With the U.S. entrance into the war on April 6, 1917, dissent against the government erupted into a national concern. President Wilson quickly embarked on a crusade to convince the nation that a conflict waged on distant shores was a heroic undertaking requiring unswerving loyalty, unconditional patriotism, and ungrudging self- sacrifice.  The government set in motion forces for uniformity and co-operation with the war effort creating what Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr. described in 1919 as “the unprecedented extension of the business of war over the whole nation.” Dissent could be tamed by a sense of duty and volunteerism, reinforced by the seamless patter of the government’s propaganda bureau, the Committee on Public Information, which unleashed a barrage of images and words appealing to patriotism while dehumanizing the German as a lethal pestilence.

Thomas Watt Gregory

Or protest could be silenced by Wilson’s Department of Justice armed with specific wartime legislation taking aim at the enemy within. The Selective Service Act and Espionage Act of 1917 and it’s amendment the so-called Sedition Act of 1918, increased the definition of what government considered dangerous speech, blurring the line between protest and sedition. “May God have mercy on them,” U.S. Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory warned those who interfered with the war effort, “for they can expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.”

Governor Arthur Capper, as most Kansans, ceased all public criticism of the President and took on the role of true patriots. Capper encouraged Kansans to enlist, achieve record levels of wheat and oil production, and to willingly accept individual sacrifices. He stated in no uncertain terms that there was no place for disloyalty in the Sunflower State, announcing no mercy would be shown to traitors who “interfered with the patriotic work of our citizens.” There was no “twilight zone” insofar as loyalty to the government is concerned, an Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the Kansas office proclaimed, warning that while “a certain element in this country is intoxicated with freedom of speech they had best restrain themselves during these times.” Anything less than full-throated support of the war effort was now viewed as aiding the dreaded Hun.

Thomas Rosenblum has worked with Historic Hudson Valley, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Oklahoma Historical Society. For the past twenty-five years he has been with the National Park Service as a Curator and Historian and is currently on the staff of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.