wilson, some 10 million men between the ages of 21 and 30 registered at their local post offices for what is termed “selective service.” From that number, it is estimated that approximately 600,000 will be inducted into the armed forces. The President’s proclamation, like the law upon which it was based, avoids the term “draft,” emphasizing that “the whole nation must be a team, in which each man must play the part for which he is best fitted.” Therefore “each man shall be classified for service in the place to which it shall best serve the general good to call him. . . . It is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling; it is, rather, selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass.”
The proclamation makes clear, however, that registration is anything but optional. It states that “the day here named is the time upon which all shall present themselves for assignment to their tasks” and is to be observed as “a great day of patriotic devotion and obligation, when the duty shall lie upon every man . . . to see to it that the name of every male person of the designated ages is written on these lists of honor.” Mandatory or voluntary, every effort is being made to marshal the support and cooperation of the public. The Committee on Public Information has seen to it that newspapers are provided with stories emphasizing the patriotic nature of universal registration. Despite initial resistance from some southerners, the new law will be applied without regard to race, though Negro soldiers will continue to be assigned to separate units. The nationwide obligation to register is also being hailed as a symbol of sectional reunification as the Civil War recedes in the nation’s memory. On Registration Day President Wilson sounded that theme in an address to a group of Confederate veterans, calling it “a day of reunion, a day of noble memories, a day of dedication, a day of renewal of the spirit which has made America great among the peoples of the world.”
The subscription for the first issue of Liberty Bonds closed on June 15. Exceeding the government’s most optimistic forecasts, the $2 billion issue was oversubscribed by approximately $800,000. That afternoon Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo issued a statement calling the success of the issue “a genuine triumph for democracy”and “the unmistakable expression of America’s determination to carry this war for the protection of American rights and the re-establishment of peace and liberty throughout the world to a swift and successful conclusion.”
General Pershing arrived in Great Britain aboard the steamship Baltic on June 8. He was greeted at Liverpool by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, King George V’s uncle, who until last year served as Governor-General of Canada. The next day, General Pershing was received by the King at Buckingham Palace, where the King declared that it has been the dream of his life to see the two great English-speaking nations more closely united. The same day, Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour arrived back in London after his visit to the United States. He told waiting newspaper correspondents that “we had an entirely successful trip and enjoyed every minute of it. I was never more royally treated in my life.” Due to the increasing danger of submarine attacks since Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, the transatlantic journeys of both General Pershing and Mr. Balfour were shrouded in secrecy. There was no news of either until both men were safely ashore in the United Kingdom. During the eleven days it took General Pershing to cross the Atlantic, German U-boats sank fifteen ships in the waters around Great Britain.
At ten o’clock on the morning of June 13, General Pershing stepped ashore at the French port of Boulogne after a short ferry ride across the English Channel. As the New York Times reported, “It was the first time in history that an American soldier had landed on the European continent with sword in hand for the purpose of using it against an enemy.” Among the officials waiting on the pier was French General Jean-Baptiste Dumas, commander of the northern region, whose first words were “I salute the United States of America, which has now become united to the United States of Europe.” After a drive through Boulogne, General Pershing and his staff boarded a special train for Paris. Speaking to French newspaper correspondents in his private car, Pershing said the reception “has impressed us greatly. It means that from the present moment our aims are the same.” Talking separately with American reporters, he said the arrival of the advance guard of the American Army “makes us realize the full importance of American participation. America has entered the war with the fullest intention of doing her share, no matter how great or how small that share may be. Our allies can depend on that.”
Towns along the route to Paris had been advised of the Americans’ arrival, and the station platforms were lined with cheering crowds. In Paris, French troops were deployed on the platforms of the Gare du Nord. Among those greeting the Americans were Marshal Joffre, former Prime Minister Viviani, Minister of War Painleve, General Foch, and U.S. Ambassador William G. Sharp. Tens of thousands of Parisians waving American flags and crying “Vive l’Amerique!” cheered the Americans as they rode through Paris to the Hotel Crillon, where Pershing and his staff will make their headquarters (click to play):
Two weeks after General Pershing’s arrival, the first contingents of the U.S. Army arrived in France. Some 14,000 infantry troops landed at St. Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of Brittany on June 26 and 27 after passing unscathed through the submarine zone. The first American arrivals are all seasoned Regular Army troops, coming from service on the Mexican border, Haiti and Santo Domingo. They will be assigned to the newly organized First Expeditionary Division under the command of Major General William Sibert.
