The Sage of Emporia, the editor of the Emporia Gazette, who burst onto the stage of national politics in 1896 by writing an editorial against the Populists and the Democrats, “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” long before Thomas Frank and others used the phrase. William Allen White held forth with opinions from the middle of the country until his death in 1944. He was a friend of presidents, especially Theodore Roosevelt, and was considered a progressive reformer.
White learned of the beginning of the war while vacationing at Estes Park, Colorado in the summer of 1914. Writing years later in his Autobiography, White indicated that:
“I realized with sadness that it would affect the United States indirectly, by turning the minds of the people from reform to safety. I did not then dream how our whole economy would be bent toward making the materials and munitions of war. I did not foresee the boom, though I knew that reform would be suspended.”
In the summer of 1917, White and Wichita editor and future governor Henry Allen were designated as inspectors of the Red Cross, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He admitted in the Autobiography what he and Allen intended to do was come home, write articles and make speeches about Red Cross activities. The result was a book, The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me, which he would describe as “the story of two fat middle-aged men who went to war without their wives.” The book was both fiction and non-fiction; White described it as:
“. . . a rather cobwebby romance to give the book a backbone; I knew that sketches would not be read. But I felt if the experiences I had enjoyed — and I really did enjoy them even though I was frightened — were hung on the thread of a tenuous love affair, the book would have a chance . . . it was a book without hate, parts of it funny.”
White was commissioned later by the editor of the Red Cross Magazine to go to Europe and write article about demobilization. He was also able to turn this into writing for his syndicate articles about the Peace Conference. It also allowed him to visit post-war Germany. In writing the Autobiography, White would recall years later, as another World War was raging:
“The German mind in 1919 was not ready to receive the idea of democracy. It was not a part of their tradition, and the conduct of their conquerors could not be explained in terms they could comprehend. We, the victors of 1918, made our blunder by assuming that the language of democracy was understood by a people who had never in all their history fought for the freedom of the common man, for the rights of the people. We thought that liberty could be passed around as alms or material benefits. We did not realize that men can have freedom only when they have found it worth the sacrifice. Ours was a sad and tragic blunder in 1919, and for a generation the world paid for it. Maybe the debt is not yet paid.”
For more about William Allen White and World War I, see The Autobiography of William Allen White and The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me.
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