As the mission led by former Secretary of State Elihu Root was on en route to Russia, President Wilson laid the groundwork with a personal message to the provisional government. In a message sent June 9, he outlined the objectives and ideals of the United States in the war and firmly opposed any suggestion of a separate peace. He told the Russians “We are fighting for the liberty, the self-government and the undictated development of all peoples, and every feature of the settlement that concludes this war must be conceived and executed for that purpose.” “The day has come,” he said, “to conquer or submit. If the forces of autocracy can divide us, they can overcome us; if we stand together, victory is certain and the liberty which victory will secure.”
The Root Commission reached Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of Russia on June 3, then sped across Russia by rail, arriving in Petrograd on June 13. Two days later they attended the Council of Ministers, where Root told the Russians “news of Russia’s new-found freedom brought to America universal satisfaction and joy.” He said that “from all the land sympathy and hope went out to the new sister in the circle of democracies.” He told the Council that in Russia America sees “no party, no class, but great Russia as a whole, one mighty striving, aspiring democracy.” He assured them that the people of the United States “are going to fight and have already begun to fight for your freedom equally with our own,” and asked them “to fight for our freedom equally with yours.” Replying to Root’s address, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Tereshchenko said: “The Russian people consider the war inevitable, and will continue it. The Russians have no imperialistic wishes. We know that you have none. We shall fight together to secure liberty, freedom, and happiness for all the world.”
Opposition to the war is mounting in the streets of Petrograd. At a June 17 meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, the Socialist Radical Nikolai Lenin delivered a long and impassioned speech attacking the Provisional Government. He denounced the proposal of Minister of War Kerensky, recently approved by the Duma, for a renewed offensive, calling it a betrayal of the interests of international socialism. In his reply, Kerensky said Lenin had misinterpreted Marxism and that his position was one that would be embraced by the German General Staff. Kerensky concluded his speech with an account of his recent visit to the front and a defense of his actions in office that was greeted with prolonged applause from everyone present except Lenin and his followers.
In a speech delivered at a Red Cross event in Oyster Bay on June 24, former President Theodore Roosevelt told the crowd that two of his sons had already gone to France and that “the others are to follow.” The two who have gone are Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., his eldest son, and Captain Archibald Roosevelt, his third. Both left New York on June 20 aboard the French steamship Chicago and will be attached to General Pershing’s headquarters. Both of them were members of the original Plattsburg training camp in 1915, and both have been active in the National Guard. Roosevelt’s second son Kermit, doubtful that American troops will see combat soon, is seeking a commission in the British armed service. Quentin, his youngest son, is in flight training for the Air Service in Mineola, New York.
Messines Ridge, on the southern edge of the Ypres salient, commands a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, and until this month was occupied by German troops. For months British troops under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer have been digging tunnels up to half a mile in length extending under the German positions on the Ridge and packing them with explosives. On May 7 the mines were detonated, creating an enormous explosion that was felt as far away as southern England. A massive artillery barrage followed by an infantry advance resulted in thousands of German soldiers killed or taken prisoner. The British gained possession of the ridge, but failed to fully exploit their breakthrough. On June 19 the British commander General Sir Douglas Haig traveled to Westminster where after several days of contentious meetings he obtained cabinet approval of his plan for a major offensive beginning the end of July.
The most destructive air raid of the war on London, the fourth within three weeks, was conducted by German Gotha bombers on June 13, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and serious injuries. Eighteen children were among the dead when a bomb struck a primary school in the East End.
King Constantine of Greece, who has steadfastly resisted the pro-Entente advice of his prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, finally yielded to the demands of the Prime Minister and the Entente nations on June 12, abdicating in favor of his second son Prince Alexander. The demand that he relinquish the throne included the demand that his eldest son Prince George, who shares his father’s political views, also be excluded from power. King Constantine and Prince George have left Greece for Switzerland; it is expected that King Alexander will adopt the pro-Entente stance of the Prime Minister.
June 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, July and August 1917
New York Times, June 1917
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Edward J. Renehan Jr., The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: centennialcountdown.blogspot.